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‘The Myth of the Strong Leader’ by Archie Brown

Just under a decade ago, Archie Brown highlighted several factors that he thought limited the explanatory power of comparative politics as an academic discipline. Such factors included undue emphasis on studying democracies at the expense of autocracies, a lack of methodological pluralism, inadequate attention given to understanding political leaders, its separation of domestic and international relations, and its increased isolation from the “real world of politics” that the discipline sought to explain.[1] ‘The Myth of the Strong Leader’ is a book that addresses all of these criticisms demonstrating both erudition on behalf of Brown and a keen ability to practice what he preaches. This book may well be a significant point of reference to political scientists and the general public.

Brown’s thesis is a strong rebuttal to a commonly held point of view, arguing that a ‘strong’ leader – defined as someone who “concentrates a lot of power in [their] hands, dominates both a wide swath of public policy and the political party to which [they] belong, and takes the big decisions” (p. 1) – is ultimately an undesirable leader. In fact, Brown convincingly shows throughout the book that the more power is concentrated in one individual’s hands, the more likely they will make catastrophic policy errors. In some cases these errors could literally be measured in millions of wasted lives. What should be desired, Brown argues, is ‘collective leadership’ whereby political leaders show receptiveness to perspectives that could potentially conflict with their own both from colleagues and outside expertise before decisions are finally made (pp. 2, 19).

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Where is British conservatism today: UKIP, conservative, libertarian or something else?

As was said in the opening paragraph of this series, a well-rehearsed interpretation of UKIP is that they are a grouping to the right of the current Conservative party, dissatisfied with the old party’s failure to stand up to Europe and its perceived leftwards shift under Cameron. In this view, UKIP are, to quote a recent Labour party campaign, “more Tory than the Tories”. There is certainly something to be said for this claim. Leading figures in the party, as well as party activists, are former members of the Conservative party, not least Nigel Farage himself. While we await their 2015 election manifesto, a number of policies that have been proposed recently also seem to point in the direction of an ultra-Tory agenda, such as plans to abolish inheritance tax. But UKIP’s own constitution brands it as a “democratic, libertarian party”, while its most famous recent acquisition, Douglas Carswell, describes himself on his own twitter account as a “free trade Gladstonian liberal”. What are we to make then of UKIP’s ideology and identity?
Firstly, it is only right to point out that UKIP, like almost all political parties, represents a coalition of different views. In particular, it displays a similar kind of mix of conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism that we find in the Conservative party. It is probably fair to say that libertarianism is a term less familiar to British political culture than to that of the United States, but British conservatives (including members of the Conservative party) often like to claim the mantle of liberalism and individual liberty, usually relating these ideas to the promotion of free enterprise, reduced state intervention in the economy and individual responsibility. That Mrs. Thatcher was an ardent admirer of Gladstone is no secret, and Simon Heffer has gone as far as to argue that she is best understood as a latter-day champion of Gladstonian liberalism, rejecting many of the values that had come to be associated with Toryism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as paternalism and protectionism. It is worth noting that Gladstone himself began life as a Tory.
But once again, it might be argued that this merely attempts to reduce modern conservatism—encompassing UKIP—to free-market liberalism, when in fact it can be clearly distinguished from liberalism in other crucial respects. First of all, patriotism and nationhood are clearly central to both the contemporary Tory party and to UKIP. While both express outward-looking views on free trade, they also wrap themselves unashamedly in the flag and bang the drum for British values and virtues wherever possible. On the issue of mass immigration, while the Tory party are more divided, UKIP are, of course, vociferously opposed, pointing to the need to withdraw from the EU as the only way to guarantee full control over migrant entry into the country. Compare this to the liberal internationalism of Nick Clegg, an economic liberal in key respects, but alone amongst the three main party leaders in his outspoken support for the EU. Other UKIP policies are also suggestive of an ultra-conservative agenda rather than a liberal one, including the promotion of grammar schools and tougher sentences for prisoners. Then there are those amongst the party’s rank-and-file who occasionally crop up to embarrass the leadership, like councillor David Silvester, who, earlier this year, claimed that recent flooding had been the result of the government’s legalisation of gay marriage. While there is no suggestion that this particular view is widespread within the party, it nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of extreme, evangelical social conservatism that feels quite alien in secular Britain, but is perhaps not quite as distant as we like to think.

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What would a constitutional convention for the UK look like?

In the wake of the Scottish referendum, the idea of a constitutional convention is gaining popularity. It appeals to the public and the Conservatives are now the only major party resisting a convention in principle. However, as has been discussed on the UCL Constitution Unit blog, the process of realising a convention that can deliver subsequent reform is likely to be fraught with difficulties. If Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or the SNP were pushed to define the nature and purpose of a UK constitutional convention, it is almost certain that any consensus would fall apart very quickly.

At a recent Constitution Unit seminar, Dr Alan Renwick, Reader in Politics at Reading University and author of After the Referendum: Options for a Constitutional Convention, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, explored in detail the scope and potential of a UK convention.

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The 2015 Election: Do all roads lead to UKIP?

Do the Conservatives or Labour need to worry most about UKIP in 2015? Certainly, Labour constituencies see fairly high levels of UKIP support (notably at the recent Heywood & Middleton by-election), suggesting there is credence to the argument that Labour is losing its disaffected traditional and typically working class voters to UKIP. At the same time we have already shown (Evans and Mellon BES Blog 2014) that most UKIP voters say they had previously voted Conservative. So is the argument about UKIP stealing core Labour voters spurious? How do we reconcile evidence of UKIP support in traditional working class Labour constituencies with the individual level evidence that UKIP voters, or at least those currently intending to vote for UKIP, report being Conservatives in 2010? In this blog we develop a better understanding of the sources and implications of UKIP support by looking back over a longer time period.

Our argument is that Labour’s move to the ‘liberal consensus’ on the EU and immigration left many of their core voters out in the cold a long time before UKIP were an effective political presence. These voters left Labour in 2001, 2005 and 2010. To some degree therefore what UKIP are doing is picking up already disaffected former Labour voters from the Conservatives and elsewhere. UKIP will not be a great threat to too many Labour seats, they will probably steal more votes from the opposition parties in those seats, or people who had not voted in 2010. Hence the ‘mis-match between’ constituency level findings and individual voters’ reported patterns of defection.

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Valorised and Vilified: What Do ‘Citizens’ Do? Initial Linguistic Reflections

It is clear that debates about ‘who’ citizens are (as well as normative claims about who they ‘should’ be) are important to understanding the politics of citizenship. However, reflecting on the remit of this special series on ‘Migration and Citizenship’, another fundamental question occurred to me: what do citizens do? Describing the kinds of actions and activities in which citizens—however we may define them—reportedly engage could open further discussion about the nature of citizenship itself.

In my current work with the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS), I focus on the ways that British newspapers talk about migration issues and relate these narratives to public perceptions and migration policy changes. Using techniques from corpus and computational linguistics, which enables researchers to analyse large amounts of text, I look for (ir)regularities and significant patterns of words. These contextual patterns, called ‘collocations’, can provide insight into a concept: one of the major contributors to linguistics, John Firth, famously expressed this feature of language when he said ‘you shall know a word by the company it keeps’. Applying Firth’s guiding principle to study of UK press portrayal of migrant groups reveals that, in the case of immigrants and asylum seekers, their company is relatively negative. Dr Scott Blinder and I showed that from 2010-2012, the British national press most often described ‘immigrants’ as ‘illegal’ while portraying ‘asylum seekers’ as ‘failed’.

But what about citizens? What does this group of people reportedly do in the context of migration coverage?

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Where is British conservatism today?

On Friday 10th October 2014, Britain woke up to the news that the voters of Clacton-on-Sea had elected a UKIP Member of Parliament. To some, no doubt, this marked the inevitable culmination of the fracturing of the British right that began over twenty years earlier with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, under the auspices of the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. It was this episode that led first to the formation of the Anti-Federalist League and then to its successor organisation, the United Kingdom Independence Party, in 1993, which has since attracted significant numbers of disaffected Tories, angry at the Conservative’s apparent acquiescence to further European integration. UKIP has grown now to a membership of over 35,000 and seems to be finally breaking out of its single issue, single personality mould, to become a real electoral challenge to the Tories. The recent defection of two sitting Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, to UKIP, confirms for some people what they have been thinking for a long time: that the Conservative Party no longer does what it says on the tin, that it is, to quote the journalist Simon Heffer, “insufficiently conservative”, the torch of conservatism having now passed to Farage and co.

In this post, the first of three on conservatism in Britain, I want to consider the plausibility of this claim, as part of a broader attempt to determine which political party in Britain today has the most convincing claim to the mantle of conservatism.[1] The answers are by no means clear-cut (they rarely are in politics) and may even seem counter-intuitive. It must be stated at the outset that conservatism is not, by any means, a single, coherent or homogenous ideology. It consists of various branches and traditions and shares similarities with other, nominally distinct, philosophies—notably liberalism. This undoubtedly complicates the task in hand, but it is important to recognise the complexity of the object of study before embarking on the analysis.

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Inclusive education programmes are a key component to global security

There are all kinds of moral truths that see the world from different perspectives, and none of them have to necessarily be more right than the others. This underscores the significance of education: alongside family structure and cultural context, education has the capacity to influence every aspect of how we think about the world. It is crucial in our context of unprecedented globalization to put this powerful tool to use in the interest of tolerance and cultural understanding in ways that foster harmonious co-existence, and cultural synergies. When the fundamental importance of education becomes fully appreciated, it can be revitalized and adapted to encourage open-mindedness, inclusion and cooperation.

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On Smith Commission’s proposals on Scottish governance

The Report of the Smith Commission on further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament is a modest document – only 28 pages long. But it packs a big punch. In summer 2014, Lord Smith delivered the Commonweealth Games in Glasgow without fuss and to budget. By some magic, he has now got all five parties in the Scottish Parliament to agree to a set of proposals, which the UK Government also endorsed as soon as they were published on 27 November. The process involved some huge compromises, on all sides.

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