Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Value of Failure

Sometimes, failed quests are the most fun because while you may fall short of your objectives, you can draw some interesting conclusions from those failures and learn things you didn’t expect.
This morning started out easy enough: We visited the Churchill War Rooms, one of my favorite museums and—often—a favorite of my students as well. Churchill is simply a larger than life figure who, while well-known for his successful leadership in Britain’s darkest hour, actually had a career full of failures. Churchill went to South Africa to cover the Boer War and was captured. He recommended the bold and daring Dardanelles campaign while at the Admiralty, and its spectacular collapse and the great loss of life led to his resignation from the Cabinet. Churchill wrongly bet against the government in the abdication crisis, supporting King Edward. By the mid-1930s, Churchill was in the political wilderness and ignored by the public and the government when he repeatedly rang the alarm about Hitler’s designs on Europe. But it was because he was in the wilderness, because he had failed and been ostracized for his failures, that Churchill was exactly the man to come to the rescue when everyone else had lost public credibility for appeasing Hitler. Churchill’s failures paved the path for him to become Prime Minister when Britain needed him and his abilities the most.

Keeping the importance of failure in mind, this afternoon was an epic series of failures. My co-leader, Doralyn and I, led a group of three students to the Red Lion—a pub near the Parliament Square with a division bell signaling MPs when their presence was required to cast a vote—for lunch. The pub was jammed with people and the wait interminable. So we went elsewhere to eat before heading out on our next mission: To procure campaign signs, placard, T-shirts, and the like from the three major parties contesting the election in England (I say England as the other parties from whom we wanted campaign materials do not contest seats in English constituencies). 

We first went to Labour’s national headquarters, on Victoria Street. After some difficulty finding the precise location of the headquarters, we were turned away with nothing to show for our efforts. The national party, we were informed, is not a public office; an appointment was required. We did call an information number and were told that the constituency or regional campaign headquarters would likely help us out. As we were going to be campaigning in Hampstead and Kilburn on Wednesday and Thursday, we figured we be able to get Labour and Conservative materials then.

We were not, however, going to campaign for the Liberal Democrats. After locating the Liberal Dems headquarters in Hampstead and Kilburn, we walked to Victoria Station, hoped on the Victoria Line and headed north. 

(SIDE NOTE: The Evening Standard's front page for the day was fantastic. "Comrade Corbyn Flies the Red Flag"--the paper was readily available for free around Victoria Station)

After one stop, we switched to the Jubilee line for a twenty five minute ride to West Hampstead Station. Then, a five minute walk to Liberal Democrats HQ—and we’d have our campaign goods, right?

I just...want...some signs...and T-shirts.

Wrong. We found a derelict office space looking worse for wear on the lowest level of what looked to be a mixed-use council estate. There was no apparent way to get to the office space plastered with Liberal Democrat placards, however. We walked through the building, around the building, and back until we finally found the entrance: A gated garage with a coded keypad. There was no other way into the office space, and no phone number was listed on the website from which to contact anyone who may have been working diligently for the Liberal Democratic cause in Hampstead and Kilburn. Perhaps this was a sign of the lack of Liberal Democrat effort in the constituency; indeed, in 2015 the Liberal Democrats received less than six percent of the vote (a loss of nearly 27 percentage points from 2010). Given the constituency voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, the lack of interest in contesting Hampstead and Kilburn is somewhat surprising. 

What is even more surprising, however, is the difficulty we faced simply trying to get electioneering materials. True, I’m not convinced had we stopped by the DNC or RNC in Washington that we would have been greeted with open arms and given copious amounts of buttons, pins, shirts, and brochures. But surely a constituency campaign office, heading the local campaign efforts, would have been easily accessible to the public during a campaign with a vote taking place in less than four weeks?
In any case, on the thirty minute Tube journey back to the hotel, I reflected not on our misfortunes, but on our adventure. We visited parts of London tourists usually don’t see. We laughed together and simply enjoyed the camaraderie shared by adventurers on a great quest. And, it allowed us to make some political observations aiding us in our understanding of British politics generally and the current play of the race both broadly and in Hampstead and Kilburn in particular.

Monday, May 15, 2017

That Which Binds a Nation

Today, we took a grand tour of London, including spending considerable time in Westminster Abbey and walking throughout some of the City of London—which is the financial sector of London. I asked my students to write about what struck them as uniquely British—or at least, different—from the United States in their journals for the evening.

I’ve spend some time pondering this question, and my thoughts keep going back to Westminster Abbey, which was founded in 960. Obviously, the United States is far younger than Great Britain and, as a republic, doesn’t have a hereditary monarchy. But we don’t really have a place like Westminster Abbey either, which simultaneously manages to play important roles in the nation’s politics, religion, and cultural history. The kings and queens of the nation until the establishment of the Windsor dynasty are buried there, as are important military, political, scientific, and literary figures. When Queen Elizabeth dies, Charles, the Prince of Wales, will be crowned there. And the church itself remains an important part of the religious life of the Anglican Church.

There is no similar place in the United States. There is no official state religion per the U.S. Constitution. American presidents are not buried in one place, but scattered throughout the nation per their expressed wishes. We don’t honor our literary or artistic greats in any one place either, and the peaceful transfer of power takes place routinely on the steps of the U.S. Capitol--and rarely upon the sudden death of our head of state. Quite simply, there is no one place that embodies the cultural, religious, and political heart of the American nation like there is in Great Britain. 

In the United States, there is no one place which binds our nation together on so many dimensions like Westminster Abbey. The only analog, perhaps, is the Constitution itself which represents the collective hopes and dreams of the American people who are bound together by its enduring principles (and sometimes competing) of freedom and equality.And while the Constitution can be visited in the National Archives and is a remarkable accomplishment, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have one national building to celebrate what it means to be American in all its varied dimensions.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Everyone Wants to Get to London...

That line, from the opening vignette in the book Londoners, has struck me since I've read it because while London means so many things to so many people, many share one thing in common: hopes for something new from life. Americans, traveling abroad, seeking new adventures in the big city in a new country. Brits, who migrate to London seeking new financial opportunities. Members from the EU and beyond, who come here to start new lives--many times fleeing tyranny and oppression. And, in my case, an academic who has always had an interest in understanding British politics and history as an intellectual, now seeking to expand into new realms of learning with the rekindled curiosity of a younger man. London: A place many want to be. And, yet, a place that is often resented and demonized elsewhere.

Take, for example, an observation made today by one of my students. After an afternoon and evening of walking, he said that he's heard many accents--but few that are British, English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish. The woman checking us into today: Italian. The waiters in our restaurant: East European. The border agents checking our passports: Indian. London, above all else, is British precisely because of its colorful tapestry and the cacophony of its accents.

The big question is how much will London lose as the United Kingdom prepares to exit the European Union? Perhaps a lot indeed. Many industries throughout the nation depend upon the free flow of labor. London, the financial capital of Europe and perhaps the world, thrives precisely because of its connectivity to the European Union. The tourism industry--which is housing and feeding us during our three weeks--is in a tough position. Although the weakened pound against the dollar provides greater incentives for Americans to make the trip across the pond, the industry may have difficulty addressing increased demand without access to European workers (see here for example).

Many who voted for it did so to protest free trade and the overbearing role of London in the British economy. Many of these voters--especially older voters--look back fondly to the days of the British Empire. The great irony of Brexit, then, that in voting to leave the European Union, Brexiters may have fatally wounded one of its last vestiges: an economically vitally and globally integrated London.

Will everyone still want to get to London in ten years? That remains to be seen.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Realigning Elections and the UK: Thoughts as We Get Ready to Head over the Pond

V.O. Key, author of "A Theory of Critical Elections"
There's an older tradition in the study of American politics that postulates, quite plausibly, that certain elections have enduring consequences for the party system. The idea was first trotted about by V.O. Key, where he argued that there are episodic "critical elections" that rearrange the deck chairs of the party system. In his seminal piece, published in 1955, Key looks at presidential election results in New England to show that the elections of 1896 and 1928 had created an enduring Republican majority in the first case, and established the lasting New Deal/Democratic coalition in the later. Walter Dean Burnham expanded considerably on Key's work, arguing that elections are the pressure values of democracy. Burnham argues that there's a fundamental lag between society needs/wants and the political system's ability to address those needs. Societal pressures mount,pushing against a resisting political system until--snap!--changes occurring in broader society cause an electoral earthquake where the party system is shattered and a new electoral order is established. These elections that reorder the political landscape are called realigning elections. This is also the basis for Stephen Skowronek's theory of the presidency. Regimes are established by reconstructive presidents (who happen to preside over a realigning type election) that persist for a period of time until they lose the support of the public and crumble under the weight of the regime's commitments.

I mention all of this on the eve of my British Politics class' departure for the United Kingdom because it feels very much like we are dropping in on a similar realigning type election. Although we should be cautious of projections and models which aggregate polling data, as demonstrated quite plainly by forecast models universally predicting a hung parliament in 2015 and a Clinton presidential win in 2016, those models today indicate an electoral tsunami washing over the Labour Party. It is quite possible that the Labour Party may be reduced around 150 seats if we believe reports from within the Labour Party and some forecasting models. That would put the Labour Party back to the election of 1935, when it held 154 seats (a big gain from a disastrous 1931 election). The conservatives, on the other hand, would enjoy a majority akin to that won by Tony Blair in 1997 and would have a considerable mandate supporting its hard Brexit position which would pull the UK not only out of the EU, but out of the Common Market (and allow for stricter controls on immigration).

1997 UK General Election Results

Labour is in a tough spot. Part of this has to do with what appears to be the demise of UKIP voters, who are turning to the conservative party now that Brexit is a fait accompli. This helps conservatives shore up their marginal seats while at the same time putting Labour seats at risk where there was a strong Leave vote and a strong second or third place UKIP showing in 2015. I recommend this election analysis by BBC showing the very clear threat to Labour.

In a post-Brexit world, it is unclear how Labour will survive. This is further compounded by the fact party supporters have, against the wishes of the Parliamentary Party, chosen an old school leftist as party leader making it difficult to appeal to centrist and middle class voters. All of this puts Labour in a particularly bad spot, which is precisely why Theresa May chose to call the early election in the first place.

Labour's survival as a major party in a two party system is in doubt. Realigning elections can dramatically alter party systems. The Federalist Party ceased to be a force after the realigning election of 1800 in the US, and the Whigs collapsed in 1860--giving way to the rise of the Republican Party. There is no reason to presume that the Labour Party must remain a relevant and competitive electoral party. The Labour Party took advantage of the Liberal Party's collapse in the early days of the 20th century, and the Liberal Democrats can surely capitalize by pulling moderate and more conservative Labour politicians to their side if they have a respectable showing in this election. Indeed, if Labour persists on retaining Jeremy Corbyn after a dismal showing in June, it is quite possible that we may be witnessing a realigning election of historic portions and enduring consequences. Perhaps Labour's collapse in Scotland was not an isolated incident but merely a harbinger of far worse tidings for the party.

I was in Germany during the 1998 General election and it was an amazing thing to behold. I'm excited that my students and I will be on hand for this potentially game changing election. We'll be campaigning in a marginal constituency while in London, and rest assured, I'll be getting as much election related swag as humanly possible!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit, Oh, My: Our Return to the United Kingdom

Photo Credit: @caitlynmrichter
In two and a half weeks, I will for the second time in two years take a group of Montana State students across the pond to learn about British politics, history, culture, and cuisine. As I finalize all the little details such as putting down deposits for meals, adding or deleting an activity, and making sure everyone knows where we'll meet at Heathrow, I'm struck by how much has changed since June 2015:

1. David Cameron had won a surprise election victory that no one anticipated, gaining a slim conservative majority when we all thought there would be yet another coalition (likely Labour-led) government. Today, Cameron is off making speeches while his former Home Secretary, Teresa May, is the Prime Minister.

2. Scotland had only eight months prior rejected a bid for independence. Now First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (not Alexander Salmond) is talking about a second referendum.

3. Britain voted to leave the European Union, but Nigel Farage is no longer UKIP's party leader (and the party itself is in disarray).

4. Last time, we arrived immediately AFTER a general election and had the opportunity to see the Queen's Speech debate. This time, Parliament will be dissolved and we will be in the middle of the third election campaign that Britain has seen in two years. We won't get to see Parliament in session. We will, however, have the opportunity to do some campaigning in a marginal seat in North London.

5. Ed Miliband is on the back benches. Labour has put a hard-left rebel in charge (at least he won't muck up a bacon sandwich, as he's a vegetarian). George Osborne is leaving Parliament. Labour has had two leadership contests and is likely to lose handily to the Tories in June, leading to yet another change of party leadership this autumn.

6. The Tories--the TORIES--are the official opposition party in Scotland and are likely to make gains in the general election at the expense of SNP. Labour, once the dominant party in Scotland, is fading into irrelevance.

7. The Liberal Democrats, with 57 seats in 2010, finally joined a government. And what did they get for their troubles? A loss of 49 seats in 2015--and Nick Clegg resigning as leader. And yet, hope springs eternal as Brexit has handed them a life-line in pro-Remain areas.

8. Northern Ireland had an assembly election with Sinn Fein coming within one seat of the DUP. The elections were held in March, and still no government has been formed. The vote to leave the European Union raises a host of questions regarding the status of the Good Friday Agreement as well as the prospect of a closed border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

9. In class, we've talked about how hard it is to hold an early election after the passage of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act (oops) and how in many respects the British style of electioneering has become more presidential with the adoption of party leader debates--that is, until Theresa May refused to participate in any this go around. Frankly, I think this is a mistake--I can't envision debates actually helping Corbyn. Then again, when your party is up 26 points, why give them any chance at all to make up that ground?

The first trip was an experience of a lifetime, filled with adventure and learning. The second trip? There's even more to learn now that I know a bit better what questions I need to ask. I can't wait to share my passion for travel with another group of fine MSU students.

Thankfully, there will still be ONE thing that's constant
. And that's Professor John Curtice on the BBC election night decision desk!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Northern Ireland: Less Troubled Today

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland was a scary place. There’s no way I would have ever imagined visiting, let alone willingly lead a group of students on a study abroad trip. Today, 17 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I have visited both Belfast and Londonderry, two towns scarred deeply by the Troubles. The communities are quiet and economically vibrant. One can’t help, though, that it will still take another generation for the wounds of the past violence to really begin to heal.

The Europa Hotel, a block from our lodgings
A sign of the times: We are staying one block from the Europa Hotel, once the most bombed hotel in Europe. We move freely in and out of the city center here in Belfast regardless of the time of day. During the troubles, the City Centre was barricaded after 6 PM. The only way in or out was through a single turnstile. In Derry, a watch tower sat on the City Walls overlooking the Catholic Bogside, scenes of so many protests and violent police attacks. All signs of those towers are gone.

Pieces of the Troubles remain, of course. The apartment building that once housed IRA snipers—and later—a British military barracks. The “peace walls” that blocked off Protestant and Catholics from each other. The murals paying tribute to those who fought on both sides, and the murals painted today reflecting current political issues.

From Derry's city walls where a military tower overlooked the Catholic Bogside

And then there are the psychological scars. Our tour guide in Derry grew up in a prominent Republican family, and recounted for us the weekly raids at 3 am on his house—hiding in his bed while a British army officer stood, unmoving, staring at him with a barrel of a gun raised. 

The gentleman manning the Museum of Free Derry’s tour desk saw his brother shot and killed during the Bloody Sunday March in 1972. We saw the rag on display used to mop up his blood. We were also treated to a display of various rubber bullets and ammunition used by the military and police to maintain order. 

Weapons used by British Military and Police during the Troubles
We witnessed the abject hatred both sides felt for each other in the form of a letter sent to the families of one of the Bloody Sunday victims shortly after Bloody Sunday. I took an image, but the language is too profane to post here. I will share the conclusion of the letter:

“’The Wray family,’ get out of your home or be burned out. Ulster is British, God Save the Queen. No Surrender.”

A mural on the Peace Walls along Falls Road
Signed “your enemies.”

Some of my students commented on how amazing it is, given the intensity of the hatred, that the Peace has held up so well and such considerable strides have been made. Just as important to ponder, however, is how such deep-seeded hatred took root in the first place. I certainly hope that we can learn from the terrible experiences of the Irish so that we may never again witness such depravity, discrimination, and injustice.
Derry City Hall, site of the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday