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From Babiš to Brexit (interview with Eurozpravy.cz)

babis-brexit

Photos in montage: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 4.0 and The Millennium Report, 2016

You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes?  Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?

I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.

Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures.  TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.

Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?

Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known.   However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.

As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term. Read More…

Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Vote_Leave_-_geograph.org.uk_-_5002468

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Use your Ed? How I put Miliband into Number 10 (just)

I’ve long been a fan of 270Soft’s election simulation games: President Forever allowing you to replay US presidential contests (including primaries) both historically and for 2016 and Prime Minister Forever which translates the format for British general elections.

There are also versions for Canadian, Australian and German parliamenary elections.  So I was delighted to get an early release of Prime Minister Infinity, which allows you to simulate the forthcoming UK general 2015 election with party and strategy of your choice.

The game is essentially an exercise in positioning and managing and deploying resources – realistic enough many political scientists would say – which entails framing your platform and picking your campaign themes; targeting your leader’s campaigning, debate preparation and issue knowledge; and planning your advertising. Needless to say Events-Dear-Boy can intervene  and you also get to spend of your precious time and resources spinning good or bad news.

Anyone familiar with President Forever and its spinoffs will find the game quick enough  to pick up, although options and gameplay have become more complex compared to the earlier Prime Minister Forever –  especially with the provision for much more detailed constitutency-level campaigning. Few real political devotees would probably mind this, although it makes for a longer a game (2-3 hours) and anyone serious political geeks could probably spend a couple of days carefully scanning the marginals and the polls before plotting their next move (the game has daily turns from early January untill May 5 Polling Day.

Anyone not familiar with the 270.soft stable of games will probably have steeper learning curve or might want to have a crack at President Foreover where you have a mere 50 states, to range over rather than 650 constiuencies, although PM Infinity does provide helpful regional summary which simplify your task a bit.

Relishing a challenge and wanting to have a real chance of power, I stepped into the shoes of Ed Milliband with the computer playing the part of the other parties (including a small rather unrealistic bloc of Independents who I probably should have turned off at the start – they eventually won four seats). Read More…

Is ‘Scotland’s Future’ from Central Europe’s past?

Scottish Flag - detail

Photo: Endrick Shelleycoat via Wikimedia Commons

In a special guest post Kieran Williams reflects on the lessons for the SNP’s project of Scottish independence to be learned from the making and unmaking of Czechoslovakia.

The Scottish government’s glimpse of the future in an independent state was a trip down memory lane for those of us who remember the breakup of the Central and East European federations.

To be sure, the White Paper released on 26 November is a far more thorough and thoughtful rationale than anything that could be composed as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia unraveled. It is also relies more on inclusive civic principles – statehood desired as a means to a fairer and more competent administration – than on the discourse of national destiny heard in the former Soviet bloc twenty years ago.

But here and there amidst the 650 answers of ‘Scotland’s Future’, I caught a strong whiff from the archives of Central Europe, in particular of Slovakia, a country easily compared to Scotland owing to almost identical population size (5.3 million), exceptionally large proportion of university graduates, highland-lowland range, and so on. I was reminded in particular of documents like the ‘61 Steps to Slovak Identity’, released in October 1990 by lawyers and economists of the ‘Sovereign Slovakia’ Initiative, and the manifesto of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for the 1992 election, the last held before Czechoslovakia was dissolved. Read More…

Czech Republic: How to Bale out the Civic Democrats?

Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London has a 12 point plan for politicians, who’ve hit rock bottom. Not for those who overindulge in the hospitality and get a bit er… tired and emotional in public –  as Czech President Miloš Zeman seems to have done recently – but for major governing parties who’ve fallen off the wagon of electoral success and are recovering from political defeat.

He outlined it in a presentation to last year’s conference of Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s traditional ruling party brutally felled in an electoral meltdown in 2011, reflecting (at Fianna Fáil’s invitation) on the lessons that the experience of the British Conservatives- about whom he is the author of a prize-winning book – might offer for FF and other similarly afflicted parties.

It was delivered with characteristic mix of wit, clarity and academic expertise seasoned with a dose of drama as he told them what they probably didn’t want to hear. But, I wondered, there any other parties that might around that might usefully be advised to follow the Bale Rules?

Perhaps the Civic Democrats (ODS) in the Czech Republic, the once dominant party of the centre-right founded by Václav Klaus in 1991 which bossed things in Czech politics for much of the 1990s and – along with the Social Democrats – were until the ‘earthquake election’ of 2010 one of two dominant players in a once stable party system.

Running through the twelve points, some catch the party’s dilemmas exactly, while others don’t quite catch a situation in which the voters can turn away from you en masse and you still end up running the country. Read More…

Populism in Central and Eastern Europe Spectres of moderation?

Fright on the right?

Radicalism and extremism, especially of the far-right variety, hold an enduring hypnotic fascination for political scientists and journalists.

Extremist populism and illiberal movements more generally, we are told, relentlessly on the rise in both Western and Eastern Europe.

In countries such Austria or Flanders radical right parties have  stacked up sufficient votes to become as major political players and contenders for government office. Elsewhere  in countries such as France, Norway, Denmark they have sufficient electoral clout to influence the parliamentary arithmetic and help  make the political weather.

And just look the electoral breakthroughs in the past couple of years of the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats or Hungary’s Jobbik.

Or the illiberal leanings of mainstream parties of the right in Poland, Hungary and Latvia.  Remember the brouhaha about the British Conservatives’ East European allies?

Jobbik - the far right Movement for a Better Hungary

Indeed, instability, populism and extremism Central and Eastern Europe is surely where it’s at – or where it will be at. Authoritarian nationalism traditions,  high unemployment, vulnerable open economies, rampant corruption, the end of EU conditionality and minority nationalities and Roma  minorities  acting as functional substitutes for the multiculturalism  Western Europe.

But, of course, it isn’t

Social conditions and ethnic make-up in CEE region as a variable as they are in Western Europe, if not more so.  And, if far right and illiberal populists have recently broken through big time in Hungary and (slightly smaller time) in Bulgaria with the rise of the Ataka bloc in Bulgaria, they are so far going nowhere electorally most other countries in the region.

National Parties in Slovakia and Slovenia  have a maintained marginal parliamentary presence, based on a vote share of around 5% the Greater Romania Party is out of parliament despite a bounce in the 2009 Euro-elections and the Polish populist-nationalist right (or left, I’m never sure) collapsed.

A low-lying Will O the Wisp - look carefully. Photo: Deborah Tilley

As Cas Mudde shrewdly observed in 2002  extremist movements in Central and Eastern Europe have tended – and this trend has, interestingly, so far endured even in the difficult political and economic times we now  live in – to bite the dust as often as they have risen from the deck to sock it  to established parties.

But there is a spectre of populism haunting Central and Eastern Europe, which should give us pause,

But this one isn’t a scary monster, but a political  will-o’-the-wisp that often gets missed:  a new breed of anti-establishment party  lambasting the political class  in time honoured style but which combines mainstream, moderate, modernising priorities with a potent and uneven cocktail of appeals embracing anti-corruption, political reform, e-politics, ethical government, novelty or sheer entertainment value.

Academics, bankers, aristocrats and journos

Led by a diverse array of anti-politicians – aristocrats,  academics, artists, technocrats, bankers,  businessmen, bloggers, journalists, entertainers – such parties have scored a series of  sometime spectacular electoral victories, which can put even the best performing far-right ethno-populists distinctly in the shade, and lead directly to government office: New Era in Latvia in 1998, the Simeon II National Movement in Bulgaria in 2001, Res Publica in Estonia in 2003 and last year TOP09 and Public Affairs (VV) in the Czech Republic.

While often fissiparous and short-lived such ‘centrist populist’ protest parties, to borrow Peter Účen’s phrase,  seem to spreading and growing phenomenon: Lithuania has no fewer than three such coming up through the political mainstream in successive elections: the New Union (2000), the (mis-named) Labour Party (2004) and in the 2008 elections the National Resurrection Party founded by former TV presenter and producer Arūnas Valinskas, who seems to have been a mix between Chris Tarrant and Simon Cowell.

As Kevin Deegan-Krause observed the new breed of anti-political mainstream protest party is a slippery and multifaceted  thing.

…. not exactly a new party family (though in their cultural liberalism and anti-corruption emphases they share significant elements) and not exactly a new party type … but with strong and intersecting elements of both. Nor is it unique to Central Europe alone but elements of it have emerged also in the West

My UCL colleague Allan Sikk and I nevertheless decided to have a go at pinning down this new phenomenon more precisely, focusing in the first instance on Central and Eastern Europe,  presenting some of our findings in a paper  (downloadable here) at last month’s ECPR General Conference in Reykjavik.

Analysing elections in the region since 1998 using Charles Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis technique  we found no single story.

Different paths. Photo: Bob Embleton

 But we did find that these Anti-Establishment Reform Parties, as we called them, broke through electorally in three distinct  sets of circumstances:

  • When relatively narrow core of established mainstream parties, flanked by strong radical outsiders, faces  a deteriorating social situation characterised by rising corruption and/or rising unemployment.
  • When established governing parties of the mainstream pro-market right  fail to engage new or re-mobilised voters.
  • When the left or market sceptic conservative-nationalist are in office and opposition mainstream pro-market right – and the party system generally – is weakly consolidated and/or fragmented

Sometimes  these circumstance overlap, sometimes they run in sequence, but – while radical outsiders have walk on part – what matters, unsurprisingly, is the abilily of mainstream, big tent governing parties to hold together and retain a grip on corruption and the economy to stem electoral insurgencies, which are likely to be angry, anti-political, often offbear  but  decided – destabilisingly –  mainstream.

And like the patchy rise of the far-right, such trends –  as Kevin Deegan-Krause notes above and shrewder journalists have also  already  spotted are not be confined to the rarified political climate of Central and Eastern Europe. When Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia  burst onto the Italian political scene in 1994, people could have been forgiven for thinking it was just a strange denouement to Italy’s unique corrupt post-war politics.

Yes, Prime Minister? Photo: wiki.editor Jonny

Now you could be forgiven for wondering if varieties of personality-centred, broadly  liberal sometimes) neo-liberal anti-establishment poilitics might gradually be infiltrating in way into  more established democracies andbecoming a more Europe-wide phenomenon.

The Pirate Party has just entered the Berlin legislature with 8.5% of the vote and when we met them in a break in the ECPR conference, Iceland’s anarchic Best Party (see trailer for forthcoming documentary) founded by comedian Jón Gnarr which emerged as the city’s largest party last year (33%), turned out to be among the more focused and serious political outfits we had come across professionally.

When UEA’s Sanna Inthorn and John Street rhetorically titled a paper on young citizens and  celebrity politics  ‘Simon Cowell For Prime Minister?‘  they may perhaps not have been so far behind the curve.

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>Let be AV-ing you

>

 It’s day of the local elections and I’m not voting.

But – UKIP tweeps and others out there concerned about my lack of civic engagement take note –  I am going down the polling station today – to have my say in the UK’s referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote electoral system (or not).

The consequences, advantages or disadvantages depending on your point of view and what you think democracy should deliver, are fairly and clearly summed up in a briefing paper by the Political Studies Association.  On my reading, AV is not a big deal, preserving the basic, highly disproportional majoirtarian logic of first-past-the-post and (as far as simulations can tell) excluding smaller parties but boosting the Liberal Democrats.

So, not something you would really want to vote for unless you were a dyed-in-the-wool LibDem; felt reallocating preferences to many voters’ second or third choice candidate to generate a diminished 50%+ majority for the winning canidate really was a major democratic improvement ;or are convinced that politically AV will be a first step to further  electoral reform along more proportional lines, or that the Liberal Democrats will  revert to their imagined role of the 1990s and became natural and easy coalition partners for Labour in a ‘progressive pact’.

Personally, I’m not, I don’t and (on both of the last two counts) I severely doubt it.

So –  after doing some short-term partisan guesswork about what might most damage the cohesion of a coalition government I really don’t support – I’ll be voting No.


I’m a little surprised to have ended up with this decision – although I repeatedly come back to  – and good citizen that I am (honest) I’ve tried to tune in to the debate. But the rival campaigns, low profile and mostly confined to the TV and radio studios and internet have, frankly, both been been pretty dire. Both have tended to present AV as if it were a proportional system (‘fair votes’ for the Yes campaign, a entree to parliament for the BNP for the No side), although both have touched on preference reallocation mechanism, the proposed new system’s only truly innovative feature. The Yes campaign argue that it ensures genuine majorities (see rather witty beet v graphic below), the No campaign that preference re-allocation it is complicated, doesn’t eliminate tactical voting and can generate equally perverse results. Some invoke Arrow’s paradoxes

Interestingly, figures from the Party Labour  – now the most likely recipient of my vote if they had a candidate around to around to vote for –  lined up on both sides of the campaign, but, oddly, have lacked any very distinct or clear message. for or against Those in the desperately worthy Yes campaign repeated the rather tired Fair Votes ,some-reform-better than-none mantras, while those on the more brutal, kick-ass No side have recycled the equally tired pro- first-past-the-post arguments (the best of which centre on the ability to ‘kick out the bums’)  in ways indistinguishable from those campaign’s mainly Tory backers.


Left-wing blogger (and author of a soon to be published UCL PhD on the concept of Chavs) Owen Jones, however, advances a more interesting argument  distinctly of the left opposing AV

 “… because I think it will institutionalise mushy centrist politics. I think that’s exactly the aim of many of its staunchest supporters, because they are … mushy centrists and want an electoral system most likely to ensure their ideology dominates.”
and more concretely because he sees it as faciltating the type of LibDem-Labour alliance that some people are as mentioned, actually, still hoping for and which  this left-wing take on things sees as an important (if never realised) element of the New Labour project.
The obvious objection is that AV would have delivered Tony Blair a bigger landslide in 1997 that FTTP, although I guess it could be argued that a weakened Blairite forces couldn’t repeat this trick on the same scale

Here, however, as it often does, my mind veers off to Czech(oslovak) politics and, concretely, to the AV-like electoral system promoted in 1990-1 by President Václav Havel in preference to list PR, which he (rather accurately as it turned out) would empower political parties and produce a core of legislators with little connection with localities (the fabled ‘constituency link’ as it is called in British debates). However, Havel also favoured it because it felt it would promoted centrist candidates, who would benefit disportionately from second preferences, and prevent ideological polarisation.

He also hoped it would help prevent well organised parties with concentrated support from overcoming divided liberals – the scenario the beer versus coffee poster outlines, although a daft ine for most reasonably developed democracies where pro-beer forces would be consolidated into a  Friends of Beer Party  that would romp home easily under FTPP (perhaps on a public crawl programme).

Like much of what Havel advocated,  his electoral reform project – actually a  form of the Supplementary Vote (asking for first and second preferences only)* – never really stood a chance and was quickly voted down  by the country’s emerging parties – although, in a certain, it lives on in the two-round, first-past-the-post system used for the Czech Senate, whose logic loosely parallels the ‘instant runover’ in SV). 
In the Czech context, Havel was in hindsight was probably right: there are no deep class cleavages  in Czech society and  perhaps because of that the country’s ideologically strident but depressingly corrupt parties have continually struggled to generate clear, stable majority of left or right, resulting  centrist politics by default. 

But, as Carsten Schneider’s excellent heavy-duty political science book on democratic consolidation argues, what matters most is the democratic fit of electoral system to a particular society. British (or perhaps, anticipating the de facto detachment or independence of the other nations, should I say English society is not the Czech society and perhaps a more polarised politics between loose blocs of left and right is a better fit. 

Perhaps the real issue is not electoral reform – even the kind of elegant mixed system that I might turn out to vote for – but decentralise political power to locally elected bodies and  to loosen up party structures, which seem as closed and narrow as anything Havel feared.

* Note Havel’s proposal was technically a mixed system – I guess we might call it  a kind of SV+ – as they also contained a rather elegant proposal for proportional ‘top-up’ seats for votes in constituencies where combined first and second preferences did help elect winning candidates in individual member constituencies. My old notes suggest that under Havel’s proposal fall voter’s first and second preferences were simply to be added together (giving everyone a second vote), rather than re-allocating the votes of all except the two leading canidates.

>It was twenty two years ago today…

>That student demonstration in London against the Tory government that turned violent?

I was there. Quite close to where it all kicked off, in fact, although by accident and I missed the more dramatic bits that got on the telly.

But don’t worry,  I wasn’t bloke with the fire extinguisher. And actually,  I didn’t leven leave the house today. And did nothing more violent that scrawl some red lines on a draft of someone’s PhD.  You see it, was all more than 20 years ago…

On 24 November 1988 along with with several coach loads of Leeds University students went down to London for the biggest student protest of the decade. It was  a nationwide National Union of Students demonstration to protest against (shock horror) the abolition of student maintenance grants and their replacement with loans.  We were genuinely outraged and waves of mobilization – added to the prospect of a good day out with out mates- even reached the rather apolitical, but very friendly Russian Department. As I recall coach tickets were about £3 or £4. It was quite a warm day, as I remember, and we all got quick a kick out of marching through the streets and chanting – sense of empowerment or identify incentives, I guess I would call it today – and there was a real buzz to being in large, like-minded crowd of people just like us.
Then for some reason we ended up in a milling crowd in a dead end somewhere near the Houses of Parliament. We were by Westminster Bridge and we couldn’t go anywhere. We all got quite bored and fed up and the crowd probably thinned out slightly, giving it a slightly more militant and political composition. There were certainly an impressive variety of far-left and Trotskyist newspaper sellers, which – being interested in theories of state capitalism and the like in those days – I could probably have ticked off trainspotter style. I’m not quite sure what happened next. The mood was, I suppose, probably getting uglier. I remember a police inspector walking ineffectually through the milling crowd with a megaphone telling us to disperse and everyone conspicouously ignoring him, although I don’t think we had any very militant intentions. We just didn’t want to day to be over. In the end my friend, now I believe a successful lawyer in California although we lost touch year ago, suggested that call it a day and find a pub.
This was a pretty convincing argument even during the days of High Thatcherism. We didn’t find a pub and, with anti-Zellig like precision, we missed the “Battle of Westminster” A few minutes later mounted police  spectacularly charged through the milling crowd at the end of the bridge and brought the impasse to an end. The university’s more militant student revolutinaries, I was told, had cunningly taken the tube over the river, but been arrested. Back on the coach, we booed as the radio news reported that students had rained missiles down on police and cheered when we learned that the Queen Mother had been stuck in the traffic chaos we had caused.
‘Major conflict’: The young Dr Sean woz ‘ere (almost)

Back on our early morning Russian grammar class the next day – present participles, I think it was ( I was rather good at them) – we wondered what had happened. Clearly, we hadn’t been manipulated by sinister Trotskyists, although we couldn’t vouch that they hadn’t led the march somewhere it shouldn’t have gone by packing the front ranks. Perhaps we wouldn’t have cared if we had known. At least, we thought  they saved from being stuck in some park listening to some dull as ditchwater speech the then National Union of Students President, Maeve Sherlock (now Baroness Sherlock).

Like a lot (but not all) protest in the 1980s, it all came to nothing – and I suspect deep down  we inwardly knew that at the time –  and the system of student loans duly  came in in my final year. On graduation, having been pretty frugal, I owed the state-back Student Loans Company the princely sum of £300.

This is, of course, all history. The Battle of Westminster – or perhaps we should say, Brief But Somewhat Violent Police Charge of Westminster is now the subject of a much cited academic article about social identity and crowd psychology: it is  quite right that it was cock-up rather conspiracy han and that , yes, as Social Identity Analysis suggested we were slightly been radical and less law-abding after the event than before, but we didn’t all rush to join the Socialist Workers Party.

It was, of course, a different age then. No internet, no mobiles, no Twitter, no Facebook.  Approximately, half the student numbers of today (although the queues for the banks of photcopiers in hte Library were horrendous( None of us would have understood the ‘tuition fees’. And I would have no more believed that communism would collapse than that men from Mars would land outside Leeds Town Hall.

And in hindsight, it all seems rather than cosy and innocent, although after Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, the papers were full of predictions that a Maoist-style free market Cultural Revolution was about the be unleashed. Perhaps it was and I never noticed.

So having a break for coffee I watch Guardian online footage of the London Day of Action with marchers trooping past UCL. How does it all compare? The atmosphere, placards and slogans seem curiously the same – has no one thought of a catchier slogan than “They Say Cutback, We Say Fightback” in two decades –  and the numbers (around 50,000) are similar too, although the current protest seem slightly bigger and to have a momentum missing im 1988. The Twitter feed of the demo – not something available in 1988 (my reporter friend from Leeds Student tasked to track Maeve Sherlock quickly lost his story in the unfolding chaos) – suggests today’s students are about as witty as we were when it comes to doing homemade placards, although the stakes today are (for some people, at least) bigger and humour blacker.  Organizational confusion and resulting breakawy leading to a headline-grabbing clash  around a symbolic centre of power (then Westminster, today Millbank), is spookily similar – as are the debates about whether it has done the student cause a favour by crashing onto the headlines and registering  anger or just played into the hands of a hostile media. There are also the predictable accusations that the whole thing was staged by extremists (then the Socialist Workers Party, this time round anarchists).

What seems different (at least judging by the Guardian footage) is that today’s marchers are a damn sight more socially and ethnically diverse – and younger , including FE and college students- than the crowd I was in 1988: the proposed changes of 2010 seem a much bigger deal than those of 1988 and also much more of a class issue, like to see some denied big opportunities and others.In truth, however, I suspect, what has happened is that proposals have thrown into sharp relief the already class-ridden  and unequal character of higher education.

My own feelings about  events are surprisingly mixed. I am fascinated by (what might be) an unfolding social movement, but a mixture of middle age and being one of the ‘Thatcher’s Children’ generation that saw most protest lead to naught leaves me with an engrained scepticism. I also doubt that the interests of university staff and students are as closely aligned as trade union and student union leaders would have us believe. 

The new movement is inevitably overhyped. A blog post written by one of the students occupying  UCL’s Jeremy Bentham Room – a nice, undisruptive target used mainly for social events and conferences- claims student protests are inventing a new organizational model.  Actually, he seems to be re-discover the idea of the social movement in the age of Facebook and blogging  and splashing about an awful political science jargon. There’s a pleasingly in-your-face quality to all this and if this is the beginning of a the kind of multiform ‘alliance of resistance’ some trade unionists have started to image – a sort of angry-as-hell Tea Party movement  of the public sector- capable of real national impact, rather than a replay of the damp squib student protest of 1980s, then I guess that’s OK and a few pieces of schlock political science analysis are a small price to pay.


After all, who knows, maybe we are all in it together?

>Czech history lessons?

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Lack of time and lack of expertise means I don’t take more than a passing interest in academic history, but I note with interest the apparent outrage caused by a paper presented by French historian Muriel Blaive at a recent symposium held in London to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovak and Poland governments in exile Has the Czech Republic fully come to terms with the memory of the Second World War? The memory in question, the paper says, is the (so far unresearched) extent of Czech collaboration and passivity underNazi occupation and, specifically, with the implementation of the Holocaust. This theme, it is suggested, would violate established national narrative of Czechs as a liberal European nation, who were heroes or (more commonly) victims of a grim totalitarian double-whammy of Nazism and communism, and, in particular, undermine Czech moral credit in debates over post-war treatment and eventual mass ‘transfer’ of the Sudeten Germans.
There is well established set of arguments that (large sections) Czech society bears a certain responsibility for communism – enthusiatically backing the statist national democratic project of the Communist 1945 and falling too readily for reform communist illusions in the 1960s. Indeed, Muriel Blaive’s earlier book (published in different versions in Czech and French) added to by suggesting that when Hungarians and Poles were taking to the streets in 1956, Czech society was unreactive not because deep democratic and anti-communist instincts were repressed, but because it was passive, inwardly and bought off by being (relatively speaking) well off. However, any suggestion that the Czechs were anything other victims of Nazism was, perhaps not surprisingly, moc silný kafe. Another implication, which you might take from the paper (although this is not explicitly given – merely mine) is that the agonised intellectual and historical debates over Czechs and (Sudeten) Germans which go back to the underground samizdat discussions of 1980s – including the self-searchingly self-critical ones – has obscured the need for one over wider Czech complicity
What should a political scientist make of all this? There is an interesting line of argument in the paper about the conversion and re-use of police and intelligence structures by successive regimes (democratic/Nazi/communist), which could feed interestingly into research on the nature of regime change state, especially given the current strong historical turn in the discipline. After all, wasn’t one of the biggest mistakes the American made in Iraq the decision not to convert Baathist state structures?). And there clearly are some thoughts to be had about history, democractic quality, the partisan use of decommunization, the politicization of academic reseach institutions. At bottom, in a democratic society, there should, be no historical taboos – which in the Czech Republic clearly there still are – and historians clearly have a job to do, and that job includes looking at all the skelteons in all the cupboards. And there is a well rehearsed argument that openness and honestly about the past make for society better able to face up, discuss and solve its current problems.
On the other hand, you wonder quite what the Czech politicians and public are actually supposed to believe about themselves and their past? And especially, what if anything, they should feel positive about? Sure, Czech politics is animated by crude national-democratic myth, but – as the warm bath of nostalgic feel good documentaries about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain currently airing on British television shows – this isn’t exactly unique. Admittedly, revisionist programming seeps uncontroversially into the schedules: watch the whole crop of WWII history and you can learn there was rampant crime and corruption during the Blitz; that British Blitz of German cities later in the war was more savage than than meted out by the Luftwaffe in 1940-1; that the Battle of Britain was won partly due to German incompetence in photo reconnaisance; that our military effort was buttressed by imperialism and racism and so on.
And, it would, of course be nice if British historical memory really wasn’t dominated by the early years of the Second World war: WWI and WWII it is the only bit of modern history that most primary schools touch on, so it is no small wonder we are rapidly eurosceptic and have inflated sense of national importance. On the other hand, the use of academic history for endless repetitive masochistic, self-lacerating national self-criticism which some parts of the Czech intelligentsia delight in seems more likely a recipe for cynicism and anomie, rather than democratic renewal.
Perhaps, realistically, in what Phippe Schmitter once rather nicely termed really Existing Democracies, a safe disconnect between academic and popular history is all you should wish for.

Update:  Madelaine Albright’s keynote address to the symposium can be seen in video here. It’s a rather eloquent and well delivered presentation making  a well argued – if ultimately not totally convincing – case for traditional view of strong, if naturally imperfect, Czech democratic tradition derailed by geopolitical circumstance. A politician’s rather than a historian’s speech, but then as I say above that has its place.