Department of Political Science


UCL Uncovering Politics

The podcast of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science at University College London. Through this podcast we plan to explore key themes of contemporary politics and let you into some of our research findings that we think the wider world needs to know about.

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97. Improving Public Services

14 December 2023

This week we ask "how can we improve public services?" In particular, what are the structures and management strategies that best enable effective service delivery?


96. Russian Discourses of Sovereignty

7 December 2023

This week, we’re looking at how Russian leaders talk about sovereignty. In particular, how do their ideas about sovereignty help them rationalise war in Ukraine?


95. Historical Research in Political Science

30 November 2023

This week we’re looking at the role of historical research in political science. What’s it good for, and how’s it best done?


94. Climate Change Loss and Damage

23 November 2023

This week we’re discussing the politics of climate change and loss and damage policy, ahead of the upcoming COP28 conference.


93. 'Acts of Speech' and How People Recieve Them

16 November 2023

This week we explore 'speech act theory', the idea that our speech acts and whether _how_ it acts depends on the audience. We ask: should philosophy be done from the armchair, or do philosophers need to go and find out what people really think? 

Note: this episode discusses issues around sexual consent and non-consent.


92. The Domestic Politics of IMF Lending

2 November 2023

This week we’re focusing on a new book about IMF lending. The IMF – the International Monetary Fund – exists, among other things, to provide policy advice and financial support to governments facing economic difficulties. But are its programmes effective? 


91. The Politics of Migration

26 October 2023

This week we’re looking at migration. What causes it? What are its effects? And what are the key policy implications? 


90. Fiscal Transparency And The Public Purse

19 Ocotber 2023

This week we ask: what is fiscal transparency, what goes on in government finances, and why is transparency important for governments’ fiscal performance?  


89. Backyard Housing And The Dynamics Of Collective Action

12 October 2023

This week we’re looking at the dynamics of collective action. We ask: What shapes protest against inadequate housing in South Africa? And what lessons can we learn?



88. Taking Offence


5 October 2023

This week we ask: Is there value in taking offence? Indeed, should we cultivate a readiness to take offence in ourselves and others?


87. The State of US Politics

29 June 2023

This week we explore US politics. Who’s up? Who’s down? What are the big issues? And how well is American democracy doing? 



86. Resisting Colonialism

22 June 2023

This week we ask: what are the wider impacts and legacies of colonialism, and how can we go about resisting them?



85. Honouring the Career of Professor Albert Weale

15 June 2023

This week we discuss social contract theory and the illustrious career of Professor Albert Weale.


84. The Impact of Banning Protests

8 June 2023

This week we ask: what are the effects when authoritarian governments ban protests?


83. How Can We Fix Our Democracy?

1 June 2023

This week we ask: What is going wrong with our democracy, and how we might fix it?


82. Political Constitutionalism and Referendums: The Case of Brexit

25 May 2023

This week we ask: Can the Brexit referendum can be regarded as consistent with political constitutionalism? Or did it represented the sovereign will of the people?


81. Democracies and LGBTQ Rights

18 May 2023

This week we ask: Is the link between LGBTQ rights and democracy as strong as is often thought? 


80. Military Technology and Intelligent Warfare

11 May 2023

This week we explore the role of military technology in modern warfare.


79. What Can Democracies Learn From Dictatorships?

4 May 2023

This week we ask: Can struggling democracies learn anything useful from well performing dictatorships?


78. The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit

27 April 2023

This week we ask: What does the process of Brexit tell us about the role of the UK’s parliament and whether it needs reform?



77. Brexit and Northern Ireland

23 March 2023

This week we ask "what have been the legacies of conflict in Northern Ireland?"



76. Do Higher Benefits Encourage Immigration?

16 March 2023

This week we ask "do higher welfare benefits lead to higher immigration?"


75. The Politics of Ordinary Hope

16 March 2023

This week we ask "do higher welfare benefits lead to higher immigration?"This week we’re discussing life, politics, and the power of ‘ordinary hope’ with Professor Marc Stears, the inaugural director of the UCL Policy Lab.


74. The Politics of the European Court of Human Rights

2 March 2023

This week we’re looking at the European Court of Human Rights. What is it? Does it provide adequate justice to victims? And what should we make of the ongoing debates in the UK about its role? 


73. The Politics of the European Court of Justice

23 February 2023

This week we’re looking at the European Court of Justice. How does it operate? How political is it? And is public opinion ever taken into account?



72. The Role of Praise

8 February 2023

This week we’re looking at praise. When is it a good thing? And when, crucially, is it not? 



71. Twitter, the Online Safety Bill, and Free Speech

2 February 2023

This week we’re looking at Twitter, the Online Safety Bill, and the limits of free speech. Is it a good thing that Twitter is promoting free speech - or would more regulation be better? How much of a problem is disinformation for society and democracy? Might there even be a moral duty for social media platforms – or the state – to tackle disinformation and otherwise harmful speech?



70. Democracy in the UK

26 January 2023

This week we have a special episode looking at democracy in the UK today, not with one of our academic colleagues, but with the leader of a UK political party. 



69. The Precautionary State

20 January 2023

This week we’re looking at a new way of thinking about the role of the state in our society: the idea of the ‘precautionary state’. What is it? What are its implications? And is it a good thing? 



68. War and Infant Mortality

12 January 2023

This week we’re looking at the impact of war on rates of infant mortality. How big is it? And can it be mitigated? 



67. A Primer on House of Lords Reform

22 December 2022

This week we’re looking at the House of Lords. What does it do? And how, if at all, should it be reformed?



66. LGBT+ Politics

15 December 2022

What explains successes and setbacks in the promotion of LGBT+ rights? And is political science as welcoming as it should be towards LGBT+ research?



65. Hypocrisy and human rights around the world

8 December 2022

This week we ask: if the international community can’t make states abide by their human rights obligations, what’s the point of invoking human rights?



64. How should politicians’ behaviour be regulated?

24 November 2022

This week we ask: How should politicians’ behaviour be regulated? How, that is, can we best ensure that politicians are honest, play fair, and do a decent job?



63. Global tech companies and the Ukraine War

10 November 2022

This week we ask: What has been the role of global tech companies during the war in Ukraine? And is better regulation needed?


62. The Road to COP27

3 November 2022

This week we’re talking about climate change. The COP27 climate conference is about to begin in Egypt. But what will be the conference’s own carbon emissions? And can the event deliver for Africa? 


61. Parliament's Role in Brexit

27 October 2022

This week we look at parliament’s role in shaping Brexit-related legislation between 2017 and 2019. We ask: What role did parliament play in Brexit? More particularly, how much influence has it had over Brexit legislation? And has it done harm or good?


60. Robots and Immigrants

20 October 2022

This week we’re examining the ways we talk about automation and immigration, and how this discourse shapes the economy. We ask: How far are discourses around immigration and automation tied to each other? What is the link between this rhetoric and the economic system known as ‘neo-liberalism’? Is the UK unique in our debates about robots and immigrants, and their effect on the labour market?



59. How to Run Public Administration

13 October 2022

We’re focusing this week on public administration. While mention of the word bureaucracy rarely lifts hearts, it’s incredibly important for the development of public policy, for the delivery of public services, and for all the other things that the state does. 



58. The State of the World

7 October 2022

In the first episode of this series of UCL Uncovering Politics, we are exploring developments in the war in Ukraine, climate change policy, and politics in the UK.

Over the summer, the war in Ukraine has rumbled on. The global energy crisis, partly a result of the war, has forced policymakers to rethink how energy markets work. The energy crisis intersects with efforts to tackle the climate crisis, which have in some ways intensified in the wake of last year’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow. In the UK, Boris Johnson was forced out as Prime Minster and replaced by Liz Truss. And just days after Truss entered office, the death of Queen Elizabeth made headlines around the world. To make sense of these events, the podcast is joined by three professors from the department. 


57. The Role of Blame 

30 June 2022

This week we are looking at injustice and the role that blame should play in tackling it.

Tackling injustice is one of the main motivations that many people have for getting involved in politics, and a common tactic can be to blame someone or something for this injustice. However, political theorists have often been dubious of the merits of blame, seeing it as backward-looking and unduly negative. But a new piece of research argues that blame is due for something of a rehabilitation. 


Mentioned in this episode:

56. Disabilities in the Workplace

23 June 2022

This week we are exploring the experience of disabled people in work, and asking the question, ‘How can we make our workplaces more inclusive?’

Despite the Equality Act being designed to protect disabled people from ‘discrimination or disadvantage’ in work, 48,000 disabled workers are still being 'managed out' of the workforce each year. Why is this discrimination still occurring? Is the Equality Act still fit for purpose? And what can be done to improve the situation?


Mentioned in this episode:

  • S. Kumar., & C. Provost., Ableism and the Labour Market (2022)

55. The Limits of Technocracy

16 June 2022

This week we ask: How do politicians view economists? And what's the proper place of technocracy? 

'It's the economy, stupid'. That, famously, was one of the organising principles of Bill Clinton's campaign for the US presidency in 1992. Thirty years on, amidst a cost of living crisis, economic policy decisions still often dominate politics, and many of these economic debates focus on questions of facts. So what role should expert economists play, and what should their relationship with elected politicians be?


Mentioned in this episode:


54. Public Opinion in Russia

9 June 2022

This week we are examining the state of public opinion in Russia.

It almost goes without saying that public opinion matters in a democracy, where leaders can be scrutinised in the free press and held accountable at free and fair elections. However, public attitudes matter in authoritarian regimes too – as illustrated by how careful Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is being at the moment to control the media narrative around his war in Ukraine. So what role does public opinion play in autocracies? And how can people's attitudes be measured in authoritarian regimes?


Mentioned in this episode:

53. How to Transform Our Politics

1 June 2022

This week we are exploring the argument that politics - and indeed the study of politics - would be better if we rooted it more firmly in everyday life. 

To do this, we have a rather unique episode, where we are discussing both a new publication and a brand new institution. Professor Marc Stears, inaugural Director of the new UCL Policy Lab, joins the podcast to talk about the Policy Lab's role, and about what Dylan Thomas and George Orwell can teach us about doing politics and defining the nation.


Mentioned in this episode:

52. Population Displacement

26 May 2022

This week we are looking at population displacement: What drives it, and what are its effects? 

Displacement of civilian populations is a feature of politics in many parts of the world. War is perhaps the most familiar driver of displacement – we have seen that, of course, on a tragic scale in Ukraine in recent months. But other factors lead people to leave their homes too, including government development policies and the effects of climate change. And displacement has profound effects: on the people involved most directly; but also on the dynamics of conflict and of politics more broadly. 


Mentioned in this episode:

  • S. Weber., 'Controlling a Moving World: Territorial Control, Displacement and the Spread of Civilian Targeting in Iraq', Unpublished PhD chapter
  • P. Jayasinghe., 'A History of Resettlement and Electoral Administration in Sri Lanka', Unpublished PhD chapter

51. Political Philosophy and Climate Change

19 May 2022

This week we ask: How best can political philosophers contribute to the fight against climate change? 

Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humans today. Yet politics appears to be failing to deliver the required response. Students of politics are therefore conducting a wealth of research to understand what’s happening and what could be done better. But is that research actually doing any good? Is it contributing to better outcomes?


Mentioned in this episode:


50. Politics in Northern Ireland

12 May 2022

This week we are looking at politics in Northern Ireland, in the wake of last week's Assembly elections. Can power-sharing government return? And what are the implications for Northern Ireland’s future?

The power-sharing arrangements established by the 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement have brought many successes, but they are teetering on the edge of collapse. So how can power-sharing be put back on a stable footing?


Mentioned in this episode:

49. Voting Systems and the Representation of Women

5 May 2022

This week we are looking at the effect of electoral systems on the composition of parliaments. How can we bring about fairer representation for women?

No democracy in the world has yet achieved equal representation for women in its national parliament, and one long-standing idea is that some voting systems may enable fairer representation than others. A new article sheds fresh light on this issue. 


Mentioned in this episode:

48. The Politics of Climate Change

28 April 2022

This week we are examining the politics of climate change in high-income democracies. How should we design our political institutions to maximise the push to net zero? 

Democracies are famously short-termist, as politicians who want to be re-elected don't wish to impose short-term costs on voters. So how can we design democracies better to foster longer time horizons?


Mentioned in this episode:

47. The Origins of the Secular State

24 March 2022

This week we are looking at secular political institutions. Why do the matter? And what explains whether they emerge?

Some states are secular, while others are based, to a greater or lesser degree, on religion. The difference matters. Secular states are more likely to respect the diverse perspectives of their citizens and protect a range of social and political rights.

So what explains variation in institutional secularism? Why did some state secularise centuries ago, while others underwent a secular shift more recently, and yet others remain religious to this day?


Mentioned in this episode 

46. Courage in Politics

17 March 2022

This week we are looking at the place of courage in politics. What is it? And what role does it play – in times both of conflict and of peace?

Courage can take many forms. So we ask what exactly it is, and what roles it can play – in times of conflict and in the context of peaceful democracy.


45. The Transformation of British Welfare Policy

10 March 2022

This week we are looking at welfare policy in the UK. It’s changed dramatically in the last three decades. We ask: How? Why? And what does the future hold?


Mentioned in this episode 


44. The Origins of Social Trust

03 March 2022 

This week we are looking at social trust. What is it? Why does it matter? And how can it be increased?

We talk a lot about trust – or, more often, the lack of trust – in politics. Often we’re referring to people’s trust in politicians. But social trust – our trust in the people around us – matters too. The evidence from must countries is that social trust has been falling in recent decades. But the countries of Scandinavia have bucked that trend. Indeed, in Denmark, the survey evidence suggests that social trust has risen since 1979 by 30 percentage points.

So what’s going on? What factors shape social trust? What can policymakers do to promote social trust? And has Covid shifted any of the long-term trends?



43. Why did Argentina invade the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982?

24 February 2022 

This week we are looking at the Malvinas/Falklands War. Why did it happen? And what does it tell us about how dictators decide whether to launch military action?

The fortieth anniversary of the Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982 is coming up in just a few weeks’ time. There will no doubt be many retrospectives, which, here in the UK, will focus on the actions of the British government, and whether the UK’s response would be different if anything similar took place today.

But what about Argentine perspectives on the war? Why did the then Argentine government invade the islands? How was the conflict perceived in Argentina at the time, and how is it seen today? In understanding the thinking of Argentina’s rulers in 1982, can we gain insights into the calculations of authoritarian leaders who might be contemplating military action today – not least, of course, President Vladimir Putin of Russia?



42. The Pedagogy of Politics 

10 February 2022 

This week we are looking at the pedagogy of politics. What can research tell us about the diverse ways in which we can teach about politics?

How should we teach about politics? How – if at all – should teaching politics be different from teaching hard sciences, such as physics, or arts and humanities subjects, such as History or English, or indeed other social sciences, such as Economics or Sociology? The territory of politics is inherently contested, so should we embrace that contestation in our teaching or should we stick to known facts?

These and many other questions are explored by a new centre within the UCL Department of Political Science called the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics. 



41. Freeing Bureaucrats to Succeed

03 February 2022 

This week we are looking at how to deliver effective public services. And also: How can academic research make a difference?

How can you best deliver effective public services? Is it better to exert top-down control over the work of bureaucrats on the ground – through targets, monitoring, and prescribed procedures – so that slacking or corruption or inconsistency can be prevented? Or can more be achieved if you free up bureaucrats to work out their own approaches, utilizing their practical knowledge and allowing their desire to do a good job to flourish?



40 | Taking Offence 

28 January 2022 

It’s sometimes said that we’re living through an epidemic of taking offence. We have become hyper-sensitive, the story goes, to any slight against our sense of self-worth. And a generation of so-called ‘snowflakes’ are told they just need to relax a little. 

But what does it actually mean to take offence? How does feeling offended fit in alongside all the other emotions that our social interactions might invoke, such as anger, indignation, or contempt? Is taking offence really such a bad thing – or might it, at least in some circumstances, actually have positive value?

Well the person who has thought about such questions more deeply than anyone else is Dr Emily McTernan, Associate Professor in Political Theory in the UCL Department of Political Science. Emily is currently finishing a book to be published by Oxford University Press called On Taking Offence, and last year a version of the first chapter was published in article form in one of the top political philosophy journals.


39 | Intermarriage and Voting in Africa

20 January 2022 

This week we are looking at ethnic voting in Africa. What is it? What are its effects? And how are increasing rates of intermarriage changing it? Ethnic voting means voting on the basis of ethnic identity, rather than, say, policy preferences or how well or badly you think the incumbents have governed. 

Ethnic and other forms of communal voting are found in many parts of the world – think, for example, of very different voting patterns between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. But ethnic voting is often thought particularly to be a feature of politics in many African countries. And such voting is also often seen as rather problematic for healthy democracy, because it can shield those in power from accountability if they govern poorly.



38 | Governments and Private Sector Suppliers

13 January 2022

Our first episode of season 5 looks at relationships between governments and private sector suppliers. Why do they exist? What forms do they take? And how well do they work?

Now, no one would claim that the subject of contracts between governments and private sector suppliers is all that sexy. But the last two years of the Covid crisis have certainly revealed its importance. In the earliest weeks of the pandemic back in 2020, governments around the world scrambled to secure enough PPE, hospital ventilators, and Covid tests. Then there was the race to buy up vaccines. In recent weeks, shortages of testing kits have been back in the headlines. Here in the UK, vaccine purchasing is held up as exemplary, while contracting for PPE remains mired in allegations of cronyism.

But controversies over government contracting are far from new. Debates about the merits – or otherwise – of the contracting out of public services and of public–private partnerships have been running for decades. And scandals over nepotism and revolving doors between the public and private sectors have been familiar for a lot longer than that. On the other hand, of course, many would say that close cooperation between governments and private sector suppliers has brought innumerable benefits.



37 | Public Preferences on Taxes and Spending

16 December 2021

This week we are looking at public preferences on taxes and spending. What do people want? Indeed, do people have clear preferences at all?

Few issues in public policy are as important as the size of the state. How much should the state spend? How much, therefore, should it raise in taxes? And what exactly should it spend this money on?

In a democracy, we expect policymakers to be responsive to public opinion in answering such questions. But what do the public actually want? Indeed, to what extent do most of us even have meaningful preferences that take account of unavoidable trade-offs between different priorities?

Such questions have long challenged political scientists. But a new paper just published by three colleagues here in the UCL Department of Political Science offers a new approach to measuring such preferences, and some intriguing answers on what people want. You can read the paper 'Measuring Attitudes toward Public Spending Using a Multivariate Tax Summary Experiment' here.


36 | Online Public Shaming: Social Media, Ethics and Punishment

09 December 2021

This week we are taking a deep dive into online public shaming. Is shaming ever ethical? What are the consequences of public shaming? And how does OPS deprive an individual of due process?

Today we’re looking at a brand new article, Against Online Public Shaming: Ethical Problems with Mass Social Mediaby Guy Aitchison (Loughborough University) and Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia (UCL). 

Online Public Shaming (OPS) is a form of norm enforcement that involves collectively imposing reputational costs on a person for having a certain kind of moral character. OPS actions aim to disqualify her from public discussion and certain normal human relations. In the article, the authors argue that this constitutes an informal collective punishment that it is presumptively wrong to impose (or seek to impose) on others. OPS functions as a form of ostracism that fails to show equal basic respect to its targets. Additionally, in seeking to mobilise unconstrained collective power with potentially serious punitive consequences, OPS is incompatible with due process values.


35 | Legacies of Armed Conflict in Northern Ireland

02 December 2021

This week we are looking at legacies of armed conflict in Northern Ireland. How are punishment attacks today connected to the violence of the past?

Northern Ireland experienced three decades of violence from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Thousands of people were killed, injured, or bereaved. The so-called Troubles were brought to an end by the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord between the British and Irish governments and most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland that established new governing arrangements for Northern Ireland within the UK and set out how Northern Ireland might in future leave the UK and become part of a united Ireland, if majorities both north and south of the border wanted it.

In many ways, the 1998 Agreement is a model peace settlement. Power-sharing government sputters, but survives. Everyday lives have been transformed. Violence between the communities has almost ended. Yet many legacies of the past live on. Today, we are focusing on one of those – namely, violence within communities, and, in particular, punishment attacks meted out by paramilitary groups against people whom they accuse of criminal or anti-social behaviour.

What explains the persistence of such attacks? And does that carry lessons for peace-building processes elsewhere? 


34 | COP26 in Review: Reflections on Glasgow

25 November 2021

Today we’re taking a retrospective look at the outcomes of the COP-26 conference that was held in Glasgow earlier this month. COP – or Conference of the Parties – is the annual UN climate change conference. A key aim of the conference was to ‘keep 1.5°C alive’ – but was enough progress made on cutting emissions to reach this goal? Have rich countries stepped up to the plate by agreeing to pay for loss and damage in poorer countries? And, are we making progress fast enough?


 33 | Regulating the Internet

18 November 2021

This week we are looking at regulation of the internet. How much of it is needed, and what form should it take?

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen argues that her former employer persistently puts profit above prevention of harm. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg himself argues that greater regulation of internet companies is needed – that rules for what is and isn’t allowed should be made through democratic means. And the UK – among other countries – is in the process of preparing legislation with just that goal.

So what exactly are the problems that the current wild west of the worldwide web gives rise to? What principles should guide any new legislation? And where do those principles take us in terms of concrete policy?


32 | Analysing Politicians’ Words

04 November 2021

Today our focus is on what politicians say – and on processes for analysing what politicians say. Politicians’ speech is, of course, a fundamental part of politics. We can think of it as a product of – and therefore a window into – deeper political forces. And in itself it also helps to constitute the political realm and how we think of all the parts of that realm. 

Analysis of what politicians say – and, indeed, of what others say, but we’re focusing today on politicians – is a tool that many political scientists use to explore a whole range of different aspects of politics. Many approaches are used in doing so. And these include increasingly sophisticated techniques for analysing vast bodies of speech systematically. 


31 | The Global Politics of Climate Change

28 October 2021

This week we are looking at the global politics of climate change in advance of the upcoming COP26 conference.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and is the annual UN climate change conference. The conference will be attended by the countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994. More than 190 world leaders are expected to arrive in Scotland. Together with tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens for twelve days of talks. 

Among academics, campaigners, environmentalists and policymakers, COP26 is seen as a critical event: it's the moment at which countries must set out more ambitious goals for climate action five years on from the Paris Agreement. It also comes on the back of even more severe extreme weather events, evidence of rising global CO2 emissions, and continued biodiversity loss. Under the Paris Agreement, countries committed to bring forward national plans setting out how much they would reduce their emissions - known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or ‘NDCs’. They agreed that every five years they would come back with an updated plan that would reflect their highest possible ambition at that time. 



30 | Prison Protests in Palestine

21 October 2021 

Today we’re looking at protest by prisoners. Some of the most famous cases of protest politics involve protests by prisoners. 

  • Think of hunger striking suffragettes in early-twentieth-century Britain.
  • Think of the dirty protest among republican prisoners in Belfast in the late 1970s, and then the hunger strikes there in 1981.
  • Indeed, just two weeks ago on this podcast we were discussing Alex Navalny, Russian opposition leader, who remains influential despite being behind bars.
  • Prison protests may be invisible to the outside world, but they can nevertheless resonate widely.

And in this episode, we're exploring another case – the case of Palestinian prisoners – in particular, of Palestinians who are in prison in jails in Israel. We are joined by Dr Julie Norman, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations here in the UCL Department of Political Science, whose book, The Palestinian Prisoners Movement: Disobedience and Resistance, came out over the summer, and Dr Carl Gibson, Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. 



29 | How Has Covid Affected Voter Preferences

14 October 2021

In this episode we are looking at a new piece of research - Flight to Safety: COVID-Induced Changes in the Intensity of Status Quo Preference and Voting Behavior.

This paper focusses on some important questions around covid. How do emotions and particularly anxiety, shape or influence voters preferences? How does anxiety resulting from this unforeseen external force, covid, or manufactured for political gain, influence democratic politics and elections? Are voters inherently risk averse during periods of uncertainty? And how did covid induce a flight to safety among voters?



28 | Alexei Navalny and the Future of Russian Politics

07 October 2021

In this, our first episode of the new academic year, we’re looking at politics in Russia. Alexei Navalny – who hit the headlines around the world last year by surviving an attempt to assassinate him by lacing his underpants with Novichok, and who now languishes in prison 100km east of Moscow – is Russia’s best known opposition leader. Indeed, a new book about Navalny’s life and activism describes him as ‘the main political counterforce in the country’ and ‘its second most important politician’. 

So who is Alexei Navalny? What does his current predicament say about the state of Russian politics? And what chance is there that he – or anyone else – might be able to lead Russia towards a more democratic future?

Our host Professor Alan Renwick is joined by one of the new book’s authors Dr Ben Noble, Associate Professor in Russian Politics at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and Dr Katerina Tertychnaya, Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the UCL Department of Political Science and expert on Russian politics, who is now leading a major research project on ‘Non-Violent Repression in Electoral Autocracies’.



 27 | Should the Civil Service Be Neutral?

17 June 2021

In this our final episode for the current academic year, we’re going to tackle one of the biggest questions of political science: How do you run an effective government? In particular, how do you build a bureaucracy that’s able to deliver? Is it better to have neutral civil servants, who are appointed on merit and retain their posts whichever parties are in power? Or should we prefer a politicized bureaucracy, whose members are appointed at least in part for their loyalty to the politicians in charge, and who come and go with their political masters?


26 | The Principles of Education Policy

10 June 2021

Many of the most important policy decisions that a state can make relate to education. What kind of education should children receive? How far should parents be able to dictate that choice? Is it acceptable to have schools that instruct pupils in a particular religious faith? Should elite private schools be allowed to exist? Given that such schools do exist, can socially progressive parents send their children there with a clean conscience?

Our guest today has been exploring these and many other related questions for decades. Adam Swift is Professor of Political Theory here in the UCL Department of Political Science. He starts with the basic principles of political theory. And from these he draws out key implications for policy-makers and for parents.



25 | Deciding Northern Ireland's Future

03 June 2021

The future of the Union here in the UK – that is, the union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – is very much in the news. In Scotland, many opinion polls over the past year (though not so much over the last few months) have suggested majority support for independence, and political parties that want another referendum on the issue secured a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament elections last month. In Wales, support for independence seems to have grown, though still at a far lower level. And in Northern Ireland too, there has been a rise in talk of a referendum – a referendum, that is, on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.

In this episode we’re going to focus on Northern Ireland. If there were a referendum on the constitutional question there, how would it best be designed and conducted? Who would get to vote? What would the question on the ballot paper be? Would there need to be a referendum in the Republic of Ireland as well? Who would work out designs for a united Ireland? Would they do so before a referendum, or only afterwards, in the event that the vote went in favour of unification?


  • Host: Dr Alan Renwick
  • Professor Katy Hayward 
  • Dr David Kenny 
  • Dr Etain Tannam


24 | Does the UK Still Have a Political Constitution?

27 May 2021

Most countries have a document call the Constitution – a legal text setting out basic principles of how that country is governed. And in most of those countries there’s a constitutional court (or supreme court) that determines whether the ordinary laws passed by the legislature are compatible with the Constitution and that strikes them down if it concludes they are not. The UK, famously, has no such capital C Constitution – no codified rulebook. And the courts here in the UK can’t (at least formally) strike down laws on the basis that they contravene higher law. 

So what kind of constitution do we have? Well, it’s often said that, in contrast to the legal constitutions found in many other countries, the UK has a political constitution – a constitution whose norms are enforced in the realm of politics rather than in the realm of law. But many think that the UK’s political constitution is today under threat, with potentially serious consequences for the polity’s ability to serve all those who live within it. 

So today we ask the question, ‘Does the UK still have a political constitution?’ And to do so, we’re joined by one of the leading experts on constitutional theory, Professor Richard Bellamy. Richard, who is Professor of Political Science here in the UCL Department of Political Science, is the author of ten monographs – the most relevant of which to our conversation today is Political Constitutionalism: A Republican Defence of the Constitutionality of Democracy, published by Cambridge University Press.



23 | The Ethics of Violent Protest

20 May 2021 

The coming week sees the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. His killing by a white police officer in the American city of Minneapolis, sparked a global wave of protests. The vast majority of these were peaceful. But some were not. It’s estimated that, in the United States, acts of rioting, arson, and looting in the weeks that followed caused over a billion dollars-worth of damage – the highest recorded damage from civil disorder in US history.

So can such violent protests ever be justified? Much public and political opinion says no. Here in the UK, even last year’s toppling of the inanimate statue of a seventeenth-century slave trader was condemned across much of the political spectrum.

But one of our colleagues here at the UCL Department of Political Science argues differently. Dr Avia Pasternak, who is Associate Professor in Political Theory here, argues that, sometimes, violent protests are morally justified.



22 | Fostering Norms for Dispute Resolution

13 May 2021

Alexandra Hartman is Associate Professor in Political Science and Public Policy here at UCL, and her research focuses on the political economy of institutions in fragile states. She looks not just at formal political institutions such as courts or legislatures, but also at what we political scientists like to call informal institutions – the unwritten structures of norms and established practices that people follow in their interactions with each other. Such informal institutions can be crucial in shaping how society operates. And Alex examines whether policymakers can intervene to nudge them in directions that might lead to better outcomes.

In particular, her new study – recently published in the Journal of Politics and co-authored with Robert Blair from Brown University and Christopher Blattman from the University of Chicago – looks at ways of resolving land disputes in Liberia. It’s fair to say that the results are mixed. And they help us think both about the kinds of policy mechanisms that might be effective—both in Liberia and elsewhere—and about how we can measure that effectiveness so that we can seek to identify the best policies for the future.



21 | Biden's First 100 Days

06 May 2021 

This week, we’re focusing on politics in the United States. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been in office for a little over 100 days now. So how is it going? 

Has Biden been sleepy Joe? Has he pursued the path of moderation and coalition-building that has characterized so much of his long career? Or has he turned out much more of a radical than many expected? What role is being performed by Vice President Harris? How, meanwhile, have Republicans responded to their defeat? And just want is Donald Trump up to now that he is out of office and banned from Twitter?



20 | Ideas of Democracy

25 March 2021 

Democracy is what one social scientist once famously called an ‘essentially contested concept’ – one that we are never likely all to agree about. And disagreements over the form that democracy should take have lately sparked major political conflicts in many democratic countries. How far were politicians in the UK obliged to follow the so-called ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the Brexit referendum of 2016? Can the strongman democracy pursued by leaders in Hungary, India, and Brazil be called ‘democracy’ at all? And what should we make of contemporary arguments in favour of bringing more public deliberation into our democratic processes?

Questions such as these have prompted a new research project recently launched by UCL’s Constitution Unit, called Democracy in the UK after Brexit. Led by Dr Alan Renwick, working alongside Professors Meg Russell and Ben Lauderdale, the project will explore how people in the UK conceive of democracy and what kinds of democratic arrangement they prefer. 


19 | Global Climate Justice 

18 March 2021 

In this episode we focus on global climate justice. What is it? Are we anywhere near achieving it? And, if not, what changes are needed?

We’re returning this week to the topic of climate change. You may have heard our episode a few weeks ago exploring global climate governance. Well this week, we turn our attention to global climate justice. The climate crisis has been caused mostly by the rich countries of the old industrial world. But many of the effects of that crisis are being felt first and most harshly elsewhere – in countries that bear little responsibility and often lack the resources to adapt. 

So what would a just response to the climate challenge look like? How close have past rounds of negotiation come to that? And how are things looking for the COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow in November?


18 | The Prerogative Powers of Governments

11 March 2021 

We typically divide the modern state into three branches: the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. On a traditional view, the legislature makes the laws, the executive implements them, and the judiciary decides on disputes.

In reality, in most states, the executive in fact plays a much bigger role than that. It not only executes the will of the legislature, but also shapes the policy agenda, develops legislative proposals, and conducts a great deal of foreign policy.

And on some matters the executive can act without the consent of the legislature – even, in some cases, against its explicit opposition. Here in the UK, such powers are called prerogative powers, and they have been pretty controversial in recent years – relating, for example, to the government’s ability to suspend sittings of parliament. And they raised eyebrows in the United States too, when, on his first day in office, President Biden reversed a whole series of Trump-era policies just by signing a set of executive orders.

So what such prerogative powers exist? How do they work? And, in the context of modern democracy, should they be subject to greater constraints?


17 | Business Lobbying in the EU

04 March 2021 

How the European Union relates to the world of business has long been a matter of great contention. Scepticism towards the EU on the right of politics has for decades been fuelled by the perception that Brussels is a bureaucratic regulation generator, with little understanding of how business operates. On the Eurosceptic left, by contrast, the EU has been seen as a capitalist club, in hock to big business, incapable of seeing the interests of ordinary people.

How has the relationship between business and the EU evolved over time? How does it vary from sector to sector? And what does it all mean for policy outcomes? A new book sheds much fresh light. Called Business Lobbying in the European Union, the book is co-authored by UCL’s very own David Coen, along with Alexander Katsaitis from the London School of Economics and Matia Vannoni from King's College London. 



16 | Global Climate Governance 

25 February 2021 

There is common agreement that climate change poses the greatest policy challenge of our age. The costs of getting it wrong would be immense, but the barriers to getting it right are dauntingly high. Action is needed on a global scale. But global politics is deeply fractured, and individual countries may be tempted to free ride on the actions of others.

So what are the global governance structures through which the world is attempting to address this challenge? Are they delivering, or do they need reform?



15 | The Politics of Asylum

11 February 2021 

The politics of asylum is more important than ever before. At the end of 2019, according to data from the UNHCR, there were 80 million displaced persons around the world. More than half of those were displaced within their own countries. But 25 million were refugees, and a further 4.2 million were seeking asylum in another country. 

So how do the countries that refugees and asylum-seekers flee to respond? And what determines the degree to which these countries adopt an open or a closed approach?

Well two of our colleagues here in the UCL Department of Political Science are seeking answers to such questions in their research. 



14 | Care and Punishment

04 February 2021 

Care ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that focuses on how we relate to, respond to, and care for each other. Its central question is not about what abstract principles of justice we should follow, but rather about how we should respond to the needs of a given person in a particular set of circumstances.

It’s been around for several decades, but now one of our colleagues here at UCL has applied it to a setting that we might not think its natural home: the world of punishment. Dr Helen Brown Coverdale argues that looking at our practices of punishment through the lens of care gives us a new and valuable perspective on them.

So what would it mean to approach punishment through an ethic of care? And what counterarguments might there be to taking such an approach?



13 | The Limits of Free Speech on Social Media

28 January 2021 

Talking with each other about matters of politics and policy is an essential part of democracy. And today much of that conversation takes place online, through social media. The digital revolution has given voice to millions of people who previously had little chance to be heard beyond the dinner table or the pub or the local town hall. That has great benefits, opening up the democratic conversation to much wider participation. But it also has costs. Misinformation, hate speech, and words inciting violence can all rapidly spread.

That raises big questions about how speech online should be regulated. And if it should be regulated more, who should set and enforce the rules: the state, or the social media companies themselves?

Such events were cast in yet starker relief by events earlier this month in the United States. Is it right that Donald Trump was banned from Twitter? And that Parler – the alternative to Twitter that became popular on the far right – has been squeezed from the internet by service providers?

We explore all of this and more with Dr Jeffrey Howard, Associate Professor of Political Theory, New Generation Thinker, and Leverhulme Trust Research fellow.


12 | Trump's Legacy and the Biden Presidency

21 January 2021

Joe Biden is President, Kamala Harris is Vice-President, and Donald Trump is out of office. The Senate and the House are both controlled by Democrats. A dramatic power shift is (more or less) complete. But the process of getting there has been fraught, and potentially damaging for American democracy for years to come.

So what are the repercussions of the last few weeks – and indeed the last four years – likely to be? And what will the presidency of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris bring?

We explored such questions in November when the votes were still being counted. But so much has happened since then that we thought, in this inauguration week, we should reconvene our US politics expert panel and scan the horizon once again.


11 | Contentious Politics under Covid-19

14 January 2021

This week we focus on the political impact of Covid-19, and particularly the pandemic’s effects on so-called ‘contentious politics’ – politics conducted through confrontational means, whether protests, or strike actions or, indeed, insurrections.

What is the role of contentious politics in the political process as a whole? And how has the pandemic changed contentious politics around the world? Has the heightening of inequalities increased people’s willingness to protest? Or have social distancing measured stifled popular voice? Indeed, have those in power in some countries used the pandemic as a pretext for suppressing free speech and other civil liberties?


10 | The State of the European Union

17 December 2020

Brexit is back in the news, at least here in the UK. A huge amount is said in the UK media about UK perspectives on how the talks are going and what the key issues are but we hear much less about thinking within the EU.

Despite this, there’s a whole lot of other stuff that the EU is also up to. It has just agreed its budget for the next few years. It is responding to the challenge of Covid-19 and seeking to address the global climate emergency. It’s navigating its way through a rapidly changing world, with China on the rise and the United States about to reset its course under President Biden. It faces internal challenges too, not least from the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in – especially – Hungary and Poland. Therefore, in this episode we take a good hard look at the European Union.


9 | The Principles of Collective Decision-Making

10 December 2020

How should we think about the basic principles that should govern a society?

Politics is the process by which we make collective choices – by which we decide how generous the welfare state will be, what kind of education system we will operate, what crimes will be punishable with what penalties, and so on. But what are the basic principles that should guide us in making such choices. How should a society go about making its collective decisions?

That is perhaps the most fundamental question of politics, and it’s a question that is addressed in a magisterial new book published earlier this year by our colleague here in the UCL Department of Political Science, Professor Albert Weale. The book is called Modern Social Contract Theory and across over 400 pages it traces the development of and variants in what has become the dominant approach in contemporary political theory to answering the question of how to make collective decisions. And that approach—the clue is in the title!—is called social contract theory. Albert joins Alan in this episode to discuss what social contract theory is, what it implies for collective decision-making, and how the theory continues to develop today.



8 | Decolonising the University 

03 December 2020

When we look back at the extraordinary year of 2020, one of the major themes – alongside, of course, Covid-19 – will be Black Lives Matter. Large-scale protests began in Minneapolis in late May following the killing of George Floyd, and rapidly spread across much of the world. In consequence, as shown through analysis by the Oxford English Dictionary, references to ‘systemic racism’ grew seventeen-fold from 2019 to 2020. There were demands for reform of many institutions, practices, and habits of thought. Not least, there were calls to ‘decolonise universities’.

But what does it mean to decolonise universities? Why is doing so said to be necessary? What are the counterarguments, and what should we make of them? And what does decolonising universities mean in practice.


7 | Survivors of Violence

26 November 2020

Civil war has ravaged all too many societies in recent decades. And civil wars leave deep scars long after the fighting is over. Our colleague Dr Kate Cronin-Furman, who is Lecturer in Human Rights and Director of the MA in Human Rights here at UCL, conducts research into the experiences of victims of civil war violence. One of her recently published papers, co-authored with Roxani Krystalli from the University of St Andrews, focuses on the relatives of people who have been ‘disappeared’ during conflict. Drawing on deep field research in Sri Lanka and Colombia, it examines how those relatives seek justice and recognition, and how they try to keep the memories of their missing loved ones alive.



6 | Voter Information

19 November 2020

Many of us are very concerned about the quality of information that’s available to voters during election and referendum campaigns. Misinformation and manipulation appear to be rampant, and voters can struggle to find the information that they want from sources they trust. Few people would doubt the importance in democracy of ensuring that voters can hear a wide range of different viewpoints and that information is accurate, accessible, and relevant to people’s lives and priorities.

But is more information for voters always unambiguously a good thing? Recent research by one of our colleagues suggests not. That research is by Dr Inken von Borzyskowski, who is Lecturer in Global Policy and International Relations here at UCL, working with Patrick Kuhn from Durham University. Inken and Patrick find that, in places where electoral violence is a real possibility, having more information may actually have some serious negative side effects. And their analysis also offers a cautionary tale for the methods of political research.


5 | The US Elections: What's Next?

05 November 2020

Fresh on the heels of the US presidential and congressional election results – or perhaps amidst a limbo caused by delayed counting – we assess what’s coming next. What does the election tell us about the state of US democracy, and what does the future hold? And what are the next four years likely to bring in policy terms – on the domestic front, in foreign policy, and on action against climate change?


4 | Views of the Economy

29 October 2020

We talk endlessly about the economy in politics. The state of the economy is said to shape election results, with incumbents doing well if it's up, and badly if its down, but what is the economy? Do we all agree on what this idea means? Do different conceptions lead to different ideas across society about the policies that should be pursued? A fascinating new study by Dr Anna Killick seeks to answer such queries and she joins us to look at how people view the economy.


3 | Monarchy in Modern Democracy

22 October 2020

Serious books on monarchy are rare, but a new volume on Europe’s eight contemporary democracies helps to fill the gap. Does monarchy still deserve the attention of students of politics? And is the fact that most of the world’s healthiest democracies are monarchies anything more than a coincidence? We ask one of the new book’s co-authors, Robert Hazell.


2 | Is Risk Good for Us? 

15 October 2020

Amidst pandemic and economic recession, living with risk – the possibility that something bad may happen to you – is part of many people’s daily reality. Some political philosophers suggest that risk is good for us – that it can enhance our self-respect. But is that supported by evidence? We discuss with Lucy Barnes, whose recent research gives cause for doubt. 



1 | Checks and Balances in Democracy

08 October 2020

The long-standing idea that democracy needs checks and balances is questioned in some quarters. So what is the case for checks and balances, and what are the arguments against? Should we look upon different kinds of checks and balances in different ways? And what are the contemporary tensions bringing these debates to the fore? We explore with three of our leading thinkers on constitutional politics.