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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.

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.

Modern Social Contract Theory


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.

'The things they carry: Victims’ documentation of forced disappearance in Colombia and Sri Lanka'


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. You can read Lucy's published article on 'Risk and Self-Respect' here.


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.