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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.

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?

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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. 

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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?

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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?

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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. 

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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?

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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. 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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