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>Coffee and blue horizons

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Wordle: ECR Prague Declaration
Spring sunshine, view of the Downs, coffee bar across the car park. Sussex University is a virtual Nirvana. But what is the ideological identity of the European Conservatives and Reformists group? Market liberalism in economics reckon my collaborators. Comparision with the moderate anti-liberal declarations of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the market versus civil society fence-sitting the equivalent document for the European Democrats, Liberals and Reformists would suggest so. But what does our old friend Wordle have to say about it?

>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?

>Colourful language at SSEES

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Conceptual art has descended on the School of Slavonic and East European Studies – and not before time.  Artist Julia Vogl has created an installation entitled  Colouring the Invisible representing the different languages spoken by people passing through SSEES by affixing translucent sheets of coloured perspecxpanes in the building inner atrium. It is also a response to our ‘architectural environment’ apparantly. “…охуительно [fucking excellent]” comments a passing student – although I wasn’t quite not sure if this referred to the artwork or something else. Still, I have have to agree with her. Next stop Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap the building for Christmas?

>Where do good (fundable) ideas come from?

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The annual School of Slavonic and East European Studies awayday takes place at the Art Workers Guild building in Bloomsbury: we sit in an oak-panelled conference with portraits and busts of whiskery Victorian gents staring down at us, although luckily there are a few more modern pieces displayed around theie fine building (see opposite). We are there  to discuss grants and how to get them. The question is how to communicate with your prospective funder and whether fundable ideas stem from careful dissection of funders’ priorities or from interesting stuff that’s been brewing up at the back of your brain, or a mixture of both. Our mock group grant assessment exercise suggests that, if reasonably coherently formulated, good ideas win out in the end, mainly  because non-specialists will immediately tend to get them.

Pop (social) science author Steven Johnson tells us good ideas are slow burning hunches, which have bumped into other people’s hunches in spaces where ‘ideas can have sex’ and that ‘chance favours the connected mind’, explaining why C17th coffee house was a driver of intellectual innovation. YouTube has a nice five minute summary of his book (below), which seem a good way to save 20 dollars. But, of course,  when translation specialists are asked to relate their work to themes like statebuilding and policing in Afghanistan, it’s not surprising people start wondering if there is a difference between good ideas and fundable ones?

>The EU: Viable or friable?

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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s  What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.  

The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning  of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.

Such a comparison Glencross argues, means we need an expanded concept of ‘viability’ embracing not only the formal allocation of institutional and legal powers and ‘competences over competences’, but also actors’ understandings of the purposes of the union and whether popular sovereignty is ultimately invested in the centre, the member states, or both. Applying this framework, he identifies two distinct approaches to achieving viability in a semi-federal, semi-confederal state unions like the EU or the early US: ‘1) voluntary centralization’ where the different actors negotiate their way to a stronger, more integrated state; and 2) ‘dynamic equilibrium’ where institutional and political ambiguity – far from being a problem to be solved – is the key to viability.
The viability of the antebellum US, he argues, was in the end fatally undermined by an emerging politics of ‘voluntary centralization’, while the EU has survived precisely by sticking to a pattern of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In this light, projects to fix the European Union through various forms of democratization and constitutionalization appear best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. There are, Glencross acknowledges, important differences between the two cases: the US was created through a constitutional instrument, the EU through an inter-state economic treaty; the US had a nationwide party system with a dominant cleavage (slavery) dividing member states, the EU has only an embryonic party system with many cross cutting divides between states. Nevertheless, he argues, the parallels are sufficient to merit serious rethinking about the reform of EU governance.
What Makes the EU Viable? is, admittedly, an uneven book given, in places, to opaque and overlong and over-defensive theoretical asides as books-of-PhD-dissertation often do. It would also benefit from more simply explained engagement with mainstream EU studies literatures and the burgeoning subfield of historical democratization. However, at bottom, I thought it succeeded in its objective of asking a big and timely question and deploys anachronistic comparison to deliver some genuinely unexpected and worrying answers. Academic viability, if ever I saw it.

>Czech Far Right Has-Bean

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Sládek as Bean 

After a long period of exam season induced hibernation – if that’s the right word in the summer – I’ve completed a conference paper for a workshop on populism The Czech Republicans 1990-1998: Rise and Fall of Populist Radical Right Outsider Party. Not the most entertaining or easy bunch in Czech political history to write about and, as I argue in the paper, very much a part of the short 2-3 year interregnum that followed the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution when all kinds of weird and wonderful parties – Moravian regionalists as a major force, who remembers that? – took the stage in a colourful, but misleading overture to Czech politics proper.

Thankfully, I now no longer need to sit in an overheated office reading the collected works of Miroslav Sládek, the Czech Republic own short-lived would-be Jean Marie Le Pen (and Mr Bean look-a-like: does Rowan Atkinson appreciate his contribution to anti-rascism in the Czech Republic, I wonder?) and occasionally watching strutting his stuff videos of grainy far-right rants in Old Town Square on You Tube. Should you feel, you’ve been missing out you can watch a bit of Czech political history below: a rather small crowd for a national rally by an up and coming radical right movement (as it was then).

Many thanks to Kevin Deegan-Krause for digging out the above  photomontage from his personal archive
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>Conservatively speaking

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The paper on Czech conservatism in Liblice has now appeared in a conference paper archive on the website of the Henrich Boell Foundation, who jointly sponsored the event with the Institute for Contemporary History in Prague. There are also some much better and more interesting papers alongside.

What I wonder would the English Greens call their foundation – if, of course, they had the cash and the votes to create one, of course?

Update: The broken hyperlink the papers originally posted has now been fixed.

>Unpublishable but readable

>There are, it seems, few blogging political scientists in the UK. Perhaps we all too overloaded reserved, or chastened by the brouhaha surrounding the excessively candid blogged comments of Dr Erik Ringmar at LSE (now formally of LSE) a few years back. For all these reasons, I was pleased to stumble across the blog written by Jonathan Hopkin in LSE Department of Government who writes on politics, political economy, trivia and football under the moniker Unpublishable Thoughts.

There’s perhaps too much on political economy, British politics and Hull City for my personal tastess, but also some must-read stuff on parties and party organization, electoral politics, clientelism and corruption.

Many years ago Jonathan was internal examiner for my PhD at the University of Birmingham

No doubt that put him off party studies…

>Flexible friends

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SSEES is visited by two members of the much re-constituted but officially legendary Plastic People of the Universe, the underground rock groups whose trial in 1976 spurred the formation of Charter 77: Vratislav Brabenec, one of the founding originals, and Eva Turnová who has been the Plastics’ bass guitarist since 2001. As this is, in Czech dissident terms, the equivalent of a royal visit, the current Czech ambassador to the UK, translator, Havel confidante, one-time politician – he led the Civic Democratic Alliance in its terminal breakdown phase in 1997-8, but enough of that – Michal Žantovský introduces proceedings in Masaryk Common Room. He sensibly sticks to water, leaving the red wine to the visiting Plastíci, chipping in the occasional translation, but like the good diplomat he is otherwise listens and doesn’t say much.
An array of armchairs and Peter Zusi’s relaxed and informal moderation give the event something of the feeling of an intellectual chatshow and we get a variety of observations and recollections: how the group was named after a Frank Zappa song, but, Brabenec later discovered, in exile in Canada slightly suggested the flexibility of a talking credit credit in aTV ad;
how records were smuggled in and traded on black market burzy in the woods near Prague in 1970s and 80s; how musicians made amps from electrical hobby kits; how boring the 1976 trial was; how capitalism is indeed the same as communism; how Brabenec fell over into middle of a performance at the National Theatre, but was forgiven.

The final question, from the Masaryk Society’s Michael Tate, who has brilliantly organized both this event and the Plastics’ concert in London at the South Bank in January, asks whether the group has not become too disneyfied as kitsch cultural icon. But it’s late in the evening and they need a cigarette, so all we get from Brabebc is a rather zen answer to the effect that the group’s credo is “Don’t be Stupid” – which would also make a good slogan for a university, I thought. Eva Turnová more straightfowardly explains that they are somewhat allergic to ageing hippies, who remember the group from 1970s and prefer to play for young people and international audiences. She can speak Chinese.

Brabenec was also interviewed this morning on the radion in the slightly unlikely venue of the BBC’s Midweek programme – listenable here.

Update: Tom Stoppard who was in the audience at the event (note to self: he was probably the bloke with the white manbag) and has played a big role in enabling the Plastics’ gig at the South Bank – has written a profile of the band and its music in the Times.

>Everything stops for tea

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It’s Friday afternoon, getting dark and the SSEES building is slowly emptying of staff and students before the weekend. One person heading into the building, however, is UK’s ambassador to the Czech Republic Sian Macleod. My SSEES colleague, Czech and Slovak literature specialist Peter Zusi, get to serve the tea and talk to the ambassador, who is a former professional violinist and also served in Moscow at the time the Soviet Union was slowly crashing down around our ears. She could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that Prague would be a calmer posting, but that would be to reckon with the perfect Lisbon Treaty storm created (almost) around the country by Václav Klaus.
As reformed Klausologist, I hear myself – somewhat as if in an out of body experience – saying that criticisms of VK as villain of post-1989 politics are overdone and that both the popularity of the current technocratic caretaker government and familiar Havelian diagnosis of the Czech Republic as in a permanent malaise brought on by parties, professional politics, lack of civil society, failure of elites etc etc are riff that the Czech intelligentsia and, well, somewhat overdone. Rather like the Sovietologists of the 1970s, who defined themselves as anti-anti-communist, I find myself becoming anti-anti-Klaus.

Before I can discredit myself any further, however, the discussion happily turns to Czech culture – not with me obviously, several students from the SSEES Czech Seminar have shown up – so there are some useful recommendation of things to read and listen to, including Czech-Moravian folk updaters Čechomor – as well as the news that the veteran rockers, who inspired Charter 77, Plastic People of the Universe will be visiting SSEES on 15 December. Politically speaking, I also learn that Cameron ally Greg Hands is chair of the parliamentary Czech and Slovak group and can speak both languages. Another interesting element in the unusual mosaic of the European Conservative and Reformists group that colleagues at Sussex University and I are following with some academic interest.

A very relaxed and interesting conversation moves from how you say ‘letters of accredition’ in Czech (pověřovací listiny) and ends up on Russian poetry. The ambassador needs to go. As a Senior Lecturer, I, naturally, get to stack the dishwasher. There’s no one around. The building is almost deserted. Time to go home.