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>Universities: A Wordle in your ear…


I read an article in the new giveaway Evening Standard on the train yesterday. It was by Steve Smith, Chair of Universities UK, writing about the future of higher education. At first just it seemed a meaningless jumble of jargon and buzzwords. Now, however but having fed it into, I find I understand it perfectly.

>View from a castle

Two days later I find myself, still somewhat to my surprise at a conference on Society, History and Politics organized by Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History at the chateau-cum-conference centre of the Academy of Sciences in Liblice.

The chateau is lovely, almost embarassingly so, and perhaps not something the Academy will want to draw attention to as it tries to fight off swingeing cuts in its budget driven partly by post credit crunch austerity and partly by the shifting balance of power in Czech higher education. The universities want to get their hands on more of the research spending, hinting very sotto voce that the Academy is an old-style centralized monopoly based on the Soviet model and needs shaking up.

I am something of fish out of water, although the difference in approach are fascinating: dense detailed investigation of localities and time periods without the usual ‘model fitting’ preoccupations of most political science conferences or the concern with big scale (national, European) institutions. The papers (well not mine obviously) are of almost uniformly high quality and perhaps because the Czech language medium forces me to concentrate more, I realise that I learned a lot.

The central focus is much more on 1989 than the Brno conference, but there a still new insights on offer . The mass spontaneity of popular mobilization during the Velvet Revolution was more a subjective experience of surprise and togetherness than a reality; the mass flyers and leaflets produced during the early weeks of the revolution in the Czech lands and Slovakia, when caredully and painstakingly analyzed reveal – outside the more radical and anti-communist capital cities – a desire for a kind of monitory popular democracy firmly rooted in social(ist) property relationships.

Interestingly, Czech contemporary historians’ research interests also bleed into political science and sociology. There are papers on the not-in-fact-quite-so-successful success story of Roma integration in Český Krumlov and Czech political parties after 1989 and their historic identities, although frustratingly I miss the one the role of Social Democrat exiles who re-founded the Czech Social Demoratic party in 1989. Not only would the pre-history of debates about what social democracy means in post-communist CEE be very interesting to know, but clearly the Big Orange Machine currently Czech politics upside down by giving up on early elections might not exist if things had turned out differently in 1989/90.

It would be an interesting piece of academic alchemy if political science and historical methods could really be harnessed together, but it rarely seems to happen, either in the Czech context or generally. Jason Wittenburg’s book on Hungary is the only major work of this kind that really comes to mind. All too ofte, political scientists dabble well intentionedly in historical research and historians in contemporary political processes without quite coming up with anything new.

I pack my bag and switch on the telly to catch the latest political news, but there’s only a discussion of whether Elton John and David Furnish should be allowed to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. “Adoption by two high-quality homosexuals (dva kvalitní homosexuálové) is preferable to life in an Ukrainian institutions”, a spokeswomen for Czech Children’s fund enlightenedly tells viewers. Then we are on the sports news. Slavia Prague play well, but they are outclassed at every turn and eventually beaten by Genoa.

I walk outside with my suitcase to sit and read and soaking the sun and the atmosphere. Then I hitch a lift with the Goethe Institute’s minibus to the rather less lovely surroundings of Holešovice station.

>Famous for E15 seconds…

> My views on the much maligned Czech presidency of the EU are quoted by the Czech online journal and then even get cited in the political commentary on Czech radio.
Fame at last

I am also available for weddings and barmitzvahs…

>You’re nicked – why the UK’s best ever cop show is even better in Czech


Meeting academic colleagues for lunch at Sussex University, the conversation turns from the US elections (McCain’s campaign under-reported and under-estimated), politics in Brighton (would the Tories sweep all three seats at the next election, or could Green leader Caroline Lucas come through the middle in Brighton Pavilion) to life in Lewes (hilly, human and with a rather cool new local currency featuring 18th century revolutionary Tom Paine). Then we move seamlessly to talk about TV cops. One of my colleagues thinks Taggart is the British best TV cop show. It’s certainly the longest running. But sitting up late and switching on the telly after I was unable to face reading through yet another conference paper, I’d downloaded I realized that the best UK cop show surely has to be 1970s classic The Sweeney, which ITV4 was thoughtfully re-running in the small hours. for the benefit of pooped academics.

The series, which centres on Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and sidekick Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad was considered pretty shocking when it came out in early 1975. This was partly because it had a dose of sex and violent, but mainly because it for transferring the (today well worn) stereotype of rough, tough, morally ambiguous cops, who break the rules to beat the crooks to realistic-looking British context. Previous depictions of British cops in TV and film had showed them as stolid, decent and reliable, if not always too quick on the uptake.

These days The Sweeney’s 1970s setting and formula of blags, fags and slags is seen as something of a period piece, well made popular entertainment cum sociological document and nostalgia trip try for anyone old enough the remember the period. I am, just. Sometimes everyday objects and street scenes bring the childhood memories rushing back. Indeed, the Sweeney has been skillfully and ironically pastiched by the hit show Life on Mars in which a modern cop is spookily sent back to 1970s (or thinks he has – he is a coma) and tries to make his way in the less rule-bound politically incorrect, more boozy, violent and corrupt police culture depicted in the Sweeney and similar shows of the period.

While ITV4 shows old episodes, its more high-brow digital cousin BBC4 has even done a documentary, musing over the issues and serious critics have chewed over just how Reganesque the police of 1970s actually were and whether the Sweeney’s focus on old style villains blagging banks was a bit dated even when it was made. Little mention of drugs, terrorism, race, political extremism, strikes etc – as Life on Mars’s lovingly crafted pastiche reminded viewers.

Oddly, however, the re-runs don’t quite match up to Czech language version of The Sweeney I used to watch in the mid-1990 on Prima TV, the country’s second private channel, which packed with old krimis from various West European countries. The series, rendered Inspektor Regan, was well dubbed and the dialogue, as far as I could tell, seemed make a rather easy transition into low colloquial Czech, yielding such lines as “Ten je velkej práskač, šéfe. Bydlí s nějakou kočkou v Epping Forestu” (‘He’s a right grass, ‘guv. Lives with some bird in Epping Forest’). It also produced a few interesting insights into the Regan-Carter relationship at the heart of the show. Carter, the younger and more (relatively speaking) more scrupulous character, invariably calls his boss Regan as ‘Guv’ (or Guv’nor), while the cynical but charismatic Regan calls him ‘George’. The translators in the Czech version captures the distance in their outwardly matey relationship more directly: Regan calls Carter ty, but Carter always address him as vy. For me the dilapidated urban landscapes, corrupt – or at least cynical – cops with little regard for law, armed robberies and organized crime of seventies London also had echo of the Czech Republic of the 1990s, although the Czech internet suggests the show had few Czech fans. In Central Europe, the cardboard-cut out antics of The Professionals (Profíci) – screened on Czech TV even under the communists- are far more popular.

There is though, perhaps one a crucial underlying difference. The cops of the Sweeney, however violent, cynical and obliviously to the rule of law – are still basically, at bottom, the goodies for most British viewers, even now. Czech public, I suspects, regards its own regards the police officer as thick useless, corrupt and not ultimately on their side, an attitude seeping into views about politicians, officials of all kinds. And, of course, they don’t need to be told that in the 1970s, they were living on another planet.

>The long and winding road that leads… to our special issue of Party Politics


After a very long gestation period of some four and half years the special issue of Party Politics on parties of the centre-right in Central and Eastern Europe guest edited by Aleks Szczerbiak and mehas finally appeared. I read through and I was generally pleased with the articles have turned out. The unintendedly long, period of writing, re-writing, talking and meeting – interrupted in my case by the publication of a book and the birth of daughter – clearly benefited it. Maybe all academic articles should take this long to write …

>SSEES student breaks the blogjam


One of SSEES’s soon to be final year politics students has a blog with references and resources to Ukrainian and post-Soviet politics. It’s something of a first for SSEES student blogs I have come across as completely avoids the what-my-flatmate-did-last-night-can-I-get-my-essay-in-on-time genre in favour of a diet of up-to-date and interesting political links.

>Slovakia: Lecturers free to work harder


More interesting reports in Slovakia’s Smethis time that the new Universities Law has abolished the 58 hours a week working time ceiling for the country’s lecturers. This is not intended to allow Dickensian exploitation, however but to fit with EU regulations. The restriction was originally applied to curtail lecturing in multiple subjects at multiple institutions. In future, lecturers will be governed by the general restriction on working time in the Slovak Labour Code- a normal maximum of 48 hours a week – but, in practice, will be able to work longer if they have two jobs.

>Startling admissions: Grassroots opposition to Putin (and Medvedev)?


UCAS admissions interviews of prospective students applying to student SSEES are a hit and miss affair for the interviewer. Apart from the small matter of whether we should admit applicant (usually I recommend we do) they sometimes they genuinely interesting – a Chinese applicant tells me her impressions of travelling in North Korea, an ex-intern with the Lib Dems tells me that ex-leader Charlie Kennedy’s drink problem were common knowledge even to party minions. At other times, they can be pretty dull. But then what did I really have say about the state of world politics that was very compelling when I was 18?

As always I diligently read through the applications. They tend, however, to follow a fairly predictable formula, probably reflecting teachers’ and schools’ advice, designed to pitch reliably to admissions tutors across several institutions: top (predicted) grades, fearsome amounts of voluntary work and extra curricular activities; and a lot about why politics really, really matters in the world.

So, as ever, today I never quite know what you’re going to hear. Today’s interviewees do, however, throw me one interesting idea: two of them assure me, perhaps from lack of knowledge, perhaps because at they take a longer view than those middle aged enough to remember perestroika, that Putin’s authoritarianism, is just a passing phase and that in the historical slightly long term Russia will be democratic.

Who knows, they might be right? The latest phase of the Putin era seems to be playing itself according to script with extensively rigged presidential elections. But how heir anointed Medvedev and VP will share power is unclear. Rigged elections, are, moreover the political science literature on semi-authoritarian ‘hybrid regimes’ tells us fairly unsustainable as a means of control over the longer term. Sooner or later turn into a focus for political protest.

Does Russia have the potential for this? Ukraine’s Orange Revolution seems to have accelerated the trend towards authoritarianism. The latest issue of the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, however, carries an interesting article by activist and researcher Karine Clément noting the bubbling up of grassroots social movement – networks of pensioners, disaffected tenants and community activists radicalised by the overweening power of local state apparatus-cum-business elite. A shorter, openly accessible article on tenants’ movements by her can be found here. She also heads up an NGO called the Institute for Collective Action, whose (Russian-language) website can be found here.

The conventional answer would be that such movements are just localized shoots of civic activity, which will collapse due to collective action problems once they start to co-ordinate or be co-opted or stifled by Kremilin-friendly parties and official power structures.

Controlled elections… managed democracy … nascent grassroots civic movements. Rather reminds me of the perestroika era, the chaotic fag end of which I caught in my student days.

>Young academics to back Mečiar?


Even in its current much diminished, more moderate form Vladimír Mečiar’s populist-nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) is not known for its intellectual qualities, so it is interesting to see that it has just founded a Young Politcal Scientists Club for sympathetic adademics to advise and feed in ideas. The rationale, reports Sme, is to counter the heavy bias in Slovak political science community towards liberal, pro-market parties. This I suspect does exist, although ,that said, Slovak political science is of a generally rather high quality with less obvious and uncomfortable partisianship creeping in than (for example) in the neighbouring Czech Republic. It will be interesting to see whether this initiative develops and contributes to the modernization of HZDS, whose vagueness plus loyal base of voters remembering the bad/good old days when VM dominated Slovak politics may be an asset for future growth. In Croatia the broadly similar Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), for example, took Ireland’s Fianna Fáil as its model of thoroughly modern small country nationalism. HDZ founder Franjo Tudjman did, however, have the decency to die at a poltically opportune moment…

>Just one more thing…


I often tell my students that analytical academic writing has a good deal in common with decent crime fiction. So as, I sat updating course outlines, I was pleased to tune in to BC Radio 4’s excellent documentary on my favourite TV ‘tec Columbo presented by stand-up-comedian turned crime writer Mark Billington. The Lieutenant offers especially useful parallels as, as often with comparative politics, the question is not whodunnit, but howdunnit and how-can-find-out-and-prove-it. There’s also an interesting East European angle with Columbo I didn’t know about. Apparently the motif of the detective-as-commonplace-underestimated little man came from Crime and Punishment and (more predictably) G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Columbo’s conventional and settled domestic arrangements – happily married to the ever off screen Mrs C. are also unusual, although they do have has echoes of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.