Archive | April, 2007

>Conference calls


Thursday saw me strutting my stuff – well, actually sitting in a lecture theatre and then standing at a lectern – at the launch conference for the new CEELBAS research consortium hosted by SSEES on 19-20 April. The keynote speaker was former Education Secretary Charles Clarke, which initially came as something of a surprise to me as I had been expecting a politician with more of profile on European issues (say Dennis McShane or Douglas Hurd). Despite revealing a personal concern with the wider Europe related to the fect that his wife was of Estonian parentage, most of his remarks stayed off European politics per se merely stressing the strategic importance of research and expertise on the New Member States for the UK and how and why he had backed the CEELBAS project as Education Secretary. Paradoxically, his most interesting and compelling remarks came in response to (what I assume was intended as) an awkward question after his keynote speech asking about government’s European policy after the upcoming change of Labour Party leadership and Prime Ministership. Giving an assured and pretty straight sounding answer, Clarke said that Gordon Brown’s supposed euroscepticism was exaggerated and centred mainly on a judgement about economic conditions and the euro. His incidental remarks did, however, suggest frustration that no government had ever really taken on the entrenched euroscepticism of the British media. Perhaps yet another missed opportunity of the Blair era.

My contribution to the panel on citizenship, democratic quality and statebuilding in post-communist argued that, if not converging, political issues such as democratic quality in East Central Europe overlapped (and could inform and reshape) similar going debates. This was quite well received. Although most questions in the session itself were concerned with the post-Soviet state and Serbian and SE European issues discussed by my co-panellist Richard Sakwa Judy Batt, there was an interesting observation about the usefulness of using different (in the questioner’s view anthropological methods) to study politics and something of a googly on how I thought domestic party competition in CEE would affect the development of the EU. This was an ongoing research agenda I had flagged in initial remarks but had hoped to bracket before moving on to the issue of comparability between the old and the new EU. I therefore floundered about trying to think through how this agenda might develop and what in or about CEE parties mattered.

I guess, however, the underlying logic of the question was a good one: to what extent are there really distinct national systems embedded in distinct European sub-regions that can be cross nationally compared, should we not think vertically as well as in terms of national states as part of a multi-level Euro-polity with policy preferences constantly uploaded and downloaded.

There were more critical comments and reactions in the coffee break: a couple of people questioned my use of distinctions between (sub-)regions of Europe such as CEE, Scandinavia, Southern/Mediterranean Europe, which I had hovered up rather unthinkingly from the comparative literature. Why not just pick national cases using criteria from tried and tested comparative methods? What about the contingency of ‘regions’ as historically and culturally defined ideas? Moreover, if I was going to sketch out big agendas or try to answer big question, I should make sure I (eventually) thought in terms of measurement and operationalization. Probably the next stage, however, is simple to decipher my notes and/or get hold of a recording of my contribution and write it up.

Easily best and most interesting session I attended, however came later in the afternoon was that on health and welfare of the elderly in post-communist states addressed by Prof. Sir Michael Marmot (UCL), Chris Davis (Oxford) and Andreas Hoff (Oxford Institute of Ageing) who spoke respectively on health in post-communist states, ageing societies and demographic change in CEE and the elderly in Russia (which along with other states in the FSU in a far more parlous state in terms of health and population decline). Although the panel didn’t address political issues very directly – there was a mention of ageing and the need for pension reform, which rather overlooked the fact that some CEE states have already reformed pension systems and a tendency to blur the distinction between being old and being a pensioner – but I found all extremely impressive. Perhaps is was because I have an emerging research interest in the politics of old age in CEE – one of emerging parallel issues I was on about earlier – and I think what struck everyone was the concentrated expertise and the ease of presentation of a mass of hard findings to report, which rather beats the intellectual soufflé of interpretation and ideas I had been cooking up earlier. In the post-conference reception Chris Davies also explained to me that communist and post-communist heathcare systems systematically over produce highly qualified doctors at the expense of medical personnel with intermediate levels skills, so I should not take the fact my infected toe got treated by a Czech surgeon as an indication of minor VIP status.

On a more academic note, the Oxford Institute of Ageing’s website plugged by Andreas Hoff is a very useful introductory resource and suggests that research on the politics of old age is primarily the preserve of sociologists and social policy specialists, although issues of participation and representation are tackled. As well as a sub-site devoted to a interesting research network co-ordinated by Andreas Hoff on Eastern-European Ageing Societies in Transition there are references to a couple of forthcoming collections:

  • Arber, S., Andersson, L. & Hoff, A. (Eds.) (2007): Gender, Ageing and Power: Cross-national Perspectives and Changing Dynamics.
  • Wahl, H.-W., Tesch-Römer, C. & Hoff, A. (Eds.) (2007): New Dynamics in Old Age: Individual, Environmental and Societal Perspectives. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

>How should we study Czech parties?


Arriving back on Ryanair via Brno’s nicely modernizied airport surrounded by open countryside with now healthy toe and now recovered kids, I’m almost relieved to have to get back to work. One of the more interesting bits towards the end of a pretty desolately trip was a conversation with a colleague in Masaryk University’s impressively renovated Faculty of Social Studies building. The question to hand: how to the study Czech parties and party system. Czech (party) politics rather lacks the pasazz of other states in CEE and stable and straightforward to the point of being with parties that easily locatable with the dominant European party families to the point of being… well, boring. Rarely an electoral earthquake, exotic new party, bout of illiberal democracy or blast of pace-setting flat tax reforms to be found. Just the latest episode in an excruciating decade long pattern of left-right deadline and some compromise tax proposals trumpeted by the press with limited chance of being passed by parliament that have drawn flack even from within the Civic Democrats for their timorousness and accidental clobbering of middle income earners. More importantly, why should anyone not interested in Czech politics actually want pick up a journal and read about them

Surveying the familiar landscape of parties, we do admittedly have the Czech Communists (KSČM), who are still hardline, but receding in influence without spectacularly disappearing) who might represent a case study of demographically driven organizational decline of one of the region’s few genuine mass parties The cordon sanitaire around the Communists and nature of the Social Democrat-Communist relationship are also quite interesting – the management of extremist parties by larger moderate competitors is an issue of wider comparative interest given the recent iffy coalitions formed in Poland and Slovakia. There are also parallels in the handling of radical right parties by the mainstream in the old EU – the FPÖ in Austria or the Danish People’s Party and perhaps also be distant echoes of the Socialist-Communist relationship in France (my instinct was to compare KSČM with the scattering of small orthodox CPs across Western Europe, although as my Czech colleague pointed out the party has a kind of odd dual ideology, which could perhaps be compared to the development of Russia’s KPRF in the 1990s before it was Putinized which is chronicled in Luke March’s book) And, of course, the dear old Czech socdemáci themselves, one of the rare instance of a historic party that got transformed into something broader and more viable. The breakthrough of the Czech Greens also perhaps offer an opportunity to examine whether one of CEE’s richer and more secular societies is turning post-materialist and just why and how you can be a pro-market Green.

The more fundamental question we realised was just how do you study CEE? Czech political scientists feel they’ve done the groundwork on their home party system over the past decade or so (a fact confirmed by the Faculty’s well stocked bookshop) while Western specialists wonder what comes next after Democratization and Europeanization the two big agendas that have shaped research on CEE in the last decade and a half.

I spent the afternoon pondering this over several cups of decaffeinated Nescafe in preparation for presentation at the CEELBAS launch conference tomorrow, but when the contrasting agenda of research on democratic quality in old and new member states got too much, I decided to catch the end of Columbo had thoughtfully scheduled just then by Channel 5.

>The tale of a toe


A relaxing Easter break with the family in the Czech Republic? Not a bit of it. The kids are ill and I have a toe injury, which I notice with some horror is badly infected. Time to throw myself on the mercy of the Czech medical service. At the local poliklinika , not totally surprisingly, I am sent away with a flea in my ear – hard faced looking nurse gatekeeping access to the doctor who explains (not totally logically to my hearing) that “We’re private so we don’t know how much to charge and pan doktor is on holiday. Try the hospital”. There’s a big teaching hospital just North of the housing estate where my in-laws live. I have bad memories of it having spent a week hospitalized there about 10 years ago with a mysterious fever, but needs must.

I have, it seems, to go to the Surgical Outpatients Department (chirugická ambulance), which sounds a lot for a dodgy toe, but on the other hand the unforuntate malíček is pretty messy. I end up in an waiting room with 60 people in an impressive (and clean) new annex that wasn’t there a decade ago. Next to the hospital is a building site where a new state archive is apparently being built (partly with EU money if I read the construction boards right). The receptionists are not fazed that I am a UK citizen just passing through and are professional and polite (both to each other and to me), but need to spend 10 minutes phoneing to work out how to process me. They manage it in the end and after about 30 minutes I get to see a doctor, who speaks very decent English – which he is keen to use – and I get examined, treated and told to bathe the foot in an antisceptic solution and come back in two days. He spends almost as long typing up a report in his computer and working out how much I should be charged and how it should all be coded. Then he has to go off to theatre and I have to wait another 30 minutes while someone else sorts it out. I read the History Man, as I can’t face reading in Czech on party systems. They do it, send me off to the hospital’s pokladna, where I pay 264 crowns (about six pounds sterling).

Today when I go in for my check up (seems to be healing but come back next week again) there is a similar pattern. I have to go somewhere else, a sort of “surgicial” Accident and Emergency as it is a Saturday. There are about 20 people waiting, I get seen after about 35 minutes, this time by a young doctor, who is happier listening to my rusty Czech than trying his English, then there are delays as he tries to enter my details into the computer. There are still more delays when I try to pay for the check-up as the usual people are off work, so a middle aged women in a floral dress struggles to process the payment and then has to ring aaround and finally go off and talk to the doctor personally to work it out. She is polite, correct and in the end rather apologetic. Stupidly, we have forgotten the British NHS cards, which might have got us free treatment so someone, not the Czech taxpayer, has to foot the bill for my toe as the Czech Republic has had a European style individual health insurance system since the early 1990s, there is no blanket free treatment at the point of delivery as the UK.

It’s an interesting window in Czech healthcare. Good – and by UK standards – reasonably quick , well qualified and professional medical staff, lots of paperwork, which finally if slowly gets done (rather like the administration of a UK university)and some odd inefficiencies – should a surgeon really be attending to dodgy toe? My mother-in-law acidly remarks that Czechs are simply not this nice and that I have been treated with more consideration because I am English and – this not being Prague – something of a curiosity. There is probably a measure of truth in this. It echoes my experience 10 years ago when I lived here, but at bottom suggests a flawed but decent health service.

Fingers crossed for my toe.

>Big Question? Big Yawn


The March 2007 issue of Prospect magazine asks a hundred (mostly British) thinkers and writers the Big Question: what comes next after Left and Right? Blithely assuming that the meaning of Left and Right was clear (ideology and/or class-based conflict over distribution of material goods), their answers are striking less for how pessimistic they are (the shock horror gloss Prospect itself gives) than how they home on a less-than-strikingly-new consensus. Most argue that there will be a conflict between localists and globalists of varying stripes overlapping with a conflict between partisans of a closed, rooted, sometimes religiously or ethnically based models with those of a universal liberal order (‘nation state vs. nation state’, Patria vs Plutopia (Michael Lind), ‘consensus populism’ (A. S. Byatt) vs. a liberal elite. This is a less than original set of ideas basically outlined more than a decade ago by, for example, Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs. McWorld.

Other alternatives dimnesions of conflict included pragmatism vs. ideological utopianism; politics vs. anti-politics; real life vs. virtual life (a.k.a territorial vs. non-territorial); a naked struggle of interest groups and bureaucratic interests; technology vs. the human vs. the planet). A few old fashioned souls flag up that haves vs. have nots still matters or come up with versions of individualism vs. collectivisms. And a very few honest folks (including Anthony Giddens) honestly admit they just don’t know or invoke the Rumsfeld principle of Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns etc.

Perhaps revealingly, the most interesting answers come less from the academic Big Names and Big Hitters than slightly obscure writers and retired civil servants. Top marks from me for content and conciseness (if not originality) go to ex-diplomat Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who argues that:

“What is next is the broad centre vs fringes, and the centre vs localism. The first will unite traditional left and right, while the second, as the modern expression of the traditional difference over the size and role of the state, will continue to divide. The broad centre will mobilise against the extreme fringes, some of them violent, which are not signed up to the liberal values of the centre but which are prepared to exploit them to undermine them. Class will be less important than identity as a basis for political action. The ideological debate will pitch individualism against communitarian politics and special interests of groups—for example, demanding special rights vs equal rights of individual citizens under a single law applicable to all. The level of decision-makers and their status will remain a left/right issue: how much to be decided at the centre and by organs of the state spending taxpayers’ money, and how much to be decided locally and by voluntary action of individuals acting in private capacities as citizens, parents, consumers.”

Lazily, Prospect itself can’t be bothered to synthesize or discuss the dozens bite-sized responses it receives, say, an accompanying essay or commenrary, although I guess this means I could set it as as a useful assignment for students.

I am now due to go to the Czech Republic for a family trip over Easter, assuming that is I can fight of a sore throat and temperature from a virus whose recurrence has been as unwelcome and unexpected as a boatload of Iranian Revolutionary Guards….