November 23, 2012

Renewing the Republican majority

Having lost the US Presidential election to Barack Obama despite high unemployment and an under-performing economy, Republicans will be asking themselves where they went wrong. The soul searching will no doubt be acrimonious but conservative Republicans and their Tea Party allies should think twice before blaming Mitt Romney or the surviving remnants of their Party's moderate wing. There are clear lessons for Republicans to learn, although the pill will be bitter for many to swallow.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips published his classic book The Emerging Republican Majority, which drew on his research on voting patterns for Richard Nixon during his successful 1968 Presidential campaign.

Phillips anticipated that the Pacific Northwest, the Upper Midwest and, especially, New England – long-time strongholds of the Republican Party’s ‘liberal’ wing – would decline in electoral importance to the GOP. He therefore argued that winning the old Confederate South – until then, a stronghold of the Democratic Party – and the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ states of the American Southwest should become central to future Republican strategies for capturing the White House.

With Nixon’s election, Republicans began ruthlessly pursuing a ‘Southern strategy’ appealing to the conservative cultural values of white Southerners alienated by the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation in the 1960s. This paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and contributed to the marginalisation of party moderates, who continued to identify with their party’s founding father Abraham Lincoln and the progressive legacy of President Teddy Roosevelt.

Republicans were confident that this same strategy would help deliver them the Presidency this year. After spending over $1 billion on their campaign, they succeeded in winning most of the Deep South and securing the overwhelming support of white Americans – still the biggest single racially defined bloc of voters – and senior citizens.

But President Obama’s victory decisively demonstrates that this sizeable Republican coalition is no longer strong enough to win the White House. Losing virtually every single ‘battleground’ state to the Democrats, it would seem that the Republican majority Phillips anticipated in the late 1960s has now been eclipsed.

Latino America

Today, the GOP can no longer even rely on several of the Sun Belt states that inspired the conservative Republicanism of Ronald Reagan. This is largely because of the impact of demographic change, with an influx of Latino migrants to states like Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

In 2004, 44% of Latino Americans supported George W. Bush in his re-election to the Presidency, partly because his social conservatism resonated with the Roman Catholic values of Latino communities. In 2012, however, less than one in every three Latino voters backed Mitt Romney. What went wrong?

Estimates suggest that as many as 20 million illegal immigrants could be living in the USA, many having entered the country across its porous border with Mexico. Recently, Republicans have embraced increasingly intolerant and punitive policy stances towards suspected illegal immigrants. In 2010, the GOP-controlled Arizona state legislature passed the strictest anti-immigration laws in the country. These laws have alienated thousands of lawfully resident Latino Americans.

To court Right-Wing opinion during the Republican primary, Romney pledged to ‘secure the border’ and deport all illegal immigrants. This clearly backfired. Some conservative commentators have suggested that had Romney adopted a more conciliatory tone, enough Latino Americans would have voted for him to win the White House. But is the Party’s ultra-conservative base capable of displaying the self-discipline – or, indeed, the empathy – to grant Republican leaders the policy freedom to take a more humane approach to this controversial subject?

Important challenges

The most important challenge ahead for the Republicans is to reconcile themselves to the role of government in addressing problems of poverty and social inequality.

In 2009, I was living in the United States when the national debate over ‘Obamacare’ intensified. The President’s bill, which would later pass Congress as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sought to contain the rising costs of healthcare while ensuring that all US citizens enjoyed some form of health insurance cover.

Most medical professionals as well as small and larger businesses (e.g. Walmart) supported the bill. However, it was strongly opposed by conservative Republicans, who equated the bill with ‘socialism’ and argued it was a governmental takeover of healthcare.

The GOP opposition to universal health coverage was a major moral and strategic blunder. It made Republicans look insensitive towards the millions of Americans without appropriate health insurance. It also put them on a collision course with pro-business constituencies concerned about the financial burden of (privatised) healthcare falling on employers.

Insisting they would repeal the Affordable Care Act on the first day of a Romney presidency, Republicans created a powerful incentive for low-income Americans unable to afford health insurance to turn out and vote for Obama. The participation rate of those earning less than $50,000 per annum – the overwhelming majority of which backed the President – increased from 38% in 2008 to 41% in this election.

Embracing moderate America

Ironically, Republicans had in Mitt Romney a candidate who could have plausibly embraced the principle of universal healthcare and argued a more constructive policy approach on Obamacare.

As Governor of Massachusetts in the mid 2000s, Romney built a proud reputation as a moderate Republican, supporting legislation that protected civil rights for gay couples and a woman’s right to access abortion services. He also introduced ‘Romneycare’, a precursor to the Affordable Care Act that expanded healthcare cover to all Massachusetts residents.

Because of this legislative record, Mitt Romney – by instinct, a political moderate – was the one candidate in the Republican Presidential primary capable of appealing to voters who rallied to Obama: the LGBT community, moderates, low-income earners worried about the costs of healthcare, and women. When he rediscovered the voice of moderation during the televised debates in the campaign’s final weeks, he began to look like a President-in-waiting.

But nominating a moderate for the Presidency is different from putting him (or her) in charge of the GOP. The Party’s reactionary, socially conservative grassroots were never to allow him to play to his strengths and lead the party from the political centre. Instead, with all their exaggerated hype about the election being a stark battle between the values of ‘conservative’ (Republican) and ‘liberal’ (Democratic) America, the Christian Right forced Romney into an ideological straightjacket to secure their electoral loyalty, in turn diminishing the potential threat he posed President Obama.

It is clear that America is no longer a conservative or Right-wing country. Obama’s majority demonstrates most Americans want to be governed from the political centre and believe the state is capable of being a positive force in people’s lives.

If it ever wants to win the Presidency again, the Republican Party must embrace this message of moderation. The concern for many GOP leaders must now be whether their party can do so.

November 07, 2012

The scientist as political tourist: the perils of pairing

On Wednesday last week (31 October 2012), BBC Radio Four’s ‘Today’ programme featured a scheme run by the Royal Society to promote interaction and engagement between civil servants, Parliamentarians and scientists.

According to their website, the 'Pairing Scheme' seeks to match participating scientists ‘with either an MP or civil servant and the Royal Society supports them by arranging a ‘Week in Westminster’ and reciprocal visits to research centres and laboratories across the UK’. In doing so, the scheme ‘aims to help MPs and civil servants establish longstanding links with practising research scientists and to help research scientists understand political decision making and its associated pressures.’

Reciprocal visits

During their week in Parliament, the selected scientists participate in a programme of activities including seminars, workshops and opportunities to shadow the MP with whom they have been paired. They are also taken on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, attend Select Committee meetings as well as Prime Minister’s Question Time, follow Parliamentary debates, observe meetings, attend policy briefings and press interviews with the MP and visit Government offices. The week promises to give scientists ‘a taste not only of the approach to science policy but of Parliament and the Civil Service in general’ as well as generate insights about the working lives of politicians.

During a series of reciprocal visits, scientists also spend a day in the constituency office of the Member of Parliament, attending local events and meetings as well as consultative surgeries. In return, MPs and civil servants are promised ‘a unique opportunity to gain an insight to the scientific process’ by being offered the opportunity to visit the scientist’s research facilities, where they can ‘talk to staff and students, hear about the research and help conduct an experiment.’

Public trust in science (and politics)

The BBC story ran as if the scheme is new, launched in part to improve the scientific literacy of MPs in response to recent controversies (e.g. ‘climate-gate’, GM crops) over public trust (or a lack thereof) in science. Since 2001, however, the Royal Society has paired over 150 scientists with civil servants and politicians, some of whom have included Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, the Rt. Hon John Denham MP and the Tory MP Ed Vaizey.

From this description, the pairing scheme can seem both reassuring and unsettling at the same time. On the face of it, there is much that would appear to commend it. After all, most people would probably acknowledge that science faces significant political challenges in the current economic climate, particularly in terms of arguing for continuing public funding of science research and teaching, especially in our universities. It would therefore be difficult to argue against the value of a scheme that promotes dialogue, engagement and – hopefully – respect and understanding between politicians and scientists. In this sense, various publics might consider the scheme to be reassuring.

Yet, it is also possible to feel troubled by the fact that such a scheme seems necessary in a scientifically advanced society like the UK. Surely, in the 21st century, and after many decades of significant and sophisticated advances in medicine, science and a wide variety of other technologies, British politicians need no further convincing of the importance and value of science? Various publics might find this revelation even less reassuring than the suggestion that science cannot always be ‘trusted’.

Political tourism

The logic of such ‘pairing’ is to suggest that the politician and the scientist are engaged in practices that are mutually exclusive of each other. Exaggerating a sense of distance between the work of politics and science, a divide is imagined that then needs to be ‘bridged’ if understanding is to be achieved between such (opposed) domains of activity and practice. But before this can be done, one needs to identify the ‘sites’ in which politics and science can be institutionally encountered. Not only does this demand a number of assumptions about both the unintelligibility of politics to science (and vice versa). It over-simplifies the question of their institutional location, the implication being that politics can be ‘found’ in Westminster (or the civil service) and that science is something done in a laboratory (remember, politicians get the chance to ‘help’ with an experiment!)

How credible is this?

A question could be raised about the quality of the political education on offer for the participating scientists. The opportunity of a ‘Week in Westminster’ smacks of political tourism: it reminds me of the five days of work experience I completed in the early 1990s in the constituency office of a local Federal MP when I was a 19 year-old undergraduate in Australia. On that occasion, the voluntary work I did translated into a paid, part-time position over three years that taught me so much more about the practice of politics than I could have gleaned from that initial week – or, indeed, a tour of Parliament.

But the week I spent shadowing a Parliamentarian was merely the starting point – rather than the sum total – of my political education. The most valuable lesson I learned was that in trying to identify where power lies and how political decisions are made, one requires a more grounded and sustained engagement with politics, beginning with a more imaginative approach to how one ‘sites’ it.

Science – and politics – in the making

This question, of the location of politics and science institutionally, has long been a concern for social scientists, including philosophers of science and other scholars of science and technology. For anthropologists and sociologists, politics is as meaningfully transacted in local-level associational life – whether this includes churches, clubs, the family, political parties, the pub, trade unions or other voluntary organisations – as well as institutions of the state, such as schools, local Council chambers and, indeed, Parliament.

In addition, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the French sociologist Bruno Latour published extensively about the various ‘sites’ in which science can be located, highlighting his conception of science as a set of disciplinary practices ‘in the making’ (cf. his book ‘Science in Action’, published in 1987). Invariably (for Latour), these sites are embedded within networks composed of human and non-human agents that extend within and beyond (while also encompassing) institutions. But the important point is that these sites are transient and unstable: they are not fixed, static institutions to be apprehended and physically mapped, like a sightseer on a tour of a famous building. Rather, they are dynamic social practices that give form to objects that come, in turn, to be named as ‘politics’ or ‘science’.

It is through attentiveness to the social – with an eye and ear to how politics and science are made through practices and relations grounded values of collaboration and engaged dialogue that both domains of activity share – that Parliamentarians and scientists can generate mutual understanding that is meaningful for both disciplines.

It would be interesting to know more about how many ‘pairings’ via the Royal Society scheme have led to longer-term conversations between the participating politicians and scientists. Such a scheme should never be the end point of efforts to build understanding between the two disciplines. Rather, it must constitute a beginning, a starting point that seeks to reaffirm the social in both politics and science in order to build firm foundations for understanding that bridges whatever is imagined to divide the two.

July 20, 2012

Religion, science and public education: a cautionary tale

I arrived last Monday (9 July) in Kansas City for a month of fieldwork on how religion-science debates are having an impact on the Kansas Republican primary races for the state legislature and State Board of Education.

Kansas is a ‘Red’ Republican State currently led by one of America’s most conservative governors, former US Senator Sam Brownback. A national leader of the Christian Right, he ticks all the conservative boxes on the so-called ‘hot button’ issues: abortion, embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, the teaching of Intelligent Design (Creationism).

In the Kansas House of Representatives, a large conservative Republican majority supports his agenda. However, Brownback has been unable to rely on the support of the state senate, which is led by moderate Republicans who organise, informally, with the Democrats to obstruct the (sizeable) conservative GOP minority in their own ranks.

Kansas and public education

One of the key battlegrounds between moderate and conservative Republicans is the issue of public education. Much like the Scots in the UK, Kansans boast having built one of the best publicly funded education systems in the world.

The state is home to some of America’s very best schools, especially in affluent Johnson County, which forms part of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. Kansas is also home to some of the nation’s leading public research universities.

Historically, the Kansas public education system is very much a legacy of Republican lawmakers who believed that good quality education provided the surest path to prosperity. For that reason, the public schools and universities of Kansas have been amongst the most affordable in the United States.

Brownback’s radical tax cuts now endanger public funding for education in Kansas. Over the last week, many Kansans have expressed to me their anxieties about the future of local schools and the price their children and grandchildren will have to pay for a college education as universities raise their tuition fees.

The re-emergence of anti-science religious conservatives fuels these anxieties. Many moderate Kansans worry that if the Creationists seize control of the Kansas State Board of Education this year – as they did in the early 2000s – national newspapers and other media outlets will ridicule the state’s education system.

In a political climate where religious conservatives continue to challenge public funding for controversial science like embryonic stem cell research, this could have a disastrous impact on educational standards and science funding in Kansas.

For moderates, supporting public education and promoting good-quality science education and research are two issues that go hand-in-hand. I heard this view expressed eloquently by the President of Kansas Citizens for Science – a moderate Republican – during discussion following a presentation I delivered to a science café they hosted in Johnson County last week.

Jeff Tamblyn – one of the filmmakers behind the award-winning documentary ‘Kansas vs. Darwin’ on the ‘evolution hearings’ that the Kansas State Board of Education, then controlled by the Christian Right, organized in 2005 – was there too.

Inspired by a teacher at high school who taught him the value of the scientific method in building an evidence base to test hypotheses and solve problems, he explained how investing in good-quality science education for all – and not just an academically gifted elite able to afford a college education – enables everyone to feel that they have a collective stake in science, and that science is a public good.

Having fought in the front lines of America’s so-called culture wars, many pro-science Kansans agree. That is one reason why support for public education is a vote-winner in many Kansas communities.

Kansas is a cautionary tale for the rest of us.

In the last two years in the UK, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government has cut funding for university teaching by 82% and trebled tuition fees for students. The Government also continues to approve the creation of so-called ‘free schools’ – freed, that is, from local government control.

Many moderate Republicans would counsel against initiatives, like these, that undermine both the value of public education and an understanding of science as a public good.

That is why so many moderate Republicans are determined to stand up to Governor Brownback and embrace public schools, even if it puts them on a collision course with the Christian Right and his conservative backers.

June 29, 2012

Battle looms over European funding for embryonic stem cell research

According to an interesting story in this week’s Times Higher, a strong challenge is being mounted to EU science funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Several Members of the European Parliament opposed to the use of embryos in stem cell research are planning to raise objections in a forthcoming debate on the European Commission’s research funding programme Horizon 2020.

Here in the UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council have joined with patient groups and other biomedical lobbies across Europe to call for continuing support in this field of research, which will total 107 million euros (£86 million) over the seven years of the EU Framework Programme 7.

Currently, embryonic stem cell research is prohibited in Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. Restrictions exist in four other countries – Austria, Germany, Italy and Ireland – where stem cell lines drawn from donated embryos that have been discarded during IVF treatment have to be imported.

Of the remaining twenty EU member states, Belgium, Spain, Sweden and the UK have the most liberalised regulatory environments for supporting such research. Each allows for the creation of embryos for research purposes, albeit under strict conditions.

But it would seem that even as embryonic stem cell research gathers momentum in Europe, public opinion is taking a more sceptical turn. While recent polling suggests that there is still an overall majority (63%) in favour of this research across Europe, support fell by eight percentage points between 2005 and 2010 in several countries, including Austria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Slovakia.

Two issues, in particular, seem to be vexing supporters of embryonic stem cell research. Firstly, according to Dr David Lynn of the Wellcome Trust: ‘If Europe were no longer to fund [embryonic stem cell research] through Horizon 2020, it would risk giving the impression that Europe is no longer open for business in this area.’

Coming amid concerns about whether companies will be able to patent technologies and treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research following a recent European Court of Justice ruling, the European Parliament’s forthcoming debate risks muddying the waters further on this important question.

Secondly, it could be argued from the above polling data that, after many years of debate, religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research are winning the ethical arguments and re-shaping public opinion in their favour.

Professor Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, suggests that the problem here is one of a lack of scientific literacy and understanding that renders the public ‘susceptible’ to an ‘odd alliance’, which includes Greenpeace and the Vatican, both of which he alleges ‘ignore the patient, and … the scientific evidence.’

Advocating a pan-European initiative to educate the public and policymakers about the value of embryonic stem cell research, Professor Smith concludes the article by asserting that people ‘shouldn’t be allowed to impose fundamentalist views on the rest of the community.’

Unfortunately, comments like these do little more than reinforce an old and unhelpful trope in debates between science and religion: that if the public lacks enthusiasm for science, it is because the former fails to understand the latter and prefers to listen to (fundamentalist, irrational) religious leaders rather than (enlightened, rational) scientists.

This risks stereotyping and unnecessarily ridiculing religion and the often-important ethical and moral questions religious leaders ask – not just of scientists, but also of business leaders, politicians and others. In turn, this does little to progress the debates, especially when so much of the argument for embryonic stem cell research – as exemplified by the broad thrust of the Times Higher article itself – is devoted, first and foremost, to making the market case for investment in such research.

When the US State of Missouri famously debated embryonic stem cell research in the run-up to the 2006 US Midterm elections, opponents caricatured scientists at the Stowers Institute in Kansas City (see image) and the Washington University Medical Center in St Louis as only being interested in ‘Dolly, dollars and donors’. Their argument was that scientists have a vested interested in playing down the ethical questions raised by embryonic stem cell research so that business and private individuals will be persuaded to invest in their science.

This is the equally unhelpful counter-view – the mirror image, no less – to the intellectually lazy assumption by some in the scientific community that religion cannot make a ‘valid’ contribution to the ethical debates surrounding areas of controversial science, largely because (they allege) those with religious views either do not understand, or choose to ignore, the scientific evidence.

There is a sting in the tail here, with important consequences for those of us who believe in making science public. As American supporters of embryonic stem cell research engaged in the so-called ‘culture wars’ that have bedevilled the USA over the last decade can tell us, support for publicly funded education almost always goes hand-in-hand with a wider public acceptance of, and support for, science funding and research.

If the above polling is to be believed, the recent decline in support amongst European publics for embryonic stem cell research should sound alarm bells for policymakers because it appears to coincide with an age of budget austerity that has resulted in funding cuts for education and scientific research.

To compensate for these lost revenues, governments both here in the UK and abroad have emphasised the need for universities and other recipients of publicly funded research grants to move to commercialise (i.e. privatise) science.

Whether there is a relationship – an interface – between these two ‘trends’ no doubt requires further analysis. But my suspicion is that in a world of privatised science, it will become increasingly difficult to make the case that the public should support controversial scientific research.

Of course, this will only matter if there is still public funding in place for scientific research over which to fight in the future. But my point is that the drive to privatise science will likely make securing public consent to science funded in our name more problematic.

Privatised science is antithetical to making science public, which requires a commitment to making public science. This commitment, which needs to be renewed, is to a democratised science – of and for the people, so to speak. Only then can publics make a claim of ownership to science, culturally, financially and, most importantly of all, morally.

June 25, 2012

Battle Now Joined for Scotland's Constitutional Future

This week’s launch of the 'Better Together' or 'No' campaign ( for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum means that the battle over Scotland’s constitutional future now begins in earnest.

It comes just weeks after First Minister Alex Salmond launched the ‘Yes’ campaign in an attempt to regain the political momentum after the SNP fell short of its self-declared goals in the local government elections held on the 5th of May.

Although emerging with more local Councillors and votes than any other political party in Scotland, the Nationalists failed to wrest control of Glasgow City Council after an epic struggle with their ‘auld enemy’, the Scottish Labour Party.

Supporters of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom now sense that the tide is turning in their favour. 

It is certainly true that the challenges ahead for the Scottish Nationalists in winning the referendum campaign should not be underestimated. The latest opinion polling suggests that, after recently peaking at just shy of 40%, support for independence has now dropped to 35% amongst Scottish voters.

With 55% of the electorate behind them, those opposed to independence remain in the majority.

These figures reinforce a pattern, which has remained consistent since the opening of the Scottish Parliament over a decade ago, that demonstrates no more than about a third of Scots support independence.

To break through this electoral glass ceiling, the SNP needs to maximise the institutional resources at its disposal, in local government, the media, the Scottish Parliament and the wider community.

That was why their unsuccessful effort to destroy the Labour Party’s powerbase in Glasgow – Scotland’s largest city – mattered so much to the Nationalists.

Convincing sceptical voters to take a leap into the constitutional dark and back independence remains a massive mountain for the SNP to climb between now and the 2014 referendum.

But supporters of the constitutional status quo cannot afford to be complacent.

For now, ‘No’ campaigners may have public opinion on their side. But a lot could change before the 2014 referendum.

Leading figures from Scotland’s three main Unionist parties will feature prominently in the campaign to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom.

Although former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown will be conspicuous by his absence from the front ranks of the ‘No’ campaign, his former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling will be leading the charge for Labour in Scotland.

He will be joined by the well-regarded former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kennedy as well as the relatively-popular (for a Scottish Tory) Annabel Goldie, who led the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament until 2011.

Whether these three contrasting political personalities can agree to share the media spotlight and successfully work together over the next two years to secure Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom will prove fascinating to watch. 

Indeed, it may prove particularly difficult for the ‘No’ campaign to maintain a united front when the SNP at Holyrood rails against austerity and the budget cuts being handed down by the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.

Sharing a platform north of the English border with both the Tories and the now-reviled Liberal Democrats could be especially challenging for Labour politicians sitting on the opposition benches at Westminster.

And in Alex Salmond – the undisputed leader of the ‘Yes’ campaign – they will continue to face one of Britain’s most astute, charismatic and emotionally intelligent politicians. In recent weeks, he has capitalised on confusion amongst the Unionist parties in the run-up to the launch of the ‘No’ campaign and will no doubt mercilessly exploit divisions amongst his opponents over the next two years.

So far, there have been bold claims made on both sides in their efforts to capture newspaper headlines and rally their supporters.

For the ‘Yes’ campaign, Salmond has called for 1 million Scots to sign a pledge in support of independence in the run-up to the referendum. Meanwhile, the ‘No’ campaign has declared that it will raise a war chest of £1 million to fight the Nationalists in 2014.

But big talk calls for a big vision for Scotland’s future, within – or outwith – the United Kingdom.

Over the next two years, Salmond will be hoping that the enthusiasm many Scottish voters feel for his government at Holyrood will translate into support for independence. He also knows that to win this argument, he must articulate a positive vision for the future and tell a story of a Scotland capable of standing – and prospering – on its own two feet.

To derail his arguments, Unionist politicians may be tempted to run a negative campaign that seeks to exploit anxieties amongst Scottish voters over the economic uncertainties facing Scotland and the UK as a whole.

They will likely point to the recent experiences of small countries and fragile economies on the periphery of Europe, such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece or Portugal. And they will ask whether Scotland can really fend for itself financially, especially if as an independent country it can no longer rely on the Barnett formula or lucrative UK defence contracts to subsidise its economy?

In addition, the ‘No’ campaign could muddy the waters for the Nationalists further, distracting them with wearying questions of constitutional banality, such as what passports Scots would carry or whether customs would have to be paid at the English border.

While it is likely that a focus on the negative consequences and practical uncertainties of independence may help ‘No’ campaigners win the referendum, it is also true that they need to make an equally positive case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.

Without doing so, Unionist politicians may risk sounding overly negative against a confident, clear-eyed and optimistic narrative from Alex Salmond, who will champion the promise of an independent Scotland able to decide and act for itself on the world stage.

This could alienate Scottish voters and, in turn, further entrench the SNP as the natural party of government in Scotland – even if it loses the 2014 referendum.

Such a result would be disastrous for the Scottish Labour Party, which is hoping to regroup and fight back after seeing off the Nationalists’ formidable challenge to its Glasgow stronghold in May.

The ‘No’ campaign has now been launched and the battle for Scotland’s constitutional future has been joined.

The stakes remain high for both sides.

The next two years will prove decisive in the history of both Scotland and the United Kingdom – whether or not the former elects to leave the latter in 2014.

June 14, 2012

Lessons learned from English football on tackling racism

As the editor of the book series New Ethnographies for Manchester University Press, I am really excited about the publication this summer of our latest title, An Ethnography of English Football Fans, by Dr Geoff Pearson of the University of Liverpool's Management School

His book is particularly timely given the extent to which racism and violence amongst football fans, from a variety of European countries, has come to overshadow the Euro 2012 tournament in recent weeks. Many of us have been shocked by images of violence on our television screens, the most recent example being clashes between Polish and Russian fans that took place yesterday in Warsaw (

For over fifteen years, Dr Pearson conducted detailed, ethnographic fieldwork amongst football fans from three clubs: Blackpool, Manchester United and the national England team itself. One of the questions he explores in his book is whether football attracts this type of anti-social behaviour to a greater extent than other sports.

In an interesting and thought-provoking Blog for Manchester University Press, he argues that incidents of racism he encountered amongst English football fans were ‘largely determined by context rather than by a disposition of football fans towards that type of behaviour or those types of views.’ He found that rather than being a ‘magnet’ for those holding racist or extremist political views, there was no evidence ‘to suggest that football fans were inherently more racist in attitude than non-football fans’.

Indeed, given how rarely he witnessed incidents of racist abuse and chanting, he claims that the good work of campaign groups like Kick It Out as well as improved legislation, better stadium infrastructure and CCTV has discouraged those fans who might harbour racist views and feel comfortable about articulating them in private from expressing them at football matches.

Dr Pearson concedes that there is no room for complacency on this issue. After all, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, challenging people and the prejudices they possess in such a way as to change entrenched social attitudes; and on the other, cultivating the kinds of (sub) cultures of self-policing football fans he describes in his book.

However, Dr Pearson concludes on an optimistic note: that the experience of English football suggests ‘it is possible to manage racism in football grounds without … excluding all those who have racist views.’

Follow this link to read Dr Pearson’s original Blog:

You can find out more about his book, An Ethnography of English Football Fans, which will be available from Manchester University Press in July 2012, here:

And you can learn more about the New Ethnographies book series I edit for Manchester University Press, here:

May 25, 2012

Challenges ahead for Salmond on campaign trail for Scottish independence

Today’s launch of the ‘Yes’ campaign for the independence referendum ( gave Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond his first opportunity to try to regain the political momentum after the SNP fell short of its self-declared goals in the recent local Government elections.

The challenges ahead for the SNP in winning this campaign should not be underestimated.

Although emerging with more Councillors and votes than any other party, the SNP failed to wrest control of Glasgow City Council from the Labour Party. Opinion polling also continues to demonstrate that approximately two thirds of Scots oppose independence – a pattern that has remained consistent since the 1999 opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Convincing sceptical voters to take a leap into the constitutional dark and back independence remains a massive mountain for the SNP to climb between now and the 2014 referendum.

Of course, Alex Salmond understands this. He will be hoping that, before then, the enthusiasm many voters still feel for his Government at Holyrood – especially when railing against austerity and the budget cuts being handed down by the Conservative-led Coalition Government at Westminster – will translate into support for independence.

But following the local Government elections, there is evidence of life in the ranks of the Unionist parties in Scotland – especially Labour, which is now regrouping after repelling a formidable SNP challenge to its Glasgow stronghold. When the 'No' campaign launches next month, the battle will be joined. Both sides believe the stakes are high as the historic fight begins on the constitutional future of both Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

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