Tour of Picturing Politics with Henshaws Society for Blind People

As part of its outreach work, the Centre for British Politics sponsored a tour of the exhibition I curated – Picturing Politics – for a group from Henshaws society for blind people. Since the exhibition first opened in November, I must have done over 15 tours but never one for a visually impaired group. There are obvious difficulties in talking about a type of visual political communication to a group who cannot see that communication. The practicalities of this are overcome through the genius of Anne Hornsby an audio-describer who described and explained exactly what the poster looks like, before I then talked about the political and historical nature of that image.

The inclusion of the audio-describer on the tour altered the way I did something which had become tried and tested. In some respects, it changed the way I even thought about the thing I research and write about almost everyday as part of my PhD. The most obvious example of this was the audio-described element. There can’t be many people who look at posters quite as intently as I do, but to hear another person describe each poster, the way the lettering is laid out on the page, how the wording and images work, what the people look like, was really interesting. My thesis does this, and it was enlightening to hear someone else go into similar detail. I think Anne and I ‘read’ the posters in the same way, I would use similar adjectives to describe them, but she noticed some details that I had not appreciated, and she interpreted a few things in a different way than I had done.

The exhibition contains around 60 posters, and in a typical tour I might talk in depth about half and make at least a passing reference to the rest. This was simply not possible with the Henshaws tour. When being audio described, it is not possible to give the tour like this, as it would take many hours. Consequently, Anne and I chose ten posters to concentrate on. We spent such a long time in front of each image the people on the tour sat down in front of them. Furthermore, it was pointless referring to other posters in the exhibition that we had not spoken about because the group could not see them. This completely changed the nature of the interaction between the group, the posters and me. As the group was sat around the poster, there was real emphasis on the individual image.

Such focus made me realise just how much I think of posters in terms of the history of other posters, where each exits within the historiography of the whole; indeed, I often speak and write of them in these terms. But the Henshaws tour brought back to me this is not how voters look at posters, they see, experience (and perhaps sometimes concentrate on) the individual, and this is clearly something which should not be forgotten.


Chris Burgess is a PhD student. He researches the history of political posters.

The mysterious Old Mother Riley MP

As The Iron Lady reminds us, one of the ironies of Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister is that, while the first woman to reach Number 10, even admirers on the right, notably Ronald Reagan, claimed Thatcher to be the ‘best man in England’.

Political fiction has explored such ironies, something which I’ll be exploring in my book on UK political fiction which will be published by Bloomsbury (when I finish it). Probably the most bizarre instance of political cross-gendering – in fiction at least – was Old Mother Riley MP (1939), about which I am talking at a conference on Art and Politics at the University of Nottingham and which I discuss further on my personal blog.

Steven Fielding

Economic crisis = Extremism, right?

With the Eurozone crisis remaining in full-swing, many politicians and commentators have identified the economic downtown as the main driver of rising public support for extreme right-wing parties,  such as Golden Dawn in Greece. However, writing in the Guardian, Dr Matt Goodwin outlines several reasons for why this relationship is a little more complex than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

‘More what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules': Jeremy Hunt and the Ministerial Code

Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Culture Secretary, remains under fire for his handling of his ‘quasi-judicial’ role in deciding whether News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s media company, could take full ownership of the broadcaster BSkyB. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, insists that the Leveson inquiry is the appropriate venue to determine the facts of the case, and no decision will be taken on Hunt’s position until after he appears later this month. Until then, Hunt retains the confidence of the PM.

However, some facts of the case have already been revealed, including several emails of Frederic Michel, head of public affairs at News Corp. Of particular importance was his email of 27 June 2011, stating ‘JH is now starting to look into phone-hacking/practices more thoroughly and has asked me to advise him privately in the coming weeks and guide his and No.10’s positioning.’  The government claims that the reference to ‘JH’ meant Hunt’s office in general rather than the Minister, and specifically Adam Smith, Hunt’s special advisor.

One key element of this case has been the debate about whether Hunt has breached the Ministerial Code. The Labour Party have claimed that the emails in general, and particularly the one cited above, show that Hunt did not follow the ministerial code and therefore should be removed from office. But has Hunt breached the Code?

The simple, if rather unsatisfactory, answer is: we don’t know, and we can’t know.  Although we can all read the Ministerial Code, in practice it is ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’.  As the Code makes clear, the PM ‘is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.’  The question of whether Hunt breached the Code is therefore a matter of the PM’s interpretation. If the PM chooses, he can refer the issue to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, but he remains free to decide on the consequences of any investigation.

Notwithstanding the fact that Cameron has fully backed Hunt, and stated in Parliament that there was no evidence of Hunt breaching the Code (at least as of 30 April), has Hunt been accused of anything that could be interpreted as being against the Code? Here again the issue is blurry. Ed Miliband made three specific allegations (see the second video here) about sections of the Code that he thought had been breached. These were sections:

1.2c “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”

1.1 “Ministers of the Crown are expected to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”

9.1 “When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

A breach of 1.1 would only occur if there is clear evidence of some impropriety, but it is precisely that issue which remains open to question. 9.1 is also open to question, since it depends on interpretations of what constitutes ‘the most important announcements of Government policy’.  Possibly more worrying for Hunt is the claim that section 1.2c has been breached.  Ed Miliband said:

“In the House on 3 March the Culture Secretary told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that “all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation” were being published. But he has now admitted that he knew, when he gave that answer, that there were exchanges that he himself had authorised between his special adviser and News Corporation. Yet none of those exchanges was disclosed, and we have 163 pages to prove it.”

However, the point at issue here is whether Adam Smith, as a special adviser, can be considered formally a part of the Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Department. Certainly, Adam Smith would not be considered an authoritative voice of the Department, and his responsibility is to the minister personally, and the government as a whole (Section 3.3 of the ministerial code), rather than a specific department. It may therefore be possible to claim that what was said in Parliament was in fact true.

As such, if David Cameron were so inclined, it is possible to interpret everything that Labour allege as breaches of the Code as being within the letter of the Code. One thing, however, is reasonably certain: the public is unlikely to take kindly to arguments being based on such technicalities.


Paul Heywood and Jonathan Rose

Watch out Benjamin Zephaniah!

With a view to engaging students through different teaching methods, Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton launched a poetry competition this semester on their core MA module “Theories and Concepts in International Relations”. After all, Roland Bleiker has himself emphasised the role of the poetic image in challenging dominant modes of thinking and practice within International Relations. With that aim in mind we are happy to announce this winning poem by Zubeda Mir that may surely rival the social criticism of Benjamin Zephaniah!





Machiavelli. Morgenthau. Weber. Marx. Foucault.

So many others but I really don’t care though

Tell me how to change the system; this is what I need to know

Tell me why illegal wars and occupations continue to grow

I don’t let concepts define and constrain me

But I want to live the words of respected revolutionaries

Now don’t get it twisted I’m not saying I’m on par to be in this category

But teach me the words of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Marcus Garvey

So many more but you feel what my words are trying to say

If we don’t act now we won’t have tomorrows, we’ll only have yesterdays

I don’t have time for narrow theories and philosophy

Teach me the present and how to change this reality

Tell me why capitalism as a system is failing those in poverty

Hell, we have the world in the palms of our hands, yet half the world is hungry

Whilst the empire feeds itself abundantly, raping its colonies

Don’t tell me how states are acting because of national security

It’s an imperial mindset that’s clear to see within American hegemony

That’s why innocents are locked up and thrown intoGuantanamoBay

9/11 constantly occurring inPalestine,Iraq,Afghanistaneveryday

Seems like powers that be are creating modern day holocausts, whichever way

Same people will shut you down like a wikileaks site, but my thoughts are here to stay

But thoughts are provoked when questions are asked

Deciphering the answers makes an addict reach for his flask

War propaganda doesn’t make bombing a country an easy task

Yet Neanderthals line up and shoot their way to the top of the class

When will we wake up and realise that the war is happening on our streets

This is way beyond the war on terror, it not selective of race, religion, gender caste or creed

The rich elitist, ethnocentric men controlling structures are killing humanity

It’s selective in its nature that’s why those who will suffer are you and me

Those at the bottom, barely surviving are being made to bleed

And that’s why the cycle of famine, backed by the IMF, chainsAfricato poverty

That’s why a divide is created and the people are oppressed mentally

You see if you contain the people then you contain the problem, allegedly

Hold up, its international relations I’m talking about, let me bring it back

Sit down, belt up I’m going on the attack

My man Machiavelli will tell you if it’s in the state’s interest, you’ve got valid causes

That’s why we are seeing the colonisation ofAfrica‘cos they want the natural resources

Realist thinking will tell you that states are inherently aggressive

And will continue to do what they please if it’s in their national interest

Now that doesn’t really sit right with me

You can see how that is implemented within American hegemony

At this rate you could wage countless wars against a global enemy

But what do you do when the face of evil is just an ideology

And what about the evil that resides in the white house and palaces and kingdoms

Don’t switch though the people are regaining their mental freedom

Can you hear the rumble as the tremors grow

2011 being the year when the people rose

Imperialists sitting in ivory walls overawed

Revolutionaries unleashed as dictators are overthrown

Mothers burying children, fathers burying families chasing the dream of freedom

A term which only makes sense when the soul is sleeping

See capitalism has us chained into a never-ending system

But if you’re white and some private school boy your life is breezin’

But if you’re poor and brown your life will be spent chasing

The money that will be enough to just get you through to the next day

Where one hand feeds you and the other lines the pocket of the rich but that’s okay

Cos this system was developed overtime to keep the rich man fat

Whilst those at the bottom fail to climb up, it’s destroying society and that’s a fact

So whilst you so called theorists and philosophers, sit back and relax

With a glass of champagne in one hand and in the other a hypocrisy axe

And whilst you laugh with the same people that you angrily criticise

I will laugh at you because you have failed to realise

You didn’t change the system but you became a part of it, open your eyes

You have churned out robotic apolitical individuals who have failed to materialise

The same institution which practices hierarchy doesn’t let its people rise

So yes, let’s learn about liberalism, realism, constructivism and other concepts

And let’s fail to challenge and speak out for those who the system squeezes to death.

Zubeda Mir

From The Death of Artemio Cruz to the Death of Carlos Fuentes


Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s greatest novelists – if not the greatest – has died this week aged 83. Renowned for novels such as La región mas transparente (Where the Air is Clear, 1958), La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962) and the epic Terra Nostra (Our Land, 1975), Carlos Fuentes’ social function continued right until the end of his life. A guard of honour is currently accompanying the novelist in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City and he will be cremated and interned in Montparnasse Cemetry, Paris, alongside his deceased children, Carlos and Natasha, and greats such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. As reported in La Jornada, Fuentes commented a few weeks ago at an International Book Fair in Buenos Aires, ‘I have a very nice monument waiting . . . It’s about time to fill it’. In the same interview he conducted with the Argentine newspaper La Nación, he also continued his commentary on the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico and the need to move from treating it as a unilateral problem in Mexico towards recognising it as a bilateral (U.S.-Mexico) dilemma.

His social role in Mexican state and civil society relations was a complex and shifting one. Where the Air is Clear offers a snapshot of the post-revolutionary state and its national-popular ideology in Mexico, including issues of modernisation and the gulf between social classes within the bustling urban expansion of Mexico City in the 1950s. The Death of Artemio Cruz offers social and political criticism of the outcome of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that delineates the corruption of the emergent capitalist class through a fragmented and experimental chronology. The 350,000 word Terra Nostra is a panoramic history of Latin America dealing with issues of identity and knowledge as well as a rewriting of the history of Spain. This history is notably played out by the character Ludovico, a student of theology and expert translator of Latin, Hebrew and Arabic loosely based on the philologist and philosopher Giambattista Vico (Ludovico = I play Vico).

Kerstin Oloff has astutely noted that Terra Nostra is an ideologically charged vision of the history of the uneven development of capitalism in Latin America, set within a Marxist narrative of class struggle and dispossession.

My own assessment is similar but broader. In my recent Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011) a detailed chapter traces the combination of critical opposition and accommodation characterised by Carlos Fuentes’ social function. I also had the fortunate opportunity to conduct two detailed interviews with Carlos Fuentes in London and Mexico City. As a result, my key argument is that specific spaces of intellectual production characteristic of modernity inMexico and Latin America have to be situated within the uneven conditions of capitalist development. This move enables me to highlight the overall social function of Carlos Fuentes as an intellectual and mediator for class forces in Mexico often working within the shadow of the state.

In his last BBC interview on the war on drugs in Mexico he claimed that ‘the old Mexico is perishing before our very eyes’ and that a new movement for change was underway. Days before his death, Fuentes wrote a two-part opinion editorial for the Mexican newspaper Reforma, entitled ‘Viva el socialismo. Pero . . .’ [Long live socialism. But . . .]. He covers the recent electoral victory of François Hollande in France and wider geopolitical issues. On one hand, he fondly recalls his friendship with Francois Mitterand as ‘neighbours in the same Parisian street in the 1970s’ and the possibilities of social reform that Mitterand sought within the capitalist system. On the other hand, Fuentes outlines the ‘response of France to the great challenge of civil society that faces all governments: the collapse of authoritarianism in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia’. Across Europe, in the face of the ‘Occupants’ – Berlusconi, Cameron, Merkel and now Hollande – there is the impatience of the ‘Occupiers’, the emerging movement of civil society. It was between these pressures of the relations between ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ in Mexico that the social function of Carlos Fuentes was so often caught.

His concluding comment in this diptych on socialism and reform was: ‘Mexico note – I am worried and impatient that these great issues today are beyond the discussion of the candidates for the presidency of Mexico, dedicated to defects found in one or the other and leaving aside the agenda of the future’.

As a great commentator on the past, as active memory in the present, and also as an essential part in the desire to shape the future, it remains to be seen how 2012 will play out in Mexico without one of its most astute intellectuals-at-large.

Adam David Morton

Polling Observatory #14: Cameron in Crisis? Conservative collapse continues

This is the fourteenth of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls.By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

Last month we observed the first decisive shift in public opinion since the turn against the Liberal Democrats in the early months of coalition, with the Conservatives losing nearly 4 points in as many weeks. At the time, it was unclear if this was a minor bump in the road, a reaction to an unusual run of bad news stories following a poorly received budget, a flash panic over fuel protests and the “cash for access” scandal.

If the Conservatives were hoping for a change in fortune in April, they hoped in vain. Headlines about dodgy party treasurers and angry tanker drivers were replaced with the omnipresent “omnishambles” – the embarrassing mismanagement by Theresa May’s Home Office of Abu Qatada. When critics were not savaging the familiar target of the Home Office, they were sharpening their pens to condemn Britain’s slide back into recession, or to highlight growing discontent with Cameron and Osborne’s leadership, symbolised most dramatically by backbencher Nadine Dorries’ attack on them as “arrogant posh boys

Our new polling estimates suggest the main governing party’s woes are taking a growing toll on their public support. We estimate Conservative support at the end of April at 30.8%, a drop of 2.5 points on last month’s figures, which was already the lowest showing of the government’s term to date.

The Liberal Democrats, whose own collapse is now a distant memory, remain stable, as they have for more than a year, up 0.6 percentage points at 8.2%. Labour consolidate the gain they made last month, but make no further advance, falling 0.2 points to 40.4%.

As we noted last month, there are many possible explanations for this big shift in public judgements. The problems we identified for the Conservatives last month – perceptions of incompetence, elitism and negative public stereotypes – have all continued this month, as has the corrosive cumulative impact of a seemingly never ending stream of disappointing economic statistics. A governing party which just six months ago was perceived as united, focussed and pragmatic is now being seen by growing numbers of voters as divided, ideologically extreme and failing on both its core economic policies and in more specific areas such as health and security.

The one bright spot in this gloomy picture for Conservatives is that they no longer seem to be leaking support to either of their mainstream political rivals. At present we do not estimate support for UKIP, but their recent uptick in support has been widely documented by the individual pollsters, and was confirmed in local elections. Conservatives can take some comfort from this: much of the present UKIP support may be a temporary expression of discontent by voters who will ultimately drift back to the party, and even if some reflects more deep seated discontent, the strategic position of UKIP leave them poorly placed to exploit it in a general election. Their support is evenly spread across seats, giving them little chance of breaking through under the first-past-the-post electoral system. Many UKIP supporters may decide to vote strategically for the Conservatives when they are confronted with the brutal arithmetic in their constituencies.

That said, UKIP’s rise as the main repository for right wing discontent with the Coalition is clearly one of the big stories in recent polling. We intend to respond to this by adding an estimate of UKIP support to our model, which will appear in the next few months. With more trouble brewing in the EU and European Parliament elections looming in two years, there is every chance that UKIP will continue to poll well for the foreseeable future. This is a trend that we will monitor closely in coming months.


Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup