Let the Millennials grow up (the apathetic youth and other myths)


In two recent blog posts in reaction to PEW and Harvard Public Opinion Project reports on Millennials, John Sides warned against equating the millennial generation’s more liberal and Democratic-leaning preferences with a bright future for the Democratic Party. However, he closes his report acknowledging that the “political formation of younger Millennials isn’t over”. The problem with any claim regarding the future attitudes and behaviors of today’s youth is that they are impossible to predict. A series of articles in a recent issue of the journal Electoral Studies (edited by Anja Neundorf  and Richard Niemi) draws attention to the importance of distinguishing between the effects of ageing and the effects of belonging to a certain cohort or generation when predicting political attitudes and behaviors over the life span. Sides’ earlier contribution to this blog raises the question of whether the Millennials (those born after 1980) are indeed a distinct generation or whether they are unique in comparison to the rest of the electorate because they are still young?

The problem in researching intergenerational differences in political behavior is that age and cohort differences are interrelated. Once we know someone’s age (at a given time) we can easily work out which (birth) cohort this person belongs to. To illustrate this problem, let’s take the example of turnout. If we were to research voter turnout three questions would be central. Do we decide to participate in elections because we are e.g. middle-aged (age effect)? Do we vote because it is a pretty exciting election (period effect)? Or do citizens decide to stay at home because they came of age during the Watergate Affaire and ever since think that politics is not to be trusted and it is best to stay as far away as possible from it (cohort effect)? The truth of the matter is that all these effects impact our vote decision. The challenge is to try to disentangle the three effects methodologically. This post is an attempt to illustrate these interrelated effects in light of the Millennial generation, which has been at  the center of attention in the last two months.

We will first look at the age effect. It is common to blame young people for being apathetic, lazy, and losing moral (and civic) values. In politics, for example, young people are often blamed for having very low turnout levels or trust in institutions and political processes. But what happens if these youngsters grow into middle-aged voters? Do they remain disengaged or do they become more active?  Figure 1 plots the average turnout by age in presidential elections between 1972-2008. The figure clearly shows that young people are indeed less likely to take part in presidential races than older voters. This is the so-called age effect according to which levels of political participation change with the life experience that comes with getting older.


Figure 1: Average turnout in presidential elections 1972-2008 by age (Graph by the authors).

According to figure 1, turnout rates especially increase between the age of 20 and 40, rising from below 40% to 70% participation. Interestingly, the low turnout rate among young people was just as much of a problem in the 1970s (among the baby-boomers) as it is today (among the Millennials). In 1976, 50% of the 18-28 year olds turned out to vote in the Carter election. In 2008, 51% of the Millennials aged 18-28 voted in the Obama election. Based on these numbers, we can conclude that young voters are indeed considerably less active in electoral politics.

Figure 1, however, does not tell us anything about the Millennial generation, which includes only those born after 1980, in comparison with other generations. We hence replicated the average turnout by birth years rather than by age. As Figure 2 clearly shows, all generations born after about 1930 are less and less likely to participate in presidential elections, with a particularly sharp decrease for those born after 1980. The youngsters born in the late 1980s show a very low and worrying level of turnout of only around 20%. These are the Obama kids, as the 2008 election was the first presidential election in which they were eligible to vote. Figure 2 confirms the negative picture about the Millennials painted in research reports and in the media.


Figure 2: Average turnout in presidential elections 1972-2008 by birth year (Graph by the authors).

However, this picture of the Millennials needs to be put into perspective by taking into account the trends that we observed in figure 1. After all, the Millennials are still young. The key to understanding turnout among different age groups (figure 1) and voters born at different point in time (figure 2) is to combine the two insights. The difference between age and cohort/generation effects is best illustrated with an example. Figure 3 tracks the average turnout for people who first voted under different US Presidents. Respondents who voted for the first time in the 1948 election of President Truman show the highest average turnout of up to 85% across the entire time period for which we have survey data (1972-2010). The Kennedy generation – who first voted in the 1960 election – slowly seems to catch up with this cohort and turnout levels across these two cohorts appear equal today. The Nixon, Reagan and Clinton cohorts are tracked through time from the election in which they were first allowed to vote. Their turnout levels are on the increase.


Figure 3: Turnout patterns of cohorts coming of electoral age under different US Presidents. Graph by the authors.

Two observations can be made from figure 3. First, for each group of voters, turnout increases as people grow older (analog to figure 1). While turnout levels increase as all groups of voters age, figure 3 also shows that the starting levels of voter turnout are different for groups of voters coming of age under different Presidents. For example, turnout among first-time voters was much lower in Reagan’s 1980 election (36%) compared to Clinton’s 1992 election (42%). This points to a cohort or generation effect. The idea behind the cohort/generation approach is that it is not so much the ageing as such that make one grow in political life, but rather that social, cultural, political and historical events shape the political participation patterns of people born in a particular era. These events affect younger generations disproportionally because they have not yet developed political habits. Events, moreover, have a long-lasting (positive or negative) effect on later patterns of political behavior.

Newly eligible voters do not all face the same political context. In a recent article, we find that the character of the first elections an incoming group of voters faces is crucial to this cohort’s future turnout levels. For example, the 2008 election was a high-stake election characterized by generally high turnout levels, which in turn mobilized voters as everybody around them voted. Moreover, Obama’s victory was marginal and the two parties had quite polarizing views on many political issues, which again in general boosts turnout. In contrast, Clinton’s reelection in 1996 can be considered a low-stake election. Clinton’s landslide victory of 379 electoral votes and the general low turnout of 49%, should have a negative effect on the generation that got to know electoral politics in this relatively “boring” election.

This leaves us with the question of whether the Millennial generation is expected to pick up political engagement or not. While we do not have a crystal ball, we believe it is not too late for this generation just yet. First, the Millennials are (still) growing up in a politicized environment, which should make them more likely to develop a habit of voting. Second they still need to make the transition to adulthood (i.e. the aging effect still needs to take place). At the moment, it is “too close to call” how this generation will turn out.

For people interested in disentangling the various effects of age – which political scientists refer to as  “Age, Period, Cohort” effects – there is a host of new academic articles available on the topic in the special issue of Electoral Studies already mentioned above. For example, Larry Bartels and Simon Jackman employ a mathematical model of political learning to partisanship to estimate the critical years of heightened impact of period-specific effects or historical shocks on a citizen’s party attachments. In another example, Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker categorize historical socialization periods that identify aging and generational effects of experiences during Communism on people’s democratic and economic attitudes.


About the authors:

Anja Neundorf is Lecturer in Politics and Research Methods at the School of Politics and International Relations of The University of Nottingham.

Kaat Smets is Lecturer in Politics (Quantitative Methods) at the Department of Politics and International Relations of Royal Holloway, University of London.


 Note: This originally appeared on


“The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace” by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara



The second must-read on The Bookshelf is “The Devil’s Long Tail: Religious and Other Radicals in the Internet Marketplace” by David Stevens and Kieron O’Hara. The internet may be a utopia for free expression, but it is also a haven for nihilistic groups and individuals spreading bizarre creeds unhindered by the risk-averse gatekeepers of the mass media – and not all are as harmless as the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua or Sexastrianism. With few barriers to entry, ready anonymity and no centralised control, the internet provides wired extremists with unprecedented access to a potential global audience of billions. Technology allows people to select the information they receive – so extremists can filter out moderating voices and ignore arguments that counter their ideas, retreating into a virtual world of their own design. In The Devil’s Long Tail, the authors argue that we misunderstand extremism if we think intervention is the best way to stop it. Policies designed to disrupt extremist networks fail because they ignore the factors that push people to extremes. Extremists are driven less by ideas than by the benefits of membership of a tightly-knit group. Rather, extreme ideas should be left to sink or swim in the marketplace of ideas that the Internet has created. The internet and the web are valuable creations of a free society. Censoring them impoverishes that society while leaving the radical urge intact.


David Stevens (PhD) is Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

Kieron O’Hara (PhD) is a philosopher and Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton. In 2006 they co-authored Inequality.com: Power, Poverty and the Digital Divide.

Telescoping Passive Revolution

Telescoping3As revealed on For the Desk Drawer earlier, an updated paperback edition of my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development has now been published. A central proposition of the book is that the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development on a world scale — as the geographical expression of the contradictions of capitalism — shapes the spatial, territorial, and scalar configuration of state power. However, although shaped by the condition of uneven and combined development, it is also the balance of class forces within state spaces that alters the developmental trajectory and spatial form of statehood through emergent passive revolutionary class strategies defining the rise of a state in capitalist society.

http://adamdavidmorton.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gifIn more detail, a focus on the affinal concepts of uneven and combined development (drawing from Leon Trotsky) and passive revolution (drawing from Antonio Gramsci) reveals pertinent features of modern state formation in an historically specific sense within the twentieth century transition to and transformation of modern capitalist political space in Mexico. In relation to uneven and combined development it was Leon Trotsky that sketched how capitalism unfolds by “drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development” but also, thereby, “developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others”. To then paraphrase, the historical process is the correlation of both equalisation and differentiation within the uneven and combined development of capitalism. In my argument, Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution then refers to processes in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both “revolutionary” rupture and a “restoration” of social relations across different scales and spatial aspects of the state.

The crucial element in passive revolution is the statifying tendency to reorganise or restructure the geographies of capital accumulation. This means that the state form becomes the dominant site, generator, and product of spatial projects in attempting to maintain the relationship of ruler–ruled and the incoherence of popular initiatives from below. My argument leads to the outlook that such processes across Latin America will clearly be different across state forms. Yet the condition of passive revolution does provide certain clues to the diversity of Latin American history and thus forms of transition to capitalist modernity within the region and, especially, in relation to spaces of state power in Mexico. Hence my argument that the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) stands as one of the links in a chain of passive revolutions called forth by capitalist modernity in Latin America. My aim, then, in Revolution and State in Modern Mexico is to demonstrate how specific processes of passive revolution capture the territorial, class, and spatial relations of socially uneven and combined development in Mexico at the state level but also across various scales.

Rather than assuming a condition of ‘normal’ hegemony, characterised by the reciprocal combination of force and consent, my argument is that state space in Mexico was configured by a minimal hegemony indicative of the experience of passive revolution, where the state–coercive element superintends the struggle for hegemony. Hence the significance I place on the meaning behind telescoping passive revolution: the coercive class practices of passive revolution are best understood dialectically when telescoped with struggles for hegemony. A crucial aspect of my book is how it remains sensitive to the coercive circumstances constituting modern state formation. Passive revolution thus provides an alternative approach to theorising coercion and hegemony shaping twentieth–century state–making in Mexico. Through dialectically telescoping passive revolution together with hegemony, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico adds an additional standpoint to the emerging literature that aims to develop fresh analysis of the historical roots of coercion in relation to broader hegemonic processes of state–making in Mexico, such as Wil Pansters edited Violence, Coercion and State-Making in Twentieth Century Mexico.

The new lengthy epilogue to the paperback edition engages with some of these theoretical issues that have sprung forth within debates in Latin America on passive revolution since the publication of my book. Also, I sketch some of the dominant contemporary territorial and scalar geographies of passive revolution and forms of resistance shaping the state spatial restructuring of Mexico under capitalism. These include the war on drugs, the so-called democratic transition since the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the enduring relevance of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in commanding counter-spaces of resistance.

Adam David Morton

Picturing Politics: Berlin by night

In the eleventh Picturing Politics Dr Anja Neundorf looks at an astronaut’s image of Berlin by night and what it reveals about German reunification. The image clearly shows a divide in the city’s lighting systems and this divide is also evident in the voting habits of East and West Berliners, 24 years after the fall of the Wall.

Image by Chris Hadfield/Nasa

Image by Chris Hadfield/Nasa

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/118071428″ width=”100%” iframe=”true” /]


Can’t view the audio player above? Listen here.

You can also view a written version here.

Picturing Politics is a series of audio and video clips featuring academics commenting on the political significance of a diverse range of images. The series is intended to offer an invaluable insight into the many ways in which politics has been imagined – quite literally – throughout history, and also the ways in which images have been used to shape and influence our understanding of politics.

80s nostalgia for the Labour victory of 1945

This post originally appeared on the Observing the 80s blog.

In the wake of Labour’s disastrous 1983 campaign Tony Benn informed readers of the Guardian newspaper that despite appearances it was a great achievement, because, ‘for the first time since 1945, a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people’.

During the 1980s Benn was not alone on the left and centre-left in looking at Labour’s first majority administration through rose-tinted glasses. The more Margaret Thatcher dismantled a post-war ‘consensus’ largely cast in the image of Clement Attlee’s government, the better 1945 looked. Benn’s claim that Labour’s 1945 programme represented ‘socialism’ in the same ways as did its 1983 manifesto was however contested. Certainly those Labour right-wingers who formed the Social Democratic Party in 1981 – among whom numbered Attlee’s own son – argued they were the legitimate legatees of the 1945 government. Yet, as Mass-Observation’s research at the time suggested, at least as interpreted by historians like me, few of those who voted Labour in 1945 were overtly socialist or social democratic.

How many Britons were enthralled by these attempts to appropriate the spirit of ‘45 is uncertain. Between 1982 and 1985, however, millions of ITV viewers watched the series Shine on Harvey Moon, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, one of a number of fictions about politics that I look at in my forthcoming book A State of Play.  As Gran recalled in 2009, he and Marks wrote Shine on Harvey Moon:

because people were so miserable in this country, so sorry for themselves we thought we’d write about a time which was really hard,  but a time when there was hope and we made the central character into a campaigning Labour councillor.  That was really written as an Attleeist piece, full of hope and righteous indignation and a certain amount of laughs.  It was written from the point of view of us actually believing that politics was not a completely ignoble undertaking and actually could do good and, at times in our history, has done good.

It was a remarkably partisan series, one that would have found little favour with the Prime Minister. Yet, because Marks and Gran wrote in a popular idiom, those who reviewed television in the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph did not take it seriously, seeing it as ‘low brow drama’ or ‘a nostalgic little comedy’. Possibly for that reason, even the Daily Express liked it – although one of its critics was irritated by a ‘Dickens-like factory scenes with Harvey arguing trade unionism’. Sadly, Mass Observation’s 1980s surveys failed to pick up what its respondents thought about Shine on Harvey Moon. But responses to its autumn 1988 directive on television watching suggest the series was likely to have spawned hundreds if not thousands of conversations in households across the country.

Interviewed in the Daily Star in 1984, Marks claimed Harvey ‘is just Mr. Average. He’s a Joe Bloggs who’s struggling to get by’. Returning home in Hackney after the war to an estranged wife and two children, Harvey’s is a world of austerity.  But it is also one of optimism, thanks to the Attlee government, one with which Harvey closely identifies. Ambitious for himself and his family, Harvey is however no selfish individualist, and believes his aspirations can be fulfilled only as part of the more general improvement of conditions for the working class, something he hopes will occur under Labour. The series moreover sides with Harvey and his view of the world by pointing out the realities of falling sick before the National Health Service and even, to the chagrin of the Express, showed the role unions played in improving working conditions.

While positive about Attlee’s achievements, and definitely anti-Tory, Marks and Gran present Labour as a rather flawed vehicle of change. On first entering the party Harvey dislikes being referred to as ‘comrade’ and finds its procedures irritating and po-faced. Many Labour members are also middle class. Indeed one leading activist is a posh solicitor who employs Harvey as his clerk and when he becomes a Parliamentary candidate he has Harvey serve drinks at a celebratory reception. There, Harvey engages with a group of left-wing intellectuals so alienating he quotes George Orwell’s comment that socialists were often the reason many people disliked socialism. Moreover, while Harvey hopes for a ‘classless society’, even under Labour, privilege remains, leading him to make a pointed remark about Cabinet ministers sending their sons to Eton. Furthermore, on the night he is elected councilor, Harvey meets Herbert Morrison who mistakenly believes he has won his ward thanks to dirty tricks – of which Morrison thoroughly approves – thereby contrasting Harvey’s idealism with the cynicism of Labour’s real Deputy leader.

This is, then, a strange kind of nostalgia, one that sees the 1940s through the prism of a populist mistrust of representative politics, a sentiment the writers more vigorously mined in their later 1980s comedy series The New Statesman. Running on ITV from 1987 to 1992, this was set in contemporary Westminster and was a work of utter cynicism, which depicted politics as ineffably corrupt. If the central character, Alan B’Stard, is the ultimate personification of Thatcherism, the series’ few Labour characters do not emerge with much credit either.

The vision Marks and Gran have of politics in the 1940s is notably more optimistic than their view of 1980s politics. To them 1945 was a moment of possibility and considerable achievement. But while open to the participation of ‘ordinary’ working men (if not women), Labour is nonetheless shown as over-populated by doctrinaire middle-class intellectuals and cynical machine politicians. In some ways however Marks and Gran better evoked the uncertainty, hope and skepticism that actually existed in 1945 – and which Mass Observation notably picked up in its reports on popular feeling – than did the self-interested perspectives articulated by Benn and the SDP in the 1980s, or much later, in Ken Loach’s 2013 film The Spirit of ‘45.

Steven Fielding

The impact of civil-military relations on Pakistan’s foreign policy

Image by Navnetmitt

Image by Navnetmitt

Assessing the role played by core decision-making bodies in Pakistan is interesting as the National Security Council (NSC) and the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) reflect the civil-military problematique that affects the country. The failure to establish a shared and effective decision-making mechanism is one of the factors, besides Indian military superiority, that led to the Pakistani defeat in the 1971 conflict with India, which culminated with the independence of Bangladesh, and the Kargil war in 1999.

The idea of creating a National Security Council has always been advocated by the Pakistani military in order to create a legal framework for their role in security and foreign policy. In this context, the NSC was established in 1969 under the military government of Yahya Khan but remained merely a paper organization rather than an effective decision-making body. As a result, the lack of civil-military co-ordination in assessing the risks and implications of Pakistan’s policy towards its eastern wing, which eventually became Bangladesh, was one of the reasons for the Pakistani defeat in the 1971 war with India.

The NSC was abandoned by the civilian government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who established, in 1976, the DCC at the heart of the decision-making mechanism in order to reaffirm the supremacy of democratically elected politicians over the military. However, when, in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq took power through a military coup, the General tried to restore the NSC. Nevertheless, the idea was strongly opposed by the political parties and had to be dropped. The NSC was finally dissolved in 1993 under Benazir Bhutto’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the military’s preference for the NSC emerged again in 1998 under Nawaz Sharif’s government. The Chief of Army Staff Jehangir Karamat argued during a speech at the Navy War College in Lahore that there was a need to create a NSC, in order to institutionalize the military’s role in the decision-making process. Sharif did not like this statement and Karamat was forced to resign. It was eventually under Pervez Musharraf, who took power with a military coup in 1999, that the NSC was approved by the parliament in 2004 and thereby became part of Pakistan’s Constitution. With the end of the Musharraf era and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) victory in the 2008 elections, the DCC again replaced the NSC at the centre of the security and foreign policy decision-making mechanism.

As far as the DCC is concerned, it was created under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with the White Paper on Defence Organisation. However, it never actually functioned as part of the decision-making process. The rationale behind the DCC is to establish civilian guidance in security and defence policy, thereby signifying the supremacy of civil power over the military in domestic politics. However, due to the preeminent role played by Pakistan’s Army when it comes to security and foreign policy matters, the DCC failed to fulfill its remit.

As the above background highlights, the lack of institutionalization of the defence decision-making process had immediate consequences in the policy outcomes during the crises and therefore in the military defeats that Pakistan witnessed both in 1971 and in 1999. The unending tensions between the Prime Minister and the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) prevented cohesion and coherence in Pakistan’s foreign policy-making. Also, what emerges from the analysis of how these key decision-making structures performed in both the 1971 and the 1999 crises is that the civil-military clashes are reflected in the decision-making bodies, in the sense that lack of agreement around which decision-making structure, the National Security Council or the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, was to be in charge of the security policy of Pakistan deeply affected the final outcome of Pakistan’s strategic posture.

In fact, the DCC and the NSC are institutional bodies formally established but actually never operational in defining foreign policy and defence goals. In particular during the Kargil war, the Corp Commanders Conference (CCC) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) were considered to be the decisive bodies in the decision-making process. What is thus striking is that although a democratically elected government was in charge, the foreign policy was de facto planned and conducted by the army. On one hand, Sharif was committing the country to the “composite dialogue” peace process with India, while on the other hand the military’s top brass were planning the Kargil operation.

As for the 1971 war, the NSC, although created in 1969, was not operational under General Yahya Khan, who instead centralized the decision-making process in his person and in a few military leaders, relegating the civilian cabinet and the NSC to the role of empty bodies without any power in defining foreign policy goals. The struggle between civilian and military leaders showed itself in the inability to set a clear, coherent and shared vision of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The apparent democratic renaissance that the country witnessed in 2008 and in the wake of the May 2013 elections provides a few tokens that the decision-making mechanism, including the DCC and Parliamentary committees, is starting to work properly under civilian control. Particularly in the last few years, the DCC met several times to discuss the security issues that Pakistan was facing, such as the crises related to the supply routes for NATO’s coalition in Afghanistan in 2011-2012. Nevertheless, civilian involvement in an effective foreign and security policy decision-making process is still limited. The meetings the DCC held in the last six years were in response to contingent crises and the decisions taken have never actually been implemented. What is thus required, not only to reaffirm the principle of civilian supremacy but also to truly channel the decision-making process through institutional structures, is for these meetings to be held on a monthly basis to create a framework for defining the country’s goals. In light of these considerations, it will be of particular interest both for the decision-making process and, by and large, for the evolution of the civil-military interplay in Pakistan, to see the role, within Pakistan’s defence institutional architecture and decision-making bodies, that will be assigned to the COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who has announced his retirement on November 29th. Rumours in Pakistan suggest that he will be appointed as chair of a “revived” Joints Chiefs of Staff Committee, which is thus going to become a key pillar among Pakistan’s defence institutions.

Filippo Boni is a first year Ph.D. student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on bilateral ties between Pakistan and China, particularly looking at how the civil-military interplay in Pakistan is influencing the relationship between the two countries. The above is an extract from his MRes dissertation. 

50 years after Macmillan retired, what can Cameron learn from ‘SuperMac’?


Image used under an Open Government License

A slick Tory toff is Prime Minister. He struggles to maintain Britain’s status in the world, wrestles with disunity in his party, but seeks to win an election promoting a land of opportunity. I refer not to David Cameron, but to Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime Minister almost exactly 50 years ago.

So how does David Cameron compare to Harold Macmillan, and what can the current Prime Minister learn from ‘SuperMac’, the Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan and Cameron are cut from the same cloth in that they can both be seen as actor-politicians. Both were and are superb at the set-piece occasions. Indeed, Macmillan’s motto, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan was ‘Quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’ He even had that quote pinned on his Cabinet door. Underneath, Macmillan was anything but calm: he was regularly sick before the weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions.

By contrast, Cameron is a natural leader in public and in private, conveying the air of someone born to rule. His Commons handling of the apologies over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough were exemplary. He handles the big state occasions well. In short, he looks and sounds like a leader in a way that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Macmillan and Cameron face similar problems in relation to foreign affairs. One of Macmillan’s greatest achievements as Prime Minster was to repair the ‘Special Relationship’ with America, which had been blighted following the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. Macmillan used his charm with Dwight Eisenhower, the American President to negotiate the 1958 Nassau Agreement, which governs the British-American nuclear relationship to this day. Fast forwarding to 2013, Cameron must repair the Special Relationship, following his recent humiliation over the Commons defeat on British military action in Syria.

Both Macmillan and Cameron have had to reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe and have landed in trouble thanks to resistance from the French. Whereas Macmillan’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963 was met with a loud French raspberry from General de Gaulle, Cameron’s decision to promise an ‘In-Out’ referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in January 2013 has again upset our Gallic partners.

The two Prime Ministers also share the problem of rebellious traditionalists in their parliamentary parties. For Macmillan, it was Empire loyalists who opposed his ‘Wind of Change’ decolonisation policies in Africa. For Cameron, it is a massive Tory right-wing, numbering more than a 100, who have opposed him on a whole range of issues from House of Lords reform to gay marriage.

But if there are similarities between the two Prime Ministers, Cameron is different in that unlike Macmillan, he is prepared to move with the times. Macmillan hailed from an Edwardian era where men especially didn’t show their feelings. His prudishness about all matters sexual was cruelly exposed during the Profumo Scandal in 1963. Already haunted by the fact that his wife Dorothy was having a long-term affair with Lord Boothby, Macmillan froze and handled the issue badly. Ultimately, it contributed to his downfall.

By contrast, Cameron is attempting to drag his party kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by supporting gay marriage. Ever since Macmillan’s day, the British people have moved in an almost relentlessly liberal direction on social issues, and Cameron realises that he has to change his party to reflect that fact.

In terms of economic policy, there is a huge gulf between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan believed in the so-called ‘Middle Way’, a happy medium between socialism and capitalism. Macmillan’s economic views were shaped from his experiences in the First World War when officers and men from different social classes mixed more easily than in the past, and during his encounters with his impoverished Stockton constituents in the depression years of the 1930s.

Constantly fretting about the return of another depression ‘SuperMac’ wanted to go for economic growth, almost at any price. Many in his Cabinet disagreed. In 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor resigned along with his entire Treasury team in protest at Macmillan’s expansionist policies.

In truth, Macmillan’s support for the ‘Middle Way’ is much closer to New Labour’s adherence to its ‘Third Way’. Were Macmillan alive today, he would be thrown out of the Conservative Party for being a socialist. In his retirement, remember, Macmillan attacked the Thatcher government for ‘selling off the family silver’ through its privatisation policies. When Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s biographer admitted that he wasn’t a very good Tory, ‘SuperMac’ replied, ‘Nor was I dear boy.’ As Cameron embarks upon flogging Royal Mail to investors and selling publicly owned banking shares at a discount price, he should heed Macmillan’s warning.

Cameron could learn most from Macmillan in terms of his ability to win elections. Macmillan’s greatest triumph came in 1959 when he won a landslide majority of 100 against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Labour had launched a highly professional campaign, making good use of television for the first time, but Macmillan trumped that by appealing to the British people’s innate love of the consumer society. Macmillan won big in 1959 because he realised that voters wanted a washing machine, a fridge and a television set. Cameron’s recent Conference speech where he extolled the virtues of a profit-making economy surely echoes Macmillan’s rallying cry of 1959.

Although Cameron is unlikely to repeat Macmillan’s 1959 feat of winning an outright majority at the next election, he remains the Conservative Party’s biggest asset because he, like ‘SuperMac’ realises that elections are fought and won on the centre ground.

Mark Stuart

Top picks from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archives

Yesterday Lady Gaga tweeted the imminent appearance of the artwork to the cover of her new album – for her fans 6pm could not come fast enough. In a similar way, some will have been on tenterhooks to hear just which Liberal Democrat got what mediocre job in the reshuffle. It can be funny what we eagerly anticipate.

And whilst the Gaga fans can lay claim to being cooler, it was another Lady who grasped my attention for much of yesterday after this tweet by The Thatcher Foundation on 4th October:

If you haven’t ever checked out The Thatcher Foundation’s website and you have the remotest interests in British political history you should go there now. Beware; you may be there for some time. The site is a model for how an archive ought to work in the digital age – time and money prevent other Prime Ministers being afforded the same indulgence I guess.

It goes without saying that the Foundation is, online and accessible to all, making available some truly historic and valuable material. But it is also – as importantly – laying bare the mundane and everyday nature of what it would be like to be Prime Minister; and indeed the Whitehouse couldn’t get around to buying a Birthday Card.

Whitehouse birthday card

So to whet your appetite here are some of my picks from yesterday’s releases:

1) In 1936 Neville Chamberlain – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – wrote in the Daily Telegraph of how he had spent many months at Number 11 trying to identify a particular bird by its call. In contrast, if the Thatcher archives demonstrate just one thing it is the sheer workload of a modern politician and Prime Minister. And it isn’t all conference calls with World leaders…:

As you say, in parallel with the relaxation of controls over balloons I shall be amending the aerial advertising regulations to permit the towing of advertising banners behind aeroplanes.



2) If that wasn’t glamorous enough:

The store assures me that a hat won’t be necessary.

Sainsbury's hat

I understand that there are photographs on the wall of all previous Prime Ministers.

No 10 bar

3) On top of this, as a woman in politics, Thatcher faced an extra pressure that is unlikely to be recorded in many other Prime Ministerial archives – her appearance:

Jean Muir suede 2-piece


I am told that you would be well advised to wear an A-line skirt, though I have no idea what that is.

A line skirt

Prime Minister’s hair during campaign



4) Then there is the both humdrum and brutal business of being at the top of the greasy pole:

I sense that you are a little bored with these afternoon tea parties!‘ She was.


He is no good and ought to go.’ (Perhaps another post but, if you visit the archive for only one reason, do so for Ian Gow’s (Thatcher’s first Prime Ministerial Principle Private Secretary) notes of which this is one.)

5) And so, how to relax? An episode or two of ‘Cannon’ of course!


Matthew Bailey

Making an impact: What hacks want from boffins

Boffins café at the University of Nottingham

Boffins café at the University of Nottingham

As the only boffin – defined as ‘anyone with a job in a university, a science GCSE or a labcoat’ – at last night’s launch of Rob Hutton’s new book on journalese, I spent much of the evening grafting at the academia-practitioner interface (there must be a grant for this…?).

One conversation struck me in particular. Without naming him, it was with a well-known and respected journalist, and one who often uses academic work, and with proper credit too. One of the goodies, in other words. He reported that he had recently started to get a large number of emails from university PR and press bods, offering quotes from their university’s academics for his stories. What, he wondered, explained this? Cue a brief explanation of the REF.

But the trouble is, he said, that most of these emails were next to useless. Why? Because they offered Statements of the Blindingly Obvious, or SOTBOs. ‘Syria: not very nice all things considered, but jolly tricky, and won’t be easy to solve, says professor’. I made that up, but it sounded like the sort of stuff he was getting. He couldn’t do anything with material like that. So he’d hit delete – at which point there would be a phone call from the university’s press team wondering why he was not using their brilliant quote.

What he needed – and then would very happily use – was stuff that he couldn’t get elsewhere, especially at short notice. So historical examples (‘the last time this happened was 1837’), or overseas examples (‘the French did this; didn’t end well’), or insights that a generalist would have missed (‘you do realise that this is the same as…’). In other words, something, anything, that added value to the discussion. Academics should be able to do this when discussing their research specialism – if they can’t, perhaps they should consider a change of career? – but too many were offering up SOTBOs instead. SOTBOs do have a place – and occasionally journalists do want them, just to pad a piece out, but when they do, they will ask for them. When we push ourselves onto them, we should be ensuring that we provide something that they can’t get elsewhere.

When we launched this blog, adding value was one of the under-pinning principles. We’ve not always managed it, but it was at least the aim. And it’s no coincidence that the best pieces, those that get read a lot, are those that do this precisely that – such as this piece on why Iraq had no impact on young people’s engagement with politics, or on public attitudes to fracking, or on the impact of the riots (our most read blog post), or the regular Polling Observatory pieces, or (modesty does not forbid) occasional articles on backbench rebellions. They are very different pieces, but one thing that unites them is that they are SOTBO-free. The same should apply to any emails we send to journalists, pimping our work.

Philip Cowley

Cameron ‘determined to win’ debate on fracking: public opinion is moving in his favour

In a recent Daily Telegraph column, David Cameron says that ‘Fracking has become a national debate in Britain – and it’s one that I’m determined to win’. He means ‘win’, of course, in the sense of getting approval for the extraction of shale gas in the UK through the use of the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’.

The latest findings from the University of Nottingham’s team looking at public perceptions of shale gas show that, despite warnings about earthquakes, water contamination, and  increasing carbon emissions, the UK public increasingly approve of the exploitation of shale gas as an energy source.  Over a sixteen month period of regular surveys, the public is both becoming more knowledgeable about, and more positive towards, shale.  The percentage of people able to identify shale gas from an opening question about hydraulic fracturing has risen from 37.6% in the initial poll carried out in March 2012 to 62.2% in the latest, July 2013 poll.

One of the potentially attractive features of shale gas is that, compared with other sources of energy such as renewables, it may be seen as cheap at the point of sale. The number of people who associate shale gas with being a ‘cheap fuel’ has risen from 40.5% in the first survey to 55% now, and the positive rating for shale (the ‘do associate’ minus the ‘don’t associate’) is +33.4, up from +11.4 in the first survey, and steadily rising throughout the period.

Shale gas - cheap energy

So, shale gas may be seen as ‘cheap’, and therefore of appeal to people who see themselves as potential consumers, but do people believe it to be clean? Here the plurality is still against shale, but the trends are moving steadily in favour of shale gas. In the initial 2012 survey only 25.3% thought of this as a clean energy source, compared with 44.8 who did not, giving a negative rating of -19.5. In the latest survey a third (33.5%) of people think of shale as clean, and 36.5% believe the opposite, leaving an negative rating of only -3. We see the same if we look at the expected impact of shale on greenhouse gas emissions. We have a very consistent plurality of ‘don’t knows’ of around 45-50%, but amongst those who do express a view as to whether shale is good or bad for the atmosphere we have gone from a negative rating of -0.4 in June 2012 (26.6%-27%) to a positive rating of 13.5 (32.8%-19.3%) in July 2013. On another ‘cleanliness’ issue, water contamination, we see negative ratings for shale but again the same trends. In March 2012 44.5% of respondents associate shale with water contamination, and only 23.9% did not. In July 2013 the respective figures were 35.2% and 29.8%. This gives a move in ratings (if we take association with water contamination to represent disapproval) from -20.6 to -5.4 in this period.

Shale gas - clean energy

Shale gas - greenhouse gas emissions

Shale gas - water contamination

One association that is firmly planted in the public mind is between shale gas and ‘earthquakes’. The number of people making this association has remained high throughout, standing at 58.5% in the first survey and at 59.3% in the latest survey. Those who do not make this association stood at 21.4% in the first survey and 20.1% now, so we have seen no more than trendless fluctuation around this variable, in part, presumably, due to the high media profile of the events surrounding earth tremors in Blackpool associated with Cuadrilla’s exploratory drilling operation at Preese Hall.

Shale gas - earthquakes

We also asked whether shale gas extraction in the UK should be allowed, a question intended to capture people’s overall judgement on shale. When we first asked this in June 2012, 52.6% were in favour and 27% against (+25.6); in July 2013, these figures stood at 58.3% and 18.8% (+39.5).

None of this means, however, that shale gas has particularly high approval ratings when compared with other potential sources of energy. When asked which sources should be part of the UK energy mix in 2025, where shale is put up against a range of alternatives, 61.6% of respondents say that it should be part of the mix. This puts shale roughly on par with nuclear (65.6%), coal (62.1%), and biomass (59.9%). Despite the trends identified in the data shale remains the second-least popular source of energy, and well behind hydro at 91.9% and solar at 90.2%. Looking at these figures we have to bear in mind that there are significant differences between the availability and reliability of these different sources of energy. It is worth noting that ‘conventional’ gas scores much higher than shale gas at 81.7%. This raises a question as to whether some of the public object to fracking techniques, or whether they believe (mistakenly) that ‘unconventional’ shale gas is a different gas to ‘conventional’ natural gas. We will look at this question in future surveys.

Shale gas - should extraction in the UK be allowed

Shale gas - should the following be part of UK's energy mix

Overall, then, we see very clear trends in this data, and the British public continue to warm to shale. However, this does not entail that shale gas is a wildly popular alternative to other forms of energy, although it remains to be seen whether that will change if the current movement in the climate of opinion continues.

Sarah O’Hara, School of Geography, University of Nottingham

Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

The surveys

The University of Nottingham shale gas survey has been conducted by YouGov. It was first run in March 2012 with the most recent survey  taking place over a three-day window between June 30th and July 2nd 2013. The surveys are nationally representative and have been weighted. The total number of people that have responded to the survey has ranged between 2126 and 3697.

Shale gas - the surveys