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Reflections on the Virus 5: Is this 1945 all over again?

 

 

city view at london

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The similarities between our present, COVID-19 dominated, situation and that pertaining in the run-up to the 1945 election is fascinating.

Then, as now, the country was faced with a significant external threat. The parallels are heightened here by the war imagery currently being used by politicians and the media. Fighting the virus is a war against an invisible enemy and the battle is being fought on the front line by doctors and nurses rather than soldiers.

Then, as now, the Government’s response was to use the full power of the state to tackle the threat. Then, as now, the state intervened in the market economy necessitating huge increases in public spending. Then, as now, significant restrictions on personal liberty were instituted and largely accepted by a population that recognised the greater importance of defeating the enemy.

Not only this. There are also great similarities with the party leaders. Then, as now, the Government was led by a flamboyant and charismatic leader whose rhetorical flourishes were a strength but whose grasp of administrative detail left something to be desired. Moreover, Johnson, like Churchill, is regarded as a maverick by some in his own party, preferring to be above party politics. This last point applies particularly to Churchill, who served in both Liberal and Conservative Cabinets in peace time as well as Coalition, or National, governments during the two World Wars. Johnson, like Churchill, though, is much more popular with the Tory rank and file than he is with the party establishment. Moreover, he has not come across as a ‘natural’ Conservative – in his roles as London Mayor and as Conservative leader – particularly when it comes to state intervention.

One is also struck by the similarities between Keir Starmer and Clement Attlee. Both were elected to succeed far left Labour leaders (George Lansbury in the case of the latter and Corbyn in the case of the former) but were themselves more moderate and pragmatic. Starmer, like Attlee, lacks the charismatic flamboyance of his main political opponent but, like Attlee, he is methodical and, as you would expect from a lawyer, is capable of a detailed grasp of his brief. Starmer’s forensic demolition of the Government’s proposals to ease the lockdown was a striking illustration of this.

I would contend, too, that Starmer understands very well the similarities between the current political situation and the run up to the 1945 election. In a remarkable, but little commented-upon, broadcast to the nation on 11 May, Starmer drew direct parallels. ‘We are’, he said, ‘living through the biggest threat this country has faced for a generation’ and ‘when this is over, I’m determined we will build a better society…because after all the sacrifices and loss we cannot go back to business as usual…we cannot go back to a society where we do not invest in our public services…We must go forward with a vision of a better society’. Starmer in 2020 or Attlee in 1945? Difficult to tell!

We should not take the parallels too far perhaps. For one thing, Starmer has little experience of high office whereas Attlee, by 1945, had been Labour leader for ten years and Deputy Prime Minister for half of that time. Moreover, unlike Churchill, Johnson did not become Prime Minister as a result of the crisis but won a General Election fair and square in ‘peacetime’.

Of course, it is in Starmer’s interests to draw parallels with the aftermath of the Second World War because Labour secured a commanding majority at the 1945 election. There are, however, significant differences. There was little that Churchill could do to prevent an election in 1945, but it might have been a different story had he remained in office and stole Labour’s thunder on social reconstruction. By contrast, the Conservatives will be in office for a few years after the pandemic crisis has waned, and Johnson may not be judged entirely on his Government’s handling of it. Had an election been due sooner, the result could have been very interesting.

Far and away the biggest difference is that the sacrifices of the Second World War were, of course, that much greater. In addition, the demand for change in 1945 was based on a determination not to return to the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s. Whilst the pandemic has revealed, to some extent, the debilitating effects of inequality in British society, general standards of living, even taking into account the economic consequences of the lockdown, are infinitely higher than they were in the 1930s.

 

 

Reflections on the Virus 4: The Politics of COVID-19

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Price Prize he was awarded in 2007, Al Gore, the former American Vice President, made the claim that ‘The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity’. The reason why Gore does not see climate change as a political issue is presumably because he thinks it is a ‘no-brainer’. In other words, he thinks that climate change will damage everyone’s interests because it will destroy the planet. It is therefore in everyone’s interests to do something about it and fast. In other words, there is no political decision to be made.

Lurking beneath this interpretation of Gore’s claim is the assumption that politics is predicated on the existence of differences. These differences might be about interests (self-interest) or they might be about values (what we think are important objectives for society irrespective of our particular interests). Politics is there defined as the process by which groups representing divergent interests and values make collective decisions.

Now, the claim that climate change is not a political issue is of doubtful veracity partly on the grounds that it does not affect everyone in the same way and, at least for the currently living, there is not a threat to human existence. That is, acting on climate change, particularly when doing so has significant economic consequences, is not necessarily in everybody’s interests or not to the same degree.

What of the current pandemic? Is there a case for saying that coronavirus is not a political issue but merely one that requires the objective expertise and judgment of scientists and medical professionals? Listening to Government Ministers claim, as they often do, that they are merely following the science certainly gives credence to such a claim.

What it would require for politics, defined in the way I have done so above, to be absent in the coronavirus crisis is for it to threaten everyone in similar ways, and for acting on it to be consistent with universally held values. A useful parallel is the common threat often said to exist in the event of war. In Britain, for instance, the country’s internal politics was put on hold during the Second World War and there was no General Election between 1935 and 1945. It is no accident, perhaps, that war-time metaphors have been regularly used in the pandemic crisis. Thus, we are ‘at war with an invisible killer’ and healthcare professionals are on the ‘front line’ against it.

Of course, war between sovereign states is predicated on the existence of conflict between them and, as the nineteenth century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz memorably pointed out, war is ‘the continuation of politics by other means.’ Given that the present pandemic is a global threat and sovereign states have been, for the most part, supporting each other in fighting it, there would seem to be a stronger case for regarding it as being above politics, similar, perhaps, to an attack on Earth by aliens as envisaged by science fiction writers.

It would be wrong, however, to regard coronavirus as a non-political issue. There might be a case for regarding it as such if it threatened all humans with the same outcome (death). This is clearly not the case. Indeed, for most people, COVID-19 is pretty harmless. For the young, in particular, it barely registers. For other, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, it can and has been deadly. As a result, competing interests do exist. The action taken against it, in most cases some form of ‘lockdown’, does not serve everyone’s interests, and it serves some people’s interests much more than others.

Protecting people from the virus inevitably conflicts with some interests and values. Crucially, of course, there are acute economic costs which will be played out in declining standards of living in the future. There are also impacts on human development, not least in the case of the shut-down of schools and universities. Children’s future prospects, and particularly those from poorer backgrounds, are, it is said, likely to be damaged by their inability to access formal education. The negative psychological effects of social isolation should also not be underestimated.

Values, too, are under attack and not least the limits placed on freedom deemed necessary to control the transmission of the virus. It is one of the fundamental articles of liberal faith – exemplified by the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill – that the state should not intervene to prohibit ‘self-regarding’ actions (those that affect the individual alone), irrespective of the risks the individual is willing to take. A counter argument here would be that anyone deliberately flouting the lockdown measures is behaving, as Mill would put it, in an illegitimately ‘other-regarding’ fashion since the potential consequences – of further spreading the infection – will affect others negatively. A possibly useful compromise (one which is close to the strategy of the Swedish Government) is to self-isolate those who are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the virus whilst allowing others to behave as relatively normal, thereby preserving at least some of their liberty.

The politics of coronavirus requires a balancing of the interests and values involved. The debate surrounding schools is instructive. The Government has proposed the gradual reopening of schools but this proposal has met opposition from some teachers and parents as well as the medical profession. It is important to recognise that all of these actors have (some) competing interests which they will seek to defend and added to the equation are the interests of children (not always the same as their parents) which are probably more likely to be ignored.

The state’s role, in a democratic pluralist political system, is to seek to balance the competing interests that are articulated. Crucially, it cannot, if a fair compromise is to be achieved, prioritise the interests of one group over another, seriously disadvantaging the interests of others, unless a failure to do so is to put one group at serious and substantial risk.

 

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE VIRUS 3: LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS

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Undoubtedly the biggest area of controversy in the coronavirus crisis has been the use of statistical evidence relating to death rates.  

We are regularly told now that Britain has the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in Europe and the second largest, after the United States, in the world. That may or may not be true. Countries have different ways of recording deaths and there are varying degrees of accuracy. In Italy, for instance, there is no national figure for deaths in care homes, whereas Britain now records all sites of death in the daily figures. The British Office for National Statistics (ONS) is considered as one of the best compilers of data in the world and this might have the effect of inflating the difference between death rates in the UK and elsewhere. It should be noted that the figures provided by the ONS attribute deaths to the virus if it mentioned as a possible cause on death certificates. In contrast, the figures provided by the Government require a positive test for coronavirus.  

One other issue is the sensitivity of the tests for the virus used. The more sensitive, and accurate, they are the more deaths are going to be associated with the virus, and vice versa. In addition, finally, can we really trust the data from closed authoritarian countries such as China where the deaths per-millions is remarkably, and some would say unbelievably, small?

Finally, of course, the full impact of COVID-19 is not yet known. The experience of other viruses suggests that a second, or even third, peak might be even more severe. At the very least, we will have to wait until annual excess death rates are compiled. 

If it is the case that the UK does have the highest death rate in Europe, then we can look for possible reasons. One might be a failure to utilise testing earlier and in a more widespread fashion. Other countries, particularly South Korea and Germany, did just this and their lower death rates might be explained by the rapid action taken. On the other hand, Italy has done a lot of tests and yet still has a high death rate in comparative terms. 

Another reason for varying death rates, not one that it’s possible to blame the Government for, relates to density of population. The denser the population, the easier it is for the infection to be transmitted. Here, the UK is at a significant disadvantage. The population density of the UK is 275 people per sq. km. At the other extreme, the population density of Australia is 3 people per sq. km, and in New Zealand it is 18. In Europe, the UK has a higher population density than Sweden, Spain, Ireland, France, Italy, and Germany – we are, in other words, a crowded island as I’m sure you have recognised for yourselves! In addition, the density of population in urban areas is hugely important. It is no surprise at all that death rates have been highest in New York City and London, two of the most densely populated urban centres in the world.

Raw international comparisons are not particularly helpful though. We must also, of course, take population size into account. The UK’s population (of 67m) is bigger than Italy (60m), Spain (46m), Belgium (11m) and France (65m) so a greater number of deaths might be expected in the UK. The Population of the United States is 330 million (broadly equivalent to the combined total of the five most populated countries in Europe). In the second week of May, the total deaths attributed to COVID-19 in these five European countries (more than 120,000) was 50% higher than that of the USA.

As the UK Government’s scientific advisers have regularly said, the key indicator of the virus’s impact, in the UK and elsewhere, will be excess deaths (the difference between normal rates and those during the COVID crisis). Although all deaths from the virus are very tragic, and the pain and suffering of the victims and their families and friends should never be underestimated, some perspective is needed here. Having the daily death rates flashed on our TV screens tends to disguise the fact that, in normal times, people die every day too, and in sizeable numbers. 

So, in 2018, a total of 616,014 people died in the UK, that’s 11,846 per week or 1,687 a day. Now, this year’s death rate will undoubtedly be higher. And much of this can be explained by COVID-19. However, the annual excess death rate is important because it is a sad fact that some (maybe many) of those whose deaths are attributed to COVID are likely to have died anyway during the year. In this context, I find it baffling that some seem to express surprise and shock that the death rate is much higher in care homes than anywhere else. Of course it will be! Those who go into care homes tend to be elderly and also tend to have underlying health conditions, making them extremely vulnerable to the virus.

One other factor here is that the lockdown itself will not be neutral. That is, excess deaths this year are likely to occur as a result of the lockdown. This will be a product of an unwillingness of people to attend hospital with other medical complaints, the diversion of health resources to cope with the virus and the economic impact of the pandemic (among which is possible future cuts in health spending). This illustrates how risk assessment is a crucial part of public policy making, and how the public is, surprisingly and somewhat inconsistently, risk averse when it comes to COVID-19.

The Government claims that protecting public health ought to take precedence over the health of the economy and personal liberty, and most people seem to agree with this assessment. But is this the right approach in the case of COVID-19, given that it is a disease which hospitalises relatively few and kills even fewer, and where the lockdown may result in considerable excess loss of life? I am not, here, of course, suggesting that nothing at all should have been done to tackle COVID-19 (no government in the world has adopted this strategy) but carefully weighing up the costs and benefits of a strategy which puts tackling the virus above anything else might lead to a more balanced approach.

Comparing the risk-averse approach to the virus with the approach taken with other risky activities is instructive. In the UK in 2018, over 10,000 and nearly 2,000 deaths respectively were caused by alcohol and drugs and by road traffic accidents. Many more are linked to air pollution, much of which derives from vehicle exhausts. And yet there is no serious proposal to prohibit alcohol or motor vehicles and the public is prepared to risk continuing to drink alcohol and to drive. The Government even deems it appropriate to wait for several more decades before prohibiting the use of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles (and is therefore prepared to accept many future deaths because of the economic benefits it produces). 

REFLECTIONS ON THE VIRUS 2: MASKING THE TRUTH

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The current crisis has raised significant questions about the use of evidence, particularly statistical evidence. One evidential dimension concerns the use of anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence is the use of selected instances of an event to either support or refute a claim. During the pandemic, the use of anecdotal evidence has occurred, in particular, when discussing death rates in care homes, and the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in healthcare settings.

On care homes, it is not surprising that death rates have been higher than in the general population. Much of the media-inspired debate has been anecdotal, focusing on particular care homes where death rates have been high. Often, little context is provided. The fact that two-thirds of care homes have apparently been untouched by the virus has not been considered newsworthy, partly at least because it does not support an anti-Government narrative.

Concern about the availability PPE has been a constant theme expressed by the medical profession, care home staff, the media, and opposition politicians. The provision of PPE has undoubtedly been a challenge, not helped by the fact that the Government did not have a readily available stockpile, and there has, not surprisingly, been huge international demand for it. 

Without wishing to minimise the potential deadly consequences of the absence of PPE in healthcare settings – and the desirability of ensuring that everyone who needs it can access it – much of the debate about PPE has been conducted through the use of anecdotal evidence. That is, a small number of highlighted cases where PPE has been absent or in short supply has been extrapolated by some to make the claim that the Government is failing to provide PPE in general. In order to justify that claim, of course, it is necessary, through empirical research, to demonstrate that PPE is absent or in very short supply in a considerable number (a majority) of healthcare settings. There is no conclusive evidence that that is the case, although the provision of PPE has been justifiably raised as an important issue.

On a related theme, the use of face coverings in general, and masks in particular, has become a regular topic of debate. Unlike public authorities in other countries, such as the United States, the UK Government has resisted the urge to compel the wearing of masks in public places. In some parts of the world – particularly the Far East – the wearing of masks was commonplace even before the coronavirus outbreak. 

Like other areas of the COVID-19 crisis – and, indeed, like many other areas of public policy – the case for an against the wearing of masks is complex and not amenable to media soundbites and Government slogans. In the UK, the Government – following scientific advice – has repeatedly stated that the benefits of using masks is not proven. To cloud the issue, this conclusion is at least partly a product of a concern that making the wearing of masks compulsory would increase demand thereby resulting a shortage for healthcare workers.

So, what is the truth about the benefit of wearing masks? Well, it strikes me that those – an increasing number – who choose to wear masks are doing the right thing but not necessarily for the right reason. That is, I suspect that most people choose to cover their mouth and nose because they think it protects them against contracting the virus (some of course might be more altruistic than I am suggesting). However, they would be wrong (in most cases). 

The reality is that only the hospital grade masks – FFP2 and 3 to use the correct terminology – have a respirator that acts to protect the wearer pretty comprehensively against contracting the virus from others. Surgical masks, and other homemade face coverings, on the other hand, may have a benefit in preventing the infection of others if the wearer has the virus, but they do relatively little to protect the wearer. In addition, the evidence suggests that those who wear masks are more likely to touch their face thereby adding to the risk of contracting the virus.

The new UK Government advice (although not a compulsion), in the first stages of the post-lockdown era, is to use face coverings in shops and public transport. This advice has been issued partly, no doubt, as a psychological device to encourage people to leave their homes more. The downside is that the use of masks might encourage complacency and risk taking which will make matters worse.

MORE TOMORROW

REFLECTIONS ON THE VIRUS 1: POLITICS AND LANGUAGE

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The devil makes work for idle hands is an apt saying for the situation many now find themselves in. With fewer distractions – I apologise in advance – I am compelled to spend some of my time reflecting on the impact of the pandemic. I’ll start today by making one general point and one obvious one.

1.      First, the general point. The current COVID-19 emergency has much to interest students of politics. In the first place, does it demonstrate that authoritarian regimes are able to tackle a pandemic rather more easily and efficiently than liberal democracies? For example, China’s eventual crackdown was much more severe than anything that could be contemplated in a liberal democracy. Likewise, Michael Baum, writing in the Spectator, puts South Korea’s success down to its willingness and ability to act in an authoritarian manner. ‘Health authorities…had warrantless access to the credit card and phone data of its citizens, including location data.  So what we might regard as breaches of civil rights are part of the country’s success story’.

Moreover, given the origin of the virus, what does it tell us about our relationship with non-human nature and, indeed, our relationship with each other? Is the pandemic a product of globalization? What does it tell us about population size and density? What does it tell us about risk and about the balancing of competing interests in public policy making?

Perhaps the most significant factor for students of politics is the role of the state. Ironically, in the United Kingdom, the arrival of the virus has achieved, in terms of the state’s reach, more than even the most ardent Corbynite could have dreamt about. Not only has the state intervened to shore up the economy – by, most notably, agreeing to pay a significant part of the wages of those (the majority) economically disadvantaged by the health emergency – it has also taken unparalleled measures to control our everyday movements. 

To some extent, the reliance on the state seems to have created, amongst some at least, a passivity which belies our status as citizens. Any relaxation of the lockdown, the first stages of which were introduced at the beginning of May, was bound to be imprecise requiring choices, responsibility and common sense. The reaction seems to suggest that some are very nervous about exercising these qualities. A consequence of the ‘nanny’ state some might argue.

2.      Next, the obvious point. I am conscious how many words and phrases not heard before the end of February – a matter of barely more than two months – have become so entrenched within popular discourse that it is as if they have been around for a long time. COVID-19 and coronavirus are the obvious ones. COVID-secure, social distancing, self-isolation, the R rate, personal protective equipment (PPE), lockdown and Nightingale Hospitals are other examples. Our changing lives, in what may come to be characterised as the COVID era, are being accompanied by a changing language. 

MORE TOMORROW

Can Democracy Ever Favour Animal Advocacy? – Robert Garner

Professor Robert Garner, lecturer of political theory at the University of Leicester, considers how the objectives of animal advocates might be politically implemented within contemporary society.


Many animal advocates have spent a great deal of time talking and thinking about how we should treat animals. By contrast, they haven’t spent as much time engaging with how their desired objectives are going to be achieved. This latter task necessitates thinking about democracy, since democracy is almost universally regarded as the most just and fair way to make collective decisions binding on individuals.

Democracy, as it is presently constituted amounts to a counting exercise. That is, after a free and fair debate, the outcome which gets the most support is the one that is translated into a law or a regulation.  The problem for animal advocates is that this means they will often be unhappy with the outcome of a democratic vote. That is, the relationship between democracy and the achievement of more stringent protection for animals is a contingent one. It might be that concern for animals is widespread, and that this concern is reflected in the decisions made. More likely, though, animal advocates are going to be frustrated at the lack of interest their fellow citizens have in ensuring the well-being of animals.

So, what should the response of animal advocates be to this contingent relationship between democracy and animal protection? The obvious response is to simply say that this is the price that has to be paid for living in a democracy. If we lose a battle, we get up, brush ourselves down, and try again.

It is easy to see why many advocates of animal rights are unlikely to accept this. Imagine that there was a referendum in which the electorate voted by a majority to support the use of humans with red hair in, sometimes painful, scientific experiments. Obviously, there would be a major outcry at the very prospect of holding such a referendum, on the grounds that it involves the infringement of basic human rights. For someone who holds that animals, too, possess basic rights, it is similarly not acceptable for these rights to be overturned by a democratic vote. In many political systems across the world, basic human rights are protected against democratic majoritarianism. The same could be envisaged for the rights of animals.

I suspect many animal advocates would, at this point, challenge the democratic credentials of our political system in any case. Few animal advocates think, for whatever reason, that their views are adequately represented in the political process. They may have a good case too. Sometimes, majority support for a measure protecting animals is translated into legislative protection, as was the case with fox hunting. More often than not, though, the political power of those, usually economic, interests with a vested interest in the continued exploitation of animals is a clear obstacle to the fair and effective representation of the views of those with an interest in the protection of animals.

Given the suspicion that those concerned about the well-being of animals are not given a fair hearing in the political process, whatever democratic rhetoric proclaims, we might focus on reforms that would make the protection of animal interests more likely.

I suggest two such reforms here. The first is a radical step. Consider again the referendum that I mentioned above. Leaving aside the monstrous nature of the proposal being voted on, it can at least be said that those with red hair get a say in the decision. By contrast, humans make life and death decisions about animals, and yet there is no procedure whereby the interests of animals are represented in the political process. Isn’t this a flaw in our political system? Indeed, doesn’t it reveal a democratic deficit?

The second, and perhaps more realistic, reform proposal revolves around the promotion of deliberation. What we have now is a form of aggregative democracy. What elections or public opinion polls do is to measure pre-existing preferences. The problem with this, however, is no attention is given to the way in which preferences are arrived at in the first place.

It goes without saying that most of the ‘debates’ about animal use are not of the deliberative kind. They are usually structured in a way that favours the interests of those with a vested interest in continuing to exploit animals. Likewise, resources are often unequally distributed in debates about animals. The high status of science and scientists, for instance, is always likely to skew a debate in favour of animal research. Most debates about animal exploitation are also adversarial, degenerating into slanging matches where there is more heat than light on display, and where pre-existing preferences are rarely challenged.

A deliberative model of democracy offers an alternative. This model holds that the outcome of a debate is only legitimate if it is a product of reasoned and detailed discussion.  What matters is the quality of debate. In deliberative forums all points of view are represented, an equal chance to participate is offered to all of those who are present, and detailed, comprehensive and accurate information is available to the participants.

I would suggest that a deliberative form of democracy is more likely to produce outcomes that animal advocates want. Its outcomes are likely to be more informed, and ultimately more just. The economic interests of those who exploit animals will be less influential. If animal advocates are convinced that their case is right, then they should have nothing to fear from a genuinely deliberative debate. Deliberation increases the possibility that existing preferences will be challenged and even transformed.


Robert Garner is professor of political theory at the University of Leicester. He specialises in animal rights, focusing on animal protectionism and the political representation of non-human interests.

Can Democracy Ever Favour Animal Advocacy? – Robert Garner

Professor Robert Garner, lecturer of political theory at the University of Leicester, considers how the objectives of animal advocates might be politically implemented within contemporary society.


Many animal advocates have spent a great deal of time talking and thinking about how we should treat animals. By contrast, they haven’t spent as much time engaging with how their desired objectives are going to be achieved. This latter task necessitates thinking about democracy, since democracy is almost universally regarded as the most just and fair way to make collective decisions binding on individuals.

Democracy, as it is presently constituted amounts to a counting exercise. That is, after a free and fair debate, the outcome which gets the most support is the one that is translated into a law or a regulation.  The problem for animal advocates is that this means they will often be unhappy with the outcome of a democratic vote. That is, the relationship between democracy and the achievement of more stringent protection for animals is a contingent one. It might be that concern for animals is widespread, and that this concern is reflected in the decisions made. More likely, though, animal advocates are going to be frustrated at the lack of interest their fellow citizens have in ensuring the well-being of animals.

So, what should the response of animal advocates be to this contingent relationship between democracy and animal protection? The obvious response is to simply say that this is the price that has to be paid for living in a democracy. If we lose a battle, we get up, brush ourselves down, and try again.

It is easy to see why many advocates of animal rights are unlikely to accept this. Imagine that there was a referendum in which the electorate voted by a majority to support the use of humans with red hair in, sometimes painful, scientific experiments. Obviously, there would be a major outcry at the very prospect of holding such a referendum, on the grounds that it involves the infringement of basic human rights. For someone who holds that animals, too, possess basic rights, it is similarly not acceptable for these rights to be overturned by a democratic vote. In many political systems across the world, basic human rights are protected against democratic majoritarianism. The same could be envisaged for the rights of animals.

I suspect many animal advocates would, at this point, challenge the democratic credentials of our political system in any case. Few animal advocates think, for whatever reason, that their views are adequately represented in the political process. They may have a good case too. Sometimes, majority support for a measure protecting animals is translated into legislative protection, as was the case with fox hunting. More often than not, though, the political power of those, usually economic, interests with a vested interest in the continued exploitation of animals is a clear obstacle to the fair and effective representation of the views of those with an interest in the protection of animals.

Given the suspicion that those concerned about the well-being of animals are not given a fair hearing in the political process, whatever democratic rhetoric proclaims, we might focus on reforms that would make the protection of animal interests more likely.

I suggest two such reforms here. The first is a radical step. Consider again the referendum that I mentioned above. Leaving aside the monstrous nature of the proposal being voted on, it can at least be said that those with red hair get a say in the decision. By contrast, humans make life and death decisions about animals, and yet there is no procedure whereby the interests of animals are represented in the political process. Isn’t this a flaw in our political system? Indeed, doesn’t it reveal a democratic deficit?

The second, and perhaps more realistic, reform proposal revolves around the promotion of deliberation. What we have now is a form of aggregative democracy. What elections or public opinion polls do is to measure pre-existing preferences. The problem with this, however, is no attention is given to the way in which preferences are arrived at in the first place.

It goes without saying that most of the ‘debates’ about animal use are not of the deliberative kind. They are usually structured in a way that favours the interests of those with a vested interest in continuing to exploit animals. Likewise, resources are often unequally distributed in debates about animals. The high status of science and scientists, for instance, is always likely to skew a debate in favour of animal research. Most debates about animal exploitation are also adversarial, degenerating into slanging matches where there is more heat than light on display, and where pre-existing preferences are rarely challenged.

A deliberative model of democracy offers an alternative. This model holds that the outcome of a debate is only legitimate if it is a product of reasoned and detailed discussion.  What matters is the quality of debate. In deliberative forums all points of view are represented, an equal chance to participate is offered to all of those who are present, and detailed, comprehensive and accurate information is available to the participants.

I would suggest that a deliberative form of democracy is more likely to produce outcomes that animal advocates want. Its outcomes are likely to be more informed, and ultimately more just. The economic interests of those who exploit animals will be less influential. If animal advocates are convinced that their case is right, then they should have nothing to fear from a genuinely deliberative debate. Deliberation increases the possibility that existing preferences will be challenged and even transformed.


Robert Garner is professor of political theory at the University of Leicester. He specialises in animal rights, focusing on animal protectionism and the political representation of non-human interests.

Panic Buying, Rational Choice, and the Role of the State

A blog originally published by OUP

The current COVID-19 emergency has much to interest students of politics. Does it demonstrate that authoritarian regimes are able to tackle a pandemic rather more easily and efficiently than liberal democracies? Given the origin of the virus, what does it tell us about our relationship with non-human nature? Is the pandemic a product of globalization? What does it tell us about population size and density? What does it tell us about the nature of politics itself? 

Perhaps the most significant factor for students of politics is the role of the state. Ironically, in the United Kingdom, the arrival of the virus has achieved, in terms of the state’s reach, more than even the most ardent Corbynite could have dreamt about. Not only has the state intervened to shore up the economy – by, most notably, agreeing to pay a significant part of the wages of those economically disadvantaged by the health emergency – it has also taken unparalleled measures to control our everyday movements. 

Arguably, though, the state should do more. 

One of the most pervasive images of the present COVID-19 emergency has been the panic buying and stockpiling of food and toiletries. Rather oddly, when state intervention and control has become the norm, the state has not sought to formally ration supermarket produce. Instead the accent has been on the moral dimension. Those who have stripped our supermarket shelves of food and toiletries have been described, amongst other things, as selfish, greedy, ignorant, and immoral. The government has sought to reassure people that there is more than enough to go around and has appealed to their better nature – be reasonable when you shop, think about what you are depriving others of. 

In actual fact, stockpiling has nothing to do with moral character but has everything to do with a collective action problem identified by rational choice theory. Rational choice approaches to politics and social organisation have become an increasingly important branch of the social sciences. Following a deductive logic, the (reasonable) assumptions made are that human beings are essentially rational, utility maximisers who will follow the path of action most likely to benefit them (and their families). This approach has been used in game theory where individual behaviour is applied to particular situations. This reveals how difficult it can be for rational individuals to reach optimal outcomes. That is people might not cooperate even when it is in their best interests to do so.

This collective action problem can be illustrated by the classic rational choice instrument, the prisoner’s dilemma. In this scenario, two people suspected of being involved in a robbery are arrested and interviewed separately in a police station. There is insufficient evidence to convict the pair of robbery but there is enough evidence to convict them of a lesser charge, whatever that may be. The suspects have a choice put to them by the police, to either keep quiet or to betray the other with different penalties imposed depending on their choice. Three outcomes are possible.

The first outcome is that both suspects keep quiet. As a result, they each receive a sentence of one year in prison (on the lesser charge). The second is that both betray each other. As a result, they each receive a sentence of two years in prison. The third outcome is that one suspect betrays the other whereas the other suspect keeps quiet. As a result, the suspect who betrays gets set free whilst the suspect who keeps quiet gets three years in prison. 

In this scenario, each prisoner gets a higher reward by betraying the other rather than cooperating (staying silent), even though the optimum solution would be to cooperate. So, one of the prisoners (Prisoner A) has a choice whether to stay silent and cooperate or betray his fellow prisoner. If he cooperates and stays silent his fellow prisoner should betray and therefore be set free. If Prisoner A betrays, his fellow prisoner should also betray because two years in prison is better than serving three years. In other words, the rational strategy is to betray rather than cooperate.

So, what has all this got to do with panic buying and stockpiling? Well, clearly the best outcome – supermarket shelves remaining stocked with more than enough for everyone shopping at any one time – can only be achieved by cooperation, by everyone taking only what they need. However, we are not in a position to consult with our fellow shoppers to discuss the matter, and even if we were, there is no guarantee that we will not be double-crossed by people who agree to cooperate and then betray us by over-buying. As a result, because we do not trust each other to cooperate (and we also do not trust the Government’s regular reassurances that there are more than enough products for everyone) the best strategy is to over-buy to ensure we are not left with nothing. That is the rational thing to do.

Can this problem be resolved? Well, one possibility, already widely practised, is for supermarkets to limit purchases to a certain number of each item. The problem with this, however, is that, even if we are restricted to buying only one of each item, it only prevents over-buying on one particular occasion. That is, it does not stop shoppers coming back repeatedly to buy the same things over and over again. And that is what is happening. That is why there are queues at supermarkets.

Another possibility is for supermarkets to ration purchases, to put a limit on what can be bought over a set period of time. However, this, of course, will have consequences for profit margins. In another prisoner’s dilemma-type scenario it would not be rational for one supermarket to limit its profits particularly when there is no guarantee that other supermarkets would be prepared to cooperate and do the same.

So, what is left? Well, the only genuine solution to stockpiling and panic buying is for the state to intervene and introduce a compulsory rationing scheme to which every supermarket and every shopper would have to adhere. The government’s virus discourse already has war-time parallels, albeit with an invisible enemy, and, in that sense, the introduction of rationing seems entirely appropriate.

Election Day

The day of a general election in Britain is a crucial part of the political calendar. There have been 21 such days since 1945. All election days since 1945 have been held on a Thursday. Six have been held in May, five in June, four in October, two in February, and one in July, March April and December. The day of a general election does not happen very often. Since 1945, there have been, on average, one every three and a half years or one in every 1,300 days. The election day is even only a small part of the electoral cycle which starts with the dissolution of Parliament followed by the launch of the party manifestos and around three weeks of hustings. 

Nevertheless, the election day is important, and not just because at the end of it (or, to be more accurate, the morning after) the result is known and a new government installed. Rather, elections reflect the state of public opinion which is itself the product of wider social, economic and political forces. 

Sometimes, election days merely denote more of the same. In the 1950s, the Conservatives won three consecutive elections (under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan) repeating their ousting of Labour in 1951 with further successes in 1955 and 1959. Some pontificated at the time that Labour would never win again. This was not, however, because the electorate had rejected the mixed economy and welfare state created by Attlee’s 1945-50 Labour Government. On the contrary, the Tories won precisely because the new economic settlement seemed to work and, not surprisingly, they accepted it lock, stock and barrel, thereby establishing a post-war consensus that lasted until the 1970s.  Similarly, victories by the Thatcher-led Conservatives in 1983 and 1987 confirmed the widespread rejection of the post-war consensus that first became apparent in the election of 1979. Despite an improved performance by Labour in 1992, the Conservatives won their fourth consecutive election under John Major in 1992.

Most post-war elections have produced an overall majority for one party (either Labour or Conservative). Occasionally, election days produce an indeterminate outcome. Since 1945, this has happened three times. In February 1974, Labour failed to overturn Heath’s Conservative majority and Wilson was returned to Downing Street to preside over a minority government until October when another election produced a small majority for Labour. The second time it happened was closer to our own time in 2010 when Cameron’s Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats before five years later winning an overall majority.  Finally, in 2017, Theresa May miscalculated, hoping to increase the majority won by Cameron two year’s earlier but ending up falling short of an overall majority.

At other times, election days seem to reflect significant change a turning-point in the political life of the nation. Labour’s victory in 1997, and the arrival of Tony Blair in Downing Street, might be regarded in this light, as the defeat of Thatcherism and the heralding of a new era of centre-left politics. 1997 was certainly noteworthy for ending 18 years of Tory rule. However, as with the Conservative victory in 1951, the Labour landslide in 1997 was to a large extent the product of the party’s acceptance of key parts of Thatcher’s economic liberalism. A key symbol of this was the decision of the party to remove the clause in its own constitution – present since 1918 – committing Labour to the public ownership of the economy.  

The two elections which represented genuine ideological change occurred in 1945 and 1979. They formed brackets around the post-war consensus. At one end, the 1945 election resulted – much to the surprise of many who thought the Conservatives would be rewarded for Churchill’s war-time leadership – in the election of the first majority Labour Government. It was retrospectively apparent that many voters were not focusing on the War so much as the privations and economic crises of the 1930s. What the War effort did reveal was the capacity of the state to regulate the economy and society effectively. It was natural, then, for people to want that to continue in the post-war world, to ensure economic security, health and education. Seen in this context, a Labour Government was, for many, the only option. After all, it was not that Labour had been invisible during the War or even opposed to it. Rather, Labour Ministers served in the war-time Coalition Government with, most conspicuously, Clement Attlee earning Churchill’s respect as Deputy Prime Minister. 

The end of the bracketed post-war period was confirmed by the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979. This election was the culmination of a decade of more of economic crisis and dislocation under the Conservative Government led by Heath and the Labour Governments led by Wilson and then Callaghan. Thatcher’s offer of an alternative – free-market – approach, mixed with a social conservatism seen as an antidote to the more permissive 1960s and 1970s, was made at the right time and the right place. The post-war consensus was dead.

Whether or not the most recent election day – in December 2019 – was similarly significant is a moot point. For some, the unpopularity of Brexit and Corbyn – factors that will soon disappear – was the key determinant of the Conservative victory. For others, the ability of the Tories to defeat incumbent MPs in Labour’s heartland – the so-called ‘red wall’ – was what won it for Boris? Could this be the beginning of a new political realignment that seriously inhibits Labour’s future chances? 

It is clear that the appeal of Brexit, the unpopularity of Corbyn, and the Conservative victories in many of Labour’s heartland seats are inextricably linked. Johnson appealed, unlike Corbyn, to the wider value system of a substantial swathe of working class voters outside of the metropolis. Johnson won because he was able to position the Conservatives in such a way as to appeal to a substantial portion of disillusioned former Labour voters in Britain’s towns in the Midlands and the North without losing too many traditional Tory voters in the South.

It was often pointed out during the campaign that individual parts of Labour’s programme – nationalisation, higher public spending particularly on the NHS, and higher taxes for the best-off – were popular. This perception was largely correct but it was offset by two factors. One is that Labour were not, as they were in the 1980s, competing against a Conservative Party extolling the virtues of the free market and the limited state. The second, and key, factor, was that the popularity of Labour’s left of centre economic policy was more than offset by the unpopularity – amongst key Labour voters at least – of Labour’s perceived social liberalism. 

There is no doubt that Labour – along with many parties of the left in developed economies – has been infected by a particular kind of identity politics. This left-leaning politics of difference is a cultural movement based on a demand for recognition and respect by particular groups of people centred on their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. The perception of this new left-wing progressivism is that liberal societies promote the interests and values of dominant groups (whites, men and the economically well-off) and undermine and marginalise other groups who are regarded as inferior and less valuable. As a result, identity politics is about redressing negative perceptions by reasserting the value and dignity of the particular oppressed group. 

The problem for Labour is that this version of identity politics – whilst strongly supported by sections of society, particularly in the large urban cities – is despised by many erstwhile Labour voters in non-metropolitan areas of the Midlands and the North. Such voters are attracted to notions of the nation and patriotism that Labour no longer seems to embody. 

Whether or not the 2019 election represents a genuine realignment is, of course, too early to say. A Labour Party led by a more consensual politician who resists the identity politics lobby may still yet drag the party back from its present parlous state. Likewise, the Conservatives may be unable to deliver the economic benefits that Labour’s former heartlands will demand.

A few more election days will have elapsed before we know for sure whether 2019 was as significant as 1945 and 1979.

Why Study Politics?

It is no accident that Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, described Politics as the master science. It is preeminent because politics is an inevitable feature of all societies. We cannot do without it. Defined as the process by which groups representing divergent interests and values make collective decisions, politics is inevitable because of three features of the human condition. First, we have to find a way to live together. We cannot exist in isolation from others. Second, all societies of any complexity contain a range of different interests and values.  Therefore, there will always be a need for a mechanism whereby these different interests and values are reconciled.  Third, scarcity is also an inevitable characteristic of all societies.  Since there is not enough of the goods that people want to go around, there needs to be some mechanism whereby these goods can be distributed. Politics is, therefore, well-worth studying and the aim of our textbook is to introduce students to the major themes of the discipline.

The study of politics prior to the nineteenth century was almost exclusively concerned with a study of values.  That is, politics was equated with moral philosophy, with what ought to be and not what is. Political philosophers asked what is the good life? What, in other words, is the best kind of society for us to live in?  Political philosophy is still an important component of the study of politics. It asks normative, or ought-type questions. Nowadays, though, political philosophy is only one branch of the politics curriculum. It is accompanied by empirical political science, on the one hand, and international relations or politics, on the other. The former asks empirical, or is-type questions about political phenomena. These include the study of particular political systems, sometimes individually, and often in a comparative framework. The study of international politics or international relations has become increasingly popular in recent years. The relationship between sovereign states has been an important component of the study of politics for decades. More recently, however, the focus of politics has begun to shift because in a practical sense we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly interdependent, where the forces of so-called globalisation are placing increasing constraints on what individual so-called ‘sovereign’ states can do on their own.

The Introduction to Politics textbook, now in its fourth edition, covers all three elements of the discipline in detail. Indeed, it is the only introductory textbook to bring together theory, comparative politics, and international relations to provide the most comprehensive and global introduction to politics available. New to this edition is a chapter on non-Western approaches to politics which will help students to build a more diverse understanding of political culture, institutions and actors, with a particular focus on China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Turkey and Russia. Also new is a detailed coverage of the complex and contentious ideology of populism.

So, the obvious answer to the question ‘why study politics’ is that it is intrinsically valuable because of its central place in the affairs of humans. More instrumentally, the skills ordinarily acquired by politics graduates (written and oral communication skills, some basic training in quantitative methods, problem solving, time-management and so on) are valuable for a whole host of careers. Particular suitable for politics graduates are careers in education, local authorities, the civil service and any other public service, although many also work in the private sector. In addition, there has been a more recent emphasis within the UK higher education sector on employability which includes not just a focus on the skills identified above, but also direct engagement with the workplace and specific employers.