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Politics In Spires Schools

The divide between subjects taught in the school classroom and university-level research is often exaggerated. Someone between 16-18 would be familiar with many themes addressed by Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR). Still, some content, and especially research methods, would be completely new. Articles published in this series are part of a pilot scheme to bridge this divide. Recently, postgraduates from the DPIR visited schools to discuss its research programme with 16-18 year-old students taking courses in government and politics. The conversation pointed to many similarities. All A-level Politics courses aim to develop critical awareness of the nature of politics and increase understanding of the structures of authority and power. This is also true of University research. These …

Margaret Macmillan, Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Anthony’s College, discusses her new book ‘The War That Ended Peace’ with DPhil student Katharine Brooks. The book is a re-examination of the causes of World War One and seeks to answer the question of why the long peace preceding 1914 failed to hold. Katharine asks what Professor Macmillan felt she has been able to add to our understandings of World War One, what parallels can be drawn from 1914 to 2014 and why academia still fails to come to an agreement on the causes of this most important of world events.

In the United Kingdom, thanks to the powerful influence of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we tend to see public ethics primarily in positive terms: as standards to be upheld not as criminal corruption to be prevented. The Committee’s approach has been built on four key elements: high-level principles; codes of conduct for each area of public life; mechanisms of independent scrutiny; and education and training in the values implied by the principles and codes. Unfortunately, however, the focus on “standards” creates an ever-expanding public-ethics agenda. It builds on a challenging, if intuitively persuasive, premise: that we really can identify what, in its most recent Inquiry, the Committee called “best practice in promoting good behaviour in public life”. Too frequently it seems we fail to do so. The more we discuss “standards” the more we see the gap between theory and reality. Public organisations have regularly failed to deliver on basic standards of provision – for example in health or social care – and then concealed their failures. Public-private partnerships have revealed manifest unaddressed conflicts of interest. At senior levels blame avoidance is a regular feature of the policy process. As a result, we are still struggling to identify what, in cultural terms, works to uphold a cultural approach to ethics and integrity.

This is a research project that aspires to measure and understand the affective norms of political discourse. We already know that political parties propose policies to persuade the electorate. In fact, all else being equal, the party developing the most persuasive set of policies will win the election. But, we also know that persuasion is not only about numbers, policy proposals and goals. Rhetoric has an affective aspect that is difficult to measure and understand. How do political parties present their policies to make them more appealing and persuasive? And, how can political scientists extract these pieces of information? With respect to the first question, we argue that on top of the programmatic content of political texts, political parties use emotional appeals to convince that their policies are superior. To measure that we examine how affective political rhetoric is through a content analysis of political language.

It feels wrong to watch the news about Syria and the Central African Republic night after night without seeing any effective international action being taken to stop the killing, displacement and rape. After millions of civilians were killed in the Second World War, the United Nations was set up specifically “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. So why doesn’t it? Hugo Slim investigates the current state of international politics regarding the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.

In September 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland about whether to leave the United Kingdom, and if Scotland votes yes that will signal the end of a 300 year union. How has it come to this, what would Scottish independence mean, and what’s going to happen? Jim Gallagher, Gwilym Gibbon research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, examines the potential consequences of a ‘yes’ vote both for an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The international landscape is changing. The emergence of new and powerful global players such as China, India and Brazil lessens Europe’s traditionally strong position on the international stage. One of the questions facing European policy-makers today is thus how Europe can exert influence in an increasingly globalised world despite its comparative decline in military strength and economic capacity vis-a-vis the new emerging powers. In the mid 200s at the University of Oxford, a group of researchers, led by Kalypso Nicolaidis, founded the research project RENEW – Rethinking Europe in a Non-European world – in order to address precisely this question as well as to reflect more widely on Europe’s role in a changing world order.

This autumn, in his speech to the Labour party conference, Ed Miliband called for the voting age to be lowered to 16. This follows legislation by the SNP government in Scotland to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. Explanations of the merits of extending the franchise to younger people normally begin with statements such as ‘if someone’s old enough to X…’ with X replaced by ‘marry’, ‘go to war’, ‘pay taxes’ and so on. We might note that these are, at best, weak arguments since 16 year olds can only marry and join the army with their parents’ permission and even 5 year olds pay tax in the form of VAT when their pocket money is translated into sweets.[1] Either way, it seems likely that the SNP’s decision was not really based on the merits of the case and was simply a narrow electoral consideration. Young people are generally in favour of Scottish independence, so allowing them to vote will increase the proportion of people voting yes. It seems reasonable to think that this is also the major reason why the Labour party is now interested in lowering the voting age in general elections to 16. Young people are seen as more likely to vote Labour, so allowing them to vote will boost Labour’s prospects in future elections. What is never quite clear is whether these are sensible conclusions. Would the entrance of 16 and 17 year olds into the electorate make much difference?

Christopher Hood and Ruth Dixon explain the results of their recent project aiming to assess the effects of successive efforts to reform the executive government (the ‘state machine’) of the UK over the past thirty years. This project explores how those reforms played out, and how far they delivered on what had been claimed and expected of them. How much ‘leaner and meaner’ was the state machine after a generation of such changes? Such an exploration is not only an interesting study in its own right; it is also significant for assessing the prospects for the future of government in the coming decades, for example in assessing how government changed in the periods of cutbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s in the context of what is likely to be a period of prolonged fiscal restraint in the 2010s.