Monthly Archives: July 2016

The messy history of British party politics

Professor Richard Toye and Dr Richard Jobson from College of Humanities’s Department of History;in this blog, they take a look at the splits and divisions which have plagued both the Conservative and the Labour parties.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo


Richard Toye, University of Exeter and Richard Jobson, University of Exeter

Brexit has triggered an unprecedented scenario in British politics. Never before has a sitting prime minister been forced to resign because of a referendum defeat. Never before has a governing party in apparent meltdown been faced by an official opposition whose situation, if anything, seems worse.

But the two main parties have faced perilous and damaging situations before, and have a history of drawing back from the brink.

In the case of the Tories, the most profound crisis occurred in 1846, when the party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws instigated by its leader Sir Robert Peel. For more than 20 years, the party was kept out of office, save for brief intervals, until at last it saw an electoral revival under Benjamin Disraeli at the general election of 1874.

In 1903, the Conservatives again divided into Free Trade and protectionist camps. This time, there was no major exodus of MPs – although Winston Churchill, who joined the Liberals, was a notable exception. The electoral consequences were nonetheless calamitous, with a landslide defeat in 1906. In spite of a partial recovery four years later, there was no clear prospect of the Tories returning to office. It took a world war to bring about the eventual Conservative recovery – and, despite winning a huge victory at the polls in 1918, it was not until 1922 that the Tories had the confidence to rid themselves of their coalition partners, the Lloyd George Liberals.

That process itself provoked another split, but because it was driven by
personality rather than ideology the healing process was fairly quick and the party dominated for the remainder of the interwar years.

The recent divisions under John Major in the 1990s had more direct similarities to today’s situation. The atmosphere within the Tory party was wholly toxic and became a major factor in New Labour’s 1997 triumph. But it did not create a constitutional impasse of the kind that Britain now seems to face.

On his bike. Shutterstock

The divisions in the party over the EU today are ideological, so are potentially very damaging. On the other hand, there has been no formal split in the party – and if it can hold together it may live to fight another day.

The opposition position

For Labour, the first obvious historical point of comparison is the Ramsay MacDonald “betrayal” of 1931. On that occasion, a minority Labour government split over the question of cuts to unemployment benefit. MacDonald continued as prime minister of a cross-party “National Government” and then defeated his former Labour allies at the general election that followed.

It was a catastrophe for Labour. Yet although the party was reduced to around 50 seats in the Commons, it was still the largest organised body of opposition to the government of the day. Labour’s continued strength in working-class areas also made it almost inevitable that it would at some stage be called upon to form a government (although this would not occur until the very special circumstances of the post-war election in 1945).

The other key comparison is the split of 1981, when some MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party.

Labour in opposition today faces a much more confused situation, having lost votes to UKIP and also the SNP. And the MPs who have rebelled against Corbyn’s leadership clearly represent a majority within the parliamentary party, whereas the MPs who were expelled and went on to form the National Labour Organisation in 1931 and those who left to form the SDP in 1981 were in the minority.

Labour’s current problems are likely to be amplified by future disagreements over the rules governing the party’s leadership contests. After the adoption of the 2014 Collins Review it is not entirely clear whether an incumbent leader needs to meet the same nomination threshold as any challenger.

Gathering momentum.

Significant changes in the nature of the party’s membership and its registered supporters make the outcome of any future leadership contest hard to predict. However, in the absence of a leader who can unify the party and make a broad-based electoral appeal, it is possible that the consequences for Labour will be worse than either of the previous splits, especially if there is a general election before the end of the year.

It seems that neither party is well placed to turn the current crisis into an opportunity, even though the Conservatives still have the advantage of a majority in the House of Commons.

However, the problems that both parties face should be seen as symbolic of a broader political crisis. On the one hand, this crisis reflects the fact that the electorate is seriously divided, albeit not on straightforward class lines. On the other hand, it reflects the fact that voters in both Leave and Remain camps lack faith in the capacity of politicians to deliver positive change or even to tell the truth. The vote for Brexit was a product of these divisions and of this crisis of trust, and it also looks set to be exacerbated by them.

The Conversation

Richard Toye, Professor of Modern History, University of Exeter and Richard Jobson, Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Brexit the will of the people?

In this blog, by Professor Darren Schreiber, we look at the complications surrounding the results of the EU referendum.

Professor Schreiber is a senior lecturer in the Politics department

In the UK, the “Queen-in-Parliament” is sovereign and as a core tenant of democracy we expect our sovereign governments to follow the will of the people expressed in majority rule.  It might seem obvious then that the recent vote for Brexit is the definitive expression of the public will.

While ancient Athens may have used direct democracy, where citizens vote on specific policies, most modern democracies rely on representative government because of suspicions about the tyranny of the majority and other concerns of good governance.

Facing a momentous question, around 10 per cent of the voters still were undecided in the week leading up to the Brexit referendum.  To anyone who studies public opinion, this is not at all surprising.  For a chunk of the electorate, their political attitudes are so changeable that they are the equivalent of mental coin flips.

This instability is not the result of some deep moral failing, but rather a consequence of a lack of practice.  Like learning to ride a bicycle, we are unstable in our political views when we do not have experience thinking about political issues.  As we become more informed and more practiced our views of the political world crystalize and even how our brains think about politics changes.

We might ideally want everyone to be politically informed about all issues, but in politics as in all other domains of our lives we rely on people who can develop practice.  Most of us have friends that we can ask for a basic opinion when issues arise with our plumbing, our cars, or even our health.  And, when those issues are serious, we consult plumbers, mechanics, and doctors.

In the political world, we elect leaders who both represent our political views and help inform us about the complicated issues we face.  They in turn consult with specialists who are knowledgeable about domains connected to the policies to be decided on.  The world is just too complex for any one person to be sufficiently informed about the myriad of complicated problems and their interconnections.  While Leave campaigner Michael Gove may have claimed “people in this country have had enough of experts,” there is just no other good option, even for politicians.

The complication with Brexit is that the UK has expressed its will in some incongruous ways.  In the elections for representatives to the European Parliament, the Brexit oriented party UKIP obtained more votes (26.6 per cent) and seats (32.8 per cent) than any of its competitors, but in the 2015 elections to the House of Commons they got just 12.7 per cent of the votes and only managed to win one of the seats (0.15 per cent).  Less than a quarter of all the Members of Parliament elected came out in favour of Leave.  So while 52 per cent of the electorate may have voted Leave in a non-binding referendum, they filled a Parliament with nearly three-quarters Remain supporters.

The Brexit vote reflects exactly the kind of conflicted and contradictory views that we often find in the general public.  Did this vote mean that the UK should make no deal with the European Union?  Remain connected to the single market?  Rescind the residency rights of EU citizens living in the UK?  Split into separate nations?  With Leave leaders conceding “there is no plan” it is apparent that the referendum was a Rorschach test, rather than a coherent vision.

Writing more detailed referenda or making them legally binding may help with some of the ambiguity, but creates complications of its own as the morass of direct democracy in California demonstrates.  The solution that nearly all modern democracies have converged upon is representatives deliberating in legislatures.  There is already movement afoot to ensure that Parliament is at the centre of any further Brexit discussion.  Prime Ministers, political parties, and Members of Parliament can do a far more nuanced job of discerning the public will and translating it into policy than a referendum ever could.  This is why modern states reject direct democracy and rely on leaders who practice politics daily.


International law of military operations: Mapping the field to improve compliance with the law


In June 2006, the University of Exeter Law School and The International Society for Military Law and the Law of War held a three day international conference focusing on the scope and concept of operations law, its current challenges and future training needs.

logoThis post first appeared on  the International committee of the red cross Humanitarian Law and Policy blog, which is powered by the International Review of the Red Cross.


On 21-23 June 2016, the International Society for Military Law and the Law of War (ISMLLW) and Exeter Law School convened an international conference in Exeter, United Kingdom, entitled ‘The International Law of Military Operations: Mapping the Field’. The conference brought together more than 130 legal experts from academia and the armed forces to map the current state of operational law from a comparative and practical perspective and to explore some of the most pressing legal challenges facing the conduct of military operations.

Military deployments in the territory of other States are subject to a diverse range of rules under international law. In recent years, it has become increasingly common to refer to these rules as ‘operations law’ or the ‘international law of military operations’” (ILMO). The 3-day conference aimed at clarifying the concept and scope of this relatively new field, its current challenges and impact on military training needs.


Held in Exeter on 21-23 June 2016, the conference brought together more than 130 legal experts from academia and the armed forces to map the current state of operational law.


Opening the event, Brig Gen Jan-Peter Spijk, ISMLLW President, and Dr. Aurel Sari, Exeter Law School, reflected on the complexity of modern military operations and associated legal challenges:

We live in politically unstable times, marked by the spectre of political fragmentation, rapid technological development, seemingly uncontrollable social dynamics, increased global competition and the emergence of new security threats. In such circumstances, the rule of law and military force remain as relevant to our security as ever. However, the rules of international law governing military operations are complex, multifaceted and in many respects uncertain. Events such as our conference are crucial for understanding and addressing these difficulties more effectively.

Operations law can be broadly defined as combining international and domestic law and policy related to the planning and conduct of military operations in a variety of contexts, including but not limited to armed conflict. As such, it derives from different bodies of legal rules such as international humanitarian law (IHL, or Law of Armed Conflict), human rights law, targeting law, weapons law, cyber operations law, but also from bodies combining legal and policy considerations, such as rules of engagement. According to Professor Terry Gill, editor of the Handbook of International Law of Military Operations, international law of military operations can be framed as an attempt to counterbalance the fragmentation of international law.

The conference opened by exploring the conceptual aspects of operational law, focusing on its sources, nature and scope of application, before delving into different national understandings and into specific areas of practice. Among other subjects, speakers addressed the current state of weapons law and its future prospects, targeting issues and air power, autonomous weapons and pre-deployment duties, developments in cyber operations law (including the upcoming Tallinn Manual 2.0), challenges of military operations at sea as well as information operations. Sessions were dedicated to questions of accountability, including a panel on the manifold responsibilities of military commanders in ensuring compliance with different branches of the law, as well as a panel on the judicialization of military operations. The latter focused on recent developments in litigation in national and international courts on the conduct of military operations, and reflected on the broader question of appropriate mechanisms for accountability. Finally, speakers and participants shared best practices relating to the dissemination, instruction and training of operational law.

Jean-Marie Henckaerts presented the updated ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention.

Jean-Marie Henckaerts presented the updated ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention.

Every branch of law applicable to military operations needs to be translated into operational standards. This is true of the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols, which are the foundational treaties of IHL, the body of law governing the conduct of hostilities and treatment of persons ‘hors de combat’ in situations of armed conflict. During the event, ICRC’s Jean-Marie Henckaerts presented the newly released updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention. He highlighted how the new publication is an essential tool for any military or civilian practitioner working within the field of IHL. An updated version of the ‘Pictet Commentary’, the new Commentary offers the same level of academic quality as its original edition, while building on more than 60 years of subsequent practice in interpreting and applying the Geneva Conventions. The practical legitimacy of the new Commentaries stems not only from the ICRC’s 150 years of experience in armed conflicts and in engaging with weapons bearers, but also from the involvement of numerous military lawyers in the Commentaries update project as members of the reading committee and peer reviewers. The new text is also more user-friendly with each commentary being divided into thematic sections. As such, the ICRC Commentary will play an essential role in guiding commanders and military lawyers through the operational challenges they face in contemporary armed conflicts.

Respect for the law in armed conflict today is facing challenges stemming from the increasing complexity of both military operations and the many international legal branches that apply to them. The Operational Law Conference convened by the ISMLLW and Exeter Law School was a significant initiative that brought together leading experts from academia and legal practice to share their expertise and experiences in the field of operational law, opening the door towards a deeper understanding of the challenges in this area and greater collaboration in meeting them.

How the Battle of the Bastards squares with medieval history

As Professor of History in the College of Humanities, Professor James Clark‘s research interests include themes in religion, intellectual and cultural life which reach across the traditional boundaries of medieval and early modern history.

In this blog, Professor Clark looks at how the medieval  period is portrayed in film and television.  From Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings, we look at how medieval culture id represented, and misrepresented.

This post first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo     

James Clark, University of Exeter

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season six, episode nine.

A 12-foot giant, his unhuman features oddly familiar (almost homely, after two screen decades colonised by combat-ready orcs) wheels around a wintry courtyard, wondering at the thicket of arrow shafts now wound around his torso. He stops, sways somewhat, and falls, dead. So Wun Wun the Wilding met his doom in The Battle of the Bastards, the penultimate episode of this season of Game of Thrones.

One casualty which, with countless others in the scenes before and after, might have a claim to a place in history, apparently. “The most fully realised medieval battle we’ve ever seen on the small screen (if not the big one too)”, is the breathless verdict from The Independent.

As a full-time historian of the other Middle Ages – Europe’s, every bit as feuding and physical as the Seven Kingdoms but with better weather – I am struck by the irony that Martin’s mock-medieval world might now be seen to set the bar for authenticity. There’s no doubt that for much of screen’s first century, medieval was the Cinderella era: overlooked, patronised and pressed into service for clumsy stage-adaptations, musical comedy and children. But over the past two decades – almost from the moment that Marsellus fired the line in Pulp Fiction (1994) – we have been “getting medieval” more and more.

Medieval millennium

Any connection between Braveheart (1995) and recorded history may have been purely coincidental, but its representation of the scale and scramble of combat at the turn of the 13th century set a new standard, pushing even Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Henry V (1989) closer to the Panavison pantomime of Laurence Olivier’s film (1944). Branagh had at least toned down the hues of his happy breed from the bold – indeed, freshly laundered – primary colours of Sir Laurence’s light brigade, but his men-at-arms still jabbed at each other with the circumspection of the stage-fighters while noble knights strutted and preened.

Of course, at times it threatened to be a false dawn: First Knight (1995) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) are undeniable obstacles in making the case for a new realism. But new epics have extended the territory taken in Mel Gibson’s first rebel assault.

Now already a decade old, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) achieved a level of accuracy without reducing the cinematic to the documentary. For the first time, the scene and size of the opposing forces were not compromised by either budget or technological limitations. The audience is led to gates of the Holy City as it would have appeared to the Crusaders. The armies’ subsequent encounter with one another is captured with the same vivid colour and fear that the contemporary chroniclers conjure them, catching especially the crazy spectacle of Christian liturgical performance – crucifixes, chanting priests – on the Middle Eastern plain. And descriptive details were not lost, particularly in the contentious arena of Crusader kit, now a hobbyists’ domain into which only the brave production designer – and braver historian – strays.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson painted energetically with his medieval palate in the Lords of the Rings trilogy, not, of course, pointing us to a place or time but certainly providing a superior visual vocabulary for the experience of combat in a pre-industrial age.

Back to basics

So, has Game of Thrones bettered this?

There are certainly some satisfyingly authentic twists and turns woven around The Battle of the Bastards. The most significant casualties occur away from the melee of the pitched battle in one of a number of routs (medieval battles always ended with a ragged rout, not a decisive bloodbath). And the principal actors in the drama do not readily present themselves for a tidy dispatch. The mounted forces of Westeros are rarely decisive and even fighters of the highest status do not see out the day in the saddle.

Also accurate are the individual acts of near-bestial violence which occur, are witnessed and go on to define the significance of battle. The deliberate breaking of Ramsey’s face by Jon Snow is a point-of-entry into a central but still under-researched dimension of medieval conflict: ritual violence, such as the systematic, obscene dismemberment of the dead and dying English by their Welsh enemies during the Glyn Dwr wars.

Before the fall.
©2016 Home Box Office, Inc.

Yet I suspect that these are not the snapshots that have won the superlatives. No doubt it is the standout features of the battle scenes: their scale, the weaponry and the “reality” of wounding in real time that have held most attention. And these threaten to turn us again in the direction of that Ur-Middle Ages which we had every reason to hope we had left for good.

Because medieval armies were always smaller than was claimed, far smaller than we see here. Weaponry was not fixed in time, but – more like the Western Front in 1917 than you might imagine – a fluid domain of fast-developing technology. It is time that directors gave space to firearms, which were the firsthand experience of any fighting man from the final quarter of the 15th century. They must also shed their conviction that “medieval” means hand-to-hand combat. It was sustained arrow-fire that felled armies, not swordplay, nor fisticuffs.

Life on the medieval battle path also meant poor health, rapid ageing and no personal grooming. So we are also overdue sight of a medieval fighting force as it might actually have arrived on the field: neither sporting sexy hairstyles, nor match-fit for action. They of course arrived after months of marching, if they arrived at all: dysentery passed through campaigning forces with fatal routine. They faced their foe in a youth that would have felt more like middle age to you and me.

And in the middle of this Ur-medieval battlefield there is a 12-foot giant, just to confirm that this not medieval Europe, by any means.

The Conversation

James Clark, Professor of Medieval History, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.