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Obama and the presidency

Friday, February 27, 2009

American Politics students will be familiar with the gap between the expectations placed upon the President and the powers he has at his disposal to enact legislation.  The Constitution of course hands all power to initiate legislation to Congress but since the 1930s the occupant of the White House has effectively become de facto chief legislator.  In other words, the President is essentially hamstrung by the separation of powers put in place by the Founding Fathers who were cautious about creating a new political system that could lend itself to executive tyranny.  For this reason modern Presidents must employ a range of techniques that can assist their power to persuade.  So how has Obama attempted to deal with this challenge?

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In defence of America

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In lessons this week we have been discussing how well the UK and USA protect civil liberties in a comparative sense.  This of course is a hugely controversial subject—and one which would be covered even more widely if it weren’t for the economic and banking crisis. Anyway in trying to stimulate thought on this I have found myself referring back frequently to an article I read by Andrew Sullivan at the weekend.

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Brown and the first PM

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nick Robinson has written an excellent blog piece about comparisons between the first ever Prime Minister and the current one.  Details of his related BBC Radio4 programme are here as well.

Is it Thatcher’s fault for the state we’re in?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Like him or loathe him, Ken Livingstone is, almost, always good value-for-money with his comments. On the Andy Marr show this morning he laid the blame for the current banking crisis firmly at the feet of Margaret Thatcher and her policies of deregulation in the 1980s.

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Pick of the papers


I would draw the attention of blog readers to two excellent comment pieces on the current state of the Conservative Party as in the eyes of many it moves closer to government.  The first is by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer.  The second by former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo in the Sunday Times.  Both provide the kind of context and analysis that Politics students should be exposing themselves to.

Taking liberties

Friday, February 20, 2009

According to the Independent website:

‘The full extent of state powers to detain people without charge, cover up Government errors, hold the DNA of the innocent and share personal data between public bodies has been revealed in a devastating analysis of the erosion of civil liberties in Britain over the past decade.’

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From the trailer this looks like a compelling production, so it’s recommended viewing for all Politics students.

26 Feb 2009, 21:00 on BBC Two

From the BBC press office:

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Liberal Democracy vs. Autocracy

Thursday, February 19, 2009

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What do I think of local government?


I was asked this question by David Cameron this morning.  Or at least I received an email from some lackey at Tory central office informing of a green paper published by the party which spells out plans to give councils more power.

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Think the UK judiciary is boring?  Think again


The judiciary is easily the least favoured topic area for students tackling the government of the UK modules.  Memory has it that the number of candidates who attempted to answer a question on this topic on a paper for one of the major examination boards could be counted on one hand.  Partly this is because some centres have given up teaching it.  I’ve gone on record in this forum previously in saying that I think this is a shame.  Firstly, the topic is anything but dry.  Judges have said some highly controversial things.  Heard the one about the judge who said that immigrants might not be suitable jurors? Secondly, British judges have been hitting the headlines more in recent years in clashing with the executive than has ever been the case.  This has largely been brought about by the massive increase in judicial review and the Human Rights Act.

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Pirates hijack the filibuster

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

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Bogdanor comments on UK constitution


Buried in the Education section of Tuesday’s Guardian is an interview with Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford.  Bogdanor is one of the most established authorities on the constitution and some of his observations are useful when considering the impact of constitutional reforms undertaken by Labour post 1997.

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Race and the police


The following figures come from the Runnymede Trust:
7% recruitment target for black and ethnic minority police
4% level of recruitment achieved
47% forces fail to meet their recruitment target
2.9% sergeants from a black or ethnic minority background
6 times more likely that black people were stopped and searched in 1999 than white people
7 times more likely that black people were stopped and searched in 2008 than white people

The chair of the Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, said recently that the Metropolitan Police could no longer be charged of institutional racism.  On the eve of an official inquiry into racial equality within the Met, the Runnymede Trust have published a report which states that a decade on from the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, black and Asian officers still face significant barriers within the force.

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Select Committees in the Spotlight

Monday, February 16, 2009

I have just sent a link to this post from the Guardian’s Politics blog (Select Committees in the Spotlight) through to my AS classes, who have been just looking at the scrutiny function of Parliament.

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Surveillance state

Sunday, February 15, 2009

It has been reported in the press this week that a landlord is fighting the police over their insistence that he install CCTV cameras in his pub.  Elsewhere doctors have spoken out against governmennt plans to widen access to medical records to all Whitehall departments.  These two events come in the week that a House of Lords committee published a damning report on the threat to liberty brought about by the development of a surveillance state.  A great site for exploring the latest news on attempts by the state to erode the liberties of the people living in the oldest parliamentary democracy, the land of Locke and Mille is here.

Party renewal in the USA


Students quite frequently write that American parties are loose groupings and largely free of coherent ideology.  But this analysis ignores the steep rise in partisanship evident in the USA in recent decades.

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Obama the politician?

Friday, February 13, 2009

I wrote in a previous article that an American politician once said that campaigns were in poetry and government was in prose.  This is a theme picked up in the Guardian:

‘You campaign in poetry, but you must govern in prose. That favoured phrase of New York’s former governor Mario Cuomo now applies with even more force to another progressive Democrat. Soaring rhetoric and a moving memoir combined to create the Barack Obama phenomenon and lift him from obscurity to the heights of the White House. Once installed, however, his main concern has been gritty negotiations over the minutiae of an economic recovery package. After protracted haggling, Congress has all but signed off on his fiscal stimulus plan, and yet the prosaic work remains far from complete.’

Read more of this neat editorial piece on the expectations gap here

UKIP leader takes time out from campaigning

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party was kind enough to give up some of his time and share some of his ideas on Britain’s relations with the European Union by coming to speak to my school’s Politics Society.

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Politics Podcasts

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I was talking today to my AS class about easy ways to keep up to date with politics as they are so reluctant to read a “proper paper” (no, I tell them, the Metro doesn’t count). I suggested that they dip into some of the range of excellent podcasts that are available.

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PR in Israel

Little did I know when I asked my group on Monday morning -as part of a general reflection on recent domestic and international political issues - to research the Israeli election, how extremely close the result would be, and how it could be held up as a prime example of why PR can lead to the disproportionate influence of a minor party (in this case Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party) over the policies of two established, and larger, parties.

James Hider, in the Times, talks about the deals that will have to be struck in order that a government can be formed

Is this really symptomatic of the problems that PR can lead us all in to, or is this just the continuation of the political weaknesses that have dogged Israel since its inception in 1948 and even First-Past-the-Post won’t be able to cure?

As someone who believes that electoral reform is well overdue in our general election, sometimes I have to wonder whether it’s all too much bother to change to something that could have far-reaching, and possibly disastrous, consequences for our stable system.

I think I’d still like to give it a try though!

Drugs and crime


Yesterday I had one of the most animated group discussions in some time when discussing the relative effectiveness of crime strategies which focused on prevention versus tougher deterrants in the shape of stiffer prison sentences.  It seems incredibly difficult to square a circle which desires more liberalisation in the shape of personal freedoms versus an approach to solving crime that doesn’t come straight out of a Daily Mail editorial page.

Today there is an agency report suggesting that certian class A drugs be downgraded.  More food for thought when discussing civil liberties, law and order, etc.

See the Big Question as a starting off point.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It goes without saying that Obama faces the biggest challenges of a new occupant of the White House in over half a century, and that expectations undoubtedly exceed these.  But how quickly will his star fade?  Cynical?  Not really.  It was Enoch Powell who was correct in saying that all political careers end in failure.  And well before that the honeymoon period becomes a distant memory.  For this reason, the Economist ran this interesting feature (in late January, but the blog was, alas, slow to advertse it):


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More Obamawatch

Monday, February 09, 2009

Further detail of the strategies used by presidents to overcome the limitations on their powers can be found in spades in the press at the minute as they analyse Obama’s moves in relation to the economic crisis.

Obama has not had as much success as he would have liked in convincing Congress of the merits of his plan.  For this reason he has been on his bike this week touring small towns in order to shore up public support for his bound to be over a trillion dollar proposal.  As the Independent reported today:

‘With partisan rancour threatening to blow his economic and financial agenda off course, President Barack Obama will today try to appeal over the heads of members of Congress and shore up public support for his $800bn stimulus plan and a second massive bailout for Wall Street.’

As someone with similarly limited experience in cutting deals in the Capitol, appealing to the public directly was a strategy used by President Reagan in the 1980s to soften up congressmen on his tax cut proposals.  The gipper is not regarded as one of the most intelligent politicians to work behind the desk in the Oval Office, but he knew what skills he had.  The ‘great communicator’ used his telegenic nature, and acting skills, to appeal to the people on TV.  The environment Obama is opertaing in is probably one of higher stakes, but the rewards of success are also greater.  Watch this space.

Question Time - 9 February 2009

Sunday, February 08, 2009


The latest edition of Question Time covers a snow-filled, action-packed week in British politics

Launch interactive version of Question Time

Download printable (pdf) version

The truth about torture?


‘They cut off my clothes with a scalpel. Maybe I was going to be raped, electrocuted, castrated.’

News and comment has been dominated this weekend by analysis of the use of torture by UK and US intelliegence officials in relation to the so called war on terror.

This is important in relation to civil liberties as well executive/judicial relations.

Background on the Binyam Mohamed case is here.  Allegations of torture contained in Mohamed’s diary.

Was the UK government, all the way up to Tony Blair, complicit by remaining silent?

Miliband’s role in this.

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Writing for tutor2u?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Thought I’d use this space to echo Jim Riley’s offer in the recent teacher newsletter to appeal to any blog readers who are experienced teachers or examiners who may be interested in writing either for this blog or for first past the post, tutor2u’s digital Politics magazine.

Contributing certainly aids professional development, and I’m sure subscribers to both services would like to see more diverse opinion than my tired ramblings.

If you would like to get involved, please contact Jim Riley via the contact form.




The presidency is usually the favoured topic for students of American Politics on the government of the USA module, so they would be well advised to follow in detail the path taken by Obama.  Many have questioned when Obama the prophet, the campaigner who has talked in grand themes, who would become Obama the president, bogged down in the dim realities of everyday politics.  An American politician once said that campigns are in poetry, government is in prose.  Never was this more true than in Obama’s case.

To keep up to date on a regular basis, students need to look no further than the Economist’s US section.

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UK/US synoptic paper

Thursday, February 05, 2009

We’ve just kicked off our study (after a bonus two days rest due to snow) of the Edexcel Unit 6 paper examining the UK and US political systems in a comparative context.  It can seem a bit daunting at first to draw together different strands of the course and compare and contrast them meaningfully.  And for some at the moment it seems like I am asking them to compare apples and bananas.  Possible, but perhaps a bit pointless.  So I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I expressed to my classes on this since there may be blog readers out there in a similar predicament.

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Gordon’s ‘depression’

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Wag economists are inclined to say that the difference between a recession and a depression is that in the former your neighbour loses his job, in the latter you lose your job.  But it seems that Gordon is doing his best to put himself out of work by lurching into depression territory in what can only be described as a Freudian slip.

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Parliament and government: the basics


I make a big play to students thinking of signing up for Politics in the sixth form (and we don’t do too badly for numbers - roughly a quarter of the lower sixth take the subject, and we are the 4th most popular in terms of bums on seats in that year group) that at the very least they will end one year of study with a good understanding of how their country’s governmental systems works.  But do they?  The conscientious class student should end up with more ability than the man in the street to discuss the workings of the single transferable vote, or be able to recognise that the introduction of a new Parliament at Holyrood has thrown into sharp relief the problems of asymmetrical devolution. 

But when it gets to the nuts and bolts of legislating and governing, what then?

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First past the post


The new edition of first past the post, tutor2u’s digital Politics magazine, has been posted on the site. 

Given the importance of the recent American elections, there is a bit of a US slant, but there are great articles covering UK politics, the EU, UK issues, as well as political ideologies.

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Events, dear boy

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A pointer towards a raft of events that will undoubtedly be of interest to teachers and/or students.

First up, notification of an excellent study tour opportunity in April for teachers from the European Atlantic Movement:

‘This is a study tour for Lecturers, Teachers, other Professional and Business People who are interested in visiting the institutions of Western Co-operation and discussing current affairs

The party will visit the European Parliament, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the European Commission, the Council of the European Union among others. Briefings, Q & A sessions and opportunities to gather supportive literature will for part of every visit.

The cost including travel by Eurostar and 3 nights en suite accommodation with breakfast at the 4* Hotel Carrefour de l’Europe which is situated in the centre of Brussels.’

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Advice and consent


I’m sure I won’t be the first to paraphrase Oscar Wilde in saying that Obama’s loss of one Cabinet nominee may be regarded as misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness.

Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, has withdrawn from the nomination to head Health and Human Services.  Daschle has apparently failed to pay $130,000 in taxes.  This comes weeks after Bill Richardson withdrew from the Commerce post.  What does this say about the administration that Obama is running?  It is probably to early to question the President’s ability to judge character given that Daschle, who is a multi-millionaire, had been guilty of at most making an error. 

Had Daschle not been due to play a key role in guiding through important healthcare reforms, then it is likely Daschle would have ridden the media storm.  For more on the withdrawal and the vetting process view an excellent transcript of an online interview with Larry Sabato in the Washington Post.

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The Big Question: House of Lords reform


A great starting point for starting study of House of Lords reform is this feature in the Independent’s Big Question series.

Retaining the House of Lords


The recent cash for influence affair has lent further weight to the argument for introducing a fully elected second chamber.  Rachel Sylvester in the Times isn’t so sure:

‘It is fashionable to use the recent allegations to make the case for an elected House of Lords. But this would be yet another step down the road of creating a professional political class - precisely the thing the voters detest. There is a danger of ending up with an Upper House stuffed full of B-division apparatchiks who had failed to get a seat in the lower one. It is, after all, the professional politicians, rather than the Lords amateurs, who have caused all the recent problems.

I would prefer to see a house of appointed experts - some retired, some not - who could serve a fixed term. There is an appealing logic to the argument for an elected senate but, if enacted, the idea would turn out to be deeply flawed. Be careful what you wish for lest it come true.’


Posher than John Lewis?


New research suggests that Labour have failed in opening access to higher education and have done little in their attempt to improve social mobility.  Say the Guardian:

‘Attempts to increase the proportion of university students from low-income families and ethnic minorities have been at the heart of Labour’s higher education policies. They are linked to the government’s target to have 50% of young people in university by next year.

Universities such as Bristol have tried to shake off their reputation for elitism, with initiatives to encourage under-represented groups to apply. But the research shows that at Bristol University 3% of students come from the poorest quarter of homes, while 54% are from the richest quarter.’

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Dealing with the Senate

Monday, February 02, 2009

This is a great time for American Politics students to be studying anything from the governing part of the course involving the separation of powers, checks and balances, the Presidency or Congress.

The United States is facing its biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and the American electorate expect one man to put it right: President Obama.

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An early own goal for Obama


An article provoking a lot of comment on the Guardian’s comment is free site is a feature by Gary Younge on President Obama’s attempt to woo congressional Republicans on the fiscal stimulus package.

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Question Time - 2 February 2009


Here is the latest edition of Question Time - our weekly quiz on the political news

Launch interactive version of Question Time

Download printable (pdf) version, including answers

Why no Lords reform

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Sometimes there is little to report from the weekend’s press in terms of must read British Politics stories, but this weekend is the polar opposite.

There is an excellent article by Nick Cohen about how reform is driven by short term political expedeincy rather than long term thinking about the rational basis of change.

One to cut out and keep for when covering this topic.

Have Labour lost it?


Yes, that’s a young Gordon.

Taking a break from clicking my way through student responses in Edexcel’s Unit 1 exam I have scanned the weekend’s papers looking for quality articles that could be used for the media Monday sessions.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept I attempt to get my L6 students to start the week’s lessons by discussing an article they have read from the week’s press.  Why?  Attempting to connect with Politics as a subject has obvious dividends in helping what’s covered in class make sense, or have a sense of importance.  Moreover, examining the work of quality journalists should have net gains in terms of improving political vocabulary and presenting coherent arguments.  This is why sourcing one’s news from the tabloids or the free papers (which after all are just the Sun without the ridiculously bold type - come on, have you actually read a substantive article in any of those?) is insufficient if the aim is to improve quality of expression throughout the two years of A level study.

Anyway, I think the best writing on British politics I have seen comes from Saturday’s Guardian.  Patrick Wintour writes on how the government’s response to the economic crisis has not left a lasting positive impression on voters.

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Cameron’s compassion


I wondered when David Cameron would seek to spell out a more coherent vision for where he would like to take the nation under a Conservative government.  Like Blair in the mid-90s the Tory leader has appeared content to play a waiting game, watching the government slowly implode.  New Labour appeared like a direct continuation of Thatcherism to many and there was little on the surface to distinguish it in policy terms from the Conservatives - except perhaps the focus on modernising UK democracy in the shape of constitutional reform (which was in any case a hangover from the Kinnock/Smith days).  As Blair rather than Major was the heir to Thatcher, Cameron has presented himself as the heir to Blair and put forward a case for saying that the Tories would be more competent stewards of the nation than Gordon Brown.

This week Cameron has gone on record as saying that the free market needs to be reformed. 

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What now for the GOP?


I have penned an article for the forthcoming of first past the post, tutor2u’s digital Politics magazine, on the future of the Republican Party.  There has been, as is often the case when parties lose elections, some navel gazing going on at the heart of the GOP.  Essentially the party seems torn between deciding that it has been too conservative, while others believe it is not conservative enough.

In the short term the party seems determined to focus resolutely on tax cuts and government spending.  In my article I write that this alone will not be enough to restore the party’s credibility.  Anyway, an article by Paul Harris in today’s Observer picks up on some of the latest developments in the world of the GOP.

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