Learning and Researching at QuB Politics

Phenomenal everyday feminism: How to practise feminist politics every day

Ahead of International Women’s Day, the Centre for Gender in Politics at Queen’s recently hosted a workshop with Reclaim the Agenda on how to make feminist activism part of your everyday. The conversation was kickstarted by some phenomenal women organising on various issues, followed by a discussion about how to get involved – even if that’s from your sofa for the time being!

Stay tuned for a write-up of the event.

History Politics Reflections on the US Election

A ‘nice’ perspective on the US Election

By Madison T. Clark, MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice 

This article is part of our series ‘Reflections on the US Election’

I was born and raised in a state where being ‘nice’ is upheld as the golden standard. All too often, however, this ‘nice’ approach boils down to public smiles coupled with behind-the-scenes racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Microaggressions rule the day in my home state. Attempts to have important, difficult conversations tend to result in silence from oppressors and/or wild gesticulations at their personal church attendance records and what that surely signifies about their character. All of this was true when I was born, and all of this continues to be true today. 

None of the structural issues in the United States begin or end with Donald Trump’s single term in office. Did he behave in ways that explicitly and implicitly empowered racists, white nationalists, misogynists, Islamophobes, and other such groups? Yes. Did he appoint morally reprehensible and/or wholly unqualified people, resulting in increased violence against millions of already-marginalized communities? Yes. Concurrently, the truth of the matter is that the United States has never worked through any reconciliation process. Agreeing to a shared history is an early step in nearly all conflict resolution and transformation efforts. Across the board, Americans can’t even agree on basic historical facts about the oppression and violence that our entire country is built upon and continues to perpetuate. 

For better or worse, I’m a product of the U.S. public education system. Rather than learn about the Indigenous genocides that led to the presence of our original colonizers, we learned cutesy rhymes revolving around the names of Columbus’ ships. Rather than learn the true devastations of slavery or the ways in which it and white supremacy continue to impact our everyday lives, we learned how terrible the South was, how wonderful the North was, and how the conditions of slavery weren’t particularly ideal. In the American public education system, we learn the ‘nice’ version of our country’s history, rather than the truth of it. 

To this day, such ‘niceness’ is predominantly perpetuated and upheld by white people across the country; these are the same people who elect to apply their colonizer mindsets to all people. This, paired with white fragility, is what created the ‘angry and loud Black woman’ trope, which continues to be used in order to invalidate and ignore what Black women have to say; it is why ‘speak English’ is an incredibly common refrain from U.S. nationalists, even as they simultaneously pride themselves on tired ‘melting pot’ imagery; it is why ‘sexy Indian costumes’ are popular each Halloween, yet the subject of missing and murdered Indigenous women is rarely brought up in public discourse. 

The ‘niceness’ that a childhood in Missouri tried to teach me is the same ‘niceness’ that so much of our country revolves around. So it’s no wonder the pollsters have struggled to produce any sort of accurate numbers in the last two elections. It was not necessarily ‘nice’ to admit to a stranger that you’d be voting for Trump, but it was simultaneously seen as ‘the American thing to do.’ The irony of this dichotomy is not lost on me. 

When the results from Pennsylvania came through, officially pushing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris past that 270 mark (don’t get me started on the racist and classist disaster that is the Electoral College), I let out a sigh that I didn’t know I’d been holding for the past four years. While I absolutely wish Biden and Harris were the progressives that far-right media has painted them to be, I know that is not the case. But I believe in our organizers, in our local politicians, in our everyday community builders, in our conflict mediators, in every person who prides themselves not on being seen as ‘nice’ but on building a more just and equitable future for all people. I believe that we can and must hold Biden, Harris, and their entire administration accountable, demand meaningful systemic change, and shift our nation closer to one that actually provides liberty and justice for all for the first time in its history. 

Anthropology History Politics

Can we predict whether the Edward Colston statue will ever return to Bristol city centre?

Maruška Svašek
Reader in Anthropology

On 7 June 2020, angry protesters, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, pulled down the Edward Colston monument in Bristol. Objections to the depiction of someone who had been involved in the Atlantic slave trade had been made as early as 1920, but had become increasingly strong from the 1990s onward. At the time of its toppling, plans to add a plaque with information about Colston’s controversial background were being discussed by the Bristol City Council. While to some, the toppling of the statue was a victory after many years of protest, others, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, denounced it as an act of vandalism. London-based artist Marc Quinn, by contrast, saw the iconoclastic act as an opportunity to side with the protesters. On 15 July 2020, without Bristol City Council’s permission, he placed a depiction of the Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the plinth. Within a few hours, the Council carefully removed it.

The events in Bristol show that attacks on public statues and artistic interventions can send out strong political messages, calling for societal change and the re-evaluation of past events. As Øivind Fuglerud, Kjersti Larsen and Marina Prusac-Lindhagen argue in the forthcoming book, Negotiating Memory from the Romans to the Twenty-First Century: Damnatio Memoriae, this is a widespread phenomenon. The editors use the term ‘Damnatio Memoriae’ not only to refer to its original meaning, (a modern Latin term for a practice in Ancient Rome whereby those in power posthumously erased widely known individuals from official history), but also to draw attention to the ways in which the production, destruction and in some cases re-production of material artefacts has been used to evaluate past events. In the case of Bristol, both statues will be put on display in a museum setting. Together with Black Lives Matter placards and personal accounts by people who participated in the protest, the exhibition will engage audiences in current debates about slavery, colonialism and racism.

Colston’s memorial will be kept in the state it was in when retrieved from the harbour: damaged and covered with graffiti. According to John Finch, Head of Culture at the City Council, museums need to ‘respond and engage with social issues and current concerns’, so the exhibition will recontextualise the work, presenting a narrative of racial inequality from a present-day, critical perspective. 

It seems highly unlikely that Colston’s statue will ever be re-installed on its pedestal in Bristol’s city centre. But how sure are we about that?

As digital photographs and film footage of the falling statue started circulating on the Internet, I was reminded of a photograph, taken in 1918, of another toppled monument. In this case, it was a sandstone Baroque victory column, created by the seventeenth century Bohemian sculptor Jan Jiří Bendl, and pulled down by Czech nationalist radicals, not long after the establishment of independent Czecholosvakia. The sixteen meter tall column carried a statue of the Virgin Mary, and had been erected in 1650 in Prague to commemorate the 1648 victory of the Habsburg army over invading Swedish troops.

The destruction of the Marian Column was a highly symbolic act that marked the start of a new political era. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Czech revivalists had already begun to perceive the column as a symbol of political, cultural and religious oppression. The region had been under Habsburg rule for many centuries. A large monument for the church reformer and martyr Jan Hus, unveiled in 1915 on Old Town Square, reflected the new understanding of the past. Hus, who was burnt at the stake for anti-Catholic heresy in 1415, was anachronistically regarded as Czech national martyr. 

The toppling of the Marian column was not approved by all citizens. As Cynthia Paces notes in Prague Panoramas: National Memory and Sacred Space in the Twentieth Century, various organisations, including the Charles-Ferdinand University and the art assotiation Mánes, accused the radical nationalists of pseudopatriotic sentiments, and objected to the destruction of what they saw as a high-quality baroque work of art that had embellished the city centre for 332 years. Prague City Council decided, however, to side with the protesters and sent the remains of the broken statue to the Lapidarium of the National Museum, presenting them as relics of a bygone political era. 

Figure 1: The memorial plaque on Old Town Square, in the background the Jan Hus memorial. Photograph by the author, 2018.

One might think that that was the end of the story. In May 1990, however, a group of heritage supporters and representatives of the Catholic Church established The Society of the Recovery of the Marian Column and started to call for the return of the monument. In November 1993, the Society placed a plaque on Old Town Square that read ‘Here stood and will stand again The Marian Column of Old Town Square’ (Figure 1). The words ‘will stand again’ were soon cemented over by protesters (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Cemented over words on the memorial plaque. Photograph by the author, 2018.

This did not, however, discourage members of the Society. In 1996, they commissioned the sculptor and restorer Petr Váňa to create a full-size replica of the monument. Váňa travelled to India to source sandstone and completed the copy of the Virgin Mary statue in 2003. It was temporarily placed in the Church of Our Lady before Týn. As the work progressed, and the Society tried to convince the City Council that the monument should be erected, numerous proponents and opponents made passionate public statements. In an interview with radio Prague in 2013, the architect Zdeněk Lukeš explained that the Marian Column should return because it had been a ‘very important monument from a historical point of view … a wonderful example of Baroque art’. Others argued that the column would draw the attention to a relatively unknown moment in Bohemian history, namely the Swedish invasion, or that it was important not to boil down Catholicism to oppression. According to art historian Ludvík Hlaváček, the planned resurrection was an uninspiring, revisionist gesture that would not add any aesthetic or historical value to the already crowded square. 

For decades, the reconstruction of the column was fiercely discussed and rejected several times by Prague City Council. To the surprise of many, the proposal eventually passed by a majority of votes in January 2020. Interviewed by Dnes, atriumphant Váňa claimed that the replica itself had persuaded the members of the council.

I am glad that we managed to bring the column to Prague by boat so that people could see it with their own eyes. I also invited all the deputies to whom I explained the story of the statue and what it would look like. Before that, everyone was talking about something no one had seen, and it was assumed that it didn’t even exist.

Perhaps the original sculptor, Jan Jiří Bendl, would have agreed that the work itself had persuasive power. From an anthropological perspective, however, objects and works of art gain meaning and impact in specific social and political contexts, as they are interpreted in specific ways.  

Work on the re-erection of the victory column started on 15th February, and was completed during the quiet days of the Coronavirus Pandemic lockdown. Because of the quarantine, I was not able to travel to Prague photograph the process, so asked a friend, the artist Tadeáš Kotrbá, to send me a photograph of the reinstalled monument (Figure 3). It seems to, once again, have been built for eternity. 

Art historian Hlaváček was still underimpressed. When I asked him for his opinion, he wrote that:

It was nonsense to place the column on the square, but they voted for it for populist reasons. I was there yesterday to see it. The square looks now overcrowded, both materially and ideologically. People still talk about Catholicism and Protestantism, as if it has some relevance today. So far, four angels are missing that were part of the original work, which probably shows the difference between Baroque and contemporary sculptural language.

Figure 3: The reconstructed Marian Column in Prague. Photograph by Tadeáš Kotrbá, July 2020.

Returning to the question whether the statue of Edward Colston will ever reappear on its pedestal, the history of the Marian Column suggests that the answers can only be: we don’t know. The column was destroyed more than three centuries after its construction. A replica appeared 112 years after its disappearance. In that time period, unforeseeable political transformations occurred: The Second World War, the Cold War, the Velvet Revolution, the rise of populism, and so on.

Who knows what will happen in 112 years time in Bristol, and for that matter: in the world at large?  2132 is a long time away. 

Analysis of Impact / Covid-19 Learning and Researching at QuB Politics

COVID-19 and what it means for the study of Politics

Muiris MacCarthaigh
Senior Lecturer in Politics

In this short video, political scientists at Queen’s University Belfast – Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh, Dr Elodie Fabre, Dr Andrew Thomson, and Dr Stefan Andreasson – share their perspectives on COVID-19’s impact on the study of politics.

Learning and Researching at QuB Politics

Ending of the hybrid House of Commons breached fundamental democratic principles

Professor Meg Russell, Director, Constitution Unit, UCL
Dr Ruth Fox, Director, Hansard Society
Professor Michael Keating FBA and Professor Nicola McEwen, Co-Directors, Centre on Constitutional Change, Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen
Professor John Garry, Director, Democracy Unit, Queen’s University Belfast
Professor Graham Smith, Director, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster
Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Co-Director, Centre for Democratic Engagement, University of Leeds
Tim Hughes, Director, The Involve Foundation (Involve)
Anthony Zacharzewski, President, The Democratic Society 

This blog piece was originally posted on The Constitution Unit website at UCL:

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded the end of ‘hybrid’ arrangements allowing MPs to participate and vote remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. In this open letter, a group of senior democracy specialists – including Professor John Garry, Director of the Democracy Unit in HAPP – point out this breached the fundamental democratic principle of equality in decision-making, because the MPs most benefiting from remote participation (e.g. due to ‘shielding’) were excluded from the vote. They urge the Leader of the House to reinstate procedures allowing all MPs to participate fully in all Commons business.

Dear Mr Rees-Mogg

We write to express our very grave concerns about the way in which the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons was suspended. As specialists in the principles and practice of democracy it is clear to us that these actions breached fundamental democratic principles.

The ‘hybrid’ arrangements, allowing for a mix of virtual and in-person participation in parliamentary proceedings were brought about by necessity, to enable the House of Commons to continue to fulfil its essential functions of scrutiny and representation during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary accountability is crucial at any time, but more crucial than ever when ministers have taken unprecedented emergency powers, and the broadest possible public consent for health measures, and restrictions on citizens’ usual freedoms, is needed.

At the initial stages of the crisis there were troubling suggestions that parliament might close down completely for up to five months (as reported in The Times on 5 March). Thankfully, attention soon moved on from this drastic (and fundamentally anti-democratic) suggestion, to exploring how parliament could keep working through the crisis.

Parliamentary staff have worked tirelessly to devise innovative technological solutions to allow MPs to contribute virtually, and online select committee meetings began during the Easter recess. The Speaker, and the House of Commons Commission, offered admirable leadership, with essential additional input from the Procedure Committee. At the early stages there was a clear commitment to working on a cross-party basis to ensure that the Commons could continue to function in a way which maintained essential representation and accountability, while protecting public health. The motions on 21 and 22 April to enable members to participate and vote remotely were warmly supported by opposition parties and unanimously agreed. This consultative, cross-party approach was exactly what was needed when bringing about such far-reaching changes to the functioning of our democratic process. It showed inclusivity and maximised the chances of maintaining public trust and support.

The attempt to dismantle the hybrid arrangements has, unfortunately, followed the reverse approach. Through a lack of consultation and cross-party decision-making it has sown unnecessary division. Furthermore, it has breached the fundamental democratic and parliamentary principle of equality in decision-making, excluding many MPs from the choice about how to run their own institution. It has done so to the detriment of some of those who are most vulnerable in this crisis.

Your refusal prior to the Whitsun recess to renew the temporary orders facilitating the hybrid parliament was met with widespread criticism across the House, including from the Labour Shadow Leader of the House, and her counterpart from the SNP. At this point it was clear that the cross-party approach facilitated through the House of Commons Commission had broken down. Despite appeals that the hybrid arrangements should continue in order to protect the health of both members and the wider public, the government used its power over the House of Commons agenda to prevent the renewal of the temporary orders being discussed and decided upon. As a consequence, members’ ability to vote remotely – including those members who are ‘shielding’ due to age or serious health conditions, or who are living with others in this position – lapsed.

On the return of the House on 2 June, you proposed a motion that confirmed the ending of the hybrid arrangements. This was opposed by all opposition parties, and also by the Conservative chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley, who laid amendments which were signed by 15 other select committee chairs. Due to the government’s timing, it was clear that those members most affected by the crisis, and therefore those most dependent on the facility to participate remotely, had been excluded from the debate and from the vote. This was demonstrated by the fact that only 427 members participated in the division on Karen Bradley’s amendment to restore remote voting. Although 31 Conservative members – along with all opposition party members – supported the amendment, it was defeated. But there were over 200 MPs absent from Westminster, including 90 Conservatives, many of whom were prevented from attending for age or health-related reasons. Many of them had publicly stated that they opposed the ending of the hybrid parliament. Had the absent voters divided in the same proportion as those present, the Bradley amendment would have been only very narrowly defeated. However, it is far more likely that those absent would have supported the amendment, as it promised to restore their participation rights. 

In other words, the government only brought about the ending of the hybrid parliament through disenfranchising the very MPs that it was there to support.

You have indicated that you wished to end virtual participation in order to return to the necessary scrutiny of government legislation particularly in public bill committees. However, there has been no barrier to bill committees meeting in socially distant form at Westminster since 21 April. Had the government wished to do so, the Commons could also have run hybrid or virtual bill committees, as is now happening in the House of Lords.

Given that many MPs are unable to attend under medical advice, while others – particularly those representing areas furthest from London – are reluctant for fear of spreading the virus through travelling between Westminster and their constituencies, it remains unclear why the government has been so determined to end the hybrid arrangements. It certainly does not ‘set an example’ for employers, who would likely be subject to legal proceedings if they treated staff with serious health conditions in this way. In fact, the ending of online participation is even problematic for those members who attend: the time-consuming nature of the new voting arrangements (about which some also have health concerns) cuts into much-needed time for debate and scrutiny. Images of these arrangements have been widely shared in the UK and international media, causing much derision, and risking reputational damage to government and parliament alike.

During the debate on your proposals, and subsequently in Prime Minister’s Questions, you and the PM announced several adjustments to your original plans. These adjustments, approved by the House on 4 June, mean that MPs who are unable to travel to Westminster may continue to participate in questions and statements virtually and MPs classed as clinically vulnerable will be eligible to apply for a proxy vote. However, they will still be excluded from participation in legislative proceedings and those who are unable to travel to Westminster due to lockdown restrictions, shielding or caring responsibilities will be ineligible to vote by proxy. You have suggested pairing as a solution, but this requires MPs to be recorded as absent, and assumes that they would have followed the party line. In short, these compromise measures are far from acceptable solutions.

As you yourself repeatedly emphasised in winding up the second reading debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill on Tuesday evening, democracy rests on the principle of equality. Our parliamentary democracy requires that all voters and all parts of the country be equally represented in the House of Commons by their MP. The hybrid arrangements were introduced in order to maintain that principle in exceptional times. Ending those arrangements now, when many MPs’ movements remain restricted, clearly violates the principle. We urge you to think again and reintroduce arrangements that allow all members to participate in the full range of Commons business.