Monthly Archives: May 2016

Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident

Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
24 May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the Leader of the Labour Party has generated a number of articles from left and centre-left writers attempting to steer a course, as they see it, between Corbyn’s support for scrapping Trident on the one hand, and the Tory government’s plans to renew the nuclear weapons system on the other.

In April 2016 Paul Mason, considered by many to be one of the most left-wing journalists working in the mainstream, produced a short video for the Guardian titled ‘The leftwing case for nuclear weapons’. A day later he published an article called ‘A new defence doctrine for Labour’, which fleshed out his thesis. According to Mason, Labour should support the renewal of Trident. And should Scotland vote for independence and to scrap Trident, then Labour should support the movement of the nuclear base from Faslane in Scotland to a location in England.

Similarly, in October 2015 Jonathan Leader Maynard, a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, published a piece on the New Statesman website arguing for a consideration of the many options other than full replacement of Trident or complete disarmament. His proposal? Britain should “possess as limited and low-cost a nuclear deterrent as possible, for the exceptionally unlikely scenarios when it could be needed in the medium-term.”

Stop the War Coalition’s Lindsey German wrote a good, quick response to Mason, noting how his “left wing case for nuclear weapons” is actually “no different from the right wing case for nuclear weapons.” However, there are a number of very serious problems with both Mason’s and Maynard’s articles, problems which are common in other commentaries on the topic, so I think are worth highlighting and considering.

Language problems

In her influential 1987 journal article ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Carol Cohn explored how the language used to discuss nuclear weapons is laden with unspoken, often subtle ideological and propagandistic framing. After spending considerable time speaking with and observing experts (almost all men) in the field, Cohen “was gripped by the extraordinary language used to discuss nuclear war. What hit me first was the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”

Mason and Maynard are both guilty of using bland and deliberately misleading military and government-derived definitions and terminology, with both authors unwittingly defining and discussing the topic in particularly establishment and military-friendly ways. I suspect both authors would be horrified by this suggestion, so let me provide examples of the hidden assumptions and framing in their arguments.


Both Maynard and Mason our happy to unquestionably and uncritically refer to Trident as part of the UK’s “defence policy”. “Defence” is, of course, a deeply political, deeply problematic descriptor for UK military policy that critical writers and thinkers have tried to draw attention to and unpack. It was, after all the Ministry of War before it was given a PR makeover and renamed the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, after the aggressive and deadly invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions described by Maynard as part of “defence spending” – surely only the most brainwashed would continue to refer to the UK’s “defence policy” without breaking into fits of laughter?

The extreme centre

Maynard describes unilateral disarmament, like full replacement, as an “extreme option”, before noting “unilateral complete disarmament” is “just as dangerous” as fully replacing Trident. Mason doesn’t make such explicit statements about scrapping Trident but like Maynard’s article his piece is implicitly trying to steer a course to what he sees as the middle ground – which includes the retention of nuclear weapons – between the left and right of the Labour Party. Orwell would be impressed. “War policy” becomes the much more benign “defence policy”. Reducing the ability of the UK’s armed forces to commit genocide is “extreme” rather than an urgent rationale, humane and moral task. Adhering to international law (see below) is “extreme” while retaining a reduced nuclear weapons capability is the sensible, right thing to do. The problem with framing one’s argument in terms of the mythical centre ground is that it ignores the global context which shows it is those who support retaining nuclear weapons that are extreme, unusual and in the minority: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means over 180 nations on earth do not have nuclear weapons.

National Security

Both Mason and Maynard uncritically invoke the highly-loaded, and again, highly-contested term “national security” in their defences of the retention of nuclear weapons. Do all sections of society equally gain from notions of “national security”? Who makes the decisions regarding “national security”? By what actions is it achieved? One key use of the term is obviously as propaganda – deployed to close down awkward questions such as these. Even if one were to accept the term at face value, there is little evidence to suggest nuclear weapons positively influences national security.

Mason makes the extraordinary claim that “a government prepared to make significant inroads into the power and wealth of the elite needs to demonstrate it can safeguard national security.” Back in the real world, anyone who has been awake and sentient since 2001 will have noticed that successive UK (and US) governments have consistently carried out actions that have predictably endangered the lives of British people at home and abroad. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the dirty little secret of “national security policy” is that “security is at most a marginal concern of security planners”.


Maynard begins his piece by referring in passing to “Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent”.  Interestingly, James Strong, a fellow International Relations Lecturer with a PhD from the University of Oxford, is also happy to refer to the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”. Unfortunately for our Oxford graduates, this is simply not true. In July 2014 the Guardian’s Defence and Security specialist (see, the Guardian is at it too) penned an article titled ‘UK’s nuclear deterrent entirely dependent on the US – crossparty report’. Quoting a new report from the independent all-party Trident Commission, Richard Norton-Taylor explained the life expectancy of Trident could be measured in months without the cooperation of the US. “Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia”, he explains, “its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how, as recently declassified documents on the UK-US Mutual Defence Agreement confirmed.”

In 2015 the former 2nd Division commander Major General Patrick Cordingley noted the US “control everything about our nuclear deterrent, we can’t fire it without them… we could simply not press the button and fire one ourselves, we just can’t do it, I promise you.” This is echoed by Ted Seay, a senior policy consultant at the London-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), who spent three years as part of the US Mission to NATO, who has also noted “It would also be unthinkable for the UK to launch a strike outside of NATO… to say that you could launch a unilateral attack over the heads of NATO and Washington might be theoretically true, but practically speaking it’s rubbish.”

A deterrent?

Of course, “deterrence” itself – repeatedly referred to by Mason and Manyard – is another example of terminology that is far from neutral or descriptive but rather ideologically loaded in support of nuclear weapons culture. First, it suggests a defensive posture. Indeed, Maynard’s examples suggest he is only able to consider British nuclear policy as defensive in nature, discussing how nations such as Argentina or “an ISIS-like entity” could attempt “to elicit considerable concessions out of Britain on our vital interests”. The problem with this framing is that, like virtually every war throughout history, most nuclear arsenals and weapons systems are publicly justified as defensive. But with much of history showing that the words uttered by established power are generally meant to disguise its actions, what I’d like to politely suggest is maybe highly educated, privileged and influential members of the elite should have developed a sufficiently critical mind to not blindly repeat the underlying assumptions behind government’s framing of an issue. In reality the UK threatened to use nuclear weapons during the war on Iraq in 2003 – that is it has carried out, in the words of activist and author Milan Rai, nuclear terrorism. So far from deterring a threat to the UK’s “national security”, in this instance Trident was used to discourage another government from resisting the US and UK’s aggressive invasion of their nation. Second, the theory of deterrence is based on the assumption that all antagonists are rational actors. What, then, to make of Maynard’s baffling argument that Trident should be retained  in case “a really ghastly regime, perhaps an ISIS-like entity that gains statehood and then acquires nuclear weapons”? In an inversion of most observers understanding of the uselessness of Trident in the face of terrorism, Maynard maintains this entity “might be more prone to launch them directly against the UK or our allies if the certainty of deterrent is not present.”

The improbable nuclear apocalypse?

Maynard argues “nuclear apocalypse” is a “science fiction improbability”. He would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’ before making such foolish statements. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting 13 instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they conclude. Eric Schlosser, author of the 2013 book ‘Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety’, summarised the story of just how close the world came to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis:

“On October 27 1962, off the coast of Cuba, when American forces dropped practice depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface, two of the three officers in charge of the sub voted to respond by firing nuclear weapons. They mistakenly believed the submarine was under attack. Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command, refused to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, and the vote to do so had to be unanimous. Arkhipov’s refusal prevented the world’s first nuclear war.”

None of these frightening close calls are mentioned by Mason or Maynard in their support for the retention of nuclear weapons. Why?

International Law

Neither Mason nor Maynard deem international law important enough to mention, let alone discuss. This seems especially odd when one remembers Maynard is a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. [my emphasis added]

Neither mentions the fact that Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which states “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” According to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament this requirement under Article VI was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, with the addition of the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. A 2005 legal opinion produced by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin agrees, as does Kofi Annan, who noted as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006 that “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

And should the UK ever threaten to use or actually use a nuclear weapon – that is, commit genocide (again, a word strangely absent from Mason’s and Maynard’s articles) – the International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that this “would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and roles of humanitarian law.” This judgement is based on the 1977 Geneva Convention Protocol which states “the civilian population shall not be the object of attack” and bans “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.”

Increasing proliferation

Finally, both authors do not mention the effect and influence that nations possessing nuclear weapons have on other nations. As Professor Mary Kaldor noted last year during an London School of Economics public event on Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy the UK’s continued ownership of nuclear weapons “legitimises a sort of discourse in which power depends on destruction capacity. And what that means is that obviously there is a reason for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Sooner or later some mad person might get them. So the only thing our having nuclear weapons does is to say to people ‘having a nuclear weapon makes you important’. And then everybody else wants to have the same.” In short, there is a direct link between the retention of Trident and the likelihood of further proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, as the Director of Medact pointed out in 2006.

The elusive informed national debate

Writing in the Guardian in 2013 Schlosser argued “Britain has never had a full, vigorous debate about its nuclear weapons, based on the facts.” Chockful of crucial omissions, obfuscation and ideologically loaded language, Mason’s and Maynard’s articles do not get us any closer to this much needed informed national discussion. Indeed, by uncritically repeating all of the dubious terms and definitions above, the authors are effectively helping to normalise the politically questionable definitions and terms that help to provide linguistic support for the retention of Trident.

More broadly, at the same time they unwittingly reveal uncomfortable truths about their own establishment and military-friendly mindsets, the authors also inadvertently raise awkward questions about the intellectual standards and rigour of the supposedly top university in the country and our so-called quality media. To paraphrase Will Hunting, the numerous errors, slips and omissions that Mason and Maynard make are so basic and obvious that they could be easily found, understood and bettered by anyone willing to spend £1.50 in late charges at their local public library.

Book review: Girl Up by Laura Bates

Book review: Girl Up by Laura Bates
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 May 2016

Set up by Laura Bates in 2012, the Everyday Sexism Project, which allows people to share their experiences of sexism, harassment, discrimination or assault, has become a hugely influential online feminist campaigning tool.

Bates has since published her bestselling debut Everyday Sexism and become an important voice for women in the media, speaking about gender inequality at the United Nations Commission On the Status Of Women and the Council of Europe. She has also toured the UK speaking to school groups, and it is this experience that informs Girl Up, her second book.

Aimed at young women and girls, it is laugh out loud funny, irreverent and deliciously sweary. I imagine it’s like having a cosy but honest chat with your knowledgeable older sister. There are dancing vaginas, a colour by numbers vulva and a page of slang words for the word “penis”. The motto “masturbation is normal” appears in huge letters across two pages, while a “sexist bullshit klaxon” parps up throughout the text to warn readers of, well, sexist bullshit.

The chapter on women’s bodies is particularly good, with Bates noting that issues such as ‘looks’, ‘weight’ and ‘size’ are common worries when she visits schools. “You might have seen 100 women in one day but you’ve really only seen one woman”, she notes about all the idealised women in advertising and the media we are exposed to everyday. “She is almost always tall, young, thin, white, conventionally beautiful, made up, long-legged and large-breasted.” Our culture’s obesseion with women’s bodies is a trap that keeps women pre-occupied and under-confident, she argues, with the media, fashion and diet industries profiting from this damaging status quo.

Covering topics such as popularity, confidence, friendships, careers, pornography, and romantic and sexual relationships, Bates is part brilliant agony aunt (which I suppose is a gendered term in itself) and part inspiring feminist activist. The book ends by focusing on the latter, with Bates slaying the bizarre myths spread about feminists and amusingly stating that “everybody is either a feminist or an arsehole”.

Essential reading for young women and girls, Girl Up is set to become a key guiding text for the next generation like The Beauty Myth and The Feminine Mystique have for preceding generations. And though they are not the book’s primary audience, arguably it is young men, under intense pressure to conform to the dominant (and highly damaging) masculinity, who need to read the book the most.

Girl Up is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99.

The problem with praising football as “the last bastion of social mobility”

The problem with praising football as “the last bastion of social mobility”
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
20 May 2016

Football “remains one of the last bastions of social mobility, creating working-class millionaires by the bucketload”, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde heralded a couple of months ago.

The idea of ‘working-class-boy-done-good’ runs through a lot of British footballing popular culture and folklore, from the Roy of the Rovers comic strip to the 1996 film When Saturday Comes and modern day heroes like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Globally, footballing greats Pele and Diego Maradona are well-known to have grown up in poverty, with the former supposedly playing with either a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit as his family couldn’t afford a ball. And it’s certainly true that working-class and ethnic minorities are over-represented in UK professional football, with the average salary in the Premier League over £1.5 million a year, according to number crunching done by the Daily Mail in February 2016.

However, these well-known and oft-repeated facts hide a number of complicating and inconvenient analyses that seriously problematize the idea of football as a site of social mobility.

First, it is important to remember the extraordinary pay in the top flight is an outlier. As the Daily Mail report noted, while Premier League pay has soared, “lower-league salaries have remained close to ordinary family incomes.” In addition, the Danish academics Sine Agergaard and Jan Kahr Sorensen note in their 2009 study of ethnic minority footballers and social mobility that “a sports career is often without financial security or structure, injuries can result in retirement as well as loss of income and even disability, and the career is short.” While the national retirement age is set to increase to 67 years old, the average retirement age for a professional footballer is 35.

To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between football and social mobility, we need to consider why professional football teams are dominated by players from the working-class and ethnic minorities.

In Making Sense of Sports, Professor Ellis Cashmore, an academic who has spent his career studying the sociology of sport, argues “racism and racial discrimination have worked to exclude blacks from many areas of employment, restrict their opportunities and, generally, push them toward the ‘marginal’ or least important areas of the labour market”. In contrast, throughout history black men have been allowed – encouraged even – to follow two routes out of their often impoverished circumstances: through sports and entertainment. “Weighing up the possibilities of a future career, many opt for a shot at sports”, Cashmore writes, as “it can be demonstrated time and again that black people can make it to the very top and command the respect of everyone”. Cashmore’s concern here is ethnicity, though it is clear society imposes similar social and economic limits and obstacles on young working-class people.

If one buys into this explanation, the key point is this: the over-representation of ethnic minorities and the working-class in professional football, while good news for the individual players, is an outcome of low social mobility, inequality and discrimination in wider society. Sport “remains a source of hope and ambition for blacks only as long as those [wider] inequalities remain”, believes Cashmore. Therefore, if a good level of equality was achieved in society, Cashmore’s analysis suggests the number of ethnic minority and working-class players in professional football would likely decrease.

In addition, it could be argued those top footballers from poor backgrounds unintentionally create a powerful illusion. As the American writer Jack Olsen noted in his 1968 book The Black Athlete, “At most, sport has led a few thousand Negroes out of the ghetto. But for hundreds of thousands of other Negroes it has substituted a meaningless dream.” Agergaard and Sorensen make a similar case: “In the long run only a tiny proportion of the ethnic minority youths who dream of social mobility will make a decent living out of sports”. Cashmore quotes figures from the 1994 US basketball documentary film Hoop Dreams: each year 500,000 boys play high school basketball in the US, with 14,000 progressing to college level. Of these select few, only 25 percent end up playing one season of professional basketball. So just 1 in 143 high school players end up as a pro. This is not a problem in itself but the question is how many young people have ruined or, at the very least, curtailed their broader educational and career prospects by focussing all their energy and time on pursuing a professional sports career?

Hyde’s ‘football as a promoter of social mobility’ argument plays a similar role to the self-made man myth – to normalise and justify social and economic inequality by focusing on relatively rare instances of individual success. Two assumptions come hand in hand with this focus on social mobility: first, that the status quo is a working and efficient meritocracy, and therefore should be maintained, and second, that success – and failure – is largely down to individual effort, or lack of it.

More broadly, the assumption behind Hyde’s argument is that social mobility is the height of a good society, that moving out of one’s family and community circumstances is a positive and desirable outcome. A more radical understanding would arguably focus on greater equality and raising everyone’s position in society. “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks”, US socialist Eugene Debs said in 1917. “When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

International Relations scholars and UK foreign policy: interview with Professor Eric Herring

International Relations scholars and UK foreign policy: interview with Professor Eric Herring
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
13 May 2016

Recently I came across a 2006 article the Eric Herring published in the Journal of International Studies titled ‘Remaking the mainstream: the case for activist IR scholarship’. In the article Herring argues that “British IR [International Relations] academics… produce very little primarily empirical work which documents the record of the British state in creating human misery abroad”. In addition he goes onto note “British IR academics engage in very little research exposing the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by the British state to deny its responsibility for that human misery”.

A rare self-critical admission from an academic about his own work and that of his profession, Herring’s argument struck me as very important and deserving of a wider audience. Currently a Professor of World Politics and Research Director in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, I asked Herring about his 2006 article and whether anything had changed ten years later.

Ian Sinclair: In the article you argue there has been “almost complete silence on major acts of oppression abroad carried out or supported by the British state” from British International Relations academics. This claim will seem counterintuitive to many people as the dominant view of scholars and universities is of highly intelligent people, generally on the political Left, thinking critically about society and the world. How can you make such an argument? Can you provide any concrete examples to back up your thesis?

Eric Herring: The example I used in the article in 2006 was on British IR academia’s record of empirical research exposing Britain’s role in the horrendous economic sanctions on Iraq that had a devastating impact on the civilian population. I pointed out that from 1990 to 2003 (the period of the sanctions), “there was a total of three articles in British IR journals on the sanctions – mine, one (by US scholars) which I had commissioned as editor of a special issue, and one assessing them in relation to their gendered implications.” (p. 109). That is the sort of near silence you would expect from a near totalitarian state. No-one told academia not to research this topic. It was formally free to do so, but it occurred to almost no-one among the British academic left to research it. So, sure British IR academia had a somewhat leftist self-image and there is plenty of evidence of the critical thinking that you mentioned, but focused heavily on theory. It was not even a decision to avoid researching the sanctions – it seemed to not even arise as a question.

The article summarised the work of Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin, showing that this is a more general problem: “The coverage of the Third World/South in leading British and US IR journals, textbooks and monograph series between 1998 and 2003 was assessed by Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkins. They concluded that the coverage of the South was dominated by analyses which framed the South as a problem for, and threat to, the North. As they argue, this reflects the near-monopoly of US and UK based scholars in writing these analyses and the dominance of state-centric realism and liberalism, with imperialism and colonialism treated as subordinate issues if they are mentioned at all.” (p. 106).

I wrote “Despite this, there is a substantial amount of progressive IR scholarship in US and British universities” but also that “progressive IR scholarship generally tends to be under-empiricised. This is not an anti-theoretical line of argument: the point is that the progressive force of theory is severely limited if IR academics do not complement it with extensive empirical work focused specifically on the contemporary actions of the state and which provides the raw material with which to assess whether what it is doing is normatively acceptable and whether it has the right to act as it does” (p. 107).

I would turn the argument around: where was all the empirical scholarship about the acts of oppression carried out by or supported by the British state abroad? Did I miss it? I hope I did but I doubt it? I would welcome an annotated bibliography of it.

IS: Your article was published in 2006. Has much changed ten years later?

EH: There have been some positive changes that have generated a greater amount of critical empirical scholarship in British IR academia, though nothing that would look like a much wider mobilisation. The combination of the George W. Bush administration and Blair’s New Labour was so egregiously and visibly revolting with deception about Iraq and WMD plus the occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, rendition and the ‘war on terror’ (actually a war of terror in many respects) that academics felt much more impelled to challenge all these practices as a matter of principle (as opposed to policies that don’t work and would have been acceptable if they had worked). This easy visibility matters a great deal. A crucial role has been played by the growth of the hardware of the internet, the software of the World Wide Web and the staggeringly effective (if far from unproblematic) Google search engine. A major aspect of empirical research has been so much easier. These tools have allowed journalists and activists beyond academia to serve up so much data – images as well as words – that it created easy opportunities for academics to write about them and also reduced the sense that you were out there on your own in writing about them. In other words, in a way that I did not anticipate, the transformed global information environment has to some degree remade the British IR academic mainstream.

IS: Why do you think British International Relations academics, on the whole, do not focus on the international crimes and misdemeanours of the British state?

EH: I set out an argument with Piers Robinson on this in general terms in ‘Too Polemical or Too Critical? Chomsky on the Study of the News Media and US Foreign Policy’, Review of International Studies, 29:4 (2003), pp. 553-68:

“Noam Chomsky argues that, while the US news media are adversarial towards the US government on foreign policy, institutional filters operate to ensure that the criticisms made generally stay within narrow bounds set by the US political elite. Chomsky’s research in this area is largely ignored even by academics who agree with this conclusion. The institutional tendency to filter out anti-elite perspectives applies not only to the news media but also to academia. Consequently, Chomsky’s work is marginalised due to its emphasis on corporate power, principled opposition to US foreign policy and the role of academia in buttressing elite power.” (p. 553).

In locally specific ways of course, the propaganda model’s corporate, advertising, sourcing, flak and ideological filters all operate in British IR academia, though with the advertising filter least prominent (see pp. 561-566 of that article – focused on the US but the parallels with Britain wouldn’t be particularly difficult to work out).

IS: What was the response to your article and broader argument from your fellow academics? I ask because your article surely brings into question the very core of many IR academics’ image of themselves as independent freethinkers and troublemakers?

EH: The response was overwhelmingly one of silence. There were negative ones that activism is unscholarly and advice that I should drop the commitment to activism as it would be damaging for my career. There were also positive responses of relief and recognition. There is nothing special about my case in terms of the silence and I would not want to portray myself as some kind of martyr – my article with Piers mentioned above points out that the same thing happened regarding [Edward] Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model.

What can academics do to protect themselves from the pressures that lead them to steer clear of critical work on British foreign policy?

EH: The ones I argued for in the article are still ones I would stand by: always adhere to the highest scholarly standards in research and teaching, organise with non-academic activists, assess your scholarship in relation to its contribution to collective struggles against oppression and measure the worth of your work by the extent to which it serves your own values not those of the institutions which employ and monitor you. This is individual and collective intellectual self-defence.

Furthermore, the ‘impact’ agenda is now a major opportunity for activist scholarship. Activist scholarship was frowned upon but impact is rewarded, so repackage what you do as impact when you are connecting your research to social change, in terms of informing it or in terms of being directly part of it. My work now has two strands. The first – with Piers Robinson and now also Vian Bakir and David Miller – is research on propaganda as organised persuasive communication, with an empirical focus thus far on British Government deception in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. See:

The second strand, not yet written up for publication, is the Somali First initiative. The purpose of the Somali First is to promote Somali-led development through impartial facilitation, research and education. Somali First is a joint initiative of the University of Bristol and Somali-led company Transparency Solutions. The Somali First team are mostly not delivering development directly: instead, we facilitate numerous Somali-led projects and processes to deliver it. We are aiming to transform the process of development itself so that it is Somali-led by integrating our approach across issues and through levels of governance. Our approach involves the following sequence of steps: find good people, agree commitment to a Somali-led approach, build strong relationships and then assist cooperation to identify needs, design projects, secure funding and deliver those projects.

The approach to development seen far too often is that foreign organisations generate project ideas and appoint consultancy teams at arm’s length and short notice, with limited chance of leaving a positive longer-term legacy. In that flawed approach, Somalis are kept in subordinate positions and are defined as lacking capacity that has to be provided by outsiders. In contrast, Somali-led development encourages self-help and builds on local capacities. It is more cost effective, more relevant to local needs and more sustainable. It is more respectful of the dignity of the Somali people. Somali First received the University of Bristol Engagement Award 2014-15. See our 5 minute film.

Our approach is exemplified by our new project to support Somali-led social science research. The Somalia First team and Somalia’s Observatory of Conflict and Violence Prevention (OCVP) has been awarded $698,000 by the internationally-funded Somalia Stability Fund to train two cohorts of thirty Somali mid-career social science researchers over the next two years beginning August 2015. This is an innovative integrated programme of research training followed by internship on a Somali-led research team and then individual fieldwork leading to publication with mentoring throughout. At the end of two years there will be 60 trained Somali researchers and 60 publications, proof of the programme’s success. These Somali researchers will then be able to take up a range of leadership positions.

Organising with Somalis committed to transforming the process of development, using the opportunities provided by the new global information environment and packaging what we do as impact rather than activism have been vital.

The major change for me since I wrote that article in 2006 is that I place much more weight on creating positive alternatives while not losing sight of the critique. I find that is much better for my morale and attracts lots of positive energy. It shows that there is significant potential space to work for positive alternatives and I would emphasise working to expand that space more than I did in the past.

IS: In your 2006 article you refer to Activist Scholars (as opposed to Mainstream Academics). What is an Activist Scholar?

EH: In general terms, an Activist Scholar is one who, through their scholarship, exposes the deceptions and self-deceptions deployed by elites to deny their responsibility for the human misery they create, and who challenges the right of elites to act in these ways.

Which IR academics do you think are doing the best critical work on British foreign policy today?

EH: The two who stand out for me are Ruth Blakeley (Kent) and Sam Raphael (Westminster) for their stunning Rendition Project on the globalisation of rendition and secret detention. It is a stunning achievement which meets every criterion I have set out: superb scholarship, taking the argument into the mainstream, using the resources provided by the global information revolution, organising with non-academic activists, packaging it as impact and so on. Their work shows just how good activist scholarship can get.