Monthly Archives: March 2023
Join Kevin Bean, Heather Alcock and Mick Owens to talk about three idiosyncratic practical utopias: the Chartists’ Land Plan, Port Sunlight and the 2012 Olympic Park.
The discussion begins in the nineteenth century, a particularly fertile time for social experimentation in England, with a look at two very different attempts at improving the lives of working men and women in a rapidly industrialising economy: the Chartist Land Plan, with its vision for extending democratic rights to working men and Port Sunlight, one man’s vision for an ideal factory town built in an arcadian and utilitarian form. Coming right up to date, we look at the Olympic Park regeneration as a promised transformation in East London from post-industrial dystopia to family friendly utopia.
Can practical development and planning bear the weight of political visions and dreams of perfection? What compromises have to be made between pragmatism and utopianism or between freedom and social engineering? Are utopian dreams suitable mechanisms for political transformation or distractions from ‘real politics’? Can they deliver all the benefits that they promise or are they always doomed to disappoint? Or is the desire to create something new a necessary starting point for future progress?
Want to continue the conversation over a post-event dinner? The Athenaeum’s Dining Room is taking pre-bookings. To find out more and make a booking, please contact [email protected] or phone 0151 709 7770
Kevin worked as a lecturer in Irish Politics at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool for eighteen years and continues to work as a writer and researcher. His interests include the history of British Labour movement and he is the author of The New Politics of Sinn Féin (2007). He writes on British and Irish politics in a variety of magazines, newspapers, and books as well contributing to radio and television discussions on these issues.
Heather is a PhD researcher at University of Liverpool, studying the global value of Port Sunlight as a heritage site and influential utopian settlement. Heather has twenty years’ experience in the research, analysis, adaptive use, restoration and sustainable management of listed buildings and conservation areas in the USA and UK. Her current research has supported Port Sunlight’s bid to the United Kingdom’s Tentative List for World Heritage Site inscription.
Born and bred on the Wirral, Mick worked for the Mayor of London, where he played a senior role in planning and development, including in the preparation for the 2012 London Olympic bid. Now a researcher, writer and lecturer, his new book, Play the Game, captures the drama of the Olympic bid and tells the story of the regeneration in the words of those involved.
The Liverpool Salon has been hosting public discussions around philosophical, political and cultural topics on Merseyside for over seven years. Join us at Liverpool’s historic Athenaeum club for Practical Utopias, the second in a new series of public conversations that take utopia and dystopia as themes for exploring the possibilities of building other, and better, societies, while reflecting on the shortcomings of our own.
Was Barry Gardiner right to call it a ‘shibboleth’?
Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner came under fire last week for ‘trashing the Good Friday deal’, after letting slip that a customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would not prompt an automatic return to paramilitary violence. Secretly recorded at a supposedly off-the-record discussion, organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a left-wing think-tank, Gardiner said there was no reason to fear a post-Brexit ‘hard’ border.
The Labour frontbencher drew a distinction between the old militarised border, with its ‘watchtowers, security paraphernalia and soldiers… with guns’, and the kind of checks and controls that operate on ‘normal borders’ between independent states. Acknowledging that his views were ‘deeply unfashionable’, Gardiner also suggested that the Dublin government had good economic and political reasons for ‘playing up’ concerns about Brexit and the border. He suggested it was using the ‘shibboleth’ of the Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of its national interest.
Gardiner’s challenge to the new orthodoxies surrounding the Good Friday Agreement came to light just as British, Irish and American dignitaries were gathering in Belfast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that now sacred text. Cue waves of outrage, much angry tweeting and calls for resignation. Tony Blair, former PM and chief architect of the Good Friday deal, was lost for words. ‘I can’t believe that anyone could say that’, he said. Former shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith branded Gardiner ‘reckless’ and an ‘ideological Brexiter’. Cue Gardiner’s deeply felt apology, in which he said he didn’t intend to suggest the agreement was ‘in any way outdated or unimportant’. Call off the dogs! Barry was back on message, re-affirming his commitment to ‘no hard border between north and south’.
So what was the offence that drew such a clamour for public recantation? As a frontbencher, Gardiner stood accused of being out of line with Labour’s Brexit policy. But how could anyone know what its policy is, exactly? Labour’s manoeuvrings on Brexit are a masterclass in constructive ambiguity. More to the point, what is wrong with a politician expressing honest – if unfashionable – opinions in the context of a private discussion among his or her political comrades?
And what of the substance of his remarks? The claim that Ireland is pursuing its own economic and political interests in relation to Brexit and the border is hardly novel. The Dublin government has made no secret of its determination to exert maximum leverage at the negotiating table as a member of the EU 27. As I reported on spiked last year, the decision to designate the Good Friday Agreement as a ‘red line’ in the EU/UK divorce talks was hailed as a decisive victory for Irish diplomacy. One senior commentator rejoiced that Dublin had seized ‘absolute power under EU law to derail the whole Brexit process’.
Trashing the Good Friday Agreement used to be rather fashionable among politicians, commentators and academics on the left. But fears of Brexit suspended their critical judgement. Many thousands of papers have been published about the obfuscations and evasions in the agreement’s text. Northern Irish politicians used to rail against its legacy of unaccountable power-sharing structures, political cronyism and the way it has fuelled mistrust and entrenched communal division. While critical voices remain, it is a brave few who are still willing to state in public what many privately think – that the agreement has failed to deliver peace and stability. The power-sharing government has been inactive for over a year, following a scandal over a renewable energy scheme. Even if it were possible to restore the government tomorrow, it would simply mean, as one writer put it, returning Northern Ireland to ‘that same dysfunctional government which brought political, social and economic failure’.
The British and Irish 2003 Joint Declaration spelled out the aim ‘that Northern Ireland should be policed as a normal, peaceful society, building on the commitment in the [Good Friday Agreement] to as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements consistent with the level of threat’. And with that in mind, Gardiner’s distinction between militarised and ‘normal’ border arrangements raises key political questions. What is the level of threat and where is it coming from? What would constitute ‘normal border relations’ between the UK and Ireland? And what does a normal, peaceful society look like? Does it look like contemporary Northern Ireland? These are difficult questions, and answering them requires taking some political responsibility. But it is much easier to nod approvingly when Blair reassures us that the agreement is still ‘moving forward’ and clap politely when Bill Clinton sings its praises as a ‘work of surpassing genius’.
To borrow Seamus Heaney’s famous words, when asked about ‘the Irish thing’, ‘to be saved you only must save face, and whatever you say, you say nothing’. Say nothing. Not even as the winds of change blow open a window to rethinking all future political relationships across the island of Ireland. Not even among your political allies in a private discussion, in this instance hosted by a supposedly radical think-tank, named after a fearlessly outspoken German revolutionary who was dedicated to ‘critical thought and political alternatives’. When it comes to the ‘Irish thing’, just as when it comes to the ‘Brexit thing’ – whatever you say, say nothing.
Pauline Hadaway is a writer and co-founder of the Liverpool Salon. She is currently undertaking a professional doctorate at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Cultural Practices.
Constructive ambiguity only stores up problems for the future.
The EU’s decision to designate the Irish border as an issue that must be settled before trade talks with Britain can begin seems finally to have led the Brexit negotiations down the dark cul-de-sac of Northern Ireland peace-process politics. As British, Irish and EU negotiators focus on conjuring up the right form of words to allow the talks to proceed to the next phase, ‘constructive ambiguity’ has become the mot du jour.
The concept of constructive ambiguity has a long history in conflict resolution and peace processes. The constructive element refers to the tactical use of evasive and ambiguous language, which allows negotiating parties to park sensitive issues so as to build consensus on others. Above all, it allows the political leaders involved to tell different, often contradictory stories to their respective electorates in order to keep them on board.
But however expedient it is as a negotiating tactic, constructive ambiguity always carries the risk of undermining trust in the political process and opening up further areas of conflict. As sensitive issues are fudged to ‘keep the process moving’, imprecise agreements are held together through political spin, media briefings and backstage cooperation. The negotiating parties commit to ‘keeping to the script’ in front of the cameras, but when cooperation breaks down, compliance has to be enforced under threat of sanction by a more powerful, third-party implementer.
This is all too clear not only in the Brexit negotiations, but also the Good Friday Agreement itself. Though it is often held up as the great guarantor of peace and stability in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is a threadbare piece of New Labour chicanery, the product of diplomatic manoeuvres, arm-twisting, bad faith and media spin. While, when it was signed in 1998, it formally secured the defeat of militant republicanism and took some of the heat out of the conflict between nationalists and Unionists, the agreement left fundamental questions of citizenship and national identity open and unresolved.
In his 2008 memoir, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, describes the Good Friday Agreement as ‘an agreement to disagree’, a trade-off between ‘two sides, who couldn’t even agree on its title’. As one of its chief negotiators, Powell ruefully observed that the political instability ‘that was to dog us in the years that followed’ was a consequence of the ‘constructive ambiguity’ that had been deployed as a tactic for getting all the negotiating parties to agree. Far from securing peace and prosperity, these obfuscations and inconsistencies continue to fuel the mistrust that divides and impoverishes Northern Irish people and has now brought down the dysfunctional power-sharing government.
Beyond the management of cross-community relations and cross-border arrangements, the Good Friday Agreement opened a new chapter in British-Irish relations, based on Ireland’s formal abandonment of its constitutional claim to unification and Britain’s abandonment of its commitment to the Britishness of Northern Ireland. In other words, the agreement is symptomatic of the readiness of the political leadership of both states to trade national unity and the interests of their own electorates to score short-term diplomatic advantage.
The Good Friday Agreement was a declaration of retreat by a political class that has given up on governing. It draws its strength from the shared intellectual and political exhaustion of the governing classes, their evasion of democratic responsibility, and their abject loss of faith in their own ability to govern in the interests of their electorates. It’s far from the model for peace and diplomacy, the one thing holding Northern Ireland together, that it is being made out to be.
Pauline Hadaway is a writer and co-founder of the Liverpool Salon.
Published on spiked on-line 6th December 2017