The Far Right in Britain: Challenging Complacency
While it is true that the far right does not have the same political presence in Britain compared toother countries in Europe, we should recognize far right policies are often radicalised forms of mainstream concerns and these need to be challenged.
There is a complacent narrative in the United Kingdom that likes to think that the British public are immune from far right ideologies and perspectives. It stresses that the UK’s “first past the post” voting system keeps out any such extremists, who are too disorganised to pose any real political threat anyway. The few “native” far right politicians the country has – such as the British National Party’s Nick Griffin or the English Defence League’s Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – are experienced as occasional curios. They are demonised in the press, and encountered infrequently, perhaps near election time; or after recent atrocities such as the Anders Breivik case; or as the topic of occasional, edgy, documentaries exploring how racism still affects parts of the country. As such, the far right is mostly seen in an arms-length, mediated manner: it is something that exists on the margins in the UK, but it is also presented as an “other”, occurring elsewhere. It is almost always framed as a profoundly negative force. Hostile experts will condemn far right views, but ultimately audiences are not encouraged to register a connection between the far right and mainstream attitudes in Britain.
What’s wrong with this view? After all, the country does not host any far right MPs, and never has done. Nor does Britain have a history of generating mass far right organisations on the scale of the interwar fascist movements that emerged in Europe. More recently, the efforts of Britain’s National Front in the 1970s or the British National Party in the 2000s look insignificant when compared to the achievements of Europe’s postwar far right organisations – such as the Italian Social Movement or the French National Front. What’s to be concerned about?
The Far Right and the Mainstream
What is intriguing about this tendency to see far right cultures as, somehow, “other”is that, concurrently, many of the themes such far right populists regularly engage with via their electoral agendas, and expansive online worlds, are given a lot of mainstream coverage too. Far from being “other”, the arguments of the British far right merely radicalise many “mainstream”concerns. Far right politicians and organisations may be condemned, but its successful messages are grounded in themes regularly rehearsed by sections of Britain’s mainstream too.
The conveniently baggy issue of “immigration” tends to offer mainstream media and politicians a space for engagement with populist, ultra-patriotic issues. Discussion of immigration-related topics regularly offer coded messages implying, among other things, that there is an erosion of an “authentic” British culture, an unfair allocation of state resources in favour of non-white migrants, and that ethnic minorities tend to be a more threatening presence – in recent times this latter theme has been elaborated via sustained Islamophobia. Indeed, the populist discursive field critiquing immigration also implies an alternate, “perfect” Britain: one where minority races and cultures are not part of the social community.
To give some examples of the more hyperbolic stories that generate this milieu, aside from regular implications that Muslims are somehow “closer” to terrorism, one often finds suggestions that nursery rhymes, piggy banks, or even Christmas, have been banned by politically correct local councils, in fear such practices may offend Muslims and other minorities. At its height, the EDL capitalised on the latter urban myth and threatened local councils with demonstrations if they were to “ban Christmas”. Moreover, in stories where Muslim men have genuinely become sexual threats to British women, the media framing tends to veer into deeply uncomfortable generalisations about all Muslim men being closet rapists or paedophiles. As Nick Griffin once put the connection between Islamophobia and the far right: “With millions of our people desperately and very reasonably worried by the spread of Islam and its adherents, and with the mass media…playing “Islamophobic” messages like a scratched CD, the proper choice of enemy needn’t be left to rocket scientists.”
Needless to say, mainstream debates on such “immigration” issues are regularly left ambiguous, and are not politicised to the extent that they are clearly “far right” in nature. Yet the media creates a space that allows the far right to present its ideas as “common sense” responses to a growing crisis. There is a clear synergy between a populist mainstream media and the radicalised and politicised views of far right politicians. Britain’s news media, as well as some of its less responsible mainstream politicians, have a sustained ability to normalise the baggy “immigration = bad” messages that the far right then radicalises further.
The “Licence to Hate”
Historian of fascism and the postwar far right, Aristotle Kallis, has written about this phenomenon of “mainstreaming” the far right’s extremist messages under the umbrella of immigration debates. Across Europe, he argues, media discourses have promoted a “cognitive dissonance” between a myth and a reality. The myth suggests an idealised and imagined version of the national community, one where a host of immigration-related issues are resolved by there – somehow – being no immigrants. The contrasting reality is presented as politicians’ inability to offer any real solution to the regularly hyped “problems” raised by all the themes that get discussed in relation to “immigration” (housing, jobs, national identity, political correctness, integration, Islamophobia, terrorism, and so forth). In the interwar years, such tensions between idealised myth and a seemingly crisis-ridden sense of reality eventually fed into a culture that “licenced” extreme violence and even genocide – a very extreme way to resolve such cultures of “cognitive dissonance”. Though we are not close to this scenario now, contemporary immigration debates are drenched in a tenor that implicitly point to the desirability of a mythic monoculture. The heterogeneity of our present circumstance is regularly styled as a crisis, a poor, and frustrating, second – and is a tension that far right politics tries to resolve.
Thus, debates on immigration promote an unsettling cultural framework that endorses hatred, confusion and distrust: what Kallis calls a “licence to fear”. When alarming structural crises hit, such as the economic stresses found in Greece at the moment, one can see a swift radicalisation, developing from an already existent, largely latent, culture “licensing” fearful thoughts and attitudes. So we see breakthroughs of marginal extremists like Golden Dawn becoming all too possible. Indeed, the contemporary Greek case offers a cautionary tale to people elsewhere in Europe who see marginalised, extremist groups as always being doomed to occupy such a position in a nation’s political culture.
“Supply” and “Demand”
Yet we can overhype the threat. To be clear, there is no danger that Britain’s current crop of far right parties is likely to make an immediate breakthrough. In a few years, there may be a different picture – especially if any party improves its capacity to “supply” a far right agenda. The recent dip in far right support is essentially a “supply” issue, not “demand” one. Get the “supply” of far right politics sorted out, as the BNP started to in the mid-2000s, and one would likely find there is a notable “demand” for, in particular, radical Islamophobia. Telling of this dynamic, though the BNP has been in crisis since 2009, the 2010 General Election saw over half a million voters willing to vote for its brand of populist, extreme nationalism. Moreover, despite Nick Griffin’s errors the party retains a latent threat to reflexive liberal values in the UK, while its former activists, including now Andrew Brons, develop new forms for the British far right political party.
Moreover, for those working and developing policy in this area, I argue that we should not wait for a new breakthrough before responding the already latent threat of the far right. Rather than dismissing the far right as marginal and “other”, civil and political society needs to employ a cautionary approach, and be acutely aware that the cultures that generate a “demand” for far right politics are alive and well in Britain.
Indeed, the past ten years has seen the rise of the British far right’s most electorally successful party, the BNP, and also one of Britain’s largest far right street marching movements, the EDL – at its height in 2010 able to muster gatherings into the low thousands. In its extreme right-wing mode, the far right has produced aspirant terrorist organisations, such as the Aryan Strike Force, while older groups such as Combat 18 maintain an online culture promoting extremism. Its White Power Music scene continues to connect British neo-Nazism with an international milieu of extreme-nationalist and biologically racial activism. Finally, the new media revolution has made these worlds of hate all too accessible to the young and the vulnerable – people inherently seeking out clear certainties in a confusing world and for whom the far right can be very appealing.
“Preventing” the Far Right
What to do? It is worth noting that policy thinking is not blind to such issues – at least in principle. The British government launched its Prevent Agenda after the 7/7 attacks, a policy designed to operate in pre-criminal space to tackle all forms of violent extremism. In practice, its focus was very much on tackling Islamism, and Prevent was often rather clumsily implemented, causing much resentment. It was re-launched in 2011, just ahead of the atrocity by Anders Breivik, yet even in its reconfigured format the new Prevent strategy only gave limited scope to tackle the far right.
Prevent was also quite conservative in defining far right activity. The UK’s police have stressed that the EDL is a “right of centre social movement”, limiting the action it can take. Contrastingly, many working on the front line see the EDL as a typically far right organisation – as do many hate crime workers in local councils, not to mention primary and secondary teachers who see EDL themes used as an excuse for Islamophobic bullying in schools. Needless to say, the academic consensus point to the EDL as a far right movement too.
So British policy in regard to tackling the far right remains confused, and often disconnected from the advice of many front line practitioners. It does not seem clear exactly which branches of the state feel it is their responsibility to robustly tackle far right issues that, by definition, threaten a liberal, inclusive and free society. In sum, the far right falls into the gap that exists between “community cohesion” and “counter-terrorism”.
Aside from direct policy interventions, there are a number of non-state organisations working to address racism and far right tendencies in British society too. To highlight just one organisation, the educational charity Show Racism the Red Card provides workshops for young people, and training for adult practitioners such as teachers. Using football as an effective hub to attract young Brits who are becoming vulnerable to the strong pull of the far right, this anti-racism organisation achieves excellent results in shifting British attitudes towards greater inclusivity, especially in the school environment.
This is one among many potential initiatives to shift cultures and promote a more accepting attitude within civil society. By radically enhancing the capacity of such educational charities, as well as improving awareness of far right issues among a wide range of state professionals – from social workers, to probation officers, to those employed to deliver Prevent projects – Britain could foster a much more critically aware culture, one capable of tackling a latent “demand” for the far right. While eradicating clichéd prejudices in the mass media may take longer, building capacity to challenge racism in a robust and pragmatic way offers one strategy to reduce support for far right agendas – especially among an emerging generation coming of age in a new media environment that has itself become infested with populist, far right views.
For more articles on this and other topics, visit Fair Observer at: www.fairobserver.com
The value and worth of Northamptonshire’s engineering industry will be the focus of NEW2012, a week-long programme of activities this week organised in partnership by The University of Northampton, Northamptonshire Engineering Training Partnership (NETP) and Northamptonshire Enterprise Partnership (NEP) and STEMNET.
Northamptonshire Engineering Week 2012 ‘On the Move’ will showcase the performance engineering and linked technologies industry – valued at contributing £2 billion to the Northamptonshire economy, focusing particularly on the high performance, precision engineering and manufacturing sectors. It will also promote engineering education and careers through a series of events on and off-campus, led by The University of Northampton.
Northamptonshire is one of the key centres for engineering and high performance technology. NEW2012 will bring together industry, schools, colleges and academia to celebrate the county’s work in engineering, as well as to educate students about careers in the industry, and facilitate professional development and knowledge transfer for the benefit of engineering. Current predictions estimate that in the UK over the next 10 years there is going to be a shortfall in excess of 120,000 vacancies for well qualified engineers; this is a pattern which is replicated across Europe. This shortfall is a significant threat to the future continuation and development of engineering and high performance technologies within the UK. Given the current trends in unemployment for the under 25 age group encouraging young people to think about and follow a career in high performance technologies has great benefits for the sector and individuals themselves.
NEW2012 is being held within National Science and Engineering Week which is a great opportunity to link in the high profile work that Northamptonshire is doing in science, engineering and technology with the national awareness week.
Four days of activity are planned:
Monday commenced with an industry visit to FESTO, a leading world-wide supplier of automation technology, and the performance leader in industrial training and education programmes, This multi-activity day concluded with second year University engineering students competing in a ‘Dragons-Den’ style pitch to an industry/academic panel, including the British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing and the project sponsors the Stoke Bruerne Museum Association, with novel and innovative concepts in the design for a narrowboat.
Tuesday’s on-campus activity was a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Outreach Day with talks and workshops Year 8 pupils from Northampton-based schools from the University and key partners. Themed on ‘motion’, activities included ‘Electronics and Robots’ from the University and Labvolt, ‘Golf Club Development’ from the University and Golfsmith and ‘Aviation Engineering’, delivered by Sywell Aviation and the Aircraft Research Association (ARA).
Wednesday’s theme is ‘Engineering on the Road’ and will feature over 200 pupils from schools across Northamptonshire competing in the Rotary Technology Tournament at Weston Favell Academy. The students will be split into teams to compete in an engineering challenge. Engineering discipline University students will also be going out on industry visits that day to companies such as Cosworth, ARA, KAB/CVG, Nampak, and Railcare.
NEW2012 activities conclude on Thursday with an Engineering Industry Symposium. This will bring together key industry figures from engineering in Northamptonshire to discuss the future of and research within the industry, leading to further collaborations and knowledge transfer between delegates. The keynote speaker will be Tim Routsis, CEO, Cosworth, who will conclude the event speaking on ‘The importance of innovation and diversification within High Performance Technologies and Engineering’.
Julia Schumacher, Business Partnership Manager and lead on High Performance Technologies at NEP, commented to me:
“Northamptonshire is beginning to properly tell the world about its strengths in a range of High Performance Technologies and to raise strong awareness locally of the opportunities available, particularly for young people in engineering and linked emerging technologies. Engineering Week is an important part of describing this to a local, national and international audience and we are very pleased to be supporting the University in this initiative.”
NEW2012 is the first time the University, NEP, the NETP and other partners have collaborated in such away to promote Northamptonshire engineering excellence and it is planned the week will become an annual feature in helping to promote and support this very important sector.
By Dan Bailey, Senior Lecturer in Engineering, School of Science and Technology
Yesterday, the Member of Parliament for Falkirk Eric Joyce addressed the House of Commons to apologise for his conduct and to announce that he was resigning from the Labour Party. As was widely reported, on 22 February he started a fight in the Strangers’ Bar at the Commons. Last week he pleaded guilty to four counts of assault at Westminster magistrates court.
Clearly such behaviour is not acceptable from a public official, or anybody else for that matter. But the coverage that the incident received in the press and the radio phone-ins did strike me as being particularly indignant. Some commentators insisted that the Palace of Westminster should not provide food and alcohol that is subsidised by the taxpayer (which, given the antisocial hours of parliamentary sittings, seems fair enough to me). In living up to the stereotype of a hard-drinking Scottish Labour MP, Joyce has doubtless provided material for comedy panel shows for years to come.
Perhaps I was less shocked because, as an historian of British politics, I have seen it all before. In Britain, we almost expect our politicians to be bruisers. We fondly remember John Prescott’s punch or George Galloway’s roistering performance in front of the American Senate. The nature of electoral politics in Britain means that candidates are expected to get down-and-dirty on the streets, and to come face to face with irreverent or angry constituents. This has its origins in the carnival street culture of elections in the eighteenth century, memorably caricatured by Hogarth. Well-to-do candidates may not have enjoyed the rowdy canvasses, drunken riots and heckling crowds, but at the time it was widely seen as a good thing – an opportunity for them to demonstrate their masculine character and public spirit. In 1828, the candidate Edward Sugden commended Weymouth’s electoral violence as a manly game: ‘I love to see a collision of the people, it evinces that independence that is so dear to an Englishman.’
This aggressive masculine culture arguably permeates parliament itself. Unlike most countries, whose elected assemblies usually have a semicircular layout, the two banks of seating the Commons contribute to its gladiatorial atmosphere. For centuries, visitors from abroad have combined reverence for this cradle of democracy with shock at the rowdy conduct of its members. It is difficult to imagine the presidents of America or France submitting to the weekly indignity of Prime Minister’s Questions – but we should also celebrate the fact that our leaders are called to account and required to think on their feet.
An article by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail today summed up this ambivalence. While poking fun at the humbled Joyce, he also commended his behaviour in distinctly Victorian terms. ‘Eric Joyce did not snivel,’ when he delivered his Commons apology, ‘but took his dilemma like a man.’ Letts also wondered whether there was ‘something invigorating’ about his behaviour: ‘Is he at least not more interesting than scores of tepid, timid bores who sit on the green benches?’
This is not to condone what Joyce did in the Strangers’ Bar. But before we rush to condemn him, we should perhaps reflect upon what sort of MPs, and what sort of political culture, we want modern Britain to have.
There has recently been quite a lot of excitement about the Raspberry Pi, and rightly so. At around £25 for a computer (you need to have a keyboard and TV) it has lots of features that make it interesting.
For me though its most interesting feature is it is a no-frills device that doesn’t look like the black box in the corner – it’s a circuit board with some chips and connections. Why is that interesting? Well, that’s what a computer essentially is. It is cheap enough that if it breaks it is not a serious problem, and in most cases people are unlikely to write something that will break the machine anyway.
There has, quite rightly, been a lot of excitement – because of the price, and for encouraging school children to learn to program. I agree with this whole-heartedly, but there is potentially a more interesting feature, what else can you do with it? Yes, you can word process, run video or connect to the internet, but what if you connected it to something else? What if you combined them together or connect cameras to them – what could you produce at a relatively low cost?
A low cost device that can be used to encourage ideas to be played with, where it doesn’t matter too much if it goes wrong – that is where the excitement should be. I do not know what is going to come out of it, but I am very interested to find out.
I remember when I was working as a trainee accountant in the tax department of the London office of Arthur Andersen (R.I.P.) in March 1988 when our senior partner walked in clutching a bottle of champagne: “Geoffrey Howe has just made me £30,000 a year richer” he squawked excitedly “he’s announced in the budget that the top tax rate has been cut from 60% to 40%”.
Since I was earning less than that sum at the time, I can remember being distinctly unimpressed with this – as I am now with calls from business leaders in the Daily Telegraph to cut the top tax rate back down from 50% to 40%. My definition of business leadership does not include looking after my own interest whilst my employees are suffering from an economic downturn and increasing levels of unemployment.
There is an argument that the 50% rate just reduces entrepreneurial incentives, promotes tax avoidance and doesn’t actually raise much extra money for the exchequer, but the time for that argument is certainly not now. Business leaders have to be seen to be sharing in the pain that everyone else is suffering. Since the tax is only levied on incomes above £150,000, we can assume that the pain shouldn’t be too hard to bear!
In particular, to accept the thesis that the 50p tax rate stifles entrepreneurship, we would have to assume that the extra money the entrepreneur receives from not paying tax would be ploughed back into new businesses and that this won’t happen with a 50p tax rate. I’m afraid I don’t buy that as credible – the viability or expected profitability of a new business does not simply depend on the cash financing from the entrepreneur – if it is a good prospective business it will attract plenty of risk capital from other sources. The tax saving is more likely to be used to fund a better lifestyle for the entrepreneur, or even to reduce his personal level of debt. Both of these are fine objectives, but only when the good times come again, and we can all share in the prosperity of our economy.
Last night the protesters occupying the area outside St Paul’s Cathedral were unceremoniously removed by a squad of bailiffs and police. As I tuned into BBC Radio Five Live’s phone-in there were queues of people ringing in to say good riddance and to condemn them for making such a mess of one of London’s most famous tourist attractions. Despite the best efforts of one representative of the Occupy movement there was little or no discussion of why they were there in the first place. Instead there was just a string of tired complaints about a rabble of misguided, workshy, rent-a-mob malcontents who had nothing to bring to society.
To some extent I blame the media for this: a radio phone-in is hardly the best vehicle for an informed debate about the intricacies of the global economic system, but they could at least try. When the belaboured occupy representative was attempting to explain that there is an alternative to rampant unrestrained global capitalism, he was continually challenged and told that his ideas had already failed in Soviet Russia. This is such an outdated and misrepresentative view it beggars belief that it is still trotted out. I encountered it in the 1980s when supporters of Thatcherism routinely invited me to ‘go and live in Russia or China if you don’t like it here’.
I visited the protest at St Paul’s and when I was in the US I visited Occupy Philly. On both occasions I met interested, earnest and dedicated people – many of them young – who believed passionately in what they were doing. They had hope, they wanted to change the world, and they were doing something constructive about an economic and social system they believed was unfair. Yes there were a few of hippies there; yes, in Philly at least, there was the whiff of marijuana in the air, and some people could have washed more often, but they were doing something. More importantly to me – as a historian – was they were continuing a tradition of social protest that has very deep roots in British culture and society.
In the eighteenth century Britons protested about the price of wheat and bread, against the imposition of toll roads, at the enclosure of common land or at forced enlistment in to the armed forces. They rioted in London against attempts to overturn the laws prevented Catholics from holding public office and routinely demonstrated for or against individuals standing for parliament. The nineteenth century saw peaceful mass demonstrations in support of parliamentary reform and more violent and individual acts of social protest against the introduction of those new technologies in agriculture and manufactory which had adversely affected wages and employment. Real political protest emerged in the Chartist movement that set down a list of demands that challenged the inequality of early Victorian society. Agitation for political rights, including Women’s suffrage, continued throughout the century and into the twentieth and eventually forced those in power to make concessions to the mass of working people after the First World War.
In the 1880s Trafalgar Square and several of London’s parks were frequently occupied by hundreds of homeless people. During the day their supporters made speeches to those gathered under Nelson’s Column. At night the police moved in and tried to clear the great unwashed away. But they returned and some set up camps and tree houses in the parks and around the Square. Local residents grumbled and wrote angry letters to The Times and the chief of police. One enterprising copper took it upon himself to drench the benches in cold water to put off anyone inclined to sleep on them. His superiors fretted and wondered whether clearing public spaces of the needy and unemployed would simply make the police even more unpopular amongst the lower orders. The protests and occupations came to a head and eventually ended in 1887 when Sir Charles Warren’s attempt to ban demonstrations in London backfired and the mob fought pitched battles with the boys in blue: several heads were cracked and at least one innocent bystander died under the hooves of a police horse.
The occupiers of the 1880s were far from an organised political movement although a plethora of socialists, anti-free traders, Irish nationalists and anti-alienists all tried to co-opt them to their causes. They, and many liberal minded Victorians, realised that there was something wrong in society. Late Victorian Britain was far from an equal society; the rich were getting richer and the poor were living in ever more desperate and degraded conditions. The occupation of Trafalgar Square – that symbol of the mighty all conquering British Empire – was an uncoordinated attempt and shaking the complacency of the Victorian ruling classes. It may not have achieved much but when you have no power, economically or politically, what else can you do but make seemingly futile gestures?
I’m not suggesting the Occupy movement’s actions have been futile – far from it. But alongside the Uncut movement, the student campaign against tuition fees and the anti-globalisation demonstrations across the world they form part of a widespread challenge to the consensus position that unrestricted global capitalism in the form we have now is the only economic system that can succeed in the modern world. So I say more power to their tents and sleeping bags, good for them and thank you for standing up to the multinationals and corporations and the government and for offering an alternative perspective. In a modern Britain where party politics has become so debased and people feel almost as disenfranchised as those that campaigned for the vote 200 years ago we need social protestors like Occupy to remind us (and those that rule us) just whose World this is.
For information on the Occupy movement’s economic ideas visit http://occupylsx.org/?page_id=2855
If you want to read more about the occupation of Trafalgar Square in the 1880s then follow this link to my book London’s Shadows http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=132307&SearchType=Basic
By Chris Durkin, Associate Director, Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs, School of Social Sciences
The University has put social enterprise at the centre of its strategy, with ambitions to be involved with partners in developing the surrounding area as a national centre for social innovation. However, what does this mean?
Inevitably if you bring together a number of people you explore different perspectives and ideas. Fundamentally the event questioned what the University was for and where does social enterprise fit within the institution – is it merely a ‘bolt on’ to an existing structure or is it about organisational change with the student at its core. This then brings you into looking at the University’s connection with its surrounding areas and how students could be involved in the wider social enterprise agenda that is slowly changing the face of the public sector.
As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions
One approach that has proved successful in generating ideas is the University’s ‘Social Entrepreneur in Residence’ (a joint project with the Young Foundation) – but has that changed the University and enhanced the student experience? On one level it has by using social media to generate ideas through the ‘We do Ideas’ initiative, but like many social enterprises this is only small scale and perhaps it has not changed the University radically, a fact that was not lost on one participant who pointed out that universities are not really innovative and have not changed much since the 19th century. Part of the difficulty in developing the strategy may be a tension between the social and enterprise.
As an ‘Anchor Institution’ the University needs to connect with and help develop local innovation systems if the strategy is to succeed. As a University we need to engage with local communities but not lose sight of our role as educators, part of which is to question, explore and help develop innovative solutions. If this is to occur the University needs to create space for people from different disciplines to come together.
Essentially we need to ask searching questions of ourselves, recognise that although we have come a long way in one year, we need to step back and ensure that our core values are at the centre of all we do and that everybody – staff and students alike are ‘signed up’ to these values; values that are articulated in the University’s strategy. It is these values that will provide the added value and the parameters for engagement with students, staff and surrounding communities.
Although the discussion posed more challenging questions, it will help us focus our strategy. This was an event that is a key element of a developing relationship with the RSA; this small event is part of our journey and the contribution of the RSA and its network of Fellows is already proving invaluable.
This blog was originally published on the RSA Fellowships blog – http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/index.php?s=chris+durkin
By Hilary Erenler, Assistant Lecturer, Ecology, School of Science and Technology and member of the Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group
Butterflies and volcanoes. Not two words that naturally sit together in any meaningful way. Combining these two is like uniting fairies and nuclear warheads, or silk and granite; the delicacy of the first just doesn’t resonate with the perceived harshness of the second.
But this is not the first time these dainty insects have been linked to natural hazards with the potential to cause major destruction. The Butterfly Effect, rooted in Chaos Theory, is derived from the suggestion that the change to the atmosphere made by a tiny butterfly wing could ultimately dictate the path of a tornado (Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Edward Lorenz, 1963).
Since Lorenz presented his academic paper, technological advances have revolutionised every aspect of science; from DNA analysis of insects to help unravel their evolutionary connections, to remote sensing of tropical storms and volcanic activity.
Technology brings exciting opportunities to better understand earth processes in real time, but we shouldn’t forget the low-tech. equipment which enabled early naturalists to document the world’s biodiversity in such detail. Two hundred and fifty years on, complementing hand-held GIS equipment and digital maps, the humble butterfly net is still the equipment of choice for assessing butterfly diversity on a volcano in the Neotropics.
Described as one of the most active in Central America, Masaya is a persistently degassing, basaltic shield volcano in Nicaragua. It is set in 54km2 of predominantly dry forest with recent lava flows cutting through areas that are home to white-faced capuchin monkeys and twenty-seven species of snake.
Central American dry forests now persist in less than 2% of the area they once occupied. In the rarity stakes, this puts them above their better-known (and wetter) cousins; tropical rainforests. By a bizarre twist of fate, the presence of the volcano, itself something that could cause the loss of the forest, drives the protection for the area and the butterflies it contains. Without its designation as a National Park, Masaya could easily have become yet another human-altered, former forest environment.
One of the key research themes of an ongoing Earthwatch project I am involved with at this location is to assess the effects of the constantly degassing volcano on the surrounding environment. Butterflies, as key pollinators, are both a charismatic and vital component of this complex landscape. On a recent independent trip to the volcano over Christmas 2011 (with fellow ecologist Dr Michael Gillman from The Open University) we recorded a total of 164 species of butterfly in the park, a staggering twelve of which are potential new records for the country.
These twelve species are not new to science, having been described from other countries in the region, but they share the status of never having been recorded in Nicaragua before.
One of these was the rare, and hard to catch, Godman’s metalmark which is known from only a handful of individuals ever seen. Nothing is known about its larval food plant (the specific type of plant a female chooses to lay her eggs on) or its early stages of development.
In an age where the use of hi-technology equipment alters our personal and scientific lives at breakneck speed, it’s refreshing to know that low-tech. gear can still net such exciting results.
In my last blog, I talked about how I was interested in the history of masculinity. One arena that is quintessentially dominated by men is warfare. It is seen as a peculiarly male activity, requiring supposedly ‘male’ qualities, such as strength, decisiveness, camaraderie, discipline and controlled violence.
To this day, most national armed forces are reluctant to put women in full combat situations. Only a few months ago, Australia joined the very small group of countries that deploy women on the frontline (the UK not being among them). Ideas about masculinity in the military do not just serve to exclude women, however. Homosexuality has traditionally come into conflict with the institutional masculinity of the army – witness the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach of the US military, which has only recently ceased to be its official policy, and which one suspects may endure in its culture.
My current research focuses on masculinity and war. It has been a big part of my work on the project ‘Soldiers and Soldiering in Britain, 1750-1815’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (you can follow my progress at http://redcoats.ning.com). I am intrigued by eighteenth-century attitudes towards soldiering, as they can often be very different to our own.
Take the soldier’s body, for example. Nowadays, we know what physical qualities we expect soldiers to possess. They require physical strength and endurance, and recruits undergo intensive training regimes to inculcate fitness, toughness and muscular bulk.
A very different body was required in the armies of the Enlightenment, however. War was fought on huge open battlefields, where men were deployed in geometric formations. In order to perform these complex manoeuvres, and to operate a muzzle-loading musket with speed and unanimity, the soldier’s body required dexterity and grace, rather than heft. I talk about this in more detail in my article, ‘Dance and Drill’ in Cultural and Social History 8.3 (2011).
The Georgian soldier, with his foppish uniform and dancing-master’s deportment, is a world away from his modern counterpart. Perhaps this should remind us that ideas about masculinity in the military are not ‘natural’, but vary according to time, context and strategic culture. It might even encourage today’s armies to challenge their assumptions about what sorts of people should be sent into combat.
The report that Stephen Hester of RBS has received a share award of £996,000 on top of his £1.2m salary has provoked the expected howls of anguish from all sides and many ‘fat cattery’ jibes from the usual suspects. However, leaving aside any ungracious thoughts of jealousy, how outrageous is this payment?
Well what is he being paid for? Answer – to try and rescue a profitable business. So the question should be asked, what does it take to get the right person to undertake this task, which surely his detractors must admit is a uniquely challenging role? How many top bankers, let alone anyone else, are capable of this task, and if so, willing to take all the accompanying opprobrium that will inevitably come their way in shrinking the bloated balance sheet of the runaway bank RBS had become whilst it is in the public ownership spotlight? Translated into English that task means asset disposals and job cuts, in a market environment where both are going to lead to financial distress. The answer of course is very few people, who would expect a premium reward for being able to do so.
The reality is that set against the amount of losses he has prevented during the past year, Mr Hester’s remuneration is tiny. Yes, of course it is a lot of money, but nowhere near what he would command in doing the same job outside of public ownership. Is he expected to wear a hair shirt for us all while fixing somebody else’s mess for our benefit? To pick on a banker who is actually creating some value for the country by resurrecting an essential part of our capitalist economy seems penny wise and pound foolish to me.
- Damian Pickard
- Early Years
- Higher Education
- Jack the Ripper
- Lifelong learning
- Northampton Business School
- Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs
- Occupy movement
- Office of the Vice Chancellor
- Press Office
- Professional Development
- Radicalism and New Media Research Group
- Science and Technology
- Social Enterprise
- Social media
- Social Sciences
- University Technical Colleges