The Independent Group: A Changing Centre or Drab Disappointment?

From Maw Stafford (PhD Candidate in Politics).


Over a week has now passed since the biggest split in (two) political parties since the 1980s. The Independent Group* (currently not a formal party but a collection of eleven independent) used the high-drama of visual politics to demonstrate their self-declared new place in UK politics. Three Conservatives and eight Labour MPs uprooted themselves from parties that some of them had been representing since the early 1990s and pitched themselves as the “new face” of a centrist/moderate fightback.

Is this a remaking of the centre or a demonstration by disgruntled MPs who will likely fail to hold their seats at the next General Election? These two elements are not actually mutually exclusive. Ideological differences with their party leaderships, especially around Brexit (and, in the cases of the eight former Labour MPs, the ongoing anti-Semitism crisis) seem more likely to have been the original key motivation for the eleven’s decision to split, rather than a desire to actually form a new party. However, they have given explicit indications that their intention is to do precisely that – and the continued language of “a new direction” and “#ChangePolitics” underline this course of travel. This, of course, is nothing new. If you can cast your mind back to a time before we’d even heard the word Brexit, Nick Clegg spent the 2010 Election promising “Change that works for you” whilst Harold Wilson advocated for a politics that matched the pace of technological change in 1964. All of this, without even mentioning the SDP’s formation in 1981, evokes that Mark Twain adage that, though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.

But does this all mean that a new centre-ground party couldn’t emerge? No, it doesn’t. British politics has long been unusual in European parliamentary systems in that it lacks a viable centrist party that could regularly play a role in government. Of course, the Liberal Democrats have had recent experience of this but once in thirty years of party history is by no means a high frequency of success. Take Norway, Finland and The Netherlands – all of them have a centrist party in government (through coalition). Obviously, as is well-documented, the UK electoral system used in General Elections (“First-Past-The-Post) has a tendency (though not certainty) to favour a two-party reality. However, a real “Centre Party” (or however it chooses to eventually call itself) could still have an impact.

On Brexit, the Independent Group favour a “People’s Vote” and are heavily associated with Remain. More broadly, however, their policy platform is extremely light. New parties have that rare opportunity that they can’t afford to miss – the chance to craft new narratives and political strategies that are not dictated to by historic internal membership structures or machines. Could they, then, take up this opportunity by having a “post-Brexit Britain” (assuming Brexit happens) policy launch following Exit Day? The other new party on the block (Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party) are tied to the only game in town at the moment: leaving the EU. However, our existing parties will have to almost recraft themselves following Exit Day – “What did we believe before? Is it still relevant? How do we move forward without just warming over old phrases and slogans?” A new party could be well-placed to seize the mantle of this national future-gazing and pitch itself as the unifying voice of a divided majority that find current politics too volatile and without sufficient form beyond the Brexit debate.

This might all sound woolly – but then that’s because it is. Few things throw up “What ifs” than a new political faction, formed from former rivals, who have yet to establish a change-based agenda (beyond a few oddly-familiar slogans). Are they to be a purely parliamentary movement or will they root themselves in local politics too? Who will or should lead them if they do become a party? Will they even last beyond the next General Election? Can the Tories or Labour unite sufficiently-enough, internally, to take enough seats at the next election to not only obtain a majority but reassert the idea of two-party dominance within UK politics? At this stage, we might have better luck answering the question of “Where does the spare sock go in the wash?” than squaring the root of these multi-layered political problems! What is certain, though, is that the Independent Group presents a large and immediate identity crisis to both of the main parties. And that could still yet result in further defections.

So, at a time when Brexit requires us to set our feet firmly on stable ground, we find that our parties’ houses have been placed on the sand.

* The name “Independent Group” is in itself interesting. Though it’s not suggested that these MP’s are deliberately seeking to echo the precedent, this name has long been connected with a 1950s group of artists who sought to breakaway from the dominant artistic paradigm and make art more inclusive. Those interested in where art and politics overlap might be interested to see Prof. David Bates and Katerina Hill’s (CCCU) recent work on art and politics (partnered with the Tate).

Conservative Party Conference: Take A Chance on May.

From our undergraduate student, Ellie Varley.


From the 30th September until 3rd October, the annual Conservative party conference (CPC) was underway in Birmingham, with the focus for this year’s conference being ‘opportunity.’ The Conservative party has had a tough year since last year’s conference in Manchester and the conference this year was no escape from difficulty at it was heavily overshadowed by two looming figures: Boris and Brexit.

With Brexit negotiations entering a crucial period, media coverage of the conference naturally focused on the heightened divisions across the Conservatives and their party members, especially in regards to Chequers. With little to no mention of Brexit, tensions grew over the first few days. And with an empty hall and packed fringe events, it became evident that party members were more focused on debating and discussing policy rather than listen to ministers give potential leadership bids in front of the cameras. These turbulent tensions came to a head on Tuesday with the arrival of Boris Johnson. The latter delivered a potentially damaging speech calling on the government to ‘Chuck Chequers,’ which was met with a sumptuous round of applause. Johnson also called for the party to back Theresa May, however, the Theresa May he mentions is not the Chequers Theresa May but the Lancaster house, ‘bloody difficult woman’ Theresa May and there is a clear difference between the two.

All seemed against Theresa May, as she danced her way onto the stage on the final day of the party conference to deliver a speech that would ultimately seek to bring the party behind her. Opening with a joke about last year’s conference speech disaster, she embarked on a career-saving speech, outlining that ‘Our best days lie ahead.’ Announcing new initiatives, including plans to charge foreign buyers a stamp duty surcharge, with the proceeds used to tackle homelessness, and aims to ban restaurants from taking a cut of staff tips. For a party so consumed by Brexit, there was little to no mention of the issue till around 20 minutes into the speech and, for the hard Brexiteers of the party, the Prime Minister gave nothing away about her plans to scrap chequers. To those outside the party, May’s speech may have had little impact but, to those in the hall and watching around the U.K., her speech made many regain confidence in the Prime Minister.

Away from the media and inside the conference bubble new movements were clear within the Conservative party this year, and a strong re-making of the party image with heavy emphasis on the parties achievements with social mobility and the promotion of gender equality in politics. This was most notable in Party Chairman Brandon Lewis’ opening speech, stating that ‘We can be proud of our record;’ referring to the election of two female Prime Ministers and them being the first party to appoint the first female Muslim into cabinet and appointing the first female Lord Chancellor.  Also included was the party’s success on policy for LGBTQ+ rights and preventing discrimination. Lewis continued to add that there was a record level of young people at the party conference. Attending the CPC as a young person, I was amazed to see so many other young faces and was made to feel welcome and important with a youth zone filled with companies, organisations, and panel discussions to help me to get the most out of conference. The Conservative party therefore sought to challenge the idea that young people automatically belong to the Labour party and, as Liz Truss put it, are ‘a bunch of Corbynistas.’

The Scottish Independence Referendum 4 years on: From Constitutional Change to Constitutional Chaos?

From Paul Anderson – PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations.



Exactly four years ago today, voters in Scotland, myself included, took part in a referendum hailed a triumph for democracy. After an engaging, lively and vibrant campaign, the antithesis to what voters UK-wide experienced during the Brexit referendum, by a margin of 55 to 45 the Scottish Government’s vision for independence was rejected. In the aftermath of the vote, First Minister Alex Salmond resigned, but in a strange turn of events, the SNP’s membership sky-rocketed to become the third largest party in the UK  in terms of membership (now the second largest) and the party won 56 of the 59 seats reserved for Scotland at the 2015 General Election. The losing side of the referendum campaign had paradoxically become its biggest victors.

Fast forward two years and the then Prime Minister, David Cameron called another referendum: A vote on the UK’s membership of the EU. Polls had consistently shown a firm majority of Scots in favour of EU membership and all political parties in the Scottish Parliament campaigned in favour of retaining membership, including the Scottish Conservatives. As a result of such polling, the Scottish Government called for a double majority rule, which would require an affirmative vote in favour of EU withdrawal in all four nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) for the result to be valid. In true majoritarian fashion, Cameron’s government rejected the call and in effect sowed the seeds of the constitutional crisis unfolding in the UK today.

62% of voters in Scotland and nearly 56% of voters in Northern Ireland rejected EU withdrawal, while 53% of voters in both England and Wales chose to Leave. In the aftermath of the vote and given the resounding vote in Scotland to Remain, the Scottish Government called for a special deal for Scotland, such as retaining EU membership or at the very least membership of the Single Market. Despite Theresa May’s rhetoric to seek to find a solution that worked for the whole UK, a special deal for Scotland was wholly rejected. As a consequence, Nicola Sturgeon, in a bold but unsurprising move, called for a second independence referendum. Theresa May rejected the call, albeit just for the time being, but the results of the snap general election in June 2017 in which the SNP lost 21 seats resulted in the independence option being placed back on the shelf.

With six months to go before the UK officially leaves the EU, the state of the UK’s territorial landscape remains in flux. After months of political wrangling, including a visit to the Supreme Court, the Welsh Assembly has given its approval to the UK Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill, but the Scottish Parliament remains unconvinced and has yet to follow suit. Brexit, however, poses problems for the constitutional visions of both the UK and Scottish governments.

The result of the EU referendum was framed as a golden opportunity for the Scottish government, an opportunity to spotlight the ‘democratic deficit’ whereby the wishes of voters in Scotland could be overturned by voters in England, and thus push for a second independence referendum. In reality, however, Brexit proves an intractable challenge for the Nationalist and independence movement. Support for independence has only rarely pushed above 50% and continues to remain around 45%. In addition to this, and perhaps more worryingly for the nationalist movement, the loss of support for the SNP at the 2017 election proved that linking the prospect of a second independence referendum with the possibility of retaining EU membership was an unpopular choice among some of the voters who voted yes in 2014 and supported the SNP in the 2015 election. Euroscepticism is not merely an English or Welsh phenomenon.

Brexit, however, is equally as damaging for the Union as it is for the independence movement. Voters in Scotland may not yet be convinced of the benefits of independence, but the UK government’s handling of the issue has further dented confidence in the Union and perhaps even wreaked irreparable damage. This become further stark when considering survey data from Northern Ireland from earlier this month which reveals a majority in favour of reunification if the UK leave the EU. The future of the Union remains in jeopardy.

In the 2014 independence campaign, pro-Union politicians, despite winning the vote, struggled to articulate a positive vision of the Union. Phrases such as ‘equal partner’ and ‘precious Union’ have been bandied around in recent years, but while the rhetoric may strike the right tone, the actions of the UK government betray a unitary understanding of the UK that undermines the fundamental principles of devolution. Antiquated notions of parliamentary sovereignty and concern for Conservative Party unity hitherto have characterised the debate on EU withdrawal. The big risk, however, is that these issues take precedence over maintaining and improving the 300 year old Union. The future of the Union, once again, remains in the balance and the UK’s once strong constitutional edifice is continuing to crack.

“Terveisiä Helsingistä”: What happened in Finland during the Helsinki Summit?

From Noora Virtanen – CEFEUS Postgraduate Analyst


It has been a bit over a week now since the 16th July summit when American President Donald Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, in Helsinki, Finland. The Helsinki Summit definitely gained a lot of media attention, not just in Finland but all around the world. Furthermore, Finns saw this as a great opportunity to show the world Helsinki at its best. While I’m mostly surrounded by the British press, I could not help but take a sneak peek to what the Finnish press was saying about the visit.

  1. “Welcome to the land of free press”

Both the Finnish press and social media reported widely the Helsingin Sanomat campaign promoting the importance of free press. As the biggest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat had put up 300 billboards with news titles from 2008 to 2018 commenting on the Presidents attitudes on the issue. One of the most notable ones said “Mr.President, welcome to the land of free press”. Other billboards included texts, such as “Trump calls media enemy of the people”, “Putin is trying again to bring the media to heel” (in Russian), and many others. According to the editor-in-chief Kaius Niemi, the campaign was aimed at welcoming the Presidents to Finland, but also to draw attention to both Presidents’ attitudes on freedom of press. Billboards like these continue the media attention Helsinki gained in November 2016 from the British press after a well-known two-day start-up festival called Slush and the Helsinki tourist board put up a sign at the Helsinki Airport to welcome arrivals. The sign said: “Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome.” This portrays well the very essence of Finnish humour. The international media has been both negative and positive of the billboards put up for the Helsinki Summit.

  1. What did the Presidents actually talk about?

Yle, Finland’s national public broadcasting company, wrote a summary of the Helsinki Summit highlighting the topics discussed and their impact. The article mentions President Trump’s invitation to host President Putin in Washington in the autumn to discuss national security, and how this impacts the international community’s attempts to isolate Russia. The involvement of Russia in the US Presidential elections and President Trumps comments at the press conference were also addressed. The article mentions that the two discussed to an extent Ukraine, Syria and reviving economic relations outside the sanctions. Finally, the article notes that despite the first strong comments against President Trump’s performance in Helsinki caused the Republicans and Democrats to unite on criticising his actions, 68% of Republicans approved his actions in a recent CBS opinion poll.

  1. The costs of the Helsinki Summit

Some of the Finnish media also addressed the cost of hosting this Summit. According to Uusi Suomi, there were 1,500 reporters from all around the world to report on the Helsinki Summit. It has been estimated that just facilitating the media, providing security and other costs were around 3.5 million Euros. However, the benefits of hosting the Summit are seen to outweigh the costs. The Summit was seen as an opportunity for Finland to promote its commitment to peaceful conflict resolution through formal negotiations and increase the world’s awareness of Finland being a land of much more than just Lapland and reindeers. While the exact revenue brought in by the Summit won’t be clear until later, experts are hopeful about the Summit’s impact on the Finnish economy.

  1. The First Ladies

The meeting of the two First Ladies was also closely followed by the media. According to Yle, while Melania Trump did not have a formal schedule for her Helsinki visit, the two First Ladies had a breakfast meeting. It was reported that they discussed the welfare of children and young people, and the Finnish welfare state for example. The media also reported on both of their outfits, with Melania Trump wearing a Gucci jacket and Jenni Haukio wearing a dress that was Finnish design. One of the headlines mentions how both of their outfits had butterflies on them. This caused some criticism in the social media regarding the role of gender in media reporting.

The response from Finnish Politicians was mainly positive. The Finnish Prime Minister commented on the Helsinki Summit on Twitter saying that he is “happy to note the #Helsinki2018 went well. It was an honor for my government to provide supporting facilities for the meeting hosted by President Niinistö. During these times rules based international cooperation and dialogues is extremely important for all of us”. A Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala, on the other hand, thanks the Helsingin Sanomat for their billboard campaign and says that “This campaign of yours will not be forgotten”. Another Finnish MEP, Petri Sarvamaa, tweeted that “The president of the United States siding with the Russian president is the gravest crisis between the two countries since Cuba 1962. No wonder Russia is declaring #HELSINKI2018 #TrumpPutinSummit as “fabulous”!”. To add another view, Finnish MEP Jussi Halla-aho commented on the summit saying that “it is silly to hold Summits in city centrals. It disrupts the traffic, makes it harder to guarantee security, there are problems around accommodation, anarchists are rioting and get to break shop windows and burn cars. Some ski resort in Lapland would have been an excellent place for a meeting”. It is hard to say how much of this tweet is sarcasm and how much is true criticism.

All in all, the Helsinki Summit was seen as a great opportunity and a success by most Finns, no matter how informal and secretive the agenda of the Putin-Trump private meeting was. I think it is safe to say that Finland is indeed more than just the land of the Santa Claus, Lapland and reindeers – and it knows how to put it on a billboard.

The Irish Border and Brexit

From Fennel Wellings – CEFEUS Undergraduate Research Assistant


The Good Friday Agreement signed in April 1998 has achieved ‘twenty years of relative peace’ as well as ‘enhanced prosperity’. Brexit has the potential to fracture this agreement unless a robust solution is put into place that avoids any disruption to the peace process. Below are three options that have been suggested in order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic:


1. UK remains in the customs union

This would mean that the UK would have to accept the flow of goods, services and regulations set by the EU whist leaving it without a seat at the negotiating table. This would arguably be leaving the UK in a worse position than it is being a EU member state, as it would require the UK to accept rules and regulations that it had no part in negotiating. This is something that would be hard for the government to float politically and would be immediately shunned by Brexiteers, as it would put restrictions on UK trade.


2. The soft ‘invisible border’

This would oversee the creation of a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This model is something that Brexiteers believe is achievable but in reality appears fairly unworkable, and is something that the EU has already referred to as ‘magical thinking’. Even if this option were technologically viable to implement there would still need to be cameras at the border, which has caused the police to worry that ‘that kind of infrastructure would be attacked’. In May this year Karen Bradley the Northern Ireland Secretary ‘reiterated the government’s pledge to have no new cameras at the Irish border after Brexit’ stating that any new infrastructure would represent a security risk.

3. A united Ireland, a border in the Irish Sea

This would effectively separate Northern Ireland from the UK, placing their economy under EU rule. This is something that the DUP are set against, so it is unlikely that it is something that Theresa May is likely to pursue herself as she lacks ‘the votes in parliament to go against that party’s wishes’. This proposal has been set out in a draft agreement by the Commission and referred to as their ‘backstop’ plan that will become effective unless a better agreement is established. This does avoid a hard border effectively as well as providing protections against British goods sneaking over the border, but Theresa May has stated that she will not reside over the break up of the UK.


These three options that have been suggested in order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic each present their own difficulties and barriers to being politically and logistically viable. It is also worth noting that the Good Friday agreement requires ‘the secretary of state to trigger a border poll if it appears likely that a majority in Northern Ireland would vote to join the Republic of Ireland’, in December 2017 polls found that in the event of being faced with a hard Brexit 48% would vote for a united Ireland and remain inside the EU, with 45% stating that they would prefer to remain as part of the UK and leave the EU. In the event of this becoming a reality the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP would have crumbled, leading to their parliamentary collapse.


The Chequers deal looks to have made some key policy shifts that would move the UK towards a Norway style arrangement, a deal that would cover ‘at least part of the EU single market’. The proposed model of a “free trade area for goods” that sees the continuation of ‘existing regulatory and customs arrangement for manufacturing and agricultural products’, is not inclusive of services, something that does set alarm bells ringing when considering services cover 80% of the UK’s economy. This stance has already been viewed by some negotiators in the EU as unworkable due to the difficulty the UK will have in detaching services from goods. In spite of this the UK still views this stance as the solution to the Irish border problem and is included in the white paper, the most recent development from the government concerning the UK’s exit from the EU.

The paper sets out the need for a ‘principled Brexit’, stating that the UK is committed to ‘protecting the peace process and avoiding a hard border, safeguarding the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK’. In order to maintain a frictionless border the white paper sets out details for a free trade area for goods in order to protect the peace process as well as avoiding any harm being caused to the internal market of the UK. The UK’s proposal of a free trade area for goods states that jobs and livelihoods and will also ensure that there is ‘no requirement in any scenario for new permits for transport services between Northern Ireland and Ireland’.

John McGrane the director general for the British Irish Chamber of Commerce has echoed the EU’s concern with plan for the border that was initially set out at Chequers, stating that a goods only Brexit deal would be unworkable and would be ‘resisted by business leaders’. McGrane held that the separating of goods and services would be impractical as ‘goods do not exist in isolation’, as well as stating that ‘a goods only deal would not remove the need for an Irish border’ as this does not solve the freedom of movement of people across the border that impacts ‘EU citizen employees, tourism and communities’. This is also something that the EU will not look upon favourably as it is inclusive of an element of ‘cherry picking’ from the four freedoms, something that the EU will want to safeguard whatever the outcome.

It therefore looks as though the question of the Irish border may rumble on for some more time, and if the proposed plans in the white paper are unworkable then the most likely outcome will be the ‘backstop’, the fall back plan proposed by the EU. The questions of the Irish border has most definitely presented itself as a barrier to the Conservative party seeking a hard Brexit and going forward will require the cabinet to address the matter devoid of ‘creative ambiguity’ and ‘magical thinking’. If the Conservative party are unable to achieve this they run the risk of presiding over the disintegration of not only their own party, but also the disintegration of the UK, whilst throwing the peace process into disarray as a possible consequence.


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