UCL Uncovering Politics

40 Episodes

By: UCL Political Science

The podcast of the School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science at University College London. Through this podcast we plan to explore key themes of contemporary politics and let you into some of our research findings that we think the wider world needs to know about.

The Role of Blame
Last Thursday at 7:20 AM

Tackling injustice is one of the main motivations that many people have for getting involved in politics. Whether those injustices relate to income inequalities, the harms caused by climate change, discrimination based on gender or ethnicity, or failures to acknowledge each person’s particular identity, most of us want to see change. But how best to achieve that?

Well some intriguing new research focuses on the role of blame. Political theorists have often been dubious of the merits of blame, seeing it as backward-looking and unduly negative. But Hannah McHugh, a PhD student in the UCL Department of...

Disabilities in the Workplace

It is estimated that around a fifth of people working in the UK today are disabled in some way. Many of these people report feeling that their employers do a poor job at accommodating their requirements to make their workplaces more inclusive. 

Yet the 2010 Equality Act was designed to protect disabled people from ‘discrimination or disadvantage’ in work by placing a legal responsibility on employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate their disabled workers' needs. 

So why is this discrimination still occurring? Is the Equality Act still fit for purpose? And what can be done to improve...

The Limits of Technocracy

‘It’s the economy, stupid’. That, famously, was one of the organising principles of Bill Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency in 1992. Thirty years on, amidst a cost of living crisis, economic policy decisions still often dominate politics. 

Some of the debates about economic policy relate to questions of fundamental values: how much weight should we place, for example, on the size of the cake or on its distribution?

But other debates focus on questions of fact. Would lowering taxes today fuel inflation? Did austerity a decade ago protect the public finances by bringing spending...

Public Opinion in Russia

It almost goes without saying that public opinion matters in a democracy, where leaders can be scrutinised in the free press and held accountable at free and fair elections. But public attitudes matter in authoritarian contexts too – as illustrated by how careful Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is being at the moment to control the media narrative around his war in Ukraine. 

So, what role does public opinion play in autocracies? Can we accurately measure public opinion in such settings? And what does the evidence suggest about the state of public opinion in Russia today?

To an...

How to Transform Our Politics

Uniquely, this week we are discussing both a new publication and a new institution. 

The publication is a book called Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again. This book examines the political thought of a group of writers and artists in mid-20th-century Britain, centred around Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, and J.B. Priestley. Their ideas, it argues, offer a vision for how to overcome the polarisation and alienation of our politics today.

The institution is the UCL Policy Lab, which was launched earlier this week, and w...

Population Displacement

Displacement of civilian populations is a feature of politics in many parts of the world. War is perhaps the most familiar driver of displacement – we have seen that, of course, on a tragic scale in Ukraine in recent months. But other factors lead people to leave their homes too, including government development policies and the effects of climate change. 

And displacement also has profound effects: on the people involved most directly; but also on the dynamics of conflict and of politics more broadly. 

To discuss population displacement, UCL Uncovering Politics is joined by two students from...

Political Philosophy and Climate Change

Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humans today. Yet politics appears to be failing to deliver the required response. 

Students of politics are therefore conducting a wealth of research to understand what’s happening and what could be done better. But is that research actually doing any good? Is it contributing to better outcomes?

To explore this topic, UCL Uncovering Politics is joined by Dr Fergus Green, Lecturer in Political Theory and Public Policy in the UCL Department of Political Science.

Mentioned in this episode:

F. Green., & I. Robeyns., 'On the...

Politics in Northern Ireland

Most of the UK went to the polls last week, and the vote in Northern Ireland was perhaps particularly significant. Next year will mark 25 years since the 1998 Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after nearly 30 years of conflict. The power-sharing arrangements established by the Agreement have brought many successes, but they are teetering on the edge of collapse. Whether a new Executive can be formed following last week’s elections is far from clear, but the consequences of failure could be severe.

So can power-sharing be restored? If so, how? And how mi...

Voting Systems and the Representation of Women

No democracy in the world has yet achieved equal representation for women in its national parliament. So it’s important to understand what could be done to improve the situation. 

One long-standing idea is that some electoral systems may be better than others in enabling fairer representation. A new article co-authored by Dr Eleanor Woodhouse, Lecturer in Public Policy in the UCL Department of Political Science, explores this idea.

Mentioned in this episode:

P. Profeta., & E. Woodhouse., 'Electoral Rules, Women's Representation and the Qualification of Politicians', Comparative Political Studies


The Politics of Climate Change

Climate change is – as the article we’re discussing this week puts it – ‘the quintessential long-term problem’. Action is needed to avert massive long-term harm. But the steps that are required will generate short-term costs. 

Democracies are famously short-termist. Politicians who want to be re-elected don’t like imposing short-term costs on voters.

So: can we design democracies better to foster longer time horizons? 

To answer this question, UCL Uncovering Politics is joined by Dr Jared Finnegan, Lecturer in Public Policy in the UCL Department of Political Science.

Mentioned in this episode:


The Origins of the Secular State

Some states are secular, while others are based, to a greater or lesser degree, on religion. The difference matters. Secular states are more likely to respect the diverse perspectives of their citizens and protect a range of social and political rights.

So what explains variation in institutional secularism? Why did some state secularize centuries ago, while others underwent a secular shift more recently, and yet others remain religious to this day?

This is one of the key questions about political development, but it has gone relatively under-studied.

A new book, however, changes that...

Courage in Politics

We’re looking this week at the political role of courage. The current, dreadful conflict in Ukraine provides numerous extraordinary examples of courage: of civilians who stand up to Russian tanks; of Ukraine’s president, who remains in Kyiv despite manifest personal danger; of anti-war protesters in Russia, who take to the streets though they know they are likely to be arrested and perhaps beaten. 

Courage can take many forms. So we ask what exactly it is, and what roles it can play – in times of conflict and in the context of peaceful democracy.

But first...

The Transformation of British Welfare Policy

A new book out this month by our colleague Tom O’Grady begins with a remarkable quotation from a UN Special Rapporteur writing in 2018 about welfare reforms in the UK:

‘British compassion’ – the rapporteur said – ‘has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society.’

In his book, Tom argues that, over the past 30 ye...

The Origins of Social Trust

We talk a lot about trust – or, more often, the lack of trust – in politics. Often we’re referring to people’s trust in politicians. But social trust – our trust in the people around us – matters too. 

The evidence from must countries is that social trust has been falling in recent decades. But the countries of Scandinavia have bucked that trend. Indeed, in Denmark, the survey evidence suggests that social trust has risen since 1979 by 30 percentage points.

So what’s going on? What factors shape social trust? What can policymakers do to promote social trust? And has Covid s...

Why did Argentina invade the Malvinas/Falklands in 1982?

The fortieth anniversary of the Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982 is coming up in just a few weeks’ time. There will no doubt be many retrospectives, which, here in the UK, will focus on the actions of the British government, and whether the UK’s response would be different if anything similar took place today.

But what about Argentine perspectives on the war? Why did the then Argentine government invade the islands? How was the conflict perceived in Argentina at the time, and how is it seen today? In understanding the thinking of Argentina’s rulers in 1982, can we gai...

The Pedagogy of Politics

How should we teach about politics? How – if at all – should teaching politics be different from teaching hard sciences, such as physics, or arts and humanities subjects, such as History or English, or indeed other social sciences, such as Economics or Sociology? The territory of politics is inherently contested, so should we embrace that contestation in our teaching or should we stick to known facts?

These and many other questions are explored by a new centre within the UCL Department of Political Science called the UCL Centre for the Pedagogy of Politics. And we are delighted to be j...

Freeing Bureaucrats to Succeed

How can you best deliver effective public services? Is it better to exert top-down control over the work of bureaucrats on the ground – through targets, monitoring, and prescribed procedures – so that slacking or corruption or inconsistency can be prevented? Or can more be achieved if you free up bureaucrats to work out their own approaches, utilizing their practical knowledge and allowing their desire to do a good job to flourish?

Our colleague Dr Dan Honig, who is Associate Professor of Public Policy here in the UCL Department of Political Science, argues that we have tended to get the...

Taking Offence

It’s sometimes said that we’re living through an epidemic of taking offence. We have become hyper-sensitive, the story goes, to any slight against our sense of self-worth. And a generation of so-called ‘snowflakes’ are told they just need to relax a little. 

But what does it actually mean to take offence? How does feeling offended fit in alongside all the other emotions that our social interactions might invoke, such as anger, indignation, or contempt? Is taking offence really such a bad thing – or might it, at least in some circumstances, actually have positive value?

Well the...

Intermarriage and Voting in Africa

Ethnic voting means voting on the basis of ethnic identity, rather than, say, policy preferences or how well or badly you think the incumbents have governed. 

Ethnic and other forms of communal voting are found in many parts of the world – think, for example, of very different voting patterns between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. But ethnic voting is often thought particularly to be a feature of politics in many African countries.

And such voting is also often seen as rather problematic for healthy democracy, because it can shield those in power from accountability if...

Governments and Private Sector Suppliers

Now, no one would claim that the subject of contracts between governments and private sector suppliers is all that sexy. But the last two years of the Covid crisis have certainly revealed its importance. In the earliest weeks of the pandemic back in 2020, governments around the world scrambled to secure enough PPE, hospital ventilators, and Covid tests. Then there was the race to buy up vaccines. In recent weeks, shortages of testing kits have been back in the headlines. Here in the UK, vaccine purchasing is held up as exemplary, while contracting for PPE remains mired in allegations of...

Public Preferences on Taxes and Spending

Few issues in public policy are as important as the size of the state. How much should the state spend? How much, therefore, should it raise in taxes? And what exactly should it spend this money on?

In a democracy, we expect policymakers to be responsive to public opinion in answering such questions. But what do the public actually want? Indeed, to what extent do most of us even have meaningful preferences that take account of unavoidable trade-offs between different priorities?

Such questions have long challenged political scientists. But a new paper just published by...

Online Public Shaming: Social Media, Ethics and Punishment

Today we’re looking at a brand new article, Against Online Public Shaming: Ethical Problems with Mass Social Media, by Guy Aitchison (Loughborough University) and Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia (UCL). 

Online Public Shaming (OPS) is a form of norm enforcement that involves collectively imposing reputational costs on a person for having a certain kind of moral character. OPS actions aim to disqualify her from public discussion and certain normal human relations. In the article, the authors argue that this constitutes an informal collective punishment that it is presumptively wrong to impose (or seek to impose) on others. OPS functi...

Legacies of Armed Conflict in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland experienced three decades of violence from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Thousands of people were killed, injured, or bereaved. The so-called Troubles were brought to an end by the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord between the British and Irish governments and most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland that established new governing arrangements for Northern Ireland within the UK and set out how Northern Ireland might in future leave the UK and become part of a united Ireland, if majorities both north and south of the border wanted it.


COP26 in Review: Reflections on Glasgow

Today we’re taking a retrospective look at the outcomes of the COP-26 conference that was held in Glasgow earlier this month. COP – or Conference of the Parties – is the annual UN climate change conference. A key aim of the conference was to ‘keep 1.5°C alive’ – but was enough progress made on cutting emissions to reach this goal? Have rich countries stepped up to the plate by agreeing to pay for loss and damage in poorer countries? And, are we making progress fast enough?

We have three leading experts on these matters here at UCL, and they join me now. 

Regulating the Internet

We’re focusing today on the regulation of the internet. 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen argues that her former employer persistently puts profit above prevention of harm. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg himself argues that greater regulation of internet companies is needed – that rules for what is and isn’t allowed should be made through democratic means. And the UK – among other countries – is in the process of preparing legislation with just that goal.

So what exactly are the problems that the current wild west of the worldwide web gives rise to? What principles should guide any new legisla...

Analysing Politicians’ Words

Today our focus is on what politicians say – and on processes for analysing what politicians say. Politicians’ speech is, of course, a fundamental part of politics. We can think of it as a product of – and therefore a window into – deeper political forces. And in itself it also helps to constitute the political realm and how we think of all the parts of that realm. 

Analysis of what politicians say – and, indeed, of what others say, but we’re focusing today on politicians – is a tool that many political scientists use to explore a whole range of different aspects...

The Global Politics of Climate Change

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and is the annual UN climate change conference. The conference will be attended by the countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994. More than 190 world leaders are expected to arrive in Scotland. Together with tens of thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens for twelve days of talks. 

Among academics, campaigners, environmentalists and policymakers, COP26 is seen as a critical event: it's the moment at which countries must set out more ambitious goals for climate action five years...

Prison Protests in Palestine

Today we’re looking at protest by prisoners. Some of the most famous cases of protest politics involve protests by prisoners. 

Think of hunger striking suffragettes in early-twentieth-century Britain.Think of the dirty protest among republican prisoners in Belfast in the late 1970s, and then the hunger strikes there in 1981.Indeed, just two weeks ago on this podcast we were discussing Alex Navalny, Russian opposition leader, who remains influential despite being behind bars.Prison protests may be invisible to the outside world, but they can nevertheless resonate widely.

And in this episode, we're exploring another case – the case...

How Has Covid Affected Voter Preferences

In this episode we are looking at a new piece of research - Flight to Safety: COVID-Induced Changes in the Intensity of Status Quo Preference and Voting Behavior.

This paper focusses on some important questions around covid. How do emotions and particularly anxiety, shape or influence voters preferences? How does anxiety resulting from this unforeseen external force, covid, or manufactured for political gain, influence democratic politics and elections? Are voters inherently risk averse during periods of uncertainty? And how did covid induce a flight to safety among voters?

Joining host Professor Jennifer Hudson is Dan Honig, As...

Alexei Navalny and the Future of Russian Politics

In this, our first episode of the new academic year, we’re looking at politics in Russia. Alexei Navalny – who hit the headlines around the world last year by surviving an attempt to assassinate him by lacing his underpants with Novichok, and who now languishes in prison 100km east of Moscow – is Russia’s best known opposition leader. Indeed, a new book about Navalny’s life and activism describes him as ‘the main political counterforce in the country’ and ‘its second most important politician’. 

So who is Alexei Navalny? What does his current predicament say about the state of Russian po...

Should the Civil Service Be Neutral?

In this our final episode for the current academic year, we’re going to tackle one of the biggest questions of political science: How do you run an effective government? In particular, how do you build a bureaucracy that’s able to deliver? Is it better to have neutral civil servants, who are appointed on merit and retain their posts whichever parties are in power? Or should we prefer a politicized bureaucracy, whose members are appointed at least in part for their loyalty to the politicians in charge, and who come and go with their political masters?


The Principles of Education Policy

Many of the most important policy decisions that a state can make relate to education. What kind of education should children receive? How far should parents be able to dictate that choice? Is it acceptable to have schools that instruct pupils in a particular religious faith? Should elite private schools be allowed to exist? Given that such schools do exist, can socially progressive parents send their children there with a clean conscience?

Our guest today has been exploring these and many other related questions for decades. Adam Swift is Professor of Political Theory here in the UCL...

Deciding Northern Ireland’s Future

The future of the Union here in the UK – that is, the union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – is very much in the news. In Scotland, many opinion polls over the past year (though not so much over the last few months) have suggested majority support for independence, and political parties that want another referendum on the issue secured a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament elections last month. In Wales, support for independence seems to have grown, though still at a far lower level. And in Northern Ireland too, there has been a rise in talk...

Does the UK Still Have a Political Constitution?

Most countries have a document call the Constitution – a legal text setting out basic principles of how that country is governed. And in most of those countries there’s a constitutional court (or supreme court) that determines whether the ordinary laws passed by the legislature are compatible with the Constitution and that strikes them down if it concludes they are not.

The UK, famously, has no such capital C Constitution – no codified rulebook. And the courts here in the UK can’t (at least formally) strike down laws on the basis that they contravene higher law.

So wha...

The Ethics of Violent Protest

The coming week sees the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. His killing by a white police officer in the American city of Minneapolis, sparked a global wave of protests. The vast majority of these were peaceful. But some were not. It’s estimated that, in the United States, acts of rioting, arson, and looting in the weeks that followed caused over a billion dollars-worth of damage – the highest recorded damage from civil disorder in US history.

So can such violent protests ever be justified? Much public and political opinion says no. Here in the UK...

Fostering Norms for Dispute Resolution

Alexandra Hartman is Associate Professor in Political Science and Public Policy here at UCL, and her research focuses on the political economy of institutions in fragile states. She looks not just at formal political institutions such as courts or legislatures, but also at what we political scientists like to call informal institutions – the unwritten structures of norms and established practices that people follow in their interactions with each other. Such informal institutions can be crucial in shaping how society operates. And Alex examines whether policymakers can intervene to nudge them in directions that might lead to better outcomes.


Biden’s First 100 Days

This week, we’re focusing on politics in the United States. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been in office for a little over 100 days now. So how is it going? 

Has Biden been sleepy Joe? Has he pursued the path of moderation and coalition-building that has characterized so much of his long career? Or has he turned out much more of a radical than many expected? What role is being performed by Vice President Harris? How, meanwhile, have Republicans responded to their defeat? And just want is Donald Trump up to now that he...

Ideas of Democracy

Democracy is what one social scientist once famously called an ‘essentially contested concept’ – one that we are never likely all to agree about. And disagreements over the form that democracy should take have lately sparked major political conflicts in many democratic countries. How far were politicians in the UK obliged to follow the so-called ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the Brexit referendum of 2016? Can the strongman democracy pursued by leaders in Hungary, India, and Brazil be called ‘democracy’ at all? And what should we make of contemporary arguments in favour of bringing more public deliberation into our democratic pro...

Global Climate Justice

We’re returning this week to the topic of climate change. You may have heard our episode a few weeks ago exploring global climate governance. Well this week, we turn our attention to global climate justice. The climate crisis has been caused mostly by the rich countries of the old industrial world. But many of the effects of that crisis are being felt first and most harshly elsewhere – in countries that bear little responsibility and often lack the resources to adapt. 

So what would a just response to the climate challenge look like? How close have past round...

The Prerogative Powers of Governments

We typically divide the modern state into three branches: the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. On a traditional view, the legislature makes the laws, the executive implements them, and the judiciary decides on disputes. 

In reality, in most states, the executive in fact plays a much bigger role than that. It not only executes the will of the legislature, but also shapes the policy agenda, develops legislative proposals, and conducts a great deal of foreign policy. 

And on some matters the executive can act without the consent of the legislature – even, in some cases, agai...