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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: David Runciman, Professor of Politics

David Runciman is Professor of Politics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity Hall. His books include Political Hypocrisy, The Confidence Trap, How Democracy Ends and, most recently, Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers. He hosts the popular weekly podcast Talking Politics, currently works with the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and in October 2019 will be launching the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the Bennett Institute in Cambridge.  He will be giving a public lecture entitled How do democracies change? on 23rd October, 6-7pm.


Question: How do you keep up with political developments these days in terms of publications, etc? Do you need to take a longer view of events?


Professor Runciman: I guess I’m like most people wrapped up in politics in that I flit from source to source online, looking for whatever grabs my attention. I try to make sure I read a lot of things I won’t agree with so as not to get caught in a bubble. I also try to read The Times and The Guardian every day if I can – a bit old-fashioned I know, but newspapers can seem like slow news relative to following events on Twitter and that’s a good thing. For all their faults, I still think national newspapers are enormously valuable.


Taking the long view is never easy and I don’t think we can really know what the long-term implications of current events are until they have played themselves out, which will take years or decades. You can’t write history in real time. The biggest challenge is not to get caught up in the day-to-day or even hour-to-hour dramas and over-interpret them. A week really is a long time in politics at the moment. 


There is a temptation to identify each twist and turn as somehow decisive and to be the one who says: ‘This is the moment of truth!’ If history teaches us anything it’s that there are very few moments of truth in democratic politics: individual events are much less decisive than we think and it’s the cumulative story that counts. Also, the events that make the biggest difference are rarely the ones we spot at the time. On our podcast Talking Politics we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how much of the current crisis is being shaped by the unintended consequences of the 2010 Fixed-term Parliaments Act. But no one could see that in 2010. Hindsight really is a wonderful thing.


Question: To what extent are today's events in UK politics unprecedented?


Professor Runciman: There’s not been anything like it in my lifetime. You probably have to go back to the great parliamentary and polemical dramas of the 19th century – the fights over the first Reform Act or the Corn Laws – for something comparable. But this is 19th century politics in the age of Twitter so really there’s no comparison.

But it’s not unprecedented if you look at what’s going on around the world at the moment: the UK is not the only place where representative democracy is under real pressure. Nowhere else has quite the same degree of high political shenanigans – which is why the rest of the world is looking on with a mix of glee and horror – but many of the forces at work are comparable: frustration with established parties, increasing polarisation, rising anger and intolerance fuelled by new forms of communication, growing generational and educational divides. 


One lesson is that the same forces can play out very differently depending on the institutional setting: plug this frustration into our institutions and you get the Brexit fiasco; in the US you get Trump and the anti-Trump resistance; in France you get Macron and the yellow vests; in Germany you get the rise of the AfD and of the Greens; in Italy you get Salvini and the coalition to stop him. At the moment democratic politics is fairly similar everywhere and also completely different.


Question: How vital is public engagement about the issues around Brexit and, in particular, how we move on from it?


Professor Runciman: Public engagement is a complex thing: after all, there is a lot of it around Brexit already, maybe too much to the extent that it has become a consuming obsession for many people. I know plenty of people, on both sides of the argument, who would love to be less engaged and have more time to think about other things. One of the advantages of representative democracy is that it’s supposed to free us up from having to spend too much time and energy on politics – that’s meant to be for the politicians. It doesn’t feel like that at the moment.


On the other hand, it’s also true that many people feel cut off from events and as though this whole saga is being acted out far away from their everyday concerns. A lot of the technical issues are complex - the backstop, prorogation, a customs union – and hard even for the experts to fully understand, never mind explain. The referendum simplified a complex question and now the problem is that we are having to re-complicate a simple answer: that the majority voted to leave. 


More information is a good thing. but I don’t believe there is a lack of information around Brexit – I don’t think the voters have ever had access to so much good information if they want it. The problem is that many people don’t want it and also many don’t trust what they are getting. Engagement is something different. If you ask me: do I think it would be a good thing if people are more engaged with the Brexit question in five years, I would say no. It’s one of the ironies of democratic politics: that to move on from deep divisions, the public needs to be less engaged.


Question: What have we learned from Brexit about our democratic institutions?


Professor Runciman: On the one hand, that they are pretty robust. I don’t think we are at risk of seeing democracy collapse or of civil breakdown. With one or two awful exceptions, Brexit has been a very non-violent event. 


On the other, that they aren’t working well at all. Our institutions depend heavily on their adaptability and they haven’t adapted successfully to this challenge – if anything, they have frozen our divisions in place. What’s most striking is how little thought seems to have been given by politicians to whether the institutions are capable of doing the things they ask of them. It’s possible to blame individual politicians for particular mistakes: maybe Cameron shouldn’t have called the referendum because he lost it; maybe May shouldn’t have called the election in 2017 because she lost her majority. But it’s also true that the bigger mistake was to believe the British system could accommodate a referendum or that an election could be used to force the issue of Brexit after it had got stuck in parliament. Some of what’s gone wrong is political misjudgement, but some of it is simply institutional inertia. 


Rather than taking a gamble and then hoping the institutions can deliver, maybe we should reform the institutions first.


Question: What have we learned about the role of the media in politics and is this new?


Professor Runciman: A lot of it is not new. There has always been fake news and there has always been media bias in democratic politics. Newspapers are still influential and a lot of the Brexit agenda has been set by them. A fascinating recent political science study suggested that people on Merseyside voted more heavily for Remain than in other comparable areas because for a generation the pro-Brexit Sun newspaper had been effectively boycotted in Liverpool (as a response to its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989). Where people get their news has always mattered and still matters.


But some of this is new. First, the pace at which news spreads, and the ease with which individuals can spread it among themselves, means that it is much harder to know where people are getting their news from. One really striking feature of recent elections (not just here, in the US as well) is how surprised everyone has been by the outcome: even the politicians, even the winners, didn’t know what was coming. Politicians, pollsters, pundits and prediction markets are struggling to know what’s driving public opinion. Second, there is so much more choice, so that it is possible for people to choose the news sources that suit them. Media outlets misled the public just as much one hundred years ago as they do today, but back then, if you didn’t like the information you were getting, there was often nowhere else to go. Now you can find the facts that suit your preferences. That’s a different sort of challenge for everyone.


Question: Is Brexit in some way equivalent to the disruption we are seeing in other areas of our lives and does this mean we will have to reform the system in a way that takes the possibility of regular disruption into account?


Professor Runciman: That’s a good question. One really striking feature of politics is how little it has been disrupted up till now relative to other areas of our lives: if you think about the dramatic changes in how we relate to travel, or medicine, or food, or friendship, or sex, then politics looks pretty staid. The old ways of doing things are clinging on, especially at Westminster. 


I think we should expect more disruption. Should we reform the system to anticipate that disruption? Well, if we could do that, then it wouldn’t really be all that disruptive. So my answer would be yes we should reform – change the voting system, introduce more coherence into the constitution, experiment with new democratic practices, including more deliberative democracy and citizens assemblies, lower the voting age, empower local government, and more – and yes, we should expect more disruption. But we can’t reform for disruption. We can just reform.


Question: Is it possible to study politics in isolation from other developments such as technology?


Professor Runciman: No. Technology is a big part of the current state of politics and its effects are everywhere. What we should avoid, however, is thinking that technology explains what’s happening. I’m often asked whether I think the digital revolution has been good or bad for democracy, and I always say that the answer must be that it’s been both. It has all sorts of consequences that pull in different directions – it is empowering and it is alienating; it spreads information and it spreads disinformation; it gives the weak a weapon against the strong and the strong a weapon against the weak. 


At the moment, digital technology is probably doing more to concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands than to disperse it among many, but that doesn’t mean it’s not dispersing it as well. Look at what’s happening in Hong Kong. Plus we should remember we are in the early days of this technological revolution, so there are plenty of ups and downs still to come. Studying politics means being open to all the different ways technology might impact on it. And being open to all the ways politics might impact on technology. It’s a fascinating area.


Question: Are students now coming into politics with a broader range of interests?


Professor Runciman: Well, for a start they seem more interested in politics than they were a few years ago. Plus the way politics is taught in Cambridge – where we draw on lots of different subjects, including history, philosophy and others – means that we tend to attract students with wide interests. We would like it to be even wider – one ambition is to have a degree that combines politics and engineering. That may not happen for a bit, but politics has always been a very broad subject to study at an undergraduate level. The higher up the academic ladder you go, the narrower it sometimes becomes – political science at PhD level and above can be quite technical and seemingly remote from the events that touch people’s lives. 


But one good thing about the current chaos is that it’s becoming harder and harder for political scientists to maintain that narrow focus – if they do the world will pass them by. Brexit and Trump have been, among other things, a wake-up call for people like me who write about and study politics for a living: we don’t know nearly as much as we thought we did. We need to get out more!