Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Exclusive blog by Richard Jackson

In 2005, I published Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-terrorism (MUP). It was one of the first critical analyses of the public language employed by the Bush administration to make sense of the 9/11 attacks and justify the nation's mobilisation for a global 'war on terrorism'. In the book, I tried to argue firstly, that the political elite carefully and deliberately chose the language they used because they had certain goals in mind. It was not a spontaneous or objective reflection of reality, but part of a carefully conceived political strategy to pursue a range of domestic and foreign projects. Second, I argued that the particular narratives and language they employed was chosen from a range of possibilities, and that it was not in any inevitable that 9/11 had to interpreted as an act of war requiring a military response, for example. Other interpretations and narratives were available and could have been deployed. Third, I argued that the core narratives and assumptions of the overall discourse were then reproduced and institutionalised across American society through powerful discursive sites such as the media, churches, and the new Department of Homeland Security. Finally, I tried to show how the language of the war on terror was much more than merely words or propaganda; instead, it had a number of concrete consequences in the 'real' world of public policy. These ideological effects included a number of extremely negative patterns of behaviour, such as the torture and abuse seen at Abu Ghraib and the ongoing cycle of violence between al Qaeda and Western and Western-supported states. I suggested that we needed to find new ways of speaking and thinking about the challenge of terrorism if we were to move beyond simply responding to violence with even greater counter-violence which actually increased insecurity.

I am very pleased that since the book was published, a great many other books, articles, research projects, and PhDs have confirmed my overall arguments, and provided further analytical and empirical depth to our understanding of the way the political language of elites functions ideologically. Interestingly, in a follow-up project with Matt McDonald from Warwick University I looked at several hundred speeches by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard in the run-up to the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. The data revealed that all three leaders used the same core narratives about terrorism and all of them ended up justifying the attacks very similar ways. In other words, the discourse of the war on terror spread and was used instrumentally by other political leaders pursuing the same kinds of policies.
Despite this growing evidence for my thesis however, a number of questions have been raised about my arguments which I would like to respond to. First, I have been criticised by some for promoting a 'conspiracy theory' approach to the use of political language by elites. I would respond that it is not a conspiracy as such, but rather a carefully conceived political strategy by politicians who are deeply aware of the power of language, particularly in a media-based society. Moreover, there is now a great deal of evidence (which is growing further all the time) to show that political elites in the US and UK worked extremely hard and purposively to promote certain key messages to the public, even though in the case of Iraq's WMD they knew that the evidence did not hold up. It is not necessarily a secret conspiracy therefore, but simply political actors constructing a discourse to promote their own interests. This is something which other political actors, such as pressure groups, also do.

Second, it has been argued that existing structures and narratives within American society made it virtually inevitable that a war-based interpretation of 9/11 would prevail and a 'war on terror' would be launched. The political elite, in this sense, had no real choice and the war on terror discourse just emerged of its own accord. I agree that American society is highly militaristic, that narratives of American exceptionalism and the chosen nation are deeply embedded in the political culture, and that existing foreign policy structures are oriented towards certain kinds of dominant perceptions and responses. With this genealogy and set of existing structures therefore, it was always highly likely that the political elite would choose these particular narratives to frame their policies in order to ensure that they resonated with the public and gained widespread acceptance.

Nonetheless, I still maintain that the political elite always retain a certain amount of agency and in this case, there were definite choices about exactly what kind of narrative framing they could employ to frame the response they chose. Moreover, although it cannot be tested, I think that if Al Gore had been president instead of George W., a different set of narratives and approach to fighting terrorism would have emerged. There are numerous examples of both individuals and groups working hard to introduce a new discourse or language into politics and succeeding, even though the existing structures mitigated against it. Examples of such so-called 'norm entrepreneurs' include: Gorbachev's perestroika; the efforts of human rights activists to construct an international human rights regime; the now widely used language of green politics; gender neutral language; etc. If we abandon the notion of human agency, it becomes difficult to explain change in international politics.

A key point that emerges from this is that language and discourse is never monolithic or static; it has to be reproduced and remade every day by actors and institutions. This suggests that even though the language of the war on terrorism has now been institutionalised in numerous agencies, government departments and laws, and has become an accepted part of entertainment culture, there is still room for struggle and resistance. If we as scholars and citizens continue to challenge the core narratives and language used by elites and their supporters, I believe that the war on terror will in the years to come, go the way of the cold war. This is a valid emancipatory goal, as the war on terror has proved to be nothing short of a disaster for human security, human rights, democratic politics and progressive politics.

Visit the MUP website for details of Writing the War on Terrorism (2005) by Richard Jackson

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Review, review, revew!

Great Satan's Rage, by Scott Wilson, has received a great review in the Times Higher Education Supplement!

Read it online for FREE

Thursday, 7 August 2008


By Kieron O’Hara
University of Southampton

So overwhelming is the Conservatives’ lead in the opinion polls that it is easy to overlook how precarious their future seemed not so very long ago. In the Summer of 2007, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Tory leader David Cameron started off in a difficult position which got steadily worse; newspaper headlines on the eve of the Tory Party Conference were declaring him dead and buried.

A series of calamities of varying magnitude followed for Brown, and the Tories came back from the brink. Nevertheless, even with several weeks of poll leads behind him, Cameron was still under pressure from the Tory right well into the Spring of 2008. There was a great deal of argument in March about why the Tory lead was so narrow.

Now support for Brown has collapsed, and the Tories seem certain to get in. Well, maybe, maybe not; the electoral demography is still difficult for them, the electorate is volatile, the economy may improve and Brown will certainly come out fighting after his Summer break. Nonetheless, Tories are hot favourites.

This seemed impossible after the last election, and much if not all of the credit must go to Cameron himself. The period 2005-6 was vital in the recovery of the Conservative Party, with the extraordinary seven-month leadership contest at the centre. The resurgence in Tory fortunes really began with Cameron’s famous conference speech of 2005, when he turned the contest on its head.

In our new book for Manchester University Press, Democratising Conservative Leadership Selection: From Grey Suits to Grass Roots, Andrew Denham and I examine the role of leadership contests in understanding the successes and failures of Conservative leaders. We provide a historical perspective back to 1881, and examine the conduct and effects of every Tory leadership election, with a detailed focus on the 2005 contest and the immediate aftermath.

Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservative Party is key, bringing the party back to the centre, altering its rhetoric, changing the profile of its candidates and mapping out a conservative ideological space distinct from that of Thatcherism, as I had earlier argued was essential in my book After Blair (reviewed by David Cameron in The Guardian). Cameron changed both image and substance – and carefully used the change of image to reinforce the change of substance.

Denham and I describe in some detail how the centrist project came under attack from Tory Ultras almost immediately, and how Cameron doggedly resisted – certainly making mistakes at times, but basically staying on course. We argued that the mandate from his decisive victory in the leadership election would be temporary, and that eventually Cameron’s legitimacy as leader would depend on electoral and poll success.

At the time of writing the book, it was an open question whether Cameron would stay the course – perhaps an election called in Autumn 2007 would have derailed him. But he did not deviate, shrugged off the (false) accusations that he has no right wing ideological content, and is now reaping the benefits. He has certainly had some luck; nevertheless his long-term strategy, the forging of which during the dark days of 2005 is described in our book, is paying off much more quickly than he had a right to expect.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Upcoming conferences in August

Still chugging along in our conference season, this and next month looks set to be pretty busy.

Here’s where we’ll be (click on the conference titles to find out more) :-

  • International Shakespeare Conference 3rd – 8th August (Stratford)

    One we make a point of going to every year, not only to showcase our Shakespeare titles but also our fantastic Revels Plays series.

  • ESSE conference 22nd – 26th august (Denmark)

    We didn’t attend ESSE last time around, but have done extensively in the past. As we rarely travel outside of the UK, this one should be pretty exciting.

We also have plenty more coming up in September, which we’ll post about soon….