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  • It is with more of a whimper than a bang that the first week of campaigning in the 2017 General Election begins. On the one side, a Prime Minister who feels herself to be in such a position of strength that she doesn’t need to explain herself or her plans. On the other, the other parties hurriedly trying to get their acts together, while smiling brightly and talking up their (meagre) chances.

    At the heart of this is Brexit: the decision to call the vote most makes sense in the context of Theresa May having now submitted formal notification under Article 50 to withdraw and the opportunity to simultaneously strengthen her position in the Commons and run the entire Brexit process under a single administration.

    Much of the discussion so far in the campaign has therefore been about the differing visions for that process, albeit in very different ways.

    May is presenting Brexit as a fait accompli, in which the only question is who is best placed to provide ‘strong and stable leadership’ to see it through. There has not been, and will not be, any unpacking of specific negotiation points or preferences beyond the vagueness of the White Paper.

    The Liberal Democrats are doubling-down on their profile as the party of the 48%, albeit now with a shift from opposing Brexit completely to opposing a hard Brexit. Buoyed by their by-election successes since last June, they see this as a viable political base on which to rebuild after the disaster of 2015.

    For the SNP, Brexit and the General Election is an opportunity to nail down the message that May (and Westminster more generally) doesn’t care about Scotland, to help reinforce the momentum for a second independence referendum.

    Which leaves Labour, riven and confused. Even as Keir Starmer presented his party’s more developed plans for Brexit on Tuesday, gaping holes were being picked in it from all sides, quite apart from it being different again from the various ideas that have been floated before. Most damningly, the policy looks like one that would have made much more sense to be used prior to the Parliamentary votes in March, where Labour appeared to cede the floor to the government in running negotiations.

    Seen in the round, two observations are most striking.

    The first is that there has been very little discussion about how Brexit fits into a bigger picture of the future of the country. Important as it is, leaving the EU is not the be-all and end-all of British politics, and it can be given shape and direction if there is broader conceptualisation of which kind of role in the world is foreseen and aimed for.

    The second is that there has also been scant debate about the detail of what Brexit might entail.

    The generous interpretation of this is that everyone has recognised that Article 50 is not a process in which the UK gets to have much of a say. Instead it will be the choices made by the EU27 and the European Parliament about what to offer that really matter. As David Allen Green is helpfully illustrating, the EU institutions have taken a very consistent and clear line since the day after the referendum on how things will proceed, driven by the legal requirements of Article 50 and the common interests of the remaining member states. Thus it makes little sense for parties to commit themselves to substantive positions that might have to be overturned as negotiations develop.

    The slightly-less generous interpretation is that even if this power imbalance is noted, then the best response is to try to frame one’s statements so that it looks like the EU is coming around to one’s position, when it is actually the reverse. At times, Theresa May has looked close to this, as with her decisions to avoid an unwinnable clash over separating freedom of movement of people from the rest of the single market, or to accept that the Court of Justice will have to play a role in overseeing any final agreement. Indeed, there is no example of May to date advancing a position that the EU has subsequently moved towards.

    If this seems a rather pessimistic take on matters, then it is as much a commentary on the long-run failure of British policy towards European integration. The fundamental problem has been that there has – almost without exception – been only one frame within which European-level decisions have been taken, namely that of domestic politics. This General Election is a case in point: the government will gain no material advantage in negotiations as a result, and has indeed further tried the patience of interlocutors as another delay in substantive negotiations is introduced.

    However, things are as they are, so how best to proceed?

    One area that remains particularly neglected to date has been the dynamic nature of the future relationship with the EU. While much attention has – rightly – been given to day-one issues, such as the rights of EU nationals in the UK or the potential introduction of border and customs controls, almost none has been devoted to all the days that follow.

    The EU nationals issues provides a good illustration. These individuals fall into three categories. The first are those currently in the UK: do they retain their current rights and assess to public services? This has been the predominant question that politicians have discussed and not reached a conclusion on, even as they all claim that it deserves immediate resolution. But there are those individuals who currently reside in the UK, who might leave – for shorter or longer periods – and then return: do they retain the same position as those who remain, or is there some reset cut-off? And, most significantly, what about those EU nationals who are not currently in the UK, but who might want to move in future?

    So too with market regulation. While the Great Repeal Bill makes much of incorporating the acquis into British law, so that there is no regulatory gap, this will only last as long as it takes the EU to produce a new piece of regulation, which it does on a daily basis.

    Among the many flaws in the British debate has been this conceptualisation of Brexit as an event; a day on which we leave and that’s it, done and dusted, when ‘Europe’ will disappear as an issue and a problem.

    Instead, it will be a long and drawn-out process. Yes, there will be a day when the UK ceases to be a member, but everything points towards an extended period of working towards a new stable relationship. Divorce is an unhelpful metaphor, but we might note that the day one gets the decree absolute is not the day that every aspect of one’s marriage is tied up.

    The sooner that all parties recognise this, the more likely it is that sustainable solutions can be found.


    This post originally appeared on the PSA’s Insight Plus blog.

  • I’ll just had a great idea…

    The lovely thing about long walks is that they give you time to think, to join your physical movement with metaphysical wanderings through the things that occupy your life. It’s often a time when you have a bright idea, that makes sense as the sunlight filters through the leaves and warm air of spring fills your lungs.

    And this general election has very much the feeling of an idea that Theresa May has had on her walking break in North Wales. It’s easy to imagine her chatting with Philip about the pros and cons of calling a vote, exploring the highways and by-ways of it all as the vistas unfurl before them, and the security detail think back fondly to those barbeques in Witney.

    It’s not that the election is a bad idea, but there is no immediately obvious, compelling reason to hold it: all of the basic parameters have been in place as long as May has occupied Number 10.

    This leads to the most obvious conclusion about this decision, namely that it is driven by domestic political calculation rather than anything to do with Brexit. This is important to keep in mind both because it echoes the long-term pattern of British European policy, but also because it reminds us that May continues to entertain the idea that her premiership will not just be shaped by the departure from the EU.

    This said, it is useful to consider the relationship between general election and Brexit, because the two will have to bump alongside each other and there will be effects by each on the other, especially given the rather specious reasoning given by May for calling the election, namely the division in Westminster.

    In procedural terms, the election will not result in any major delay in Article 50 negotiations. Recall that at present everyone is awaiting the 29 April summit of the EU27 to confirm the negotiating brief and the basic schedule for talks. Then there will be another week until the second round of the French presidential elections and some weeks after that when Commission’s mandate will be finalised, which puts us within spitting distance of 8 June. At the same time, it does mean another month lost for substantive negotiations, which will prove problematic when it comes to working through the extended agenda that May has in mind.

    Once again, the key point to keep in mind here is that Article 50 is driven by the EU, not the UK, so in this initial phase, the focus will be on what the other member states can agree to offer to the UK, rather than what the UK might ask for. Incidentally, this also highlights the vapidity of the Tory position that an enlarged majority for May will somehow strengthen her hand:  ever country has voters and it will be their own domestic pressures that change their positions more than how many MPs the British government can count on.

    If there is a procedural bonus, then it is that the resetting of the electoral clock means that by the time the next general election has to be called, in June 2022, not only will the Article 50 negotiations be well past, but so too will much of the mooted 2-3 year transition period, which makes it even harder for any new government to overturn the process: Brexit will indeed mean Brexit.

    Much of the procedural questions at this stage will be largely technical – schedules of meetings and the like – and can continue unabated during the campaign but the general election will raise an interesting personnel issue.

    General elections are often opportunities for Prime Ministers to reshuffle portfolios, especially if there is the prospect of an influx of new faces. However, May will be a bit of bind over whether to do this. On the one hand, some of her front bench have been less than impressive, either politically or managerially, so this is a chance to have a second bite of the cherry.

    However, on the other hand, the current Cabinet have been in place for a relatively short period of time and there was a clear presentation of the choices made as a conscious strategy: put Leavers in key roles to own the subject.

    To replace any of the three main Brexit ministers – Davis, Fox or Johnson – now might lead to improved performance, but at a price of calling into question May’s judgement in appointing them in the first place (and recall that all three came with big question marks over their heads). As was clear at the time, while it’s useful to have a front row to soak up the problems, it is ultimately on May’s shoulders that they succeed.

    The final potential impact of the election will be on substantive policy goals in Article 50.

    Here we have to be careful to unpick the dynamic that has already emerged of a softening of May’s stance in and around notification. Gone are the more improbable goals on CJEU jurisdiction and no transitions, in reflection of the growing awareness of the intricacies involve in unpicking the UK from the EU. None of that happening in anticipation of this election, but potentially the election will give more cover to May.

    Consider the most likely outcome on 8 June: an increased majority for May. Let’s also assume that Central Office is able to have a relatively big say in candidate selection over local associations, given the time constraints. This suggests that the specific weight of any sub-grouping within the new parliamentary party will be reduced and that the group as a whole will be more beholden to May’s leadership.

    Put differently, neither the pro-EU rump nor the hard Brexiteers will be as able as now to hold the Parliamentary majority to hostage, so May will be in a stronger position to pursue her own agenda in negotiations and then to get the results approved at the end of Article 50.

    This underlines one of the more unmentioned truths of the Brexit process, namely that Theresa May does not obviously know her own mind on what the post-membership relationship should look like. The studied ambiguity of her public pronouncements will continue throughout the campaign, as she seeks to find a solution that looks viable, rather than one that follows any detailed ideological positioning.

    Seen in this light, the general election is set to offer little new light on how Brexit will unfold and will do little to shape what happens. Unless, of course, there is some major upset on 8 June: and if recent history has taught us anything, then it is that we should always keep the unexpected in mind.


    This post originally appeared on the UK in a Changing Europe website.

  • The following blog piece anticipates a paper I will be giving at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs on 20 April and which appears on the conference website.

    Conversation with Sir Michael Aaronson on Biafra

    This is an interview carried out by Victoria Avis with Michael Aaronson, who will be speaking at the Remembering Biafra conference on International Humanitarianism, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, April 20, at 1:30pm.

    How would you describe your major fields of scholarly interest?

    I am interested in the motivations and consequences of international intervention: why powerful states intervene in the way that they do in situations of conflict and crisis, and what the consequences are – both intended and unintended. I deliberately define ‘intervention’ in broad terms, to include not only the coercive military intervention that has received so much attention over the last 25 years, but all the various ways in which outside actors seek to influence the course of events before, during, and after crisis. In other words I include the whole range of what have been characterised as the three ‘D’s: defence, diplomacy, and development – and a few other things beside. A key part of this is examining the interveners as much as the intervened upon, but also understanding and analysing the differences of perception and understanding between those who are on the receiving end of intervention and those who practise it.

    At the University of Surrey we have established cii – The Centre for International Intervention – to provide a forum in which researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners can engage on these issues:

    I am also interested in the study and practice of humanitarianism. This stems from my practical experience of humanitarian action and my passionate belief in humanitarian principles, which goes back to my time as a relief worker in the Nigerian Civil War at the end of the 1960s.

    What got you interested in Biafra? 

    My 26 months as a relief worker in Nigeria shaped the future course of my life, but came about almost by accident. During my time as an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford, reading Philosophy and Psychology, I had become aware of the crisis unfolding in Nigeria from the increasingly frequent coverage of events there in the UK press. Some of this was the result of publicity generated by The Save the Children Fund, which in July 1968 had sent one of the first UK relief teams to Nigeria/Biafra. Like many in the UK at that time I wanted to help, but it was a stroke of pure luck that Save the Children was recruiting relief workers just as I was graduating; following an interview in London I was sent to Nigeria in August 1969 to join a team working on the front line of the conflict. I was acutely aware of how little I knew about Nigeria and my learning curve was certainly very steep.

    I was initially contracted for 6 months and was due to return to academia the following year to undertake a Masters. But I became completely committed to the relief action and postponed my return home a number of times, eventually abandoning the Masters and ending up as Save the Children’s Field Co-Ordinator in the massive relief and rehabilitation programme that followed the end of hostilities in January 1970. After my return home I joined the UK Diplomatic Service of which I was a member for 16 years, including a posting to Nigeria from 1981-3 at the British High Commission in Lagos. I returned to Save the Children in 1988, initially for 7 years as Overseas Director and subsequently for 10 years as Director General.

    What specific topics will you be talking about when you come to the conference?

    I have already written of my experience of the Nigerian Civil War in the context of contemporary discussions of so-called “humanitarian intervention” (Aaronson M. (2013) ‘The Nigerian Civil War and ‘Humanitarian Intervention’’. in Everill B, Kaplan J (eds.) The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 176-196.)

    Repository URL:

    My central argument in that piece was that the relief action became a proxy for any meaningful intervention that might have brought a speedier end to the conflict and prevented much human suffering and death. In particular there was a shocking lack of any effective attempt to mediate between the two sides, with instead a rather half-hearted external political and military engagement – almost as if the powers who potentially could have done something just hoped the problem would go away of its own accord.

    I also explored some of the humanitarian dilemmas facing agencies such as Save the Children during the conflict. In particular I assumed (wrongly, as my research for this conference has shown) that they were obliged to take a conscious decision to work only on the Nigerian side of the front line as the Federal Government would not allow agencies to be both in Biafra and Nigeria. I thought this might provide an interesting case study of what ‘impartiality’ and ‘neutrality’ mean in practice for aid agencies working in an internal conflict. In fact, as I shall show, Save the Children did not have any real choice in the matter; nevertheless the dilemmas they faced were real enough and I shall attempt to illustrate how they dealt with them.

    What lessons might be learned from the Nigeria-Biafra war (or the response to that war)?

    The war was an early contemporary illustration of the truth that humanitarian problems need political solutions. Much has been written about whether the relief operation prolonged the conflict. It almost certainly did, but that does not mean that the humanitarian response was somehow misplaced. What it underlines is that humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action if human suffering in armed conflict is to be relieved. Sadly, the response to many similar situations over the subsequent 45 years shows that the lesson has not yet been learned.

    The war also marked a turning point in the relationship between external powers, international humanitarian agencies, and newly independent African states. The ‘humanitarian imperative’ collided with the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and raised the question of whether coercive humanitarian intervention could be justified as a response to overwhelming human suffering in the absence of an agreed political solution. This issue has been much debated ever since but sadly is as unresolved today as it was at the time of Biafra – as recent events in Syria and elsewhere so tragically illustrate.

    Victoria Avis is a member of the staff for the Institute for Africa Studies and a student in the Elliott School of International Affairs. She will be spending the summer in Tanzania.

Forthcoming events

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Post-Brexit Local Politics: the role of EU citizens?

  • Tuesday 02 May. 2017

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Australia’s Role in a Changing World

  • Monday 15 May. 2017

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