Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • By Paul Stoneman

    Remarking on the British political tradition, A. H. Birch outlined its ability to protect civil liberties, satisfy ideas about justice and fair play and, above all else, ensure political stability. [1] In doing so, political elites balance effective decision-making alongside a periodical assessment of public opinion; in short, responsible government tempered by representative government.

    The British political tradition thus requires politicians to possess certain virtues of character. In balancing responsible and representative decision-making, a certain level of objectivity is required. ‘Daily and hourly’, Weber notes, ‘…the politician has to overcome…a quite vulgar vanity’, a type of vanity where political power ‘becomes purely personal self-intoxication’.[2] When this is the case, the ‘populist’ representative elements of democratic governance begin to crowd out the responsible elements.

    The recent EU Referendum in the UK testifies to a self-intoxication amongst political leaders that has led to irresponsible government. Ostensibly a highly democratic process to ensure greater representativeness, this ‘democratic’ mechanism in both its inception and its implementation neither fulfils the demands of representative or responsible government.

    Its inception is best explained in terms of political strategy rather than democratic principles. The EU issue previously split the Conservative Party under Heath, Thatcher, Major, and Hague. Coupled with the recent electoral threat of UKIP, David Cameron thus decided it was time to end this long-standing rift between the pro- and anti-EU elements of the party for once and for all by asking the British public to settle the debate for them.

    Intoxicated with a desire to ensure future Conservative Party rule, then, complex constitutional issues of governance were presented to an electorate as a binary choice. ‘Elevating internal party rows to a national plebiscite is not good enough’, argues Nick Clegg, ‘especially since we had already enshrined into law in 2011 a referendum trigger to ratify future EU Treaties.’[3] Thus prior to the referendum, the UK was in a position where the vast majority of elected representatives assumed a ‘responsible’ position of maintaining EU membership, whilst safe-guarding the demands of representation through blocking any future treatise changes until the public, via a referendum, had approved them.

    A referendum, nonetheless, directly places power into the hands of the electorate. But the outcome of such a democratic process is not legitimised purely because such a direct voting mechanism was used. Take the 1979 referendum on devolution to Scotland, for example. The result was markedly similar to the recent EU referendum – a split of 51.62% (for devolution) versus 48.38% (against devolution). But on a turnout of 64%, devolution failed since less than a third of the Scottish electorate approved the Act – the referendum required that at least 40% of the total registered electorate approved.

    One of the most perverse aspects of the EU referendum was the absence of thresholds, both in terms of turnout and in terms of the size of the winning majority. Constitutions are often designed to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ to ensure that policy outcomes are adequately legitimised. Currently, 1.9% of the voting electorate swung the decision in favour of Brexit. On a turnout of 72%, this equates to just over 1% of the total electorate deciding the fate of the biggest constitutional change to UK governance we have seen for hundreds of years.

    Socially sorted and politically divided, the fallout from this referendum result will deepen divisions within British society. Potentially greater unity within the Conservative Party is no saving grace, whatever your political allegiance. It would be irresponsible to think otherwise.



    [1] Birch, A.H. (1964) Representative and Responsible Government: An Essay on the British Constitution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1964

    [2] Weber, M., (1958). ‘Politics as a Vocation’. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 77-128. Ed. and trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

    [3] Financial Times, “Brexit: Cameron and Osborne are to blame for this sorry pass”, June 24, 2016.



    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Thomas Roberts

    The housing market in the UK is changing. Currently, 63% of UK households are owner occupied, 19% are privately rented and 18% are social rented (both local authority and housing association properties) (DECC 2015). These figures already point to a major shift from social housing (18% today, down from 25% in the 1990s) to privately rented housing (19% today, up from 13% in the 1990s). Furthermore, if current trends continue, two decades from now, the majority of Britons will rent their home for the first time since the early 1970s. By 2032, 49% will own their home, 35% will rent privately and 16% will be in the social rented sector (DCLG 2015).

    These changes have been well documented in both the media and academic literature, where the focus has predominately been on issues of welfare and social justice.

    There is however another, less developed, angle on the changes in the UK housing market: the impact on energy consumption and the government’s drive to reduce domestic energy demand from residential properties.

    The UK government’s 2011 Carbon Plan highlights that 25% of the UK’s emissions come from domestic properties and that reducing their demand for energy is the cheapest way to cut emissions. However, at present the vast majority of demand reduction initiatives are focused towards social housing and owner occupiers and this is reflected in the figures on the efficiency of domestic properties. According to DECC (2015) using the Standard Procedure (SAP) system where properties are given a rating of between 1 and 100, privately rented properties have an average rating of 59, compared to 65 for local authority properties, 66 for housing association properties and 62 for owner occupied properties (DECC 2015). Consequently, if these targets are to be met, policies related to improving the efficiency of domestic homes need to shift to reflect changes in the housing market.

    Research undertaken as part of the Whole Systems Modelling (WholeSEM) project has enabled us to highlight what these figures mean in reality for people living in privately rented homes and the implications for reducing domestic energy demand. Forty walking interviews were carried out in people’s homes, in which the participants were asked to walk the researcher through a ‘typical’ daily routine. During the interview participants were asked to describe how and when they used various energy intensive appliances and about the way they maintained a comfortable temperature in their homes.

    The inability to make any significant changes to their homes presented particular challenge as they were not able replace windows and doors or modify cavity wall installation. Nearly all the tenants interviewed stated that they felt the central heating systems were far less efficient than they could be and that their landlords were unwilling to make any significant changes to the property beyond the most basic maintenance. Furthermore, the vast majority of tenants surveyed were in furnished or part furnished properties where all the large domestic appliances were provided. With a few exceptions, the tenants felt that the landlord had provided them with the cheapest possible appliance which were not particularly efficient.

    At present there are virtually no incentives for landlords to provide tenants with thermally efficient properties containing good quality appliances. This is in part due to the fact that in the majority of cases the tenants are responsible for paying the utility bills so there is little direct financial incentive for landlords. Furthermore, all of the tenants interviewed stated that either the efficiency of the property or the appliances was a factor when deciding on where to live so it is unlikely that by providing efficient properties they would be able to command higher rents.

    Consequently, it may well be necessary to re-evaluate the way in which rental properties are regulated and also provide greater incentives for landlords to improve the efficiency of their properties. This will become even more important in the future as the balance between owners occupied properties, social housing and privately rented properties continues to change.


    DECC, 2015. Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2015. Department of Energy and Climate Change.

    DCLG, 2015. English Housing Survey: HOUSEHOLDS Annual report on England’s households, 2013-14


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Paul Hodkinson

    When the government’s white paper on the BBC was published yesterday, it was widely reported as a government climb-down and more notable for what was not changing than what was. The collective feeling seemed to be that the corporation had got away lightly, having retained its licence fee, avoided having the majority of its board appointed by government and escaped invasive restrictions on the scheduling of prime-time shows, for example. While such a reaction may be justified to a point there is a danger that sweeping changes that promise to fundamentally transform the BBC’s standing pass through largely unchallenged on the basis that things could have been worse. Might the expectations of an all-out assault raised by prior briefings now be enabling a somewhat less spectacular erosion of the corporation to proceed with minimal challenge?

    It is easy to see why the news that government would not, after all, have the power to appoint the majority of the board that directly runs the BBC came as a relief to the corporation’s supporters. Yet, the notion that ministers will nevertheless be appointing a substantial proportion of this new ‘joint-board’ represents a historic breach of the corporation’s operational independence. Ever since its establishment as a non-commercial corporation, operation ‘at arms-length’ from ministers was assured by strict separation between the corporation’s Board of Governors (later BBC Trust) which was responsible for oversight, and the group who directed and ran the corporation at operational level. The prospect of government appointments to the latter suggests unprecedented influence on the priorities, strategies and every day running of the organisation. The BBC is further weakened, meanwhile, by the transfer of responsibility for oversight/regulation to Ofcom, a body which, unlike the BBC Trust, has responsibilities across the media sphere and does not necessarily have the best interests of the corporation at its heart.

    A further feature of the white paper is the amendment of the BBC’s mission statement as follows: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality, and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.” The explicit emphasis here on distinctiveness may, at first glance, seem commensurate with long-established purposes of public service broadcasting. And specific stipulations about provision for minorities are to be welcomed for a corporation whose level of popularity with many such groups is not what it should be.

    Yet placing such prominent emphasis on distinctiveness – alongside ‘quality’ (defined by whom?) – at the heart of the BBC’s raison d’être risks steering it towards becoming a niche organisation, something that would undermine another principle at the heart of the corporation’s history – that of universality, or the notion that the BBC must be for all of us. This connects to a long-standing argument about the purpose of the corporation. Should it maximise popular appeal and engagement or should it refrain from such competition and provide only what other providers do not? In response, I would advocate here Michael Tracey’s (1998) suggestion that public service broadcasters should seek to make what’s popular high in quality and what’s high in quality popular. The danger with the current proposals, however, is that the importance of popularity – and with it the fundamental notion that the BBC is for everyone – may become fatally undermined as the corporation gradually becomes more oriented to middle-class understandings of quality and specialist content and services.

    Popular appeal, meanwhile, may also be a casualty of the requirement to reveal the salaries of top BBC talent. Campaigned for by much of the UK press, this move is justified through recourse to notions of transparency to the public, whose licence fees pay for the corporation and its talent. The problem, though, is that the BBC may find itself at a significant competitive disadvantage with respect to its ability to attract the stars that help it engage with large proportions of the public. Will star presenters and others want to work for the corporation, as opposed to a commercial rival if, as a consequence of doing so, they find themselves pilloried in the press for how much they earn? Will press and public pressure make it impossible for the BBC to pay the kinds of salaries needed to attract such talent in the first place? Notwithstanding the arguments in favour of such transparency, it is difficult to see how such a move helps the corporation to maintain its standing and popularity.

    Time will tell, of course, how great or rapid an impact such changes will ultimately have when put into practice. The concern expressed here, though, is that the level of scrutiny and critique of measures that fundamentally challenge core historic principles of the corporation is not as great as it could and should be amidst the collective feeling that the BBC got off lightly.


    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

Our news


British Academy research grant on mobility and citizenship

Dr Maria Xenitidou has recently been awarded a small grant to explore "Mobility and citizenship in turbulent space and times: categories, affordances and prospects".

Read more


Surrey to host new UK centre for public policy research

A £3 million national research centre that will develop better ways to measure the effectiveness and impact of energy, water, environment and food policies is to open at the University of Surrey.

Read more