355 episodes

Coronavirus! Climate! Brexit! Trump! Politics has never been more unpredictable, more alarming or more interesting: Talking Politics is the podcast that tries to make sense of it all. Every week David Runciman and Helen Thompson talk to the most interesting people around about the ideas and events that shape our world: from history to economics, from philosophy to fiction. What does the future hold?
Can democracy survive? How crazy will it get? This is the political conversation that matters.


Talking Politics is brought to you in partnership with the London Review of Books, Europe's leading magazine of books and ideas.
Become a member at https://plus.acast.com/s/talkingpolitics

TALKING POLITICS Talking Politics

    • News
    • 4.7 • 1.8K Ratings

Coronavirus! Climate! Brexit! Trump! Politics has never been more unpredictable, more alarming or more interesting: Talking Politics is the podcast that tries to make sense of it all. Every week David Runciman and Helen Thompson talk to the most interesting people around about the ideas and events that shape our world: from history to economics, from philosophy to fiction. What does the future hold?
Can democracy survive? How crazy will it get? This is the political conversation that matters.


Talking Politics is brought to you in partnership with the London Review of Books, Europe's leading magazine of books and ideas.
Become a member at https://plus.acast.com/s/talkingpolitics

    Covid-Union-Labour-Brexit-Climate

    Covid-Union-Labour-Brexit-Climate

    This week David and Helen take stock of the state of British politics, looking at how the big themes of the last year fit together. They try to join the dots between the pandemic and the fraying of the Union, the weakness of the Labour party and the fraught politics of climate change, along with the lingering impact of Brexit on everything. We are also looking for your questions on these topics too - please let us know what you would like David and Helen to discuss next: https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/contact


    Talking Points: 


    Incumbents, under the conditions of vaccine politics, have done well. 
    - The next phase will be about the economy, but we aren’t out of the vaccine stage yet.
    - When an inquiry happens, there will be some tough questions about the British state.
    - If the economic recovery goes well, there will be space for critical reflection. But if recovery stalls or is skewed, that will be the main focus.


    The Northern Ireland question may pose a real challenge to the politics of the Union.
    - This may be the government’s number one problem right now.
    - The UK government is extremely constrained. 
    - The EU has invested a lot of its credibility in defending the single market.  
    - The perverse consequence of Brexit is that it embroiled the EU into the politics of Northern Ireland.


    Is the First Past the Post system propping up a moribund Labour Party?
    - The electoral system works to Labour’s favour when compared to continental centre-left parties.
    - But the thing that Labour has to deal with that is unique is the Union question.
    - Labour has always struggled to win a majority of seats in England.


    In 2020, Britain and the EU diverged on the question of China. 
    - Biden wants to bring the EU toward the American position. And the EU has moved a bit already.
    - This might dilute the advantage that Johnson thought he might gain with the Biden admin by being tough on China.


    The geopolitics of climate change are bound up in the EU/US position on China.
    - Merkel has been inclined to treat China as more serious about climate change.
    - Johnson wants to put Britain at the head of ‘green finance.’
    - Climate change is not currently an electorally contested issue in Britain. But that might not be true for much longer.


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Our Union series… on Scotland
    - David Frost’s FT column on the Northern Ireland Protocol


    Further Learning: 
    - Helen on Labour and the ‘English Question’ for the New Statesman
    - More on Johnson’s ‘green finance’ plans
    - Talking climate change with Helen and Adam Tooze


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 45 min
    Why Constitutions Matter

    Why Constitutions Matter

    David talks to historian Linda Colley about her new global history of written constitutions: the paper documents that made and remade the modern world. From Corsica to Pitcairn, from Mexico to Japan, it's an amazing story of war and peace, violence, imagination and fear. Recorded as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival www.cambridgeliteraryfestival.com


    Talking Points:


    Swords need words: conquest generates a demand for writing and explanation.
    - In the mid-18th century, literacy began to increase in many societies and printing presses became more widely available. There’s not much incentive to circulate political texts if you can’t have a wider audience. 
    - The cult of the legislator fed into the idea that iconic political texts could be useful in new and divergent ways.


    By the mid-18th century, big transcontinental wars were becoming more common. 
    - Hybrid-warfare is expensive. Navies are hideously expensive.
    - Shifts in warfare fed into constitutions because constitutions function as a kind of contract.


    Constitutions can do a lot of things. They can be used to claim territory, for example. 
    - They can extend rights, but they can also withdraw them. 
    - Once something is written down, it becomes harder to change. In addition to spreading democracy, constitutions codified exclusion and marginalization.


    Constitutions are sticky; even failed constitutions leave a legacy.
    - People get used to having a written agreement.
    - The Tunisian Constitution of 1861 only lasted until 1864 but it remains important in Tunisian political memory. 


    The U.S. constitution had a disproportionate impact, not just—or even primarily because of its content.
    - Because the U.S. press was so developed, hundreds of printed versions emerged very quickly and traveled across the world.
    - When new powers started drafting constitutions, however, they looked at many constitutions, not just the American one. Most modern constitutions are a hodge-podge. 


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Linda’s new book, The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World
    - The Meiji Constitution (Japan’s 1889 Constitution)
    - The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
    - Also by Linda: Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837


    Further Learning: 
    - The Talking Politics Guide to … the UK Constitution
    - Linda on ‘Why Britain needs a written constitution’ for the FT


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 44 min
    England, Their England

    England, Their England

    We talk to the historians Robert Tombs and Robert Saunders about the history of England and the future of the Union. Is the size and complexity of England the real problem in holding the UK together? What can England's past teach us about the present state of British politics? Does England have a 'Northern Question' to go with its 'Scottish Question' and 'Irish Question'? This is the final episode in our series about the constituent parts of the UK. Find the others - on Scotland, NI, Wales - at https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/


    Talking Points: 


    Is the island of Britain a natural seat of government?
    - England is not an island; and the English are not an island people.
    - The Norman conquest attached England to the continent; leaving Scotland outside.
    - As a maritime power, it was useful for England to move its borders to the sea. 
    - The strategic arguments for the existence of the UK are perhaps weaker in an era of more diffuse and global security threats and frameworks.


    Most people probably don’t know that the Union was a Scottish creation.
    - The lack of interest in developing ‘Britishness’ at the English center has had consequences. 
    - England is now more dominant in the Union than it used to be.


    Governance of the Union has changed: the leadership of both major parties in Westminster is now almost exclusively English and they compete for almost exclusively English votes. 
    - There is a separate leadership class in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. 
    - The electoral politics of asymmetrical devolution lead to intense secessionist pressure from Scotland.
    - No government in Westminster can govern without English support, but it is possible to govern while being insensitive to Scottish or Welsh opinion.
    - The dynamics of the Union incline toward Conservative power in Westminster and SNP power in Scotland. This is an unstable dynamic.


    The English don’t really have a story about before the Union in part because the English have never really seen the Acts of Union as dividing lines in English history.
    - Is the ‘Northern question’ a perennial question in English politics? Right now, this is the heart of the electoral conflict.
    - In every part of England that isn’t London, you can find anti-London sentiment. 
    - There’s a lot of resentment toward the Union in England, but the Union is a pretty good deal for England.


    Mentioned in this Episode:
    - Talking … Wales
    - Talking … Northern Ireland
    - Talking… Scotland
    - The English and their History, Robert Tombs
    - The Making of English National Identity, Krishan Kumar


    Further Learning: 
    - This Sovereign Isle, Robert Tombs
    - Tim Shippey on Alfred the Great for the LRB


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 44 min
    Niall Ferguson on Catastrophe

    Niall Ferguson on Catastrophe

    We talk to the historian Niall Ferguson about the politics of catastrophe, from pandemics and famines to world wars and climate change. Have we been worrying about the right things? Why have some countries done so much better than others with Covid? And what can history teach us about the worst that can happen? Plus, how likely is it that a cold war between the US and China turns hot? 


    Talking Points:


    Niall argues that COVID is more like the Asian flu in ‘57/’58 than the 1918/1919 Spanish flu.
    - However the economic response is unprecedented; the Internet made lockdowns at this scale and duration possible.
    - Lockdowns were a near panic response that were necessitated by initial political failures in the West.


    When we’re trying to assess the political impact of a disaster, the body count is not the most important thing.
    - A disaster can kill a lot of people and be virtually forgotten if it doesn’t have cascading consequences.
    - We will probably remember the experience of lockdown more than the mortality rates.


    What did we get wrong about the COVID response?
    - Controlling travel early on made a difference, and most Western states did not do that.
    - The network structure of a polity is the most important thing in a pandemic, especially in an era of globalized travel.


    The distinction between natural and manmade disasters is a false one.
    - The scale of impact is a function of how we, collectively and our leaders, individually make decisions.
    - Humans do not seem to be very good at thinking pragmatically about risks; we tend to ignore them in practice while simultaneously constructing apocalyptic fantasies. 


    Mentioned in this Episode:
    - Niall’s book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
    - Larry Summers and David Cutler on the costs of COVID
    - Graham Allison, Destined for War


    Further Learning: 
    - More on Taiwan’s COVID response
    - Why do so many people live near active volcanoes? 
    - ‘The Really Big One’ (the earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest) 
    - The Talking Politics Guide to… Existential Risk


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 36 min
    Election Fallout

    Election Fallout

    David and Helen are joined by the historian Colin Kidd to try to make sense of last week's elections in England, Scotland and Wales. What do they mean for the future of the UK? What do they mean for the future of the Labour Party? Are either (or both) in terminal trouble? Plus we explore how Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson are going to resolve their standoff over a second Scottish independence referendum.


    Talking Points:


    Gordon Brown says that Scotland is a 30-30-40 nation.
    - Scotland is pretty evenly divided on the question of union, but the polls don’t measure the depth or shallowness of commitment.
    - In effect, there are now two Scottish Labour parties: the actual Labour party and the social democratic SNP under Sturgeon.


    Alex Salmond’s party lost, but it put forward a more coherent vision for an independent Scotland. 
    - Salmond and Sturgeon are now on opposite sides on both the EU question and the currency question. 
    - You can’t pursue EU membership without a currency that you could in principle put into the exchange rate mechanism.


    There’s a new alliance in Scottish politics between the SNP and the Greens.
    - The Scottish Greens are more associated with independence than the environment.
    - The Green relationship makes oil a trickier issue. The SNP’s committed to more gradual decarbonisation. 


    Where is the SNP’s greatest weakness? 
    - Johnson’s approach to pump more money into Scotland is unlikely to work. 
    - Currency, the tax, and the border are interrelated challenges. The SNP is brilliant on politics and positioning, but it doesn’t devote enough time to political economy.
    - A referendum could be politically risky for both Sturgeon and Johnson. This may mean a long period of shadow-boxing.


    How should Labour think about the basic challenge of reassembling a coalition? 
    - The basic problem that Labour faces is that its old class coalition doesn’t fit together.
    - The Union also causes Labour big problems.
    - Is first past the post the only thing keeping Labour alive? 


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Colin on the Anglo-Scottish Union
    - The SNP’s referendum
    - Gordon Brown on Scotland and the Union
    - Tony Blair in the New Statesman


    Further Learning: 
    - More on the SNP’s manifesto
    - Colin in the LRB on Scottish independence


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 41 min
    Michael Lewis on the Pandemic

    Michael Lewis on the Pandemic

    We talk to Michael Lewis about his new book The Premonition, which tells the story of the people who saw the pandemic coming and asks why they couldn't get a hearing. It's a tale of short-term failures and long-term trends in US government and it follows on from his previous book about the risks America has been running in hollowing out the administrative state. A sobering account with glimmers of hope for the future. 


    Talking Points: 


    Old timers at the CDC say that things began to change after the 1976 swine flu outbreak.
    - The CDC rushed a vaccine program, and some people got sick. Then the swine flu basically vanished.
    - After that, under Reagan, the head of the CDC became an appointed, political job. This made the CDC overall more political and less independent. 
    - Most people who interacted with the CDC before this pandemic realized that it wasn’t very good at managing disease.


    Doing a public health job well carries a high risk of getting fired.
    - The experts in Michael’s story are consistently right about the trajectory of the disease; but they are often wrong about politics.
    - Should experts pay more attention to politics? 
    - Experts can create discomfort for politicians, or they can give them cover—but that’s not their job. Michael thinks that politicians should be providing cover for the experts.


    Why was it so hard to learn from the experiences of other cities in the heart of the crisis?
    - In the 1918 pandemic, the difference between Philadelphia and St. Louis was the timing of the intervention. 
    - It’s hard to see the effect of the interventions in the fog of battle.
    - The failure of testing in the US at the start of the pandemic meant that there was no way to identify where the virus was.
    - Just-in-time manufacturing and taut-supply changes made the ‘health industrial complex’ less able to respond quickly.
    - Will the pandemic make Americans care more about how the government actually functions?


    Mentioned in this Episode: 
    - Michael’s new book, The Premonition, a Pandemic Story
    - Richard Neustadt and Harvey V. Fineberg, The Swine Flu Affair
    - The Nuclear Threat Initiative 2019 report
    - Our last episode with Michael


    Further Learning:
    - David J. Spencer, ‘Reflections on the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccination Program’
    - Lawrence Wright, ‘The Plague Year,’ The New Yorker
    - How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic
    - More on the San Quentin COVID epidemic


    And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking
     
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    • 46 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
1.8K Ratings

1.8K Ratings

IncognitoPenguin ,

One of my favourites

David and Helen always provide interesting and intelligent discussion on a wide range of topics. A must listen for those interested in politics

Podcastfanboy91 ,

David, Helen and Adam

David and Helen complement one another perfectly. David is endlessly listenable-to, a fantastic convener, but also a heavyweight whose application of theory to current events is so so engaging. Helen is a hard-as-nails intellectual thug-of-the-detail. She brings much-needed cynicism to David’s classic Observer-reading sensibilities. Then Adam Tooze comes in scatting monetary theory, realpolitik and obscure anecdotes. He’s an encyclopedia of all the most important historical decisions no one knows about (but which changed everything). Joyful.

Aberporth Don ,

Climate Change

Episodes involving David , Helen and Adam Tooze are nearly always the most interesting , most challenging and lead to greatest levels of post blog thought.
This episode was amongst the most complex and urgent topics that Talking politics has tackle. It was fitting that it avoided settling for the over simplified easy answer but has broadly dimensioned the issues for further consideration.

Aberporth Don

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