Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Editorial: Memory and meaning in Irish politics

The editorial for edition 22.4 of Juncture looks at the Easter Rising of 1916 and its myriad impacts 100 years later, for both the Republic and the modern United Kingdom.

2016 marks two momentous centenaries on the isles of Britain and Ireland: those of the Easter Rising and of the Battle of the Somme. Irish men and women were killed in both, though until recently the Republic of Ireland has only paid homage to those killed in the rising against the British state, not to those who died fighting with the British army in the trenches of the Somme.

As the historian Heather Jones notes in her essay for this edition of Juncture, which marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, paradoxically it will likely prove easier for the Republic of Ireland to commemorate those who fell in the first world war than those who died in the bloody sacrifice of the Dublin insurrection. The Republic’s mainstream parties will not want to alienate their unionist neighbours, nor give political oxygen to Sinn Féin, the only party to contest elections on both sides of the border, which is currently surfing a wave of popular hostility to austerity and its aftermath. Yet although the Republic has long since abandoned its claims to govern the whole of the 32 counties of Ireland, it will still want to honour and cherish deeply, as every generation has done this past century, the memory of those who rose in arms against British rule. Memory and meaning are never more complex in Irish politics than when the legacy of the Rising comes to the fore – not least because the divisions it engendered have structured its politics ever since.

As Colin Kidd points out in his companion piece, national identity and patriotic sentiment remain potent political forces in contemporary politics. The left ignores this at its peril, as the surge in Scottish nationalism and the collapse in support for Labour north of the border has demonstrated in recent years. Neither class reductionism nor global cosmopolitanism can account for why national belonging continues to inspire political loyalties and exert power over political formations.

British Eurosceptics invoke the enduring power of national identities in aid of their cause. Yet the Republic of Ireland barely registers in their lexicon, despite the fact that it shares a common history, language and mini-Schengen passport-free zone with the UK, and that trade ties are extensive between the two countries. Ireland is a member of the European Union and is deeply committed to the European project, despite the manifest failings of the austerity to which it was subject as the price of staying in the eurozone. This problematises its relationship to other English-speaking countries – the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand pre-eminent among them – that, in the Eurosceptic imagination, form the ‘Anglosphere’. Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce probe the ideological contours of this Anglosphere, and ask why a manifestly implausible idea has such ideological purchase on the Eurosceptic right.

In this edition, we also examine why conventional notions of democracy are coming increasingly under strain. Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen argue that the widely held democratic ideal that government is responsive to the preferences of politically equal citizens who deliberate on policy choices no longer gets close to describing the reality of contemporary politics. Both growing levels of political inequality, with wealthy elites colonising the political process to an increasing degree, and the dominance of group or social identities in shaping broader voting patterns, suggest that powerful impulses, rather than rational deliberations by citizens, are shaping political decision-making. This is not the political process as democratic theory or popular conceptions of democracy would have it.

Given the hollowing out of the democratic content of politics, the authors urge progressives to develop a more realistic account of democracy and how it operates. Without one, it will be impossible to rein in illegitimate inequalities and ensure that politics better serves the interests of ordinary citizens. A realist conception of democracy would enable progressives to better tackle concentrations of power within our politics, ensuring that the rules of the game are designed to expand democratic voice against political foreclosure by market imperatives, powerful elites and technocratic decision-making.

The intimate link between political and economic inequality is central to the story of American income growth told by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson. At the heart of their article are the questions, How and when did America became so rich and so unequal? And how is inequality likely to change in the future? What emerges is a tale that is far less benign, more bumpy and more subject to reversal than is suggested in traditional narratives of American economic progress.

In the process, they puncture long-held myths: for example, America’s income-per-capita advantage over Britain has not increased since the mid-17th century, while the end of the second world war was the only historical moment at which the US soared far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of average incomes. Perhaps most pertinently, their evidence underscores the fact that inequality is not irreversible: they point to policy choices in education, financial regulation and the taxation of heritable wealth as key forces in the explosive growth in income inequality since the 1970s. The lesson is that democracies, however imperfect, are not prostrate before the forces driving inequality.

Whether a universal basic income could be an instrument to reduce inequality and expand the capabilities of ordinary women and men to live a ‘larger life’ is the question examined by our trio of pieces on the topic. Caitlin McLean makes the powerful case that a guaranteed right to an income would be an effective counterweight against unequal power relationships ‘between women and their employers, their families and state administrators’. Hillel Steiner, meanwhile, sets out the left-libertarian case for a basic income, based on the claim of self-ownership and opposition to the dominating experience often manifest in conditional welfare systems. Finally, Anthony Painter makes the case for ambition, rather than mere pragmatism, on the left, and sees in a basic income a key building block that can help recast our institutions to fit the times.

The debate has only just begun: there are, for example, legitimate concerns that a basic income would be a grand and centralising compensatory gesture that would not adequately challenge the underlying inequalities of power in contemporary democracies.[1] Nevertheless, in a period of increasingly radical technological and economic change, with widespread automation on the horizon, a universal basic income is a potentially emancipatory tool that the left should now examine seriously as it seeks to chart a new politics and programme for the future.

This article appears in edition 22.4 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.


[1] Pearce N (2015) ‘Back to the future: the revival of interest in a Universal Basic Income’, IPR Blog, Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath, 10 December 2015.