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Monday, 25 June 2018

Problematising Anglo-American relations

President Reagan meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the oval office, 16 November 1988

My research focuses on contemporary American history in a broader context. In particular, it examines the transfer of political ideas and policies between the United Kingdom and the United States and how an issue in one country affects policy making elsewhere. In short, my research revolves around the interaction between domestic politics, foreign policy and policymaking. It has resulted in two books.
The first focused on Anglo-American policy transfer between the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, debunking common myths about the similarities between Reaganism and Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: A Very Political Special Relationship, Palgrave, 2012). The second examined the role of U.S. presidents in the Northern Ireland conflict and is a significant contribution to the emerging scholarship about American influence on the Anglo-Irish process and Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ (The Politics of Diplomacy: U.S. Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1967-98, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Why did you not just choose to study the History of one country?
I do not believe that events and issues can be studied simply through the history of one country. The politics and policy making of countries do not occur in isolation from developments elsewhere and the writing of history should reflect this. Therefore, despite my primary focus being the history of the United States, my research considers America in a global context.

What are the highlights of doing your research?
My research has allowed me to visit plenty of interesting places and meet fascinating people. I conduct research in a variety of American, British and Irish archives, including numerous presidential libraries. My favourite presidential library is probably the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (partially because it has the best canteen), although I would recommend that anyone with an interest in American history should try to visit any presidential library if they can! I was fortunate to be able to conduct over thirty interviews with key protagonists – including: Mr Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, former UK Foreign Secretary; Lord (Charles) Powell, leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher; Mr Edwin Meese, a leading figure in the Reagan administration; and, Lord (Neil) Kinnock, former Labour Party leader – and I am regularly able to consult the most recently available archival material. Researching in archives often leads to all sorts of surprises. I have read documents that detail the Reagan administration’s excitement about a visit by Michael Jackson to the White House and Bill Clinton’s offer to babysit Leo Blair, youngest son of Tony and Cherie, after his presidency ended in 2001.

Do you compare history to current affairs?
The subject matter of my research certainly lends itself to comparisons with current events in both Britain and the United States. I have blogged on ‘Cultural Thinking’ about the regularly asserted comparison between the Reagan-Thatcher relationship with the emergence and relationship of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In addition to making anecdotal comparisons in my teaching between history and the present, I have contributed to American and British news coverage about the politics in both countries.

What do people think about your research?
My research had led to very exciting opportunities. For instance, in 2012-13 I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor of British History at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where I also curated an exhibit, based on my research on Reagan and Thatcher, at the college’s National Winston Churchill Museum). In November 2014 I was interviewed about the Reagan-Thatcher relationship on the BBC News Channel. I was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo in May 2016. My books have been positively reviewed by my peers and I am a regular contributor to academic journals, collections of essays and conferences. Many people find it interesting that what I study is considered to be ‘History’ given that it happened in living memory – including my own!

Dr James Cooper is Senior Lecturer in History at Oxford Brookes University

Monday, 11 June 2018

The naturalistic philosopher

I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective.

The Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Mark Cain
Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive.

I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.

Dr Mark Cain is Reader and Programme Lead for Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University.

Monday, 4 June 2018

#Drugscapes, Experts: Prohibition of NPS Unlikely to Have Reduced Harms

Photo by Matthew Payne, on Upslash.
Restrictive UK drug laws have not made people who use drugs safer and have not
significantly inhibited the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS, formerly known as
‘legal highs’) and other more traditional illicit drugs, according to experts. Researchers and
practitioners taking part in Oxford Brookes Criminology’s ‘Drugscapes’ seminar, on the 22nd
of May, and assessing the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016, the last
significant piece of drugs legislation introduced and meant to criminalise all NPS, suggested
that more efficient prevention, education and harm-reduction measures might provide a more useful trajectory for drug policy rather than a dominant focus on law enforcement.

The very grouping of emerging synthetic compounds under the ‘NPS’ category has coincided
with a return from evidence-based policy to prohibition-geared approaches, as Dr Caroline
Chatwin, Reader in Criminology at the University of Kent, observed. ‘Blanket bans’ such as
the PSA illustrate the precautionary principle – faced with a ‘hare and hound’ game of ever-
faster innovation cycles in unregulated production and global supply chains, lacking reliable
data on the myriad compounds making their way to consumers, governments choose to equate all substances used for their psychoactive qualities with a presumed (and oftentimes
unproven) harm potential. Blaine Stothard, independent consultant and co-editor of the
academic journal Drugs and Alcohol Today, referred to this as more reflex without reflection,
another missed opportunity for fresh thinking on the matter.

But, as history shows, prohibition does not mean abstinence. Survey data presented by Dr
Lisa Lione, Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Hertfordshire, indicated an
15 per cent increase in awareness of NPS for UK users and a 24 per cent percent increase in
use for (predominantly young and well-educated) male respondents, from 2015 to 2017. Dr
Paolo DeLuca, Reader in Addiction at King’s College London, pointed out that even if the
PSA was initially successful in closing down online shops selling NPS (only about a quarter
of UK-registered websites remained open after the PSA coming into force), it is not known to
what extent these have moved into the hidden web, as the general availability of NPS through
cryptomarkets seemed to grow in the months following the ban.

Further on, it is at times the most vulnerable in society who suffer from reconfigurations in
supply. Beccy Rawnsley, policy coordinator for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership
(LEAP UK), argued that the PSA pushed NPS such as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists
(SCRAs or ‘Spice’) from ‘head shops’ onto the streets, enabling organised crime to expand
profits. Hardeep Matharu, writer and researcher for Volteface UK, also underlined this
displacement effect in terms of a “law of unintended consequences”. Rough sleepers have
been most affected by SCRA use and media clichés of ‘Spice zombies’ have only added to the
stigma they face, also making it harder for drug workers to deliver sensible information
among exaggerations and toxic pop culture tropes, as Professor Shane Blackman from
Canterbury Christ University emphasized.

Dr Emma Wincup, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leeds, pointed out
that even if the UK government’s 2017 drug strategy focuses on vulnerable populations such
as young people, prison inmates or the homeless, without a deeper understanding of both the
lived experiences and the structural (socio-economic) causes of vulnerability, as wells as its
intersections with substance abuse, it is unlikely to inspire significant change. Lack of life
opportunities, for example, is why many young people are easily recruited by crime gangs in,
or sent to, small town areas to sell heroin or crack cocaine – what the press have been
reporting as the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. DCI Darran Hill, of the Thames Valley Police
Serious and Organised Crime division, stated that without community engagement and
prevention, “arresting our way out of the problem” is a false premise.

Academics and drug workers mentioned that even if the Act was successful in closing down
head shops and discouraging some potential users to try NPS without criminalising those who already did, it was also confusing for police, frontline treatment staff and the general public in its vague terminology – see the competing interpretations around the legal status of nitrous oxide under the PSA, for example. The focus on policing and supply did not leave much room for harm-reduction programmes either. From sustained investment and political support for statutory drug prevention programmes in schools to more radical thinking around how legal markets of recreational drugs might be regulated, forward-looking rather than backward policy inspired by unattainable moral ideals and sound bites (e.g. that of ‘the drug-free world’) seems like the only viable direction.

Dr Liviu Alexandrescu, Lecturer in Criminology at Oxford Brookes University