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School of Politics and International Relations

Our history

The School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR) at today’s Queen Mary was set up in 1970 as a sub-department of the Economics Department because the University of London federal degree taught by the then-Queen Mary College required two courses in that subject. Trevor Smith (later Lord Smith of Clifton) transformed it into a full department two years later, with a staff of five and several dozen students. Although there was one course on theories of international relations, no full degree in IR existed until 2008. Before the University broke up into its constituent colleges in the early 1990s, every course had to secure the approval of a federal Board of Studies in the relevant discipline. In the case of politics the curriculum was especially subject to the oversight of colleagues from the LSE, even if over time they graciously surrendered the role of gatekeeper. For QMC’s small department the sharpest challenge in those early days was to gain recognition and approval for a focus on the politics of women and gender, which had been the specialism of the second Head, Elizabeth Vallance (later Lady Vallance of Tummel) and which has subsequently remained a rich and exciting part of our teaching and research.

Although the department emerged ‘organically’ and was never part of any College plan, it naturally entered the Faculty of Social Studies, and for its first decades was known as the Department of Political Studies, implicitly raising a question mark over the pretensions of ‘political science’ and allowing for more inter-disciplinary enterprise than was often practised. As a result, join degrees were set up not only with Economics, History and Law but also with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Trevor Smith was a prominent Liberal Democrat, but many of the alumni had more radical inclinations, most notably Stuart Christie who had been jailed in Spain for a very amateur plan to blow up General Franco, but also Peter Hain who was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 and served in the Blair and Brown governments. There has, though, always been a conservative presence amongst SPIR staff and students, one of whom, Tom Pursglove (2010), became a Tory MP and minister. Jane Hill (1991) is, of course, required to retain clear impartiality as a presenter of BBC News 24. For many years Bill Fishman taught a popular course on Jewish East End Radicals that involved famous walks punctuated by refreshment at Blooms restaurant and was understudied by David Cesarani, author of an outstanding study on Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. The central place on the Mile End Campus of the Novo cemetery for the Sephardic community retains this association, even as the profile of the student body in recent decades has reflected the strength of the Bengali society in East London.

From the turn of the 21st century the size of the Department and the range of its work expanded rapidly, regardless of the varying systems devised by governments to control student numbers as grants were replaced by loans and fees rose steadily. The teaching staff necessarily took a similar track albeit with some delay, resulting in demanding staff-student ratios even before the newly independent University started to prioritise fee income. In terms of the curriculum, area studies had started with a Cold War focus on the USSR led by David Black, a linguist who had served in the Royal Navy. This expanded to Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and, later than should really have been the case, South Asia. Throughout this period the Department was one of the relatively few in the UK to offer regular provision on race and ethnicity, but it was not able to sustain a similarly consistent record for the politics of the environment.

Professor James Dunkerley

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