Interview with Stephen Hopgood

We talk internationalisation in the face of Brexit, as well as the “alien” concept of fun for academics, with the international relations professor

July 27, 2017
Stephen Hopgood
Source: John Elmes

Stephen Hopgood is professor of international relations and co-director of the Centre for the International Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice at Soas, University of London. A noted scholar in the international politics of human rights and humanitarianism, he is the author of The Endtimes of Human Rights, in which he controversially argues that “the idea of universal human rights has become not only ill-adapted to current realities but also overambitious and unresponsive”. Earlier this month, he was announced as Soas’ inaugural pro-director (international).

Where and when were you born?

Lincolnshire, 31 August 1965.

How has this shaped you?

My family background is a mixture of the military, rural England, traditional Labour politics, Thatcherism, the move south, and working-class cultural values within a lower middle-class life. I have reacted negatively against much of that, but it makes it easy for me to understand the vote for Brexit. It also means that, as a middle-class liberal professional, both the Tories and Labour now have people like me down as the enemy.

Tell us about your new position.

With extensive disciplinary expertise and deep area studies knowledge about Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Soas is ideally placed to interpret and help to understand the emerging post-Western world. As pro-director, I will take that message out of London and into those areas of the world that will have a major impact on global politics and society in the next century (emerging powers in addition to the changing West).

You take up your role with Brexit looming and tightened visa regulations. How difficult do you view your job as being in the context of the current political landscape?

We will continue to extend everyone a warm welcome even though Brexit is anathema to the cosmopolitan spirit of Soas. On visa regulations, the irrationality, even incomprehensibility, of the current government’s animosity towards international students will surely have to change. How can a successful, open society, based on trade and connections all over the world, make it unattractive for foreign students to come and study here?

The Endtimes of Human Rights has caused much controversy. Have the four years since its publication reaffirmed your views on human rights or has your viewpoint shifted?

Sadly, it hasn’t shifted my views but confirmed them. And it’s not just human rights. The liberal part of “liberal democracy” is also under intense pressure. My view on this is simple: the social contract that promised special privileges for core white, working-class and middle-class constituencies has come apart largely through growing inequality and rapid changes in technology and the global labour market. Once enough of those in the “middle middle” start to doubt that the state has their interests at heart and become fearful of sliding down the class ladder, they seek scapegoats but also comfort in more authoritarian promises to protect their real interests. Human rights, but also core liberal protections – rule of law, freedom of speech, privacy – start to be vulnerable. Modern “coups” are about the incremental increase of unaccountable executive power, not military takeovers. This is a global phenomenon and only getting worse.

Our review called it an angry book, while you felt it was “melancholic” at times. What was the genesis of your passion for this topic?

All engaged and engaging writing contains one’s own biography as subtext. How to be a liberal when liberalism is assailed from all sides is part of my own personal struggle. Human rights have many failings, and they substituted poorly for more radical Left politics in the West after the 1970s. Almost everyone I know sees “liberal” as a cover for deep structures of patriarchal and class power that need overhauling. But having made the journey from poor, working-class grandparents to life as a professor, I am caught in the middle. I want human rights to work better, and the core intuition behind them – treat people fairly and justly – is irreproachable. But they are bad politics and their promoters have been too giddy with unwarranted optimism without doing the hard work of consolidating a democratic constituency to support them in hard times. As I said, people like me are a target for critical forces from all sides, and the emotion in my writing reflects this sense of inner doubt.

What is currently the biggest threat to human rights in the world?

The undermining of those international institutions – both organisations and norms – that help us to overcome collective action problems that we simply cannot solve as one state or a group of small states. This leads to a world of disorder, where atrocity thrives and justice is impossible. Outrageous Western hypocrisy and the destruction of the social egalitarian ideal lies behind this. Greed, our rapacious attitude towards natural resources and the environment, all these things have increasingly free rein. I’m not belittling the injustice and inequality that such an ordered world contains but its collapse only opens up more opportunities for the poor and vulnerable to suffer massive violence. But I also think that getting beyond denial is the first step to positive change.

What do you do for fun?

As an academic, fun is something of an alien, even suspect, concept! But partying with my family and friends is the honest answer.

What kind of undergraduate were you?

I didn’t do well at school and didn’t go to university at 18; I worked and eventually went at 23 as a mature student. This meant, first, that I was hugely appreciative of the chance and worked incredibly hard to make sure I got a good degree and, second, that I was genuinely fascinated with learning and how rewarding it could be just to come to better understand the underlying dynamics of social and political phenomena. It was revelatory and I immersed myself in it.

John Elmes


Tomi Mäkelä has been appointed director of the University of Helsinki’s new Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE). Professor Mäkelä, who takes up his position on 1 August, will hold the role for five years. Alongside taking responsibility for HiLIFE’s overall operations, he will emphasise supporting outstanding research and training, and maximising synergies between the university’s life science units and research infrastructures.

“I am really excited for this opportunity to lead HiLIFE and its current and future staff in forming part of a leading Nordic life science hub in Helsinki,” Professor Mäkelä said. “Recent international and local developments provide a unique opportunity to recruit top talent and provide solutions to grand challenges in the areas of health, food and the environment.”

Jill Maben has been appointed professor in nursing at the University of Surrey. Professor Maben, who joins from King’s College London, will take up her position in September. Currently professor of nursing research at King’s, Professor Maben’s research interests include national and international studies on workforce issues, improving care quality and measuring patient experience. “I look forward to working with new colleagues to further develop research capacity and support students and nursing colleagues in the important work that they do,” she said.

Loughborough University has appointed Tony Edwards as director of its new Institute for International Management. Brian A. Primack has taken up his position as dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s University Honors College. Rob Williams has joined Cardiff University as chief financial officer. He joins from the University of Oxford. Heather Gerken, Sol & Lillian Goldman professor of law at Yale University’s Law School, has taken up her new position as dean.


Print headline: HE & me

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities