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Gordon Brown and the British Way of Risk-Based Modernization

Simon Lee
p. 45-58

Résumé

In Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation, Gordon Brown has sought not only to demonstrate how his political leadership helped to save the world from what Gordon Brown has termed ‘the Great Recession’, but also to set out his recommendations for surmounting what he has depicted as ‘the first crisis of globalisation’. A series of spectacular market failures, most notably bank failure arising from undercapitalisation, caused in turn by ‘recklessness and irresponsibility all too often caused by greed’, has been presented to the reader as if Gordon Brown was a detached observer who could not have possibly previously been aware of the extent of risk-taking made possible by his own risk-based model of financial regulation. This paper argues Gordon Brown’s analysis is fundamentally flawed. We are not now living through the first crisis of globalisation. On the contrary, what Gordon Brown has actually documented is the first crisis of his own deeply flawed British model of political economy, which socialised risks and privatised profits. The paper explores how Gordon Brown’s attempts to modernize the politics and political economy of the United Kingdom, using the City of London’s liberalized markets as a blueprint, has left the United Kingdom facing an age of austerity that was politically self-inflicted rather than financially imposed by external global market forces.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1  Brown, G., 2010 (a).

1In his account of the global financial crisis, Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation, Gordon Brown has sought not only to demonstrate how his political leadership helped to save the world from what Gordon Brown has termed ‘the Great Recession’, but also to set out his recommendations for surmounting what he has depicted as ‘the first crisis of globalisation’. Gordon Brown has presented to the reader a series of spectacular market failures, most notably bank failure arising from undercapitalisation, caused in turn by ‘recklessness and irresponsibility all too often caused by greed’, in a narrative which has suggested that Gordon Brown himself was a detached observer of the crisis who could not have possibly previously been aware of the extent of risk-taking made possible by his own risk-based model of financial regulation.1

2This paper argues Gordon Brown’s analysis is fundamentally flawed. We are not now living through the first crisis of globalisation. On the contrary, what Gordon Brown has actually documented is the first crisis of his own deeply flawed British model of political economy, which socialised risks and privatized profits. This paper also explores how Gordon Brown’s attempts to modernize the politics and political economy of the United Kingdom, by constructing a new British model of political economy which used the City of London’s liberalized markets as a blueprint, has left the United Kingdom facing an age of austerity that was politically self-inflicted rather than financially imposed by external global market forces.

The British Model of Political Economy

  • 2  Newton, S. and Porter, D., 1988.

3In narratives of the United Kingdom’s relative decline and 20th century British politics, the Labour Party had traditionally been seen as a party whose periodic attempts at state-led industrial modernization had foundered in the face of the Treasury’s commitment to an orthodox neo-classical macroeconomic policy, pursued in defence of the City of London’s global commercial interests.2Thus, for example, in 1931, the Treasury had overseen the pound’s departure from the Gold Standard, while the Attlee and Wilson Governments had witnessed the ruination of their respective modernization programmes by sterling crises and devaluation in July-August 1947, September 1949 and November 1967. Subsequently, the Callaghan Government had experienced the ultimate political and economic humiliation in September 1976 when Denis Healey, the last Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer to serve before the election of the first Thatcher Government, had resorted to the International Monetary Fund for a loan of $3.9 billion. It appeared that the Labour Party’s plans for British modernization would always end up being subordinated to the interests of the City of London’s financial markets.

  • 3  Brown, G., 1999.
  • 4  Brown, G., 1997.

4During his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer from May 1997 until June 2007, and as Prime Minister from June 2007 until May 2010, Gordon Brown’s British model of political economy sought to put an end to this conflict between the imperatives of domestic modernization and those of global markets. Indeed, the central conceit of Gordon Brown’s model was that it would not only3 reconcile these previously conflicting interests, but actually actively harness liberalized financial markets to the cause of British modernization. The British model would leave behind the monetary and fiscal instability characteristic of ‘the short-termism of the past’, and have as its foundation ‘the solid rock of prudent and consistent economic management, not the shifting sands of boom and bust’.4

5Gordon Brown’s model also sought to transform the role of the Treasury, from being the chief institutional roadblock to British modernization, to becoming the prime mover of reform. Rather than following the examples of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan as Labour Party leaders, who had created new Whitehall ministries in the form of the Department of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Technology, and the National Enterprise Board to rival the Treasury and to give a greater institutional salience to the task of industrial modernization, Gordon Brown decided to make the Treasury itself the focal point and pilot agency of a British developmental state. Thus, in May 1999, in outlining the redefinition of the role of the Treasury under his stewardship, Gordon Brown identified the role of the Treasury as nothing less than the modernization of the British economy. Furthermore, he claimed that the Treasury had broken ‘decisively with the short-termist, secretive and unstable record of macroeconomic policy-making of the past two decades by setting a credible framework’ for monetary and fiscal policy.

6Previous social democratic projects for British modernization had been based upon a critique of the efficacy of market forces. Indeed, the whole history of the British Labour Party as a party of social democratic reform had been founded upon its opposition to many of the adverse political, economic and social consequences of unfettered risk-taking and profit-seeking by free market capitalism. What made Gordon Brown’s modernization agenda so distinctive, and such a departure from the ideas, policies and institutional practices of ‘Old’ Labour was the degree to which it sought to harness the resources of liberalised financial markets.

  • 5  Brown, G., 1989.

7Gordon Brown’s strategy marked a significant departure from much of his previous political thinking and campaigning. During the 1980s, when the Thatcher Governments had unleashed a decade of privatization, deregulation and liberalization of financial markets, encapsulated by the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986, which had abolished restrictive trading practices and introduced foreign competition to the City of London’s financial markets, Gordon Brown had been a vehement critic of Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberalism. As an alternative to Margaret Thatcher’s entrepreneur-driven and market-led agenda, Gordon Brown’s ‘supply-side socialism’ had advocated a medium-term industrial strategy which sought to portray the Conservative Party as ‘the party for the City’ and the Labour Party as ‘the party for industry’. In this analysis, liberalised markets would fail to ‘educate and train our workforce, plan and fulfil national research goals or restore or even compensate for our battered infrastructure’.5

  • 6  Anderson, P., 1993.

8Immediately following the Labour Party’s fourth consecutive General Election defeat by the Conservatives, Gordon Brown was one of five senior Labour Party figures (the others being Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell and Phillip Gould) who observed closely Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party’s successful campaign for the November 1992 American Presidential and Congressional elections.  Clinton had redefined his party’s strategy and electoral appeal by adding the prefix ‘New’ to the Democrats. In so doing, he had convinced millions of middle-income, ‘swing’ voters to desert the Republican Party. The principal lesson Gordon Brown learnt from Bill Clinton’s campaign was the central importance of globalization and liberalized markets to contemporary economic policy. Indeed, Gordon Brown acknowledged, ‘we’re living in an increasingly global economy. There’s global sourcing of companies, a global capital market, 24-hour speculative activity’.6

  • 7  Lee, S., 1997.

9From this juncture, Gordon Brown would abandon supply-side socialism in favour of a new British model of political economy based upon supply-side liberalism. He would also increasingly base his political economy upon the ideas of Adam Smith and other liberal political thinkers, rather than socialist or social democratic thinkers drawn from the history of ideas of the Labour Party.7

A Risk-Based Approach to Financial Governance

  • 8  Balls, E., Grice, J., and O’Donnell, G., 2004.

10The model of political economy which developed during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer from May 1997 was based upon the belief that its role would be ‘not only to support but positively enhance markets’. Indeed, the model assumed that ‘markets are a powerful means of enhancing the public interest’, and that entrepreneurs, corporations and other private sector actors could be manipulated and harnessed for the general public good, in the same manner in which trades unions, nationalized industries and public services had been mobilized by previous Labour governments.8

11Following the precedent set by the Thatcher and Major Governments, it was assumed that modernization was best accomplished by a political economy in which open markets and a strong state would be ready to serve and defend the commercial and political interests of major transnational corporations, both at home and abroad. Globalization would also be harnessed by New Labour’s political rhetoric as an ideological weapon to account for and justify what were portrayed as necessary, unavoidable and urgent domestic economic and social reforms, whose totality would discipline and lower popular expectations of what the state could deliver. In this way, Gordon Brown’s British model of political economy would transfer the costs of significant areas of public welfare, notably pensions, away from the state, the general taxpayer and the corporation, on to the private individual.

12At the heart of this model of macroeconomic stability and fiscal prudence, the liberalized markets of the City of London were increasingly portrayed as a blueprint for how the United Kingdom could successfully engage with and compete in contemporary world markets. To protect the interests of the City, Brown created a new tripartite, ‘risk-based’ system of governance for London’s financial markets, in which the responsibility for financial governance and stability was divided between the Treasury, the Bank of England, and the Financial Services Authority (FSA), a new agency established by Gordon Brown. The FSA was eventually to employ 3 300 staff and be allocated a budget of £458 million (for 2010-2011), in order to regulate and protect the interests of the United Kingdom’s 29 000 financial services firms. No other sector of the economy was given such preferential attention.

  • 9  Greenspan, A., 2007.

13The inspiration for Gordon Brown’s risk-based model and moral defence of the advantages of liberalised market capitalism was Alan Greenspan, the longstanding Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who shared with Gordon Brown an admiration for the political economy of Adam Smith. Alan Greenspan had argued that markets had become ‘too complex for human intervention’, and that ‘regulation, by its nature, inhibits freedom of market action’.9 Such had been Gordon Brown’s admiration for Greenspan that on 6th February 2005 he had invited Alan Greenspan to deliver the Adam Smith Memorial Lecture in Adam Smith’s home town of Kirkcaldy, which by coincidence was also the town in which Gordon Brown had been raised, and which he now represented in the Westminster Parliament.

  • 10  Brown, G., 2006 (a).
  • 11  Brown, G., 2005.

14Gordon Brown’s approach to governing financial markets was ‘a light touch system’, which he held to be ‘fair, proportionate, predictable and increasingly risk-based’.10 Such was Gordon Brown’s confidence in his ‘risk-based’ model of political economy that he even began to seek to export it to fellow members of the European Union. During the United Kingdom’s presidency of the European Council in 2005, Gordon Brown suggested that, rather than the United Kingdom converging towards the Eurozone, the (in his opinion) inward-looking and sclerotic European Union should seek to converge towards Gordon Brown’s vision of an outward-looking and dynamic ‘Global Europe’, based upon the principles of ‘flexibility, dynamism and entrepreneurship supported by an active and responsive labour market policy’.11

From Boom to Bust

  • 12  HM Treasury, 2006.

15Towards the end of his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown became increasingly triumphalist about the political and economic dividend which had flowed to the United Kingdom from his British Way of modernization. By the time he succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, the United Kingdom economy had been growing for fifty-nine consecutive three-monthly quarters, including the forty quarters which Gordon Brown had served as Chancellor. To mark this success, the Treasury proclaimed the Brown Boom as ‘not only without precedent in the post-war history of the UK but also the longest on post-war record for any G7 economy and the longest expansion of any OECD country’. Moreover, the Treasury claimed it would take ‘at least nine years before the UK’s current expansion could be eclipsed by another G7 country’.12

  • 13  Brown, G., 2006 (b).
  • 14  Brown, G., 2006 (c).
  • 15  Brown, G., 2007.

16For his part, Gordon Brown proclaimed there would be ‘no return to boom and bust’.13 As he prepared to succeed Tony Blair as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown pointed confidently towards the fact that the City of London had secured more than 40 per cent of the global trade in foreign equities and 30 per cent of the world’s trade in currency exchanges as vindication of his ‘risk-based’ approach to financial market regulation. The City of London’s success had demonstrated that ‘just as in the 19th century industrialisation was made for Britain, in the 21st century globalisation is made for Britain’.14 Indeed, for his premiership Gordon Brown forecast ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London’. A ‘new world order’ was being created, but by openly embracing liberalised financial markets and globalisation, Britain could become ‘one of the greatest success stories in the new global economy’.15

  • 16  United States Government, 2001.

17In the event, what Gordon Brown had portrayed as a new British economic miracle was actually an economic mirage. In the same way that the Clinton Administration had left office proclaiming the emergence of ‘the New Economy’, based upon ‘mutually reinforcing advances in technologies, business practices, and economic policies’, when what it had overseen was the soon to collapse speculative ‘dotcom’ bubble, Brown had mistaken an unsustainable consumer-fuelled, property-driven and ultimately debt-based boom for a new British model of macroeconomic stability and fiscal prudence.16

18Within less than three months of Brown having become Prime Minister, the City of London had experienced its first run on a domestic bank, Northern Rock, for 129 years, an event which would mark the onset of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Crash of October 1929, and the deepest recession since the 1930s. The Brown Boom had rapidly been replaced by the Brown Bust.

19The disastrous political and economic dividend from Gordon Brown’s risk-based approach to financial market governance became apparent on 17th February 2008 when Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown’s successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, revealed that Northern Rock would have to be taken into temporary public ownership. This costly blow to Gordon Brown’s British model of political economy was followed by another heavier blow on 8th October 2008, when Darling announced a further £500 billion of taxpayer support for the major United Kingdom banks which had previously been thought too big to fail.

20Not even this unprecedented degree of public subsbidy was sufficient to alleviate the financial crisis. Two further rescue packages for the banks were announced by Alistair Darling on 14th and 19th January 2009 respectively before, on 20th February 2009, Alistair Darling revealed that £585 billion of assets from Lloyds, Halifax Bank of Scotland, and the Royal Bank of Scotland were being placed into a taxpayer guaranteed Asset Protection Scheme.

  • 17  National Audit Office, 2009.
  • 18  National Audit Office, 2010.

21By December 2009, the National Audit Office had calculated that the total cost of the bailout of the major United Kingdom banks by the taxpayer had reached £955 billion, including a net cash outlay of £117 billion for the purchase of shares in banks and lending to the banking sector.17 Although, by a year later the cost to the taxpayer of maintaining financial stability had declined to a mere £512 billion, the actual net amount of cash invested in the banks had increased to £124 billion.18

  • 19  Haldane, A, 2010.

22More recently, Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, disclosed that this taxpayer support had enabled the rescued banks to secure a stronger credit rating from private agencies and thereby significantly reduce the cost of their borrowing, compared with ‘standalone’ banks which had not enjoyed taxpayer support. Andrew Haldane calculated this additional subsidy to have been a staggering £177 billion from 2007 to 2009.19 It also meant that the scale of subsidy addition and welfare dependency manifested by the supposedly free (of state support) markets of the City of London was far in excess of anything enjoyed by the any individual or community from the welfare state in the United Kingdom.

A Legacy of Debt

  • 20  Office for National Statistics, 2010 (a).

23The rescue of the banks and the consequences of the wider global financial crisis have been very damaging to the United Kingdom’s economic performance and fiscal stability. The Brown Boom was essentially debt-based. In terms of government debt, at the end of April 1997, when New Labour came into office, the United Kingdom’s public sector net debt was £347.0 billion or 42.2 per cent of GDP at market prices, but by the end of May 2001, when Labour sought re-election, it had fallen to £310.1 billion or 30.4 per cent of GDP, because of Gordon Brown’s tight control of public spending and buoyant tax revenues, not least from the City of London. However, by the time that Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, the national debt had risen to £501.8 billion or 35.9 per cent of GDP, as a consequence of Gordon Brown having financed increases in spending on the National Health Service and other public services through higher borrowing rather than higher taxes.20

  • 21  Office for National Statistics, 2010 (b).

24The combination of the cost to the taxpayer of rescuing the banks, allied to the onset of the deepest recession in the United Kingdom since the 1930s, meant that the public finances deteriorated further during Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister. By the time he left office in May 2010, the United Kingdom’s net public debt had soared to £777.1 billion or 53.8 per cent of GDP. Moreover, at the end of December 2010, the Office for National Statistics decided that the taxpayers’ exposure to the financial liabilities of the taxpayer-rescued banks should be reflected in the statistics for national debt. This single change in the official accounting for public debt saw the addition of £1433.6 billion, a sum equivalent to 95.6 per cent of GDP, added to the United Kingdom’s national debt. It now stood at £2322.7 billion or 154.9 per cent of GDP (or £889.1 billion or 59.3 per cent of GDP, excluding the costs of the banks’ liabilities).21

25The explosion in debt in the United Kingdom during the Brown years was not confined to public debt. Gordon Brown’s policies had encouraged financial innovation by major financial institutions, which meant that millions of Britons had been encouraged to borrow unprecedented amounts of money on their credit cards and in the form of personal loans to finance levels of personal consumption which their own incomes would never have been able to sustain. At the same time, Brown’s failure to regulate either the availability of private credit or the inflation in the property market had encouraged millions of people to take on extravagant levels of mortgage debt.

  • 22  Creditaction, 2010.

26By the time that Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, total personal debt in the United Kingdom had risen to £1460 billion, of which £1239 billion was secured lending on property and £221 billion credit to individuals. This meant that the average household debt in the United Kingdom under Brown’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exechequer and Prime Minister had reached £57915 (including mortgages). If the March 2010 Budget report figure for public sector net debt (excluding the costs of the rescue of the banks) was added, the average total household debt in the United Kingdom was £113 709.22 Gordon Brown’s British Way of modernization and British model of political economy has left the British people with a poisonous legacy of public and private debt which may take a generation to pay off, if it is indeed ever repaid.

Brown’s Mea Culpa

  • 23  Brown, G., 2008.
  • 24  Brown, G., 2009.

27During his thirteen years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown never once apologised for his misguided faith in the capacity of liberalised financial markets to be harnessed for the public interest. Indeed, on every occasion that he appeared before parliamentary select committees, he always mounted a vigorous defence of his ‘risk-based’ approach to governing financial markets. Absolving himself of any responsibility, Gordon Brown had described the onset of the credit crunch to ‘the first financial crisis of this global age’23 an externally generated problem ‘caused by the failures of the banking system’, which had started in the United States.24

  • 25  Brown, G., 2010 (a).

28Since his General Election defeat, Gordon Brown has undertaken the most monumental of U-turns. In his book, Beyond the Crash : Overcoming The First Crisis of Globalisation, Brown has set out a withering critique of the manifest failures of liberalized financial markets and their governance during the past two decades. He has argued that a series of spectacular market failures, most prominently banking failure, was caused in turn by ‘recklessness and irresponsibility all too often caused by greed’.25

  • 26  Brown, G., 2010 (b).
  • 27  Brown, G., 2011.

29This is a message Gordon Brown repeated during his week as a Heffernan Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, when in delivering the annual Malcolm Wiener Lecture, he asserted that ‘none of the (economic) theories we had in 2007 stood up to examination’ because ‘markets did not self-adjust. Markets self-destructed’.26 In a similar vein, in delivering the keynote address at the April 2011 Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, Gordon Brown told his audience of major influential policy-makers and commentators that ‘We didn’t understand how risk was spread across the system. We didn’t understand, even though we talked about it, just how global things were, including a shadow banking system as well as a banking regulatory business’.27

30Gordon Brown has continued to insist that the world is living through the first crisis of globalisation. It is not. That event happened between August 1914 and November 1918. Nor is the world experiencing the first financial crisis of globalisation, because that event was the Great Depression which followed the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. In truth, what the world is experiencing is the first crisis of Gordon Brown and Alan Greenspan’s own risk-based model of financial deregulation.

31It should not be forgotten that Gordon Brown had articulated the need to rediscover public purpose in the global economy in an earlier speech at Havard University on 15th December 1998. Subsequently, from September 1999, Brown had chaired the International Monetary Fund’s International Monetary and Financial Committee, which had been charged with advising the IMF’s Board of Governors on the supervision of ‘the management and adaptation of the international monetary system, and dealing with sudden disturbances that might threaten the stability of the system’. In short, in the twelve year period between his two great speeches at Harvard University, where he had identified the limitations of liberalized global financial markets, Gordon Brown had possessed the opportunity and major public offices to put those principles into practice. He chose instead to become, with Alan Greenspan, the champion of a ‘risk-based’ model of financial governance. Both the United Kingdom and the global economy are now paying the huge economic, political and social cost for that error of judgement.

Conclusion

  • 28  Lee, S., 2011.

32The political legacy of Gordon Brown’s British Way of risk-based modernization has been equally disastrous for the performance of the United Kingdom economy and for the electoral prospects of the Labour Party. It has led to the election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government intent on implementing the deepest peacetime cuts in government spending since 1945. The failure of Brown’s British model of political economy has given the Cameron-Clegg Government the perfect political alibi to justify the necessity of what are actually ideologically driven cuts.28

33At the May 2010 General Election, not only did Labour lose office after thirteen years in power but, in winning only 8.6 million votes and only 29.0 per cent of the votes, the party recorded its lowest share of the vote at a General Election since 1945, with the sole exception of 1983, when it had won 27.6 per cent of UK votes. Where Tony Blair’s New Labour project had delivered an unprecedented three consecutive General Election victories for the Labour Party, Gordon Brown’s British Way has led to electoral humiliation.

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Bibliographie

Anderson, P., “The Tribune Interview: Gordon Brown”, Tribune, 1st January 1993.

Balls, E., Grice, J. and O’Donnell, G. (ed.), Microeconomic Reform in Britain: Delivering Opportunities for All, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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Brown, G., Global Europe: Full-employment Europe, London: Her Majesty’s Treasury, 2005.

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Lee, S., “No Plan B: The Coalition Agenda for Cutting the Deficit and Rebalancing the Economy”, in Lee, S., and Beech, M. (ed.), The Cameron-Clegg Government : Coalition Politics in an Age of Austerity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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Notes

1  Brown, G., 2010 (a).

2  Newton, S. and Porter, D., 1988.

3  Brown, G., 1999.

4  Brown, G., 1997.

5  Brown, G., 1989.

6  Anderson, P., 1993.

7  Lee, S., 1997.

8  Balls, E., Grice, J., and O’Donnell, G., 2004.

9  Greenspan, A., 2007.

10  Brown, G., 2006 (a).

11  Brown, G., 2005.

12  HM Treasury, 2006.

13  Brown, G., 2006 (b).

14  Brown, G., 2006 (c).

15  Brown, G., 2007.

16  United States Government, 2001.

17  National Audit Office, 2009.

18  National Audit Office, 2010.

19  Haldane, A, 2010.

20  Office for National Statistics, 2010 (a).

21  Office for National Statistics, 2010 (b).

22  Creditaction, 2010.

23  Brown, G., 2008.

24  Brown, G., 2009.

25  Brown, G., 2010 (a).

26  Brown, G., 2010 (b).

27  Brown, G., 2011.

28  Lee, S., 2011.

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Simon Lee, « Gordon Brown and the British Way of Risk-Based Modernization », Observatoire de la société britannique, 10 | 2011, 45-58.

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Simon Lee, « Gordon Brown and the British Way of Risk-Based Modernization », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 10 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2012, consulté le 23 octobre 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/1115 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1115

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Simon Lee

Senior Lecturer à l'Université de Hull

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