Turn Right and Change the World!

Cameron 2015 Dissolution

We are turning our country around… we must see this through together.

Five years ago, the fifty-fifth Parliament of the United Kingdom dissolved, commencing the general election campaign. As usual, proclamations were read out from the steps of the Royal Exchange in London, and from the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh, but on this occasion the text was quite a bit shorter than had been the norm before. The substance of the revised version concerns only the convocation date for the newborn legislature and the issue of writs of summons to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal. The act of dissolution itself was omitted, as was any reference to writs of election.

The reason for this was, of course, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which curtailed the monarch’s prerogative to make and break parliaments whenever her prime minister said so. From then on, a general election would happen on the first Thursday in May of the fifth year since the previous election took place, with dissolution occurring twenty-five working days in advance. There were of course some exceptions, but they will be detailed later.

For the first time, the date of the next general election was known years in advance. Even better, the death date of the 56th Parliament was known before it was even born: the five years after 2015 included two leap days to bring the days of the week right around, so this year the general election timetable is exactly the same as last time. Some commentators lamented that the element of surprise had been lost from British politics.

That at least was the dream, now to the reality: The second Cameron ministry did not gracefully live out a full term. Nor, for that matter, did the next three governments. The fifty-sixth Parliament dissolved on 3rd May 2017, after Cameron’s successor Theresa May successfully sought a two-thirds majority in the Commons for an early election motion under Section 2 of the Act. The fifty-seventh parliament was dissolved on 6th November 2019 by a special act of its own creation, May’s own successor Boris Johnson having tried a Section 2 motion several times and failed miserably. We are now in the time of the 58th Parliament, which is currently expected to expire on 25th March 2024, though that expectation has little solidity given that the present government intends to repeal the FTPA altogether at some point.

Jeremy Corbyn, who emerged from three decades of backbench obscurity to become Leader of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the 2015 general election, is due imminently to retire again. The result of the leadership election is due to be announced on Saturday, though the large conference originally planned has had to be scaled back dramatically due to the world events which have transpired in the meantime. It strikes me that, of the six Labour MPs who originally set out to be Corbyn’s replacement, four only joined the House of Commons in 2015. Had politics gone normally they would only now be at the end of their first term, instead of well into their third.

Obviously, it may have been awkward now if those snap elections hadn’t taken place, since all elections scheduled to take place on 7th May this year have been pushed back to 6th May 2021. Presumably the general election would have had to be delayed too*, the first instance of such an action since 1944.

As noted in my posts about Paul Danahar and Terence Casey, it has become common to remark that we currently inhabit the dark timeline, or words to that effect. Neither man could decide precisely on the point of divergence. Until someone else can suggest a better point, I will choose 2015. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic is an entirely separate issue, but the issues that most prompted the calamitous musings prior to the outbreak were the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. These phenomena both had their gestation five years ago. It was in May that the Conservative & Unionist Party won the general election outright with a manifesto that included an In-Out referendum, which would likely have been dropped in coalition negotiations had that parliament been hung as expected. It was in June that Donald Trump came down that escalator and announced his desire for the GOP nomination.

Life would never be the same again. Still, at least I got to rack up my edit count in the past few years.

*Section 1 of the FTPA allows the prime minister to delay polling by statutory instrument, but only for two months as opposed to the twelve now in place.

UPDATE (9th November)

Turn Left is apparently trending on Twitter. It’s not entirely clear, but I think it’s something to do with the US presidential election.

Academic Prorogation

Darn, just as the weather was getting nice!

Last night an announcement was made by our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Lea, that all lectures, seminars and tutorials would be suspended with immediate effect. There will be a managed transition to having all teaching and assessment online. Faculty are also being phased into working from home. People who are over seventy years old and/or have underlying health conditions have been advised to avoid the campus. Cleaners are being sent around all student accommodation to disinfect surfaces and door-handles.

This follows a statement by the Prime Minister advising the public to minimise non-essential travel and social contact. We are still allowed to go outside for exercise, albeit with the proviso that we should keep a safe distance from other people.

Already for some weeks we have been buffeted by regular official updates about travel restrictions and general cleanliness. Several lecturers have also been preemptively redesigning their courses in case they had to do everything by correspondence. While typing out this post I was notified by two lectures and the vice-chancellor herself that end-of-semester examination timetable has been abandoned and that the final module assessments are being rewritten completely to adjust to the new circumstances.

For some, myself included, this new regime does not represent a major upheaval. Those who are accustomed more active and intimate social lives may find it difficult to adjust so suddenly to a life of solitude. I also have the benefit of being in early adulthood and without any obvious pre-existing pulmonary or respiratory weaknesses. All things considered I appear for the moment to be fairly optimally positioned in terms of surviving this pandemic without serious harm and my experience in the coming months could be quite luxurious compared to what many others will have to suffer.

Thus far the suspension of teaching activity has not been accompanied by a quarantine of the physical premises. Obviously there is no outer wall around the entire campus, but at some point it is not inconceivable that the individual buildings could be locked down. I went on a lone stroll some hours ago and could see that while overall activity was diminished the place was not entirely deserted, with some groups of students still milling about as normal. The Brynmor Jones Library is still operational, but only on a nine-to-five basis rather than all day and all night as was much advertised before. Notably the shops and restaurants are still open. I have not spent enough time in the student union bar over the years to know if it is normal for the televisions to be showing the Health & Social Care Select Committee in the House of Commons or if this is a new development.

Who could have expected Jeremy Hunt to become so popular among the youth?

Speaking of Parliament, the speakers of both houses have made their own announcements restricting access to the Palace of Westminster, after at least two MPs tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and several others have gone into self isolation. For some weeks I had been contemplating posting an article entitled The 58th Parliament – A Return To Normalcy? concerning how, following the general election, some stability had returned to British politics after years of ever-escalating chaos. Obviously that has been jossed now. Yesterday on the way to a lecture (my last for some time, it transpires) I found myself beside Professor Norton, and reminded him of a similarly premature sentiment he had expressed on his own blog in January. I asked him if there were any plans to evacuate the House of Lords – given its high concentration of the over-70s**, and expressed surprise that the younger Commons had suffered first. His lordship explained that peers do not have MPs’ constituency duties, nor so many personal staff, which means they are not exposed in the same way and can isolate themselves more easily. He acknowledged that members of the upper house still have the problem of sharing cramped parliamentary office spaces, but said this is not necessarily a problem so long as the rooms are kept reasonably clean. He said it was likely that parliamentary committees would, like universities, be doing most of their work remotely while plenaries in the main chambers would be cut down and minimally attended. This could mean that new legislation, perhaps excluding emergency laws relating to the pandemic itself, is postponed for some time. I asked if this made a nice change from talking about Brexit all the time. He remarked that if anything he had become nostalgic for 2019.

For this blog, the most immediate consequence of the new policy is that Friday’s scheduled conclusion to the second trilogy of parliamentary outreach lectures – featuring Simon Burton, Clerk Assistant to the House of Lords – has been cancelled. I have not yet checked but it seems a safe bet that any future Inspired in Hull events will be on hold until further notice too.

* I have long suffered various skin conditions, but the main consequence is that I have always been carefully washing my hands several times a day.

**We joked that Norton himself, at 69, is still in the younger half.

Parliament and Devolution with Adam Evans

I should start doing caption contests with these.

Dr Adam Evans, Clerk of the Welsh Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, gave the second talk of the term. He commented that he was impressed by the turnout for a discussion of this kind by undergraduates on a Friday, especially given how many public gatherings were being disrupted by the recent pandemic.

Dr Evans was careful to note that, whatever the practicalities or political considerations, devolution is distinct in law from federalism – the devolved institutions are created on the UK Parliament’s authority, rather than vice versa.

Devolution, he noted, has been asymmetric, with different regions having different levels of devolved power. The Scottish Parliament has near-complete autonomy, with social security being the only notable area of domestic policy reservation. The National Assembly for Wales is a little more restricted, lacking control of police and the judiciary. The Northern Ireland Assembly has more complicated arrangements, with some matters “excepted”, others “reserved” and the rest “transferred”. In England there is not devolved parliament, but there has decentralisation of certain powers to local authorities and the creation of regional ones. Devolution is considered “a process, not an event” and occurs as a pragmatic response to political pressures rather than according to anyone’s master plan. There were disagreements as to what would be the outcome of the devolution process – some hoped it would kill off nationalist movements which threatened the continuation of the United Kingdom, others feared it would embolden them.

Whereas the House of Commons is elected by first past the post, which normally delivers a majority of seats for a single party, the devolved legislatures have varying forms of proportional representation, which normally make this impossible. Scotland and Wales use the additional member system, in which constituency results are balanced out by regional lists. In Wales the executive has always been formed by the Labour Party, going in and out of coalitions with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru depending the balance of power. Lib-Lab coalitions also governed Scotland for the first eight years, but for the National Party has ruled for the last thirteen years – five of them with an unexpected parliamentary majority. Northern Ireland’s setup demands a power-sharing agreement between the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties, with official opposition legally impossible for some years. The latter situation has frequently been unstable, most recently with the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that put the assembly out of action for almost three years.

Our guest talked a little too slowly, resulting in our session being interrupted by the arrival of the next class before his presentation had finished. We adjourned during pleasure as before – though not all of the buffet arrived on time and we were staring at an empty table for a few minutes – then he finished his speech in the question period by looking at Westminster’s role in the process. He noted that the Commons had adopted English Votes for English Laws in 2015, which had added a grand committee stage to certain bills which did not affect Scotland or Northern Ireland. He said that in most cases this was a mere formality, and the time needed to set up the chamber for the grand committee was greater than the time for which the committee actually sat. He also recalled SNP members being rather loudly disgruntled with the arrangement. He also looked at the constitutional guardianship role of the Lords and suggested they were in effect the chamber for the union.

[This slide reminded me of certain passages I read some time back about British politics during the nineteenth century, in which it was considered that the colonial parliaments – and indeed the British – should only have a lower house, with the Lords becoming the upper house for all of them. Obviously this policy was never enacted.]

Questions and answers are broadly summarised as follows:

Will there be a one-Yorkshire devolution deal, replacing Dan Jarvis’s Sheffield City Region? There is no great appetite for it. A proposal was made for devolution to the north east but it was rejected.

Will there be a resolution the representation of nationalist parties on regional committees in the House of Commons, and the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, or does the government think it can do what it wants now it has a majority? The Future Relationship committee is only due to exist for one year so its composition won’t be that important. As for Scotland, the SNP chair might decide to hold all the meetings in Scotland, knowing it will be impractical for English Conservatives to fly north two days a week.

For the “leveling up” project, wouldn’t it be better to give greater powers to existing local authorities rather than creating new assemblies? There has to be a balance between devolution and centralism. The UK government doesn’t want to give so much away that its own authority is undermined. The treasury has been happy to let local councils set business rates, but less keen to devolve other tax-raising powers. Notably Margaret Thatcher abolished metropolitan county councils because they were using their powers to impose tax policies that were contrary to her will, and in some cases illegal. There’s also the risk that if you give powers to the north then the south will start wanting them as well.

As is becoming a trend, I asked the final question of the sitting. Jumping on the points made in the answer given just before, I enquired as to the sustainability of the last twenty years’ devolution policy given the tendency towards competitive nationalisms in different regions – would devolution tend to a point where all parties and groups were appeased, or would the lower administrations continue demanding more and more powers be ceded until the central government had nothing left?

Evans replied that the current trend was not sustainable, pointing to similar goings-on in Spain. He noted that the Scottish Parliament was probably the most powerful provincial legislature outside the Swiss Cantons, yet the National Party still continue to insist on devolution going further. He brought up a request for Scotland to have a separate immigration policy, given its demographic differences from the rest of the UK. He also said that devolutionary politics depend on who is in power in which place, and that voters may eventually get tired of continual constitutional debates. He said that the central administration recognises the need, much of the time, to reject calls for further concessions, but that sometimes it was politically impossible to resist. If, for instance, the last general election had resulted in a Labour minority government, it may have been dependent on SNP support and therefore compelled to allow more powers to be devolved to Holyrood. The main point, Dr Evans said, is that since 1949 the UK has accepted the principle of self-determination: that if a people really don’t want government by Westminster then they cannot feasibly be forced to accept it.

Parliament and Europe with Martyn Atkins

IMG_5093

Wow, I’d never even heard of that one!

Another trilogy of outreach lectures began today. Our guest on this occasion was Martyn Atkins, Clerk of the House of Commons’s Procedure Committee since 2015. His talk was on the work of select committees within both houses of Parliament, particularly with respect to the European Union.

Atkins has given lectures of this kind several times over the last few years, and has nearly always been asked of we are out of the EU yet. Finally the answer is yes. he notes that the word “Brexit” has been banished from official communications by Her Majesty’s Governent, but hopes that he is not important enough to attract Dominic Cummings‘s ire.*

The United Kingdom’s rights and responsibilities in relation to the European Union continued from the referendum all the way until exit, and many will still continue until the end of the implementation period on 1st January 2021. Parliament’s scrutiny systems on such matters will also continue to apply during this time.

Many are still unsure as to the role of national legislatures within the European Union. The European Communities Act of 1972 gave precedence to continental law over domestic. Some had claimed that it would have been simple to repeal the act, but Atkins said this was easier said than done. He cited various statistics as to the extent of EU law – one sixth of Britain’s statute book being transposed directives, around 15% of secondary legislation being made under treaty obligations.

Atkins also referred to the “document-based system” in place, by which proposals by the European Council are sent to the United Kingdom’s Mission(formerly Representation), and deposited in Parliament for scrutiny. The government would also provide explanatory memoranda. Having left the European Union, Britain no longer has an automatic entitlement to some of these documents and must rely on the goodwill of the European Council to release them, or find out the important bits from other sources, such as the domestic governments of remaining member states with strong freedom of information laws.

The fifteen-member European Scrutiny Committee of the 58th and current House of Commons was only established four days ago. It is expected that Sir William Cash will be re-elected as chairman but this is not yet certain. Atkins said that “ministerial careers crumble before your eyes” at the committee, with particular reference to Joan Ryan and the Baroness Vadera. He also highlighted the role of retired civil servants in departmental scrutiny, noting that they “turn from poachers to gamekeepers” and know the tricks which their successors employ in order to be evasive. He also noted that the European Scrutiny attracts “a certain sort of member” but declined to elaborate.

We were then shown a summary of events in Parliament since the referendum in 2016. It was noted that Article 50 was originally supposed to take effect on 29th March 2019, but that this was then delayed until 12th April, then 31st October, then finally 31st January. Our speaker lamented that at no point had the government (in any of its incarnations) made a serious attempt to get explicit support for its position in the lower house, and that events might gone very differently had the executive and legislature gone for a more consensual approach from the beginning rather than the partisan adversarialism that had actually been observed.

Our attention was drawn to a “sad” letter written on exit day by the Earl of Kinnoull (Chair of the European Union Select Committee) to Stephen Barclay (outgoing Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union). Ministers are no longer required to attend the committee, but scrutiny will continue on matters deemed importance.

Returning to the Commons, it was noted that what used to be the Exiting the European Union Select Committee has been reconstituted as the Committee on the Future Relationship of the European Union. Hilary Benn continues to chair, but the composition has changed to reflect the general election results – there are now eleven members from the Conservative & Unionist Party, seven from the Labour Party and two from the Scottish National Party. The committee will cease to exist altogether on 16th January 2021.

That was the end of the speech. There followed the usual buffet lunch, after which we reconvened in another nearly-identical lecture theatre for topical questions. It was not possible to record the questions and their answers in full but the gist was as follows:

What are relations like between government and the select committees? Ministers are desperate not to be seen getting things wrong. If the chairman is from the opposition, or even a member from the government side who isn’t entirely on board with the frontbench’s positions, then departments might be reluctant to let ministers attend. Ex-ministers on committees – notably Jeremy Hunt for Health & Social Care – can be very forensic as they know the departments better than anyone else.

Should a Northern Ireland party have a seat on Benn’s committee? The Democratic Unionist Party was really quite influential on the committee during the last Parliament, but their power has waned now they are no longer needed for the government’s majority. Labour or even the SNP could have given up one of their seats for the Social Democratic & Labour Party, with whom they share goals.

Is the committee system fulfilling its bipartisan purpose? Select committees should operate on consensus to scrutinise government regardless of political colour, but the system in recent years has been under strain like never before.

Do you recommend any further reforms to select committees? It would be a mistake to regard the 2010 reforms as the final word. They were a response to the expenses scandal and were meant to be ongoing in the long term. You never quite know what’s going on with committee elections. The SNP are remarkably disciplined in getting members on committees, almost as if they have one candidate for one vacancy. Some MPs are frustrated that their fame outside Parliament (because they were, for instance, senior military officers or directors of large companies) may not be recognised inside and so lesser-known members might not get onto committees to which they would be suited.

[Professor Norton interjected that some committee seats are more desirable than others, with the less popular ones often spending a long time begging for vacancies to be filled until eventually backbenchers are pushed forth. Atkins agreed, and said that since the election the Conservatives took a long time to decide whom their nominees were going to be, and that in some cases this delayed the formation of committees which might have been able to start business even with empty spaces.]

*This remark struck me as a little confusing, since Mr Atkins is employed by the House of Commons and not by the government, so should be outside the jurisdiction of a Downing Street adviser.