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.

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.

Can You Picture It? (2019 Edition)

Lia Nici, MP for Great Grimsby. Photograph by David Woolfall (CC-BY-3.0)

The general election in December meant the formation of a new parliament, and this was marked by the commissioning of a new round of members’ portraits.

There has been less publicity about the photographs this time: so far I have yet to even see a blog post about them by the parliamentary digital service, let alone the extensive amateur caption contest which kicked off in 2017. As with the previous rounds, my first awareness of the new series came from noticing the photographs on MPs’ and peers’ Wikipedia pages. Naturally, I again went through a long list of names adding as many of their portraits as were not already in place. Lacking much in the way of official confirmation I assume that this photo shoot was carried out in much the same way as the first one – a stall erected just beyond the chamber to catch members passing through after they take the oath. The key difference is that both houses have been covered simultaneously, whereas originally the Lords did not get their portraits until many months after the Commons.

We still do not have a complete gallery of parliament, for there are still a few dozen members who did not pose for either series. Conversely there are many MPs and peers for whom two portraits now exist. This caused Wikipedians a minor problem when it came to competing filenames. The files for portraits from the lower house now include “MP” at the end where they did not before, which allowed them to be moved from one Commons to the other easily. No change was made to the filenames for the upper house, which means that in cases of duplication the uploader has tacked “, 2019” onto the end so as to avert a clash.

Visually the main difference is in colour temperature – the portraits for the 57th parliament were done with stark blue-grey tones whereas those for the 58th are a less dramatic beige. There is also a slight change in aspect ratio for the full frame shots – the old ones were in 5:7 and the new 2:3. The automated cropped versions are come in the same ratios as before.

Left: The Lord Naseby in March 2018.

Right: The Lord Naseby in December 2019.

Note the fortuitous choice of tie colours to coordinate with the light and background on both occasions.

Kilnsea Sound Mirror

A year ago I and my parents attempted to reach the sound mirror at Kilnsea, but could not traverse the terrain. Today we made a second attempt, parking rather closer and walking in from the other direction. We found the large concrete concavity surrounded tightly by a primitive fence and dappled with lichen. The land around the fence is dense with weeds and getting to the mirror required a lot of creative stomping. There were some notice boards explaining the features of the landscape but they were few and far between. From some angles the structure appears merely to be a solitary artifice in the middle of nowhere. Still, at least there is no entrance fee.

The Legislative Process with Liam Laurence Smyth

Today the trilogy of parliamentary outreach lectures concluded with the Clerk of Legislation. Mr Smyth’s spoken words were more difficult than his predecessors’ to compile into a textual summary, but unlike them he supplied lavish visual aids, including four bills and five diagrams.

This should make nice bedtime reading.

Smyth noted that his presentation would have been very different four years ago, the referendum having disrupted British politics in almost every way imaginable. Entering the civil service fast stream in 1977 he was eye witness to the decline of James Callaghan and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. He saw the transformation of Tony Blair from a poll-chaser whose view was never known until he had checked with the focus group to a conviction politician who prayed on his knees beside George Bush. Having been born in Northern Ireland he has personal cause to be passionate about the delivery of peaceful democracy. One of his mottoes is “We have to work for people who voted for Section 28 and for people who voted against it.”

There was a brief detour concerning English Votes for English Laws. Smyth said that these were almost pointless in legislative terms – as it is hard to find any concrete example of a bill passing or failing that would have been different had EVEL not been there – but a great political success, for it showed that the government had addressed the West Lothian Question. Notably, no opposition party had made any serious effort to overturn it.

We were shown a diagram of the Chamber Business Team in the Public and Private Bill Office. Smyth was pleased to have avoided the traditional hierarchical display but then pointed out that his office was obviously the largest. That however, would soon change with the parliamentary restoration & renewal process, resulting in a more open-plan approach. Acknowledging that the thirteen-strong team was quite small in proportion to a house of 650 members, Smyth stressed that the team did not carry through every bill that was proposed, nor did they actually write legislation.

Our guest wryly pointed out that three parliaments had dissolved since the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, and that only one of them had run for the full fixed term. He set out the major achievements of the last parliament during the extremely long 2017-19 session: The European Union (Withdrawal) Act, other Brexit-related acts (haulage, healthcare, nuclear safeguards, taxation of cross-border trade, sanctions, et al), the Data Protection Act, various other acts (Offensive Weapons, Smart Meters, Tenant Fees, Ivory), and the aforementioned Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration & Renewal) Act. That last one has an unusual distinction of being given royal assent twice.

He also showed us some examples of the many private members’ bills which were passed, though noted that some were actually written by the government – the giveaway being that the explanatory notes credit the Home Office. Smyth said that since the Roy Jenkins era governments had shied away from private member space and in recent times were more likely to give up their own schedule slots.

Turning back to Brexit, we were told of change in the usage of emergency debates were only for discussion, and would not result in a consequential vote on any substantive motion. This changed on 3rd September when Yvette Cooper secured such a debate to change the House’s procedures so that her private bill could be given precedence in the timetabling, thus subverting the normal working of parliament in several ways. The debate was granted at the discretion of John Bercow, the recently-retired speaker. His conduct, particularly in his last few months, generated a lot of controversy. Smyth said simply that he had responded to the emergence of an anti-government majority, or “The Rebel Alliance” as some were calling it. Smyth joked that whereas previously his department had mapped every outcome possible, in future they would also have to map some which were not.

The Prime Minister held several votes in the House of Commons on a motion for a snap general election. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act required that the motion be endorsed by two thirds of the total membership (434 out of 650) – a bar which was repeatedly missed. Ultimately the 57th parliament was dissolved through a new piece of legislation, whose passage does not have the super-majority requirement. Smyth described the Early Parliamentary General Election Act being “passed in haste” with many MPs trying to tag on amendments which would have invoked more fundamental issues (such as the extent of the franchise and campaign spending) than were meant to be within the scope of the bill.

Included in today’s presentation was a case study about Northern Ireland. The province’s domestic issues are normally governed by a devolved administration based in Stormont, but in early 2017 a financial scandal caused a snap election from which a new executive has still yet to emerge. That meant political control reverted to Westminster, where laws were recently passed to bring major areas of Northern Ireland’s social policy in line with both Ireland and Great Britain despite the objections of some MLAs. Just before dissolution, the outgoing parliament passed the very important Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act. Assent was given in the Lords at the very end of its last sitting day.

Discussion also turned to a raft of “makeweight” bills introduced by the government in a desperate attempt to retain primacy in parliament. The most derided was the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill – quite literally the bottom of the barrel.

After lunch was another general question session. I have attempted a summary below:

How much has Brexit changed the legislative process? Hugely. We have to get used to EU-retained law. This could become difficult in the long term as the law was passed on the assumption that we would still be in the European Union, so domestic and continental courts are liable to interpret the spirit of the law differently. A lot of the change has been caused by the hung parliament. If the next government has a big majority then things may return to normal.

Is there a problem with negative resolution procedures for secondary legislation in terms of scrutiny and oversight? Not really. Humdrum official-level scrutiny is more significant.

Was it right to call the last parliament a “zombie” given it actually achieved a lot? It was felt that parliament was stuck over Brexit. There were many achievements early in the session, but later on they stalled.

With an early sitting before Christmas is there time to pass the withdrawal agreement? The new parliament will assemble on Tuesday 17th December. The Queen will give her speech on Thursday 19th. Parliament could pass the second reading and the programme motion. It might be hard to get a new Chairman of Ways & Means elected in time. Whatever is passed must also be agreed by the European Parliament.

How will the legislative process change after Brexit? Britain will have to make a lot more decisions about agriculture & fisheries that would once have been made by the European Union. There was a process of grieving after the referendum. We’ve spent our entire working lives thinking Britain would always be in the European Community. Future generations will have a much greater scope to make their own policy decisions.

The Role of Select Committees with Stephen McGinness

Round two took place in the same venue and timeslot. Our second guest was Stephen McGinness, Senior Clerk in the Journal Office.

McGinness recalled that he had started working for parliament in 1998, having previously been an environmental biologist, as evidence that there are many possible routes into the political scene.

We were asked if we knew the purpose of select committees. The answer that emerged was to study complex issues in more detail than would be possible in plenary. Committees are elected by MPs with quotas for each party to reflect their overall size in the house just after a general election. It was noted that, in the last parliament especially, defections and by-elections can cause significant changes to the balance of power in the lower house which will not be reflected in committees. There are a few committees in which the party balance is different, notably the Scottish Affairs committee in which the Scottish National Party, naturally, has a larger delegation (although they did not get a majority as they had wanted).

Departmental select committees were instituted in 1979 at the initiative of Norman St John-Stevas, though others had existed for centuries before. Prior to 2010 a chairman would be elected among committee members at their first meeting. The members in turn were nominated by their party’s whips. In practice the whips would decide the chairman in advance as well. Nowadays the committees and their chairs are elected by the whole house in a secret ballot. The chairman generally does not vote except to break ties, which means that the government sometimes finds it advantageous to have an opposition member in charge and vice versa. McGinness told some stories about parliamentary manoeuvrings of those who sought chairmanships – such as Meg Hillier scooping up second preference votes for Public Accounts, or whips trying to get Nicola Blackwood atop Science & Technology as consolation for not making her a minister.

Our guest then showed us some information graphics, which he admitted to pinching from the Institute for Government, and whose content I will not bother typing out here. His slideshow also included this photograph of a committee room in portcullis house. Immediately I sensed that there was something familiar about the dark-tinted edges, the fuzzy lines and that bright purple suit top. Sure enough I uploaded in 2017 from an educational video that parliament put out in 2012.

An important point made towards the end of the presentation was that the European Scrutiny Committee (mentioned last week) is frequently overlooked by parliament, press and public. They scrutinise EU legislation many years in advance of its implementation yet outsiders only take notice at the last minute – often with alarmist reactions.

After another buffet lunch we again subjected our guest speaker to questions. Those  questions and their answers are summarised below:

How different could two individual chairs be? Some are very adamant, treating members and staff as their own personal retinue. Others are very consensual and always want unanimity. Effectiveness is somewhere in between.

Has there been a change in the nature of chairs since 2010? Elected chairs feel they have a mandate to lead and so are more confident in commanding. Whip-appointed chairs had less of a personal agenda.

Has election improved the quality of chairs? There have been downsides, but committees are now more representative and more independent. You can never guarantee the quality of reports.

Would one-party dominance reduce a committee’s effectiveness? The committee reflects the effectiveness of the whole House of Commons. When one party has a landslide – such as in the Blair years – the committees can often be the real opposition.

Could there be one improvement to the scrutiny process? Currently it is hard to get members away from Westminster. Committee members should be allowed to vote remotely.

[On this one Professor Norton interjected that a party-balanced committee could all be absent at the same time as an extension of pairing. McGinness replied that pairing is now impossible as members no longer trust each other.]

Do Commons committees work with their counterparts in the devolved legislatures? No, they hate us! Devolved administrations don’t want anything to do with Westminster.

 

Parliament and Scrutiny with Jessica Mulley

Today a great many students crowded into a rather small lecture theatre for what, as Professor Norton explained, would be the beginning in a trilogy of events this semester concerning the inner workings of Parliament. Our guest in this first instalment was Jessica Mulley, who became Clerk of the European Scrutiny Committee – which reviews all official documentation from the European Union – last September. She has worked in various clerical roles in the House of Commons since 1993.

Mulley was keen to stress the distinction between scrutiny – a collaborative process between legislature and executive – and accountability – more driven and antagonistic. She set out the three key functions of parliament: to scrutinise government, to make laws, and to authorise money. In the latter case it is the executive which possesses the financial initiative (the right to propose collecting and spending public funds), but the legislature must grant permission. She also discussed the ways in which ministers can convey information to parliamentarians. On the one hand is the ministerial statement, made in the house at the minister’s initiative, with answers given to MPs’ questions later. On the other are various forms of enquiry initiated by parliament. Each department has regularly scheduled questioned periods, though the number of oral questions which can be asked is limited. An MP or peer can also ask written questions, on which there is no limit at all, but Mulley said many found the responses disappointing compared to what could be found through a Freedom of Information request.

The category which most concerned today’s talk was the Urgent Question, which is granted at the speaker’s discretion and to which a minister must reply immediately. These were once granted sparingly, but their usage ballooned following the election of John Bercow as speaker in 2009 and then skyrocketed in the parliament just gone – mostly aimed at the Department for Exiting the European Union. As a group we were asked to discuss whether urgent questions were a good device for scrutiny. The general perception appeared to be that they were more about accountability – and perhaps grandstanding by the opposition. A civil servant from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy was in attendance, and he told us that the short-notice nature of Urgent Questions often meant that the minister could not be properly briefed on the subject before going to the dispatch box, with the result that the answer would be of poor quality. He also said that the questions sometimes covered topics outside of the department’s remit.

At was at this point that I made an intervention, relaying a complaint made by an ex-minister at an Institute for Government conference that the rise in urgent questions was an obstacle to reducing the number of ministers appointed, as departments found they always needed someone to be available at short notice. Mulley agreed that modern ministries were overlarge, but dismissed Urgent Questions as a cause.

Our next segment concerned Prime Minister’s Questions. Mulley noted that big money was made by selling broadcast licences for the occasion around the world. She asserted that PMQs were not a good form of scrutiny, because the premier does not have advance notice for the majority of the questions and so must formulate responses on the spot. This changed a little when Jeremy Corbyn took to fielding questions from members of the public on Twitter, for that was an open platform and so the government could read them. It was noted, however, that nearly all prime ministers in living memory spoke highly of the ritual, for it kept them fully briefed on the workings of government. With no advance warning of which topics would be brought up, they would have to make sure they went to the chamber each week with a complete knowledge of every nook and cranny of the state as it was at that moment.

That’s more like it.

At this point our congregation rose and went to the upper floor where a buffet table had been prepared. After the disappointments of last month’s events I was pleased to see that the food was plentiful this time. In addition to the usual chocolate brownie squares, halved sausage rolls and triangular sandwich pieces there was a plate of what looked like miniature fruit crumbles, which was new for me.

In the second half we returned to the cramped lecture hall to ask questions of our own. Mulley cited the select committees as the best form of parliamentary scrutiny, due to their evidence-based inquiry work and their operational autonomy. She recalled her horror at seeing an early version of the withdrawal agreement which would have given statutory duties to the committees, thus depriving them of the ability to control their own agenda. She said that she constantly feared receiving the call that The Queen had died, knowing the administrative burden entailed by a demise of the crown.

An attendee asked about the growing clamour in various political circles for Britain to adopt a written constitution. She said words to the effect of “We have a written constitution. What we don’t have is one single document with paragraph numbers.” and was unconvinced that the creation of such a document would, in and of itself, have any tangible benefit. This response was in tune with comments that Norton has made in recent weeks.

Finally she was asked what could be done to eliminate bullying in the Commons. Mulley said that there was a fundamental power disparity in the House between elected members and everyone else, but said that to take the privileges of MPs away would be to undermine democracy and therefore the only workable solution was to have politicians with the integrity not to abuse their position. She did however, acknowledge that relations between officials themselves were very hierarchical and noted that this was often missed by the press.

 

Forging the Iron Lady with Terrence Casey

This could be the venue, or it could be the set for an upcoming Ken Loach remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Having attended quite a few guest speeches by this point, I expected tonight’s to fit into the familiar mould. I was a little thrown-off, as were the those in charge, to find that the fixed tiers of seats in the lecture hall were folded away at the back wall and instead we were circled around a splatter of smaller tables. In retrospect it felt a misstep to wear a business suit to the occasion.

This was the Annual Norton Lecture, delivered by Professor Terrence Casey of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Trying very hard to minimise his references to Trump or Brexit, he spoke to us about the turbulent politics of the 1970s and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

As someone who has watched a lot of old documentaries about British politics, as well as listened to a lot of Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures for Gresham College, I was on familiar ground for much of the talk. Casey took us through the story of how the post-war economic consensus broke down through the tenure’s of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, from the imposition of far-reaching price controls in 1972 to the Winter of Discontent in 1979. There was also the concurrent parliamentary story of the “Who Governs?” election, followed by Wilson’s achievement of a very slim majority, then the pacts with the Liberals when that got worn away.

The more original parts of the lecture (from my perspective at least) were on the backstage parts of the story – how policies were formulated and parties managed. Casey was keen to stress that the Margaret Thatcher of 1970, newly appointed as Secretary of State for Education & Science, was a far cry from the character that exists in public memory now. At that point, the notion of her ever becoming prime minister, let alone the godmother of a new political age, would have been considered farcical. Her emergence as a right-wing firebrand, he said, was more by a series of random chances (such as Callaghan’s decision against an election in 1978, or the backbench resentment of Heath in 1975) than by any divine ordination.

Casey rejected the idea that “Neoliberalism” – a term rarely spoken kindly but rather spat out in contempt by those who use it at all – was thrust upon the unwilling masses in an unethical manner by a nefarious elite. Instead he described it as the natural result of the masses falling out of love with the Keynesian regime that had prevailed before and looking for an alternative solution which the Thatcherite faction – with particular mention of Sir Keith Joseph – provided them. He also noted that whereas the throwing out of what is sometimes called Butskellism occurred quite rapidly after the economic breakdown and industrial unrest of the 1970s, the backlash against Blatcherism ensuing from the 2008 credit crunch took a much longer time to result in any serious change of course from the governments of the nations affected.

In the lengthy question & answer session which followed, I asked Professor Casey the same question which I had put to Paul Danahar ten months ago – When does he last remember politics being normal? He replied that there could never be a clear single cause or moment identified, but that the tide would have been turned by the culmination of many small factors. He also reassured us that although he had singled out the nineteen-seventies and the new tens for the purpose of his speech tonight he was aware of many other much rougher times in public discourse, all of which society survived mostly intact.