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.

The Bits Between

Black Rod dealt with denser traffic.

Over the last few years, in which I have moved from secondary to tertiary education, I have become ever more aware of those unusual transitional times between academic terms. There was once a clear distinction: One would be at school while everyone else was there, and all would be at work according to a pre-planned schedule, otherwise everyone would be at home. Nowadays there tends to be an odd interlayer where it is possible to physically inhabit the place of education without there actually being any formal education going on.

My first glimpses at this occurred on a few occasions when I would be part of a school trip with small groups of other pupils. The destinations were sometimes a long distance away, requiring us to set off in the early morning before everybody else arrived and return after they had left. That meant we saw the buildings in a different light – quite literally, in some cases. Rather than bustling with students, the internal spaces would be populated only by a few cleaning staff. Corridors might be in pitch darkness, and chairs would be stacked on top of tables. The territory was at once familiar and alien. GCSE study leave – for many the end of secondary education – amplified this sensation, as one’s self and one’s own classmates could be outside of the regular timetable even while they could hear the lower years going about their normal business. At certain points it almost felt like being a ghost of an earlier time who haunted future generations.

At Wilberforce I, being a student governor, sometimes had to be on site at unusual hours for meetings. This added a new component to the oddity, for not only did the space feel different but there would be different people present also. A further change occurred whenever special revision sessions would be held during holiday periods – at which we would have to go in through the delivery gate because the proper entrance was closed.

Now I that I am at university, I sometimes wonder if the normal and abnormal have swapped around. Of the fifty-two weeks in a calendar year, only twenty-four are used for teaching. Further, the exam period and the settling-in week on either side of a lengthy summer break mean that over four months have passed since I last attended a lecture. The winter break is much smaller at around six weeks from the middle of December to the end of January. One major difference between school and university is that one would rarely attend the former at evenings or weekends. These short times exhibit the heterotopic effect in microcosm, especially if darkness has fallen in the sky, though often there is sufficient inertia to prevent the hubbub of activity from wholly disappearing in the brief time before it is summoned back.

A particularly strong indicator is the state of the institution’s intranet services, be they Virtual Learning Environments, file-sharing services or even just internal email. During ordinary times they assault their members with a blizzard of notices, notifications, announcements and communiques. During the odd times they can shut down very suddenly and remain static for weeks or even months on end. Right now I am noticing a sudden burst of activity on my university’s applications after a long period of silence, indicating that normality is soon to return. Such a phenomenon is akin to the first buds of a spring and the melting of long-established ice. The resumption of normal affairs is often more disruptive to the spirit than their cessation, for by then one can have become accustomed to having free roam in a wide empty realm, and thus struggle to adjust back to structured interactions with masses of others.

Fear not, for the cycle is deceptively fast, and it is not long before the liberty of loneliness is in full force again.

Farewell to Cottingham

Compared to other students who live in far off regions of the country, or indeed the world, university was no great distance away for me. Even so, the years I spent getting up at the crack of dawn for school and college convinced me that moving closer to campus would still be preferable to more long commutes.

In recent years Hull has constructed much new and lavish accommodation for its undergraduates, which it is keen to advertise to its applicants. There are also several private companies dotted around the campus offering homes to students. Since I accepted my offer at short notice it quickly became apparent that all of the more prestigious lodgings had been taken. In a fraught telephone exchange I was told that I could be offered a temporary dwelling on a camp bed until a space opened up somewhere else. A day later I was contacted again to say that a vacancy had been found at Ferens Hall. Through quick research online (mostly on The Student Room), I discovered that this was generally considered the least desirable of The Lawns’s buildings, the few compliments being reserved specifically for the recently-refurbished M block which I did not occupy.

In fact, my room turned out to be the perfect location, as I was opposite a bathroom and beside a kitchenette, as well as having one of the shortest walks to either the dining hall or the main road. Each shopping trip might have been up to ten minutes shorter than that endured by a resident of Grant Hall at the other end of the complex. Most importantly, for an undergraduate at least, it must have been some of the cheapest student accommodation in Britain.

One notable anecdote is of Christmas 2017 when Colin Colborn, the hall’s warden, invited residents to a film quiz. I was partnered with his daughter, and we were the winning team, which I found surprising given that I haven’t been to a cinema for about a decade.

That said, there were certain issues: The dining facilities consisted a small kitchenette on the first and second floor of each block, plus a proper kitchen directly under my bedroom which was apparently shared with two neighbouring blocks. This arrangement proved woefully inefficient as a cooked meal had often had to be carried back to one’s own room for lack of sitting space. There were also persistent problems with stiff windows that either jammed open in winter or closed in summer. Then there was the time that part of a ceiling spontaneously collapsed, though luckily few people were in the building at the time.

That hall was removed from the options list after 2018, as the university planned to sell it off. In the event it still ended up being used for temporary accommodation in the first few weeks of this academic year because some of the newer buildings on campus were not finished on time. By the winter it had become a ghost hall, with all the rooms empty but, for some reason, many lights left on, including new desktop lamps which projected ghostly white spots into the night.

For my second year I went to Lambert Hall. I chose it specifically because it was the one closest to where I had been before. In the autumn of 2018 there were several occasions on which I absentmindedly wandered back to my old door at Ferens and wondered why the key didn’t fit.

The experience here has been different, as it is easier to establish a sense of community with split levels and wide landings instead on discrete floors and narrow corridors. Whereas Ferens was built in the traditional quadrangle shape, the others are built in a more experimental design. Another distinction is that nearly every room has a small balcony, which sometimes gives the impression of being in a holiday camp. The much larger kitchen provisions also helped.

In my earlier posts I have noted the transitory presence which a student body constitutes, and how this is particularly true of Hull due to its major reorganisations and redevelopments in the last few years. Threads and discussions from as late as 2013 can already feel like archives from a lifetime ago, and therefore public records can be seriously out of date. In particular I notice references to the use of lounges and common rooms in the individual halls, but I would never experience this in my own time. During my time at Ferens I took every opportunity to sneak into all the other blocks in search of the place I had seen pictured on Wikimedia Commons from ten years before my arrival. I never found it. I can only assume that it was obliterated long ago. For the other halls the common rooms can be seen but not accessed. Through the windows I often saw that they were being used for storage of spare bedding. Opposite can be seen other locked doors with faded signage marking them as the entrance to laundry rooms, and next to them are empty post racks. All of these facilities have been transferred to The Lawns Centre. Notably I have often seen the lights on in Reckitt Hall’s common room as well as reasonably modern-looking books on the shelves, but never anybody in there.

Throughout the few years the university has been focusing all of its efforts, and the students all their demands, on the central campus. This means that the satellite facilities have suffered a slow death. Returning last September, I and my fellow residents noticed that our little commune was much quieter than it had been the previous year, with several blocks across the site being unoccupied. One could walk the other halls and peer through the windows to see bare shelves and uncovered blue mattresses. This spring we received letters to tell us that, since only a small handful of students had applied to live here in the 2019-2020 term, the whole site would be closed down and sold off. This follows the closure of nearby Needler Hall in 2016 (I witnessed it being demolished and rebuilt as an Aldi.) and Thwaite Hall in 2017 (still sitting there, boarded up and waiting for sale). The secondary campus in Scarborough appears to have suffered a similar fate. I have the odd distinction of being the last occupant of my hall two years in a row.

I have stayed on later than most other students, the majority of whom were quick to depart once their examinations concluded. For the last fortnight I have continually seen parents driving in to collect their offspring, and trudging past my window with suitcases whose tiny wheels dragged noisily over the undulated path. Eventually I found myself all alone in a house and park strewn with other people’s abandoned leftovers. Still, I got my money’s worth out of it.

EXTERNAL LINKS

Course Representative Forum (May)

With only one week of teaching left to go before the summer exam period, we were given a short-notice summons to the final forum of this academic year. We had few new issues to discuss, so the conversation was mainly about rounding off what had been accomplished in prior sessions.

This was Isobel Hall’s last forum as President of Education. In the autumn she will be taking on the presidency of the whole student union. She expressed sadness at giving up her “baby”, but was also proud that she had managed to secure an increased printing budget for students.

Certain issues had not changed – there were still complaints that the timetable website was inefficient and that the calendar application didn’t work. The faculty hubs continued to be a target of students’ scorn.

Our deliberations trailed off at certain points whenever we were distracted by the large lemon and chocolate cream cakes which had been supplied. Our president humorously suggested that next year there ought to be a database of which sorts of confectionery would be offered at each forum so that we could compare the effect on attendance.

At the end of the session we were given coloured luggage tags to hang on a model tree – each one inscribed with what we had achieved over the course of the year. Someone managed to suggest the idea of a group photograph in front of it, though the image does not yet seem to have been released.

This is the end of the SubjectRep series. With any luck the sequel will premiere at some point in September.

There are still more types of cake to try, after all!

Student Staff Forum (April 2019)

This is the right room, isn’t it?

For the final time in this academic year, course representatives for all years in mathematics convened to discuss grievances with the faculty. I arrived early and spent several minutes moving the tables and chairs to befit a conference rather than a class.

As is usual, we had little business to discuss and the meeting adjourned after barely one third of the allotted time.

The most prominent talking point was the positioning of our examinations, both spatially and temporally. Students were not happy at the prospect of using the Allam Medical Building, where they would have to balance their pencil cases, question sheets, answer booklets and identity cards on one tiny folding table. Some were also anxious that multiple tests would be placed within the same week, giving little breathing time in between.

We had the usual round of gripes about certain lecturers. A consensus emerged that students wanted their course leaders to be more consistent about putting lecture notes and assignments on Canvas.

I inquired as to the outcome of the faculty reorganization, and was told that essentially the old departments had reformed, so that much of the outdated signage is now in fashion again and the schools system to which my cohort were introduced in 2017 will likely be seen as a minor blip in years to come.

With the conversation fizzling out I was left to put the furniture back in its normal arrangement. I have not yet decided whether to run for this position again in the next academic year, nor even if it will still exist under the same name, so today’s forum could prove to be conclusion of this series.

Course Representative Forum (February)

Actually, that looks more like paper to me.

Today I attended another forum for the course representatives, for which the key topics were Canvas, the library, and access to constituents.

Michelle Anderson, the university librarian, was our guest speaker. The gimmick of her presentation, this being near St Valentine’s Day, was that attendees were asked to write love letters to the library extolling its virtues, or alternatively breakup letters articulating its shortcomings. Generally the negative sentiments focused on the building environment, with calls for water fountains, toilets and lifts to be cleaned more frequently as well as for more furniture to be more ergonomic. There were several calls for more quiet study spaces, though the frustration here seemed to be aimed more at other students than at the facility’s administration.

On the topic of Canvas, we were put in small groups and made to produce mindmaps of our likes and dislikes. Several delegates expressed a desire for the teachers within a faculty – or perhaps the whole university – to be more consistent in their use of the system. Currently there are some lecturers who put all their files and assignments online whereas others have left their pages practically empty. There were also complaints of the sidebars being cluttered with trivial messages for weeks on end.

Turning to the issue of representation, I found that I had little to contribute as my own coursemates have very rarely contacted me directly over issues that relate to my portfolio, so I have not been required to pursue any particularly onerous campaigns on their behalf.

Overall this meeting proved fairly unremarkable. There was, of course, plenty of cake.

From the Axis of Evil to Trumpland

A mere five days after hearing a lecture on Brexit, I went to hear about the other half of the present day’s news obsession – Donald Trump.

The university’s alumni association runs a programme called “Inspired in Hull”, whereby former students who have risen to prominence are called back to give their life stories before their successors. So far I have attended five of these events, though unfortunately I never got around to logging them here. They were Democracy & Theatre by playwright James Graham (8th February), From Hull to Hogwarts by illustrator Olivia Lomenech Gill (9th March), From Hull to the Cosmos by philanthropist Dill Faulkes (3rd May), Breaking open the Boardroom with businesswoman Denise Wilson, and most recently this one by journalist Paul Danahar.

Paul began his story with an anecdote from 15 years ago in central Baghdad, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein when he had to flag down an approaching American tank with nothing but a dirty hotel tablecloth. He said that he had witnessed many key historical events, including wars, revolutions and natural disasters. After being kidnapped, deported and fired upon several times, he decided that life might be quieter if he left his role in the Middle East and took up the role in Washington D. C. instead. But then, in his words “Donald Trump came down an escalator… it’s been quite busy since then.”.

Mr Danahar matriculated at this university in 1985, studying physics. He was the first of his family to go to university and arrived with a narrow view of the world and his career path. He joined the university newspaper over the objections of the English students who ran it and eventually went to work for BBC Radio Humberside. He described his path from Hull to Leeds to London, through India, South Africa, Beijing and Jerusalem before finally winding up where he wanted to be.

Paul described his work as the study of how decisions (and equally non-decisions) made in Washington would affect the rest of the world. He travelled through Afghanistan during the late 1990s and was in place to see the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Lately he has seen how decades of carefully lain international agreements can be casually destroyed by the upload of a few words online.

The rise of social media changed the nature of political journalism, especially the Arab Spring in 2011. Dictatorship, said Paul, relies on state control of the media – the party line and the face of the dear leader must be plastered on every public surface. The internet changed this, allowing young revolutionaries to organise a decentralised campaign. The establishment’s traditional strategy of capturing or bribing the leaders failed, because there were none. This could, however, prove to be the downfall of the revolution at a later stage, for there was no clear authority figure to succeed the ousted tyrants. The opposition “thrived on the adrenaline of revolt, but quickly got bored of the tediousness of government.” This loss of passion on behalf of the masses allowed their tormentors to return, consolidate their power, and snuff out those who had once threatened them.

Our alumnus lamented that it was easy to be passionate about politics while at university – when one has the time and the inclination to imagine a better world – but that the best and brightest among his audience would probably go elsewhere in search of more fulfilling lives. In his view, the statesmen of recent decades were neither best nor brightest, and rather than conspiracy or corruption most of the problems in the world today were caused by mere incompetence.

Paul then gave a somewhat ominous warning to his young attendees that they should not lose their voice upon graduation, assume someone else will fix everything, convince themselves that voting does not matter, or put blind faith in those who sought power on their behalf. “Shouting into the echo chamber of Twitter might feel good, but unless you use social media to organise – not rant – you will find that others use it to war.” He noted that in recent years fascists and other authoritarians around the world had gotten to grips with the internet and were using it to destabilise civilisation.

To contrast, Danahar spoke about his visit to the technologically-retarded North Korea. The capital of Pyongyang had bus queues into the hundreds and public buildings unheated through the depths of winter. As a foreign guest he was accompanied everywhere by two minders – they would monitor him as well as each other. China was a little different: there were unmarked policemen with umbrellas who would obstruct the view of news cameras. In Iraq the reporters could sometimes incapacitate their minders with a heavy meal, but in North Korea this was not possible. They will, however, do anything for whiskey. Paul briefly managed to interact with some civilian locals during a bowling tournament, but this was swiftly interrupted by a power cut.

Our inspired guest went on to recall his time in Jerusalem as Chairman of the Middle East Foreign Press Association. There the media were regularly harassed by the public and by political campaign groups. Death threats and abusive comments were commonplace. In particular, Mr Danahar highlighted the different ways in which domestic and international press covered conflicts in that region – the former would show graphic violence in all its gruesome glory whereas the latter would focus on dry statistics. This difference in coverage led to a divergence of Eastern and Western perspectives, so that the former think of the latter as detached and uncaring. He also said that there was a “blame game” around the reporting of these statistics (fights over “children died” versus “children were killed”, for example) with pressure groups hoping to harass the media into silence.

China went to the other extreme: In Paul’s experience, you only knew you had displeased the government when the already slow bureaucracy ground to a complete standstill and one could get no work done. If anything it was a delight to hear locals criticise your coverage, because that at least was proof that somebody could see it. Foreign press is heavily censored in China, and officials will even give out transcripts of interviews with inconvenient segments excised. He was keen to stress how hard it was to comprehend that country’s culture, even if you had some contacts and knowledge of the language.

It was at this point our guest moved to the United States. He claimed many of us forget that, although their tongue is the same as ours and we consume a lot of their media, America is still a very foreign country – a fact exemplified by the accession of Donald John Trump. Danahar told us that journalism in D.C. was “like trying to drink from a fire hose” in that reporters struggle to focus on matters of true importance when bombarded by the daily torrent of scandals and controversies which emanate from the White House. Many of this administration’s high level appointments have gone to hugely unsuitable people, and there is no unified voice from the executive – the president and his underlings will regularly produce antonymous assertions in their statements and briefings to the press, the public and each other.

We were treated to a case study regarding the United Nations General Assembly: Trump arrived late, then spent his speech inflating his own ego, then flatly denied the mockery he received from his foreign counterparts, insisting they laughed with him rather than at him. The pernicious part of this fiasco was that while most of the world had the true version of events reported, Trump’s domestic supporters knew only his take. Through their social media routines they filtered out the more critical evaluations. The president is able to communicate directly to his rural voter base without interference by the traditional channels, meaning that his supporters have no alternative worldview supplied to them. As a result, they believe Trump to be trustworthy and dismiss reports of his incompetence as enemy propaganda. Despite what most professional commentators would say, the president’s supporters believe him to be staying true to his campaign promises. They are correct with regard to tax cuts, immigration control, and shedding of environmental promises. They deny, or remain unaware of, the many areas on which he lied or failed.

That said, our guest did not hold America’s traditional news organisations in high regard either Most of them have become firmly entrenched as agents of either the government (Fox) or the resistance (CNN). Their motivation for this is financial rather than moral, for their ratings – and consequently revenue – have shot up in the last few years as Americans have turned on each other. How one communicates with the White House has also changed. Whereas professional observers would once have spent hours speculating over Barack Obama’s inner thoughts, nowadays the general public can know Donald Trump’s convictions before his own cabinet do. Danahar singled out the particularly tragi-comical example of the Honourable Rex Tillerson, formerly Secretary of State: He did not use Twitter himself, so had an aide print out his leader’s bulletins for him to read. One of these was the announcement of his own dismissal. Paul brought up the abnormally high frequency of leaks from high office. He put it down to the lack of any unifying creed between Trump’s officials. Many of them had accepted his invitations purely for personal gain, having previously languished in political obscurity. Once in office they dedicated much time and effort to lashing out at their colleagues in a battle for predominance and presidential favour. Another source of informational incontinence is what Trump calls the “deep state”. These are lower level officials who are firmly opposed to his policies and deliberately sabotage his every move, hoping to save the United States from its own president. Danahar notes that many on the left, despite their democratic principles, seem to favour this approach: They despise the current president so much that they would permit his removal by coup.

Paul’s friends in the media have accepted that this daily torrent of outrage and scandal will not subside while the current presidency lasts. To answer the inevitable question, he predicted that Trump could indeed secure a second term of office. The support among the president’s base has endured, and he has been seen to deliver on many of his campaign promises. Paul also predicted that the Democrats would still be in denial by 2020, and would pick a candidate who might have won last time around – such as Bernie Sanders – rather than one for the present.

To round up his speech, Mr Danahar turned to how he had indeed been inspired by the university, city and people of Kingston-Upon-Hull. He told his student audience that though the best years of our lives remained ahead, this time would be the most transformational. University would shape us for decades in the future.

There then followed the question and answer session. Again, I got the very last one and again the answer was a little off-point: In the last few years many newspapers, broadcasts and comments thereon, both in Britain and abroad, have alluded to a decline in the standards of political discourse and behaviour. This is not solely about Trump – it also relates to our withdrawal from the European Union, the rise of the Islamic State and the emergence of far right figures many formerly stable nations. I have found many people despairing at the rapid decline of democracy and discourse. Frequently their are remarks to the effect that “reality has ended” or that we have entered a new political dark age. One particularly illustrative example is The Thick of It. The series was still airing as late as October 2012 and was at the time considered the peak of cynical satire, with its unfiltered profanity and its dark, desperate atmosphere. By 2016, Armando Iannucci was already saying that it could never be renewed – real life has moved beyond parody. I wanted to know precisely when, in Paul’s mind, the cut-off point had been. When did he consider politics to have last been “normal”?

My question triggered much nervous chuckling from the audience and the speaker asked sarcastically how much time he had available. He pointed to the late George Bush senior’s presidency as a time when one had opponents rather than enemies, a fact which changed during the Clinton years thanks to the work of Newt Gingrich. He was not the first to make this observations. He said that the office has never recovered from the damage of the Lewinsky scandal, even with the impeccable behaviour of Barack Obama. He said the bar nowadays is much lower than it had been in the past – where once Howard Dean had ruined his bid with one inappropriate shriek, now Trump could brag about groping women and still wind up successful (he’s not the first to make this comparison either). Paul predicted that this change in standards could lead to more people of great wealth from outside the mainstream parties to run for office on their own steam, with better but poorer candidates being forced out as a result. In particular, he said that someone like Ross Perot might have a decent chance of victory if he ran again today, for the political environment has changed to favour him.

Finally, the event drew to a close. Paul was given another round of applause and handed the traditional goody bag of university merchandise. The audience withdrew from the lecture theatre to navigate home through the darkness which had fallen outside. This is the penultimate teaching week, so the semester is winding down. I am sure that there will be a further series of Inspired in Hull lectures in the new year, but that is a story for another post.

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