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.

EXTERNAL LINKS

What Brexit Tells Us About The British

I think I left the oven on.

The Institute of Applied Ethics is a subdivision of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultural Research. Tonight it put on a talk by Professor Danny Dorling of St Peter’s College, Oxford. He came to show us his statistical research into the demography of the EU referendum two years ago and the history of Britain’s political consciousness. He also plugged his upcoming book Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, written in collaboration with Professor Sally Tomlinson. The event started late, as there had been an unexpectedly large audience signing up and so the venue had been changed at late notice.

The director of the institute, Professor James Connelly, introduced Dorling as a forefront thinker on the left. From this alone one could probably guess the general theme of the presentation and indeed Dorling himself gave a similar “warning” by starting with a slideshow of graphics used in his book – many of them relating to the British Empire and immigration.

Dorling attempted to counter some of the conventional wisdom which has emerged during the last few years concerning the circumstances of Britain’s withdrawal. In particular he drew our attention to a common assertion that people in deprived areas were more likely to vote Leave and those in wealthy areas to vote Remain. He said that, under statistical analysis, the correlation between deprivation and Euroscepticism was only 3%, whereas an 80% correlation could be found for obesity (not because Leave voters themselves were necessarily overweight, but because Remain-voting districts had higher concentrations of disproportionately slim foreigners). Dorling speculated as to why the referendum result had been misrepresented this way, and ultimately  suggested that the affluent leave-voting districts in the home counties included the parents of prominent television and newspaper journalists who – being based in cosmopolitan, Remain-voting London – decided to pin the referendum outcome on supposed northern backwaters instead.

The speaker also asserted that widespread Eurosceptic sentiment in Britain was a fairly recent phenomenon whipped up by certain self-interested media outlets. He displayed some very complicated graphs to show that the European Union had been a fairly low priority on most voters’ minds for most of the last decade.

For the bulk of his speech, Dorling emphasised the difference in political culture between the United Kingdom and the rest of the member states. He stated that, contrary to perceptions of fascism engulfing the continent, it was actually Britain which most supported the far right. Sensing that the audience’s doubt of his bold assertion, he explained that the Conservative MEPs had, in late 2009, broken away from the European People’s Party group to form the European Conservatives & Reformists group, which lay to the political right. In the 2014 election UKIP, which was in the group Europe of Freedom & Democracy, won 26.6% of the British vote and returned 24 members. The Conservatives won 23.1% and 19 members. The British National Party, the English Democrats and Britain First also contested the election, failing to win any seats but collectively garnering about 2% of the vote. From this Professor Dorling concluded that Britain, uniquely among members states, had given the majority of its votes and seats to far right parties. This analysis has some obvious shortcomings – it relies on defining “Far Right” in the most technical and elementary sense rather than the way most observers would understand it – but it does go to show that the political atmosphere in this country is very different to that in those it neighbours.

The rest of the talk followed much of the path that one would expect a presentation by a left-wing Europhile to take: Dorling expounded on the unusual level of economic inequality in Britain and suggested that the Leave vote was built on the public’s misdirected anger at social immobility. He noted that the protest vote against immigration was highest in areas with very few immigrants, implying that many Brexiters’ perceptions were based on racist hearsay rather than real experience.He also speculated on the role of education decades back, with references to old textbooks which explained Britain’s history in a manner politically correct for the pre-war era but less than palatable now, suggesting that older voters still harboured under delusions of imperial entitlement. As expected, our speaker took a swipe at private schools and elite universities, saying that they were designed to churn out an empire-ruling establishment. He disparaged the interview system for Oxford and Cambridge on the grounds that they allowed the personal biases of the interviewers to override a candidate’s objective merits. He even postulated that well-qualified applicants were turned down for being too fat.

Surely I wasn’t declined on that basis?

The talk wound up with a question and answer session. An audience member asked Professor Dorling to predict the next few years in British politics. Dorling suggested that Theresa May would step down before the next general election, with the plausible excuse of failing health, and hand the leadership to someone untainted by the departure process. He also hoped that Jeremy Corbyn would suffer a convenient stroke at some point and be replaced by a younger female (he didn’t much care which) who would then go on to head up a coalition with the Scottish National Party.

The microphone came my way for the final question. I asked if the professor thought that the much-decried London-centrism of Britain’s media and journalism had contributed to widescale misperceptions of the country’s demography. He didn’t quite answer my main query, but said it was a tragedy that the Guardian had left Manchester, and recommended that the capital be relocated somewhere near the Birmingham intersection of High Speed 2 so that the existing architecture could be opened up for tourism – an industry which he predicted to boom in the coming years as foreigners took advantage of the inevitable falling of the Pound Sterling.

FURTHER READING

Course Representative Forum (November)

Over there is my house!

Today I attended the second forum of this academic year. This time the meeting followed a more conventional format with officials making speeches and being asked questions.

Our guest speaker was Ian Aylett, leader of the scheduling team. Somehow, it is always the timetabling that is a student’s predominant grievance. Some of my colleagues complained of having large gaps between early and late lectures, requiring them to sit idle on campus for much of the day. Others protested at having blocks of more than four hours consecutively. Mr Aylett showed us the inner workings of the timetabling software, Scientia. Released in 1995, this program is older than most of the undergraduates – indeed, older than the county. A new package is due to be released a few years from now, so the current design is not set for much improvement. Students asked why the lecture timetables and examination timetables had to be delivered by separate services. The formal conduct of the session briefly dissolved as a few of the computer science students told those present of how they could synchronize the Scientia timetable with their Google Calendar. To assist this, they directed us to a helpful post on InfinityFlame, run by their classmate (and, coincidentally, my long-ago school bus companion) Aidan Crane.

The next segment of the forum concerned assignments and the student hubs. Several of the members present were displeased at having multiple deadlines on the same day – a gripe which some of my own constituency have also made. The hubs remain controversial. Several months ago the union held an ill-publicized referendum on reverting to the old department system, but it was invalidated by poor turnout. Tales were relayed to us of students going to their respective hubs and not getting answers. Those dissatisfied with the hub system were keen to see another referendum held immediately and reforms pushed through before the students with knowledge of the prior system aged out of the electorate.

That done, President Hall showed us a selection of newspaper headlines and made sure we were informed of national issues regarding higher education. In particular she highlighted the fierce competition between institutions for new undergraduates and a warning that some universities were on the brink of bankruptcy. In a more positive development, she reported that her campaign to increase students’ printing allowance had been successful.

The next proper forum is scheduled for February, though there will also be a Christmas event in two weeks. The date for the next student-staff forum is not yet known.

Course Representative Forum (October)

IMG_3018As the month drew to a close, I attended my first forum of the academic year. The format was rather different to that of the sessions I described in earlier posts here.

Congregating again on the ground floor of the library, we were arranged not in rows but in squares, with pamphlets and post-it notes. After a short ice-breaking activity in which we introduced ourselves to our immediate neighbours (and then in turn described said neighbours to everyone else), we were shown a slideshow about the details of our roles and asked to have group discussions about how we would carry out our mandate. In particular we were shown an organisation chart explaining the hierarchy of the education zone within the student union. We were also taught about the union money available for campaigns (examples given were campaigns to increase printing credits and reduce paper usage in assignments).

There followed a rather confusing exercise – one which President Hall claimed to have copied from a conference she attended some days ago – in which we were given small cards inscribed with examples of things which people at various levels in the hierarchy would be expected to do, and told to arrange them according to how well we thought they were being done. The exercise was confusing because the cards were written in such opaquely bureaucratic language that many of us found them unintelligible. I wish I could recant some examples here, but unfortunately they have proven impossible to commit to memory.

Finally we got to the key theme of this forum, which was – as one might have guessed – timetabling. In a powerfully ironic turn events the registrar, Jeannette Strachan, was not able to appear at the forum in person, so instead we were told to write down our complaints which the president would pass on to her at a private meeting on Friday. The representatives were dispersed and regrouped based on their faculties and told to share their thoughts on the topic. The usual issues arose – online applications not working, websites stalling, rooms being chopped and changed at short notice and even students finding themselves assigned to the wrong course. Our grumbling match was cut short after about ten minutes, though it likely could have lasted several hours.

We returned to our original seats for a closing activity – writing down what we were proud to have achieved in our representative capacity so far and what we wanted to accomplish in the future. For some of us this provoked an awkward moment of soul-searching.

Today’s forum was a distinctly different experience from those which I had last year. Only time will tell if this represents a mere introductory anomaly or a permanent change. Most of all though, I am pleased to see the return of the refreshment table to the flank of our proceedings.

IMG_3014

Three kinds of cake! It’s a wonder Norton doesn’t come to these.

Table Talk for Subject Representatives

IMG_2991

We were just behind that giant lampshade, honest!

Having attended the larger training session for all of the course representatives, today I went to a smaller meeting, less formal meeting for the subject representatives specifically.

We gathered in the ground floor café of the Brynmor Jones Library, having failed to secure a more suitable venue. Our convener was Sanaa Sabir, the faculty representative for Science & Engineering. She talked us through the aims and procedures for the chairing of student-staff forums. As several of us had been school representatives in previous years most of this was familiar to us. We were reminded of the importance of communication between adjacent levels of representatives as well as with the rank and file of the student body. As with last year, it was noted that several subjects – including my own – were missing spokesmen at the lower levels. The first forums have had to be postponed in some cases until the necessary members could be recruited. There was also a discussion about channels of communication, as it was acknowledged that the universities intranets and applications frequently suffer errors. We also knew that many students tended to ignore their university emails.

Sabir also told us to look for a major project at whose helm to place ourselves – along the lines of the “plastic pledge”. My biology counterpart, Simon Groeger, suggested a campaign to make the campus bee-friendly.

It was reassuring to get back to business at the university, if a little disappointing to do so in such a shambolic fashion. One hopes that a more dignified venue may be secured in time for the forum.

Course Representative Training

It’s that time of year again!

As the academic year 2018-19 got into swing (which, at university, can take a rather long time), in came the emails about recruiting course representatives. Naturally I went forward. There has been a slight reform of the role – or at least the nomenclature – this year, as School Representatives are given the more accurate designation of Subject Representatives.

There were also a few changes to the training experience: The session, held on the ground floor of the library, was led by education coordinator Benedict Greenwood and president of education Isobell Hall. We were taken through a slideshow about our responsibilities and told to contribute suggestions through Mentimeter. Also included were two videos: one tailor-made for the union, the other a generic motivational sketch which I am sure has been played at thousands of corporate training sessions before.

Later on we were divided into smaller groups and asked to discuss what we thought our main challenges would be, along with ways to overcome them. Unsurprisingly, this prompted a flurry of complaints about inconvenient timetables.

Today’s training was markedly different to that which I had a year ago. On the one hand I was disappointing by the lack of a refreshment table this time, for I had not brought any lunch. One the upside, I now have a badge to advertise my representative status, which somehow never came to me in my first year.

Human Rights – Where Are We Going

P1030101

Yesterday, as I walked out of the lecture theatre where Mr Bond had given his Polymath talk, I noticed a monochrome A4 poster pinned to a notice board on the opposite wall which bore the face of The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve QC MP, the former Attorney General for England & Wales. I was startled to see that his present was scheduled to occur less than 24 hours after the one which I had just left.

This evening, as the sweltering heat of the afternoon had begun to subside, I arrived at the Esk building. Being a mathematics student, I lacked much in the way of prior experience with that part of the campus and for some minutes I thought I might be lost. I was reassured that I had reached the correct venue by the appearance of a wine table just outside the lecture theatre flanked by several men in dark suits (among them Professor Norton). I shambled in believing myself to be late, but in fact our right honourable and learned guest was himself delayed by almost thirty minutes due to faulty railway signals between London and Doncaster.

Though Mr Grieve was invited and advertised primarily for his legal experience, he chose on this occasion to speak in his capacity as a politician. His speech covered the ups and downs of the relationship between the British political scene and the concept of Human Rights.

In recent years the Conservative Party has pushed to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights, mainly with the intention of disentangling British courts from those in Strasbourg. Theresa May has even been known to say that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is more important than leaving the European Union. Grieve confessed that he would struggle to maintain an impartial stance on this issue, his own career as Attorney General having ended because of it.

The ECHR was promoted in the immediate post-war years by Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (later known as Lord Kilmuir). In 1951 the United Kingdom became the first country to ratify the convention. Controversy came and went over the years, with tensions notably emerging under New Labour who, Grieves said, made much of the promotion of Human Rights legislation but did little to confer any national character upon it.

In the latter half of the noughties, the Conservative Party began planning for major changes to our human rights legislation. Michael Howard in particular was hostile to the Human Rights Act, and David Cameron leaned in that direction for – leading towards the 2010 general election – he was trying to form an alliance with News International, who did not much care for the expansion of privacy law. Grieve, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, produced reform proposals in late 2009.

In the next section of his speech, our guest explained how, despite their partisans’ decade of obsession, Conservative governments have struggled to make any noteworthy progress in separating British courts from those on the continent. The First Cameron Ministry (sometimes known as ConDem) made considerable noise, but no action could actually be taken without the cooperation of the Liberal Democrats, who – being ardent Europhiles – naturally refused to give any.

It became very quickly apparent through the speech that Mr Grieve considered the British Bill of Rights to be an exercise in pointlessness. He noted that only 16% of polled voters showed any interest in repealing the HRA and said that the government was struggling against the reality of the convention’s benefits, apparently oblivious to the destructive influence of the UK’s non-adherence – such as Russia’s using Britain’s attitude as justification for its own non-implementation – or to the positives when we do confirm – such as the improvements in Jordanian law following the Abu Qatada case.

Our guest closed  his presentation by criticizing some of his Conservative colleagues for pursuing a mythologized view of parliamentary supremacy which bore little if any resemblance to constitutional reality.

Due to the delayed start, many attendants had already filed out before the question & answer session could proceed.  The organizers were keen to wrap up the event swiftly so that the promise of wine could be fulfilled.

P1030102

This is probably not the kind of party that most students have on campus.

As a non-drinker, and having given up my dinnertime to attend this, I was more than a little disappointed at the absence of the usual buffet nibbles. Even so, this was a small price for making Dominic Grieve the twelfth name on my notables list.

FURTHER READING