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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was five and a half years ago that I became a registered editor on the English Wikipedia. Through years of small edits to politicians’ post-nominals I gradually climbed through the user ranks, from Signator to Burba, then to Novato. It was in 2017 that I began adding heraldic illustrations, as well as looking for photographs of article subjects if the site did not already display them. It was also in that year that I built a user page for myself, complete with a smattering of userboxes.
Not all of my projects have gone well: Several template ideas, such as life peers or husbands of British princesses, were rejected by other editors. Others, such as British MPs by seniority, turned out to exist already.
Late last month I made my eight thousandth edit to the English Wikipedia, enabling me to claim the rank of a Veteran Editor, or Tutnum. It was at this point that I wondered about the statistics for edits by members, and in particular where I ranked in the grand scheme of things. Eventually I stumbled upon a list of registered members by number of edits made. I will not be breaking into the top ten any time soon, for their counts are in the millions. The article goes much further than that, though, showing the top ten thousand editors. To some that may seem excessive, equivalent to handing out participant medals to otherwise lacklustre child athletes. It must be borne in mind, however, that at present the number of registered users on the English Wikipedia is just shy of thirty-seven million, and so even a list as large as this one represents only the top 0.027% of the community. I was intrigued when I saw that the edit counts at the tail end of the leader board were only a few hundred above my own. The article includes links to archived versions of the list, showing who was where at roughly monthly intervals. From this I could see that while the goalposts were obviously shifting, it was doing so at a stately pace compared to my own edit count, which meant that I would eventually catch up. I decided to step up the pace of my contributions, setting a target of twenty-five edits per day, or 175 per week, in the hopes of making the grade before the summer was over. Last night I made by 8,539th edit, having seen that the most recent version of the list had the lowest member on 8,538. This morning the page was updated and shows that I have just scraped through to the 10k spot. I realise, of course, that this position is tenuous and that the editors immediately below me are likely to make up the difference fairly soon (whether or not they are actively trying to get on there), but the closeness of the counts for the next few hundred members above me suggests that I can easily advance a safe distance beyond the waterline even if I decelerate to my normal rate of activity.
One cannot foresee what the future holds. In a few years I might climb thousands of places, or I may be knocked out of the league altogether by a stampede of hyperactive newcomers. In any case, it will be a long time before I can say my work is done.
Eight days ago the President of the United States gave an address at the Teen Student Action Summit of the political organisation Turning Point USA. As is often the case for such appearances, he was flanked by projections of the presidential seal. This time, however, something was wrong.
A derivative of the Great Seal, the presidential seal is known less for the rather diminutive escutcheon (Paly of thirteen Argent and Gules, a chief Azure.) than for the much larger supporter – a bald eagle displayed, holding in its dexter talon an olive branch and in the sinister thirteen arrows all Proper – and for the motto of “E Pluribus Unum”, which was considered the effective motto for the whole country until the controversial imposition of “In God We Trust” in 1956. The presidential seal in all its variants is famous worldwide. Even my own letterhead is based on it, though swapping the eagle for my namesake passerine. This very familiarity makes it all the odder for the recent substitution to have gone unnoticed until too late.
The seal which appeared beside the president last week may have looked legitimate at first glance, but on the second there are some glaring differences. The most obvious is that the bundle of arrows has been replaced with a set of golf clubs. The next is that the eagle has two heads pointing in opposite directions. Peering closely at the emblem, it can also be seen that the olive branch has been replaced by a wad of dollar bills and that the motto scroll says “45 es un títere”.
Designed by Charles Leazott, once a loyal Republican who defected after the rise of Donald Trump, the doctored image paints the incumbent as a puppet of the Russian Federation whose primary concern is for his own wealth and leisure.
This is far from the first instance of heraldry being used for satirical purposes. During the American Civil War, H. H. Tilley produced a mock coat of arms for the Confederacy – which had not yet adopted a real state emblem. A cigar-smoking plantation owner and a hand-manacled slave support a shield of cotton, tobacco, and sugar, with three slaves hoeing the fields in base and some of their owners’ characteristic tools in chief. The motto given is “Servitudo Esto Perpetua”. Behind the crest rooster are two flags in saltire. One is clearly the battle flag used by several of the southern armies, the other is a skull and crossbones with the number 290. This latter flag could refer to the CSS Alabama, which was built in secret and known merely as “Hull No. 290” prior to launch.
Going back further to 1814, the Anglo-German publisher Rudolph Ackermann released and Explanation of the Arms of Napoleon Bonaparte. This particularly savage illustration has, for a crest, the world being set on fire and stabbed with French standards. The escutcheon, a montage of eight acts of barbarity attributed to the recently-deposed Emperor, is supported on the dexter by Death holding an hourglass and on the sinister by Satan wearing an iron crown.
Not all heraldic satire is quite so brutal: a 1909 Punch cartoon by Bernard Patridge alludes to the art by citing “an heraldic inversion”, in which the prime minister Herbert Asquith has to stand with his limbs awkwardly spread out to hold Winston Churchill (President of the Board of Trade) and David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer) on his shoulders. The drawing was made during the crisis over the “People’s Budget”, the commentary being that Asquith’s prominent ministers were the real protagonists of the government, their nominal leader being in fact subservient.
A famous Gillray cartoon from 1797 shows William Pitt the Younger looming over the House of Commons. Notable is the suggestive positioning of the royal coat of arms (affixed to the canopy above the speaker’s chair to indicate the royal authority of the legislature) between the premier’s legs. The message is that Pitt had no passion beyond the accumulation and exercise of state power.
These armorial parodies continue into the modern day – many being found on Wikimedia Commons, though these do not see much use. A particularly memorable instance comes from 2011, showing the arms of Princess Beatrice of York, the coronets replaced by the unusual hat she wore to the wedding of her cousin the Duke of Cambridge.
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 new 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 comprised 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. We also had 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 noticed 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 term 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 at Reckitt Hall’s common room as well as reasonably modern-looking books on the shelves, but never anybody in there.
Throughout the last 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 observed 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 by 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.
On the whole, my ideas for new Wikipedia pages have not gotten far. My template for life peers was rejected because the category was too large. My template for husbands of princesses was rejected because the topic was considered irrelevant. My plot to list all current members of the House of Commons by length of continuous service was aborted once I found that such an article already existed.
Recently, and without having received any direct notice, I discovered that one of my proposed articles had been accepted – a list of the armorial bearings of all the Speakers of the House of Commons since 1707.
From the Acts of Union of England & Scotland (a useful jumping-on point for “British” parliamentary history, though the death of Elizabeth in 1603 could also work for the royal component), there have been thirty-three holders of the office. Each of them acquired a grant of arms during their term if they were not armigerous already. Depictions of their arms appear on small wooden escutcheons which are carved onto the interior walls of the speaker’s official residence in the Palace of Westminster.
To create a Wikipedia list of these grants seemed natural given the presence of similar armorial lists for heads of state and government in this and various other countries. Unfortunately my first submission of the list was swiftly rejected for the lack of reliable sources. Cracroft, it seems, is not considered worthy.
Scouring the subject on Google Books, I discovered a tome from 1851 which gave biographical accounts of a great many former speakers, each concluding with his blazon. It is a shame that modern publications do not consider such details so important. Speakers John Smith to Charles Shaw-Lefevre were covered thus, but their successors from the latter half of the nineteenth century were not so easily ticked off. I tried looking for biographies of later speakers, but frequently found that only limited previews were available.
Only rather a long time into my heraldic hobby did a thought occur to me which, in retrospect, should have been obvious from the beginning – that being in a university library I could find many of those same books in physical form. Sure enough a scout around the fourth floor uncovered several such books. More importantly, I also found a shelf holding several old copies of Burke’s and Debrett’s accounts of the Peerage & Baronetage.
These titles were not new to me, for I had heard and read them referenced many times in relation to matters of the British aristocracy. Previously I had understood these volumes to be address books and genealogical guides for upper class, which indeed they are. I had not, however, realised that they also functioned as an armorial database. This discovery allowed me to vastly expand my portfolio for all heraldic uploads, but in particular it gave me access to the arms of several speakers in the twentieth century.
As the names imply, Burke and Debrett detail the peers and baronets of the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. Some also document the knightage and companionage, but these entries do not include arms. This means that speakers who are neither peers nor baronets will not have their arms listed – a problem for several of the individuals being studied.
It is customary for a retiring speaker to leave the house altogether and ascend to the other place – the monarch having been petitioned by MPs to confer some mark of her royal favour upon him, and the prime minister having recommended that this be a peerage. George Thomas’s arms can therefore be located as those of the Viscount Tonypandy, as can William Morrison’s as Viscount Dunrossil. Some speakers, though, never moved from the green leather to the red. This can either be because they preferred to remain commoners (in the case of Whitley) or because they did not leave office alive (in the case of Fitzroy and Hylton-Foster). A difficulty also occurs for those speakers whose peerages were short-lived: The shelf had volumes from 1949, 1959, 1972-3, 1985 and 2000. The viscountcy Ruffside does not feature, having existed only from 1951 to 1958. The barony Selwyn-Lloyd (1976-78) was similarly absent. Of course, the deferment of elevation until one’s retirement means that no edition would include the contemporary speaker, only the emeriti. In a few cases I was helped by other Wikipedians who had access to editions which I did not, but that still left me with a smattering of omissions from the record.
As explained before, when no blazon can be found then one can only resort to replication by visual inspection. Speaker’s House is often used for public events, and pictures often make their way online. Of course, the photographers are typically not there to take closeups of the wall decorations, but in a handful of cases I was able to get a good look at the escutcheons which had previously eluded me. The shields are arranged sequentially, so that if at least one of them is already known then a viewer can count along the line to identify the others. It was an easy deduction that the Stuart-era royal arms defaced by a bendlet sinister would belong to Edward Fitzroy, agnate of the Dukes of Grafton. Selwyn-Lloyd’s could be spotted two spaces down from Weatherill’s, but the depth of field made it difficult to precisely identify the charges.
Michael Martin’s arms were a challenge to reproduce as they contain a great many non-standard charges and a motto in Gaelic, “Gorbals Mick” wishing to emphasise the proletarian lineage which set him apart from most other politicians. The display of large graphics online had become much easier by the time John Bercow matriculated his arms, so that their appearance was widely distributed by various news outlets. There is currently some uncertainty as to when, if ever, he will relinquish the chair, but it is likely that the achievements of his eventual successors will receive similar publicity.
The only remaining gaps in the list are for John Henry Whitley and Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, both of whose shields I have seen in the photographs, but too far away to capture the fine details. The latter case is especially infuriating because although Sir Harry perished as a mere knight, a barony was conferred upon his widow, Audrey – who also happened to be Ruffside’s daughter. I sought out her entry in Debrett’s expecting to see the arms of her father and husband impaled, but instead the books gave her no heraldic information at all.
As I am unlikely to be invited to the speaker’s residence in person any time soon – being not a politics student, after all – these last two items may well stay beyond my grasp indefinitely. Still, it’s nice to finally have an article I may call my own after all these years.
- E. Churton – The Lives of the Speakers of the House of Commons by James Alexander Manning, 1851.
- Burke’s Peerage – The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland & Wales by Sir Bernard Burke, 1864.
- C-SPAN – Bernard Weatherill reflects on his career, 7th April 1992.
- C-SPAN – Betty Boothroyd shows of her residence, 1st July 1995.
- Whitehall 1212 -Torcuil Chrichton sheds some light on Michael Martin’s charges, 4th December 2008.
- UK Parliament – John Bercow is interviewed with some escutcheons behind him, 7th September 2009.
- The Daily Telegraph – Response to Bercow’s arms and portrait by Christopher Hope, 28th November 2011.
- The Guardian – Report on Bercow’s arms, 28th November 2011.
- The Workers’ Photos Archive – Photographs inside the speaker’s chamber, 19th June 2013.
- I CAN – Photograph inside the speaker’s chamber showing the arms of Selwyn Lloyd, 26th November 2013.
- UK Parliament – Bercow before row of escutcheons paying tribute to Jo Cox, 15th June 2017.
- Hansard – Bercow pays tribute to his deceased predecessor, including a brief description of his arms, 1st May 2018.
- Reddit – Members were not impressed by my first attempt at Boothroyd’s lozenge, 28th January 2019.