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

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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.

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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

 

Why Not Be A Polymath?

At rather short notice, I received a mass email telling me that Geoffrey Bond (OBE DL FSA), alumnus of this university and star of Antiques Roadshow, would be returning to his alma mater to give an evening lecture about the heritage business and the importance of engineering.

A graduate of the class of 1963, Mr Bond told us that he had initially been offered a degree in geology, but turned down what he predicted would be a lifetime of travelling to remote areas of the world with no access to womankind. Bond choose Hull over the London School of Economics because of his preference for a campus environment over an urban one. He lived at the recently-destroyed Needler Hall, where once a week the warden required students to dine in formal gowns. Philip Larkin was a frequent guest.

Early in his media career, Bond worked for East Midlands BBC Radio, presenting the Sunday program “The Antiques Shop” in which he took telephone calls from the public and identified objects based on their descriptions. He also presented “The Man Who Came To Breakfast” with Kate O’Mara. He served as Sheriff of the City of London 2003-2004 and was once a consul for Norway. He shared rooms with Frank Field MP for some years and now resides at Burgage Manor, childhood home of the 6th Baron Byron.

We were shown videos relating to the Lord Mayor of London’s Cultural Scholarship, which Bond established in 2010. Bond spoke of the need for more art in public buildings, and the need for more young people to go into engineering. He noted the expansion of higher education since his own undergraduate days (from one fifth of young adults to about half) and suggested that many would be better off doing apprenticeships so they could actually get paid rather than take on debt. Admiration was expressed for the German model of technical and vocational education. A point that our visitor keenly emphasized was the danger of over-specialization. He found that dabbling in multiple fields allowed him to escape being stuck in the same career path for his whole life, and meant he had developed a web of contacts in many different sectors, which comes in handy when two different industries have to work together.

I think I can say that I meet his ideal. It’s not as if I only blog about mathematics, after all.

FURTHER READING

Snapping a Sovereign

Many times on this website I have logged my encounters with notable individuals,including so far an astronaut, three MPs, an MEP a baron and a bishop. In recent weeks I have repeatedly made reference to the reconstruction of the campus of the University of Hull. Today those threads intertwine as I recount the opening of the Allam Medical building by Her Majesty The Queen.

First notice of the event was given nine days in advance in an electronic message by the vice-chancellor. More information came in stages, with the exact timings revealed only the night before along with a list of suitable vantage points for people not directly involved. Security was visible yesterday, with police cars appearing intermittently on the forecourt. Today crowd barriers were erected at key points and several hundred people swarmed behind them. Having had a long morning lecture I was unable to stand on the front line, so went into the neighbouring Brynmor Jones Library. Even there it was crowded, but I found a spot of empty window space on the third floor. This turned out to be far more advantageous than standing by the barriers – firstly because I could sit down at a computer desk instead of standing in the cold air, secondly because my window was parallel to the southern face of the Allam Medical building, and through two layers of glass we could see the official party moving around inside. We spotted the bright blue flash of Her Majesty’s dress as she emerged from the lift on the third floor. We also spotted some of her attachment running down the access stairs in advance of her departure. Finally she emerged from the glass doors to return to her state limousine to be driven over to the Canham Turner building for the next stage of her engagement.

Another dense crowd formed in advance of her emergence, so getting a view was impossible. I tried to find an upstairs window in the Robert Blackburn building opposite but could not see anything useful. From directly behind the crowd I could barely get a view of the door and from the steps of student central my eye line was blocked by the large metal overhang. Desperately I sought a viewing post inside Canham Turner, eventually joining a smaller clump of onlookers peering through a glass door off the entrance lobby. The view was extremely limited – made worse by so many students pressing their enormous smart phones against the glass. Attendance at these events always requires a delicate balance between present and posterity – one can spend so much time trying to record the perfect video or photograph that one defeats the objective of actually looking at the subject in the flesh. Eventually we saw the Queen and other guests go by (judging by their elaborate clothes we guessed one of them was the Lord Mayor of Hull) and then I dashed back outside to see the flag atop the limousine shrinking as it drove away. Briefly I considered that the day was over – then I had another idea.

Rushing around the back of the Gulbenkian Centre and the Loten Workshops I found that the access road behind the campus (beyond which are the old sports centre and the new Courtyard accommodation) was relatively uncrowded. The procession of cars passed barely a metre from me. Upon spotting a small girl with a bouquet of flowers, one of the support vehicles even paused and collected them to pass on later.

This is probably the peak of my encounters. Reigning for more than six decades in sixteen countries, our hexadecimal nonagenarian monarch is as famous a human as is ever likely to exist in my lifetime. I guess it’s all downhill from here.

FURTHER READING

Election Debate at St Mary’s College

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Ten days before the general election, I attended a debate at St Mary’s College between four parliamentary candidates: Victoria Atkins (Conservative, Louth & Horncastle); Claire Thomas (Liberal Democrat, Kingston upon Hull West & Hessle); Diana Johnson (Labour, Kingston upon Hull North) and Mike Hookem MEP (United Kingdom Independence, Great Grimsby).  It was not my first experience to the latter two and neither was it my first experience with Look North, as I previously presented a segment as part of BBC School Report in 2011.

Peter Levy appeared to host the event. Before filming began he led a practice debate on the issue of whether or not The Great British Bake-Off would survive its transition to Channel 4. The general consensus was that it would struggle.

The debate proper began, with the usual topics – the National Health Service, social care and immigration.

Victoria Atkins insisted the NHS was critical and said her party were spending an extra £8bn over the next parliament. Levy wondered how these spending pledges were compatible with caps on VAT and Income Tax. Atkins said they were a low tax party which would create a strong enough economy. Claire Thomas said the Liberal Democrats would increase income tax by 1% in order to pay for the difference. Diana Johnson suggested increases in corporation tax on big businesses, prompting an audience member to ask how that would be defined. Hookem suggested diverting £9bn from the Foreign Aid budget. He highlighted the amounts currently sent to China and North Korea. He then had a heated exchange with another audience member who claimed Paul Nuttal had spoken in favour of privatising the service. Hookem assured us that privatisation was not and had never been UKIP’s policy. When asked about the recruitment of general practitioners, Atkins pointed to the £20k “Golden Hello” given to new GPs in the area by Lincolnshire County Council.

The discussion neatly transitioned to social care. Hookem said new legislation should be brought in to integrate care with the health service. Atkins took some flack for her party’s manifesto difficulties. She praised her leader for having the gall to tackle what she described as a great challenge. She was then criticised for her earlier comments on low tax, which a questioner said meant poor public services.

The next question was from a student, a Conservative supporter disappointed with his party’s rhetoric, who asked if the Manchester attack would lead to more stringent background checks for migrants from problem countries. Johnson said she believed all markets should be regulated including that for immigration. Hookem suggested an Australian-style system and highlighted his time among the Calais “jungle” speaking with British lorry-drivers who feared for their lives. He said we needed immigrants with useful skills but that we had enough low-pay low-skill workers already. Atkins insisted there was no “silver bullet” to solve the problem. Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary was noted for her failure to restrict movement in line with Conservative election pledges. Claire Thomas rejected the assumption that immigration caused terrorism. Atkins reminded us that the Manchester murderer was born in Britain – though Hookem remarked that he had recently gone for training in Syria. The panellists were then asked who would stay or go after Brexit. Hookem was clear that all legal immigrants from before the referendum could stay. Johnson said that to guarantee their rights would send a good message in negotiations.

Victoria Atkins said that the way to get the best deal in European negotiations was to have Theresa May as prime minister. She highlighted Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses in controlling his party – many, including Johnson, had resigned from his frontbench after the referendum. Thomas and Johnson dismissed any suggestion of May as a strong leader, instead calling her a weak and wobbly character who had gone back on manifesto pledges. Hookem invoked his experience on European committees to say that “they don’t want us to leave” and that parliament should have swiftly repealed the European Communities Act 1972. His rant was curtailed, however, as the debate had run out of time.

After the debate had ended there was some milling around to talk to the candidates off the record. I persuaded Hookem to pose for a photograph to use on his Wikipedia page. Sadly the low light and movement of several people in the background meant the picture was rather a blurry mess. I got a candid shot of Atkins which likewise suffered.

 

Meeting Philip Norton FRSA

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Our visitor before his crowd.

So far in my time at Wilberforce College I have met two Labour MPs (Diana Johnson and Alan Johnson), one UKIP MEP (Mike Hookem) and an archbishop (Dr John Sentamu). Today the college welcomed Professor Philip Norton, who was both the first Lord Temporal and the first Conservative.

When told at a council meeting two weeks ago of his pending visit I imagined it would be a round-table discussion in the conference room similar to that with Mrs Johnson. Instead his lordship’s appearance bore more in common with that of Sentamu eight months prior, as a hoard of student delegations from various classes (I recall Sociology and Law being singled out) filled out the library to watch his presentation. Whereas for the archbishop’s visit I had been at the edge of the front row, on this occasion I was almost directly in front of our guest, and indeed may have caught some of his saliva at various points in the speech.

His lordship began by asking us all “What Is Politics?” and taking shows of hands from the audience on various contentious political issues. There were majorities in favour of same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and EVEL. Prison suffrage was rather less popular. That done, Norton moved on to explain the role of Parliament in making laws and regulating Her Majesty’s Government. He told us of the work done by the House of Lords in reviewing legislation at great length and in fine detail which the Commons would not have had the capability to manage. He also talked of the value brought to the chamber by the ennoblement of certain surgeons and medical professionals (he brought up The Lord Winston as an example he hoped we would recognize*) and recounted the tale of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology debate in 2007, during which The Lord Brennan collapsed shortly after giving his speech. Norton said that this was the best time and place to do so, as there were numerous leading medical professionals (including the minister leading the debate, The Lord Darzi of Denham) able to rush to his aid.

Once the formal presentation had concluded, Professor Norton held a brief question and answer session. One of my ex-classmates from the history department asked if it was a source of frustration to know that a measure not to his liking was going to pass through parliament. The peer replied that it was a natural part of a parliamentary career, but it at least was not as bad as in the Commons where a member not of the majority party is practically powerless in terms of major legislation. I then asked if, in light of the recent High Court ruling, he believed there was a strong chance of his noble friends and colleagues ultimately blocking Britain’s exit from the European Union. He replied that although the house would certainly subject the decision to a heavy level of scrutiny and criticism, there was little chance of them blocking the move outright. The professor went so far as to suggest that the House of Commons might even resort to the use of the Parliament Acts to ensure that the result of the referendum was implemented.

A bald man in a suit with a poppy and lanyard smiles while crossing his arms.

The Right Honourable Philip Norton, Baron Norton of Louth, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

As the meeting drew to a close and students filed out of the library, I convinced his lordship to pose for a photograph, so that his Wikipedia page could have a profile picture – which it and many others currently lack due to the difficulty of finding public domain images. Now that I have obtained such an image, I can ensure that today’s meeting will have some significance in Norton’s public image.

*I had previously seen Professor Winston at GCSE Science Live in January 2013, but I hesitate to claim I met him given that the enormous lecture hall allowed a substantial chasm between his podium and my upper-gallery seat.