Visual Details in the BBC’s Roadkill

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Recently I watched the new BBC drama series Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie as ambitious but morally-unsound cabinet minister Peter Laurence. Many have wondered how it would be possible to set political fiction in the 2016-2020 era without Brexit, Trump and now Coronavirus (although this series was filmed a little to early to know of that last one) completely dominating every character’s every thought, or indeed without those certain real names and faces with whom such events are so intimately intertwined. This series has the innovative solution of moving an unspecified time into the future, by which point these issues have supposedly been resolved and everything is back to normal. That alone would surely make it a utopian invention, but the purpose of this post is not to review the series on a dramatic basis. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which government location and insignia – including the royal arms – are depicted in television.

Television program-makers have to tread very carefully when depicting real life brand names, trademarks, uniforms or other insignia. This often leads to them creating slightly off-model versions for their fictional purposes, in the hope that the result will be different enough to avoid legal liability but similar enough for viewers to understand.

In Roadkill there are multiple shots in this miniseries of the grand staircase at 10 Downing Street, with its display of the portraits of former prime ministers. Exactly when the political history of this work diverges from real life is unknown, but the most recent leader seen on the stairs is Margaret Thatcher (whose premiership is likewise something of a fixed point in time). Comparisons to virtual tours of the real staircase (both taken during Cameron’s tenure) reveal that the portraits on set were from different photographs. They are also quite literally larger than life, as the real portraits from Baldwin onwards are seen to be rather diminutive within their frames.

Laurence begins the episode as Minister of Transport, and there is a shot of him pulling up outside his headquarters, with “Ministry of Transport” on plaques either side of the main entrance. In real life Britain last had an organisation by that name in 1970. Since 2002 it has been called the Department for Transport, though the initialism MOT is still used for vehicle safety tests. Later in the episode Laurence is moved to Justice. In his meeting with the Prime Minister she refers to “the Ministry of Justice” which is what it has been called in real life since 2007, yet later when we see our protagonist at his new desk his screensaver says “Department of Justice” instead. For the rest of the series he is called “Minister” rather than “Secretary of State” and there is no mention of him holding the office of Lord Chancellor. What’s striking about these examples is the subtlety of the change – the typeface doesn’t look any different, nor does the coat of arms, only the arrangement of the arms to the left of the text instead of above.

The current template for government letterheads debuted in 2012, alongside the rolling out of GOV.UK, in a drive to rationalise the costly and confusing sprawl of departmental websites and logos which had emerged over the past twenty years. Prior to that there was no consistency in branding – while some departments did use the royal arms, others just put their names in stylised lettering, or had some other unrelated imagery. While this looked rather poor for the real life institutions, it probably made things easier for creators of political fiction, who could plausibly make up just about any title design for their invented offices without having to carefully alter the official insignia. The DoSAC logo as used in The Thick of It, for example, is perfectly believable as part of the Whitehall lineup of that period.

A long time ago there was a Doctor Who episode called The Aliens of London, in which much of the action takes place at Number 10. There was an attempt at recreating the grand staircase – in this version the helical staircase ascends anticlockwise and the walls are red, with the portraits few and far between. A coat of arms can be seen printed on the window, but too distant for much clarity. A later scene shows a conference room in which the royal arms appear on a backlit screen. The crown, motto, garter circlet and shield are correct (albeit the tinctures are changed), but the supporters are swapped around so that the unicorn stands to the dexter of the shield and the lion to the sinister – as if in the Scottish version. The lion is chained this time while the unicorn wears the crown of Scotland. The unicorn is still gorged with a circlet at the neck.

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I also have a distant recollection of a scene in Torchwood series 3 or 4 in which a much worse state emblem is seen – the supporters and motto of the royal arms but the shield just shown the Parliamentary portcullis badge. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down a screencap in order to check.

On Peers’ Websites (or Lack Thereof)

The Right Honourable The Lord Walney (formerly Mr John Woodcock)

Members of the House of Commons generally have a personal website where constituents can contact them and get an overview of their representative’s work. These websites are variable in quality and effort. If you look through a large number of them in a short time, you’ll notice that a lot of them are practically identical, having presumably been created en masse from the same template (though different templates are favoured by different parties).

Members of the House of Lords generally lack any websites at all. There are some who were famous for other things prior to their ennoblement and who have websites about those (Dobbs for his novels, Lloyd-Webber for his operas) but few have sites that are specifically about their roles as peers.

Particularly interesting is that a large proportion (too large, by many reckonings) of the upper house’s membership comes from recent emeriti of the lower. Quite a lot of these ex-MPs have at some point used personal websites for that role, but these are nearly always abandoned once their owners move upstairs, sitting stagnant for months and then disappearing altogether when the domain registrations lapse (they might still be around having reverted to their subdomains, but I can’t find them). My best guess at the reason for this phenomenon is that MPs’ personal websites are maintained by constituency staff rather than the politicians themselves, and thus are not sustainable once those staff are no longer in service – or the peers just think that nobody will be interested in reading them.

Here is a summary of the personal websites of those ex-MPs whose life peerages have already been gazetted this year, omitting those who don’t appear to have had a website in the first place.

2020 Special Honours

2019 Dissolution Honours

2020 Political Honours

New Ap-peer-ances

The Right Honourable The Lord Vaizey of Didcot PC

Today the House of Commons resumes sitting after the summer recess. Tomorrow the Lords will follow. A lot of new members will be joining shortly.

On the ultimate day of July the belated Dissolution Honours list for last year’s general election was finally published. Confusingly, a separate Political Honours list was published on the same day. The two lists between them announced thirty-six new life peers. On top of that baronies were also promised to the outgoing Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and the incoming National Security Adviser David Frost.

It saddened many to see the size of the upper house increase so suddenly after a few years of carefully-managed reduction, though this year’s intake is noticeably smaller than the forty-five appointed in the dissolution honours for 2015, or the fifty-six appointed in those of 2010.

While knights, dames, and recipients of lesser awards know their new honorifics immediately, a new peer or peeress must negotiate with the Garter King of Arms before their precise title can be decided. Even without COVID-19 disrupting business, there can often be a substantial delay between the publication of the honours list and the sealing of the letters patent. This can be a nuisance for Wikipedians, as the biographies of those promised peerages must be held in awkward purgatory until their ennoblement actually arrives, while well-meaning but ill-informed editors try to describe them as already being members of the house, or even make guesses at what their titles should be.

To make matters worse still, the London Gazette, which is normally taken as the gold standard of official record, frequently lags days or even weeks behind Parliament’s own website, which tends to include new peers among the Lords’ membership immediately, though we must still wait for the former in order to know their territorial designations.

The online parliamentary calendar suggests that introductions of these new peers will not begin until next week. The majority of the new members are still described by plain name rather than title, indicating that their elevation has not yet occurred.

  • 07th Sep – The Lord Bishop of Manchester (David Walker)
  • 08th Sep – Lord Frost & Lord Herbert of South Downs
  • 10th Sep – Lord Vaizey of Didcot & James Wharton
  • 14th Sep – Ian Austin & Dame Helena Morrissey
  • 15th Sep – Kathryn Clark & John Woodcock
  • 17th Sep – Kenneth Clarke & Gisela Stuart
  • 28th Sep – Lorraine Fullbrook & Aamer Sarfraz
  • 29th Sep – Sir Patrick McLoughlin & Susan Hayman

It seems likely that the inductions will spread well into October, though the calendar does not yet go that far. It will be interesting to see if these ceremonies are done in the same no-frills manner as those of Grimstone and Greenhalgh earlier this year and, if so, how long it will be before the normal accompaniments return.

EXTERNAL LINKS

  • 30th Aug – Professor Norton’s blog on the new appointments.
  • 29th Jul – Constitution Committee discusses the functioning of Parliament during the pandemic and the implications of adding new peers.
  • 2005 – An overview of the induction process.
  • 1963 – A short account of Ernest Simon’s choice of title.

UPDATE (8th September)

Introductions of the new peers to the upper house have begun. The Lord Frost and the Lord Herbert of South Downs took their seats today. Unfortunately those in charge of the video stream neglected to enable sound until the former’s ceremony was nearly over. More curiosities emerge here:

  1. Herbert wore the scarlet robe in the traditional manner whereas Frost went without.
  2. The letters patent used to be large sheets of what might be vellum, whereas now they are using ordinary A4 printouts (Herbert’s even had a post-it note stuck to it!). Perhaps the full-size versions are being kept away from potential contamination?
  3. Hansard is again crediting supporters for the new peers, even though they are still not seen taking part in the procession. Shinkwin, at least, can be spotted watching from the steps of the throne. This would seem equivalent to being an honorary pallbearer at a funeral.

UPDATE (14th September)

Today The Lord Austin of Dudley and the Baroness Morrissey were introduced. Supporters are physically participating again, though the choreography is rather different now.

UPDATE (29th September)

The Lord McLoughlin was introduced between the Lord Cormack and the Lord Randall of Uxbridge, all three robed. McLoughlin paused before exiting the chamber to allow Randall to get ahead of him – though I think in previous practice it was the senior supporter who walked in front at this stage rather than the junior. The Baroness Hayman of Ullock was then introduced in a robe but her supporters (the Baronesses Jones of Whitchurch and Smith of Basildon) forewent them. Hayman walked ahead of both supporters to exit the chamber and did not even give the deputy speaker a cursory nod along the way.

UPDATE (5th October)

The Lords Moyland and Botham were introduced today. My fascination on this occasion was less with the introductions themselves and more with the technical difficulties which delayed them for several minutes – and delayed all the chamber’s other business for over an hour. I could hear just fine through ParliamentLive, but apparently the sound was failing through other channels. There was a lot of idle chatter among peers and the sitting was adjourned during pleasure several times – with Fowler stumbling through the vote each time. Most notably you can hear someone (maybe the reading clerk Simon Burton or the chief whip Lord Ashton of Hyde) saying “testing, testing, one, two three” many times, once even going over sixty.

Pictures in Unexpected Places (Part 2)

Last year I made a post looking at some of the ways in which my free-licence photographs were being used online. Since then a couple more examples have turned up:

This article in The Boar uses my photograph of the laundry room at The Lawns Centre to head an article about the student union at Warwick changing their laundry contractor. Interestingly the image clearly shows signage with Hull branding on it. The article says “Card or credits will not be required to use their service, which will reportedly also handle potential machine breakdowns with quicker response times.“, which is of great interest to me, as I found the laundry facilities at The Lawns to be insufficient, overcomplicated, unreliable. After the first fortnight I opted to put my worn clothes into a travel bag and haul them to Rex Launderette just under a mile away.

The UK Human Rights Blog credited me for a photograph of Lord Sumption. I merely uploaded the screenshot to Wikimedia Commons, the video was actually produced by the Cambridge Law Faculty.

The Green Chair Quartet

The Ways & Means Committee was, and in some countries still is, a subgroup of the national legislature responsible for proposing changes to fiscal policy. In the House of Commons a tradition developed whereby the Chairman of Ways & Means, rather than the Speaker, would preside over the chamber during the annual budget statement. From 1853 the Chairman took on the role of the Speaker’s deputy in general. This was codified by the Deputy Speakers Act of 1855. The Chairman was given his own Deputy in 1902.

The committee itself was abolished in 1967, with full authority over fiscal matters going to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the chairmen retained their functions as deputy speakers. Like the main Speaker they do not speak in the chamber except on matters of procedure, nor vote unless to break a tie. Unlike him they remain members of their respective parties and must fight as party candidates at general elections. Traditionally the Speaker was elected at the first sitting day after each general election, whereas the deputies were appointed just after the first State Opening.

The table that I have created shows all of the speakers and their deputies since the beginning of the 45th Parliament in 1970.

The Commons assembled on 29th June and Dr Horace King, member for Southampton Itchen, was elected to a third term as Speaker, having taken office following the death of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster in 1965. On 2nd July he was given Sir Robert Grant-Ferris (Conservative, Nantwich) as Chairman and Betty Harvie Anderson (Conservative, East Renfrewshire) as Deputy.

On 12th January 1971 King retired and former Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd was, with a bit of difficulty, elected to replace him. This briefly resulted in an all-blue speakership trio. Ten months later the post of Second Deputy Chairman was established and conferred upon the Labour backbencher Sir Lancelot Mallalieu. Anderson resigned her post at the end of the third session. After the state opening Mallalieu was promoted to replace her and his position given to Oscar Murton, Conservative member for Poole.

Ferris and Mallalieu both retired from the Commons at the general election of February 1974. The short-lived 46th Parliament saw Lloyd re-elected as speaker and Murton promoted to First Deputy, with former Secretary of State for Wales George Thomas becoming chairman. Seemingly no Second Deputy was appointed that time. After the October election Lloyd, Thomas and Murton were restored, with Sir Myer Galpern (Labour, Glasgow Shettleston) becoming Second Deputy. This arrangement persisted until 3rd February 1976 when Lloyd retired and Thomas was elected to replace him. That same day Murton and Galpern were promoted one step each, with Sir Godman Irvine brought in at the bottom.

At the 1979 general election Murton and Galpern both retired from the Commons and were kicked upstairs that summer. Anderson, a backbencher since her resignation, did the same with the unusual title Baroness Skrimshire of Quarter, of Dunipace in the District of Falkirk, but she suffered a fatal asthma attack just a week after her introduction to the Lords. Thomas resumed his place, with Irvine becoming First Deputy under Bernard Weatherill (Conservative, Croydon North East). Richard Cranshaw (Labour, Liverpool Toxteth) was then appointed Second Deputy. Cranshaw vacated the post in February 1981 when he defected to the Social Democratic Party. He was replaced by Ernest Armstrong (Labour, North West Durham). On 28 May 1982 Armstrong was promoted after Irvine’s resignation, with Paul Dean (Conservative, North Somerset) appointed below him.

At the 1983 general election Cranshaw was defeated while Thomas and Irvine both retired. The former two were ennobled. Weatherill then became Speaker and Harold Walker (Labour, Doncaster Central) became Chairman. Armstrong and Dean stayed still.

In 1987 Armstrong retired. Weatherill and Walker remained, with Dean made First Deputy and Betty Boothroyd (Labour, West Bromwich West) Second. In 1992 Weatherill, Walker and Dean all stood down. Boothroyd beat Peter Brooke to the Speaker’s chair. She acquired a new team of Michael Morris (Conservative, Northampton South), Geoffrey Lofthouse (Labour, Pontefract & Castleford) and Dame Janet Fookes (Conservative, Plymouth Drake). They too departed on masse in 1997 – the latter two voluntarily, the former less so.

Their replacements were Alan Haselhurst (Conservative, Saffron Walden), Michael Martin (Labour, Glasgow Springburn) and Michael Lord (Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich). Martin succeeded Boothroyd upon her retirement in 2000, and was himself replaced by Sylvia Heal (Labour, Halesowen and Rowley Regis). This team remained stable for most of the noughties.

Martin resigned in 2009. Haselhurst and Lord both contested the ensuing election, the former getting a measly sixty-six votes and the latter just nine. The winner was outsider John Bercow (Conservative, Buckingham). That knocked off the party balance for the first time in thirty-five years. At the 2010 general election Heal left politics behind and Lord moved upstairs, taking the title Baron Framlingham, of Eye in the County of Suffolk, to avoid the obvious joke.

At the start of the 55th Parliament Bercow was re-elected Speaker, and new rules took effect requiring deputies to be elected a ballot of members rather than appointed in the old manner. Haselhurst was no longer eligible to be Chairman, only First Deputy, so he became Chairman of the Administration Committee instead. Those elected were Lindsay Hoyle (Labour, Chorley), Nigel Evans (Conservative, Ribble Valley) and Dawn Primarolo (Labour, Bristol South). Evans resigned as First Deputy in September 2013, and the next month Eleanor Laing (Conservative, Epping Forest) took his place.

In 2015 Primarolo left for benches redder. Bercow, Hoyle and Laing continued, with Natasha Engel (Labour, North East Derbyshire) taking the junior spot in a rather noncompetitive election. Engel was defeated in the 2017 snap election. Haselhurst stood down, accepting a life peerage the next year. The new Second Deputy was Dame Rosie Winterton (Labour, Doncaster Central).

Some awkwardness ensued in 2019 when another snap election was imposed. Bercow resigned his seat in the 57th House of Commons two days before it was due to dissolve. All three deputies sought to succeed him as Speaker, with Hoyle ultimately prevailing. His former position as Chairman of Ways & Means was left vacant on the one remaining sitting day.

The present parliament assembled on 17th December and Hoyle was swiftly re-instated, but the deputies were not elected until January. Laing was made Chairman, with Winterton becoming First Deputy unopposed and Evans coming back in as second. How long this team will stay together is to be determined.

You may notice that there are some italicised names not yet mentioned. The new arrangements for electing deputies contained a caveat that the old system could still be used to appoint up to three temporary placeholders from among the surviving members of the previous house’s Panel of Chairs so that the Speaker was not left to carry the whole workload alone for the first few days. Haselhurst was kept on in 2010 with Hugh Bayley (York Central). In 2015 the appointments were Sir Roger Gale (Conservative, North Thanet) and George Howarth (Labour, Knowsley). In 2017 they were Howarth and Sir David Amess (Conservative, Southend West). In these instances the documentation of was hard to find, and I really only know who served as temporary deputies from the Speaker thanking them once the permanent deputies were elected. In no case was it made clear which member acted in which particular office, so I have assigned them to the roles for which they would have been eligible to contest in the elections, and according to seniority of service in the house.

For 2019-2020 it was much clearer, with an explicit statement in the appointment motion that Gale would be Chairman, Howarth would be First Deputy and Sir Gary Streeter (Conservative, South West Devon) would be Second.

FURTHER READING

https://www.parliament.uk/about/mps-and-lords/principal/deputy-speakers/

Need No Introductions

Are we missing something?

After an unusually long recess today was the day that Parliament finally resumed, but everything was far from back to normal.

Social distancing measures require MPs and peers to be spaced 2 metres apart, which significantly diminished the capacity of the main chambers. Plenaries can no longer be physically attended by more than a few dozen members at a time. Every other bench has been ruled out of bounds. In the Lords this is indicated by a red cloth placed over the length, while in the Commons there are slabs of cardboard bordered by hazard tape blocking access. The small white cards on the frames of the green benches, normally used by honourable members to reserve a place in advance, were replaced by either red cards with a no entry sign or green cards with a tick to indicate which spots could or could not be used. The red benches have no corresponding external frames, so instead the tick signs were attached to small pillars propped up behind. Two of the three cross benches had disappeared, as had two of the three seats for the upper house’s clerks, and both chambers had lines of tape on the floor marking standing distances.

Last month, without much fanfare, two new junior ministers were appointed to the government with a promise that they would be made life peers. One was Sir Gerry Grimstone, former chairman of Barclays Bank; the other was Stephen Greenhalgh, former Deputy Mayor of London. Today they finally had their introduction ceremonies, which fell short of what they had probably been led to expect. Black Rod still wore semi-state dress, but Garter did not wear his tabard, nor did the newcomers themselves wear the familiar robe. The supporters – existing members of the house who accompany the new one – were omitted entirely. The reading clerk began with the letters patent already in his hand rather than the inductee delivering it to him, then stepped back to give their lordships space to swear the oath and sign in – though Greenhalgh almost forgot the latter step and had to quickly double back. After bowing to the throne from behind the clerk’s table as usual, the procession exited through the content lobby, with the peer only nodding to the acting speaker on the woolsack instead of shaking hands. One cannot tell from the footage, but it can reasonably be reckoned that friends and family of the new members were not given the usual invitation to watch from the gallery, nor to attend any kind of reception afterwards.

Of course, this is still the early stage of transition. Both houses are moving to conduct much of their business virtually, so shortly it may be the case that the empty benches are filled with monitor screens, or even that the chambers are not used at all.

Turn Right and Change the World!

Cameron 2015 Dissolution

We are turning our country around… we must see this through together.

Five years ago, the fifty-fifth Parliament of the United Kingdom dissolved, commencing the general election campaign. As usual, proclamations were read out from the steps of the Royal Exchange in London, and from the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh, but on this occasion the text was quite a bit shorter than had been the norm before. The substance of the revised version concerns only the convocation date for the newborn legislature and the issue of writs of summons to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal. The act of dissolution itself was omitted, as was any reference to writs of election.

The reason for this was, of course, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, which curtailed the monarch’s prerogative to make and break parliaments whenever her prime minister said so. From then on, a general election would happen on the first Thursday in May of the fifth year since the previous election took place, with dissolution occurring twenty-five working days in advance. There were of course some exceptions, but they will be detailed later.

For the first time, the date of the next general election was known years in advance. Even better, the death date of the 56th Parliament was known before it was even born: the five years after 2015 included two leap days to bring the days of the week right around, so this year the general election timetable is exactly the same as last time. Some commentators lamented that the element of surprise had been lost from British politics.

That at least was the dream, now to the reality: The second Cameron ministry did not gracefully live out a full term. Nor, for that matter, did the next three governments. The fifty-sixth Parliament dissolved on 3rd May 2017, after Cameron’s successor Theresa May successfully sought a two-thirds majority in the Commons for an early election motion under Section 2 of the Act. The fifty-seventh parliament was dissolved on 6th November 2019 by a special act of its own creation, May’s own successor Boris Johnson having tried a Section 2 motion several times and failed miserably. We are now in the time of the 58th Parliament, which is currently expected to expire on 25th March 2024, though that expectation has little solidity given that the present government intends to repeal the FTPA altogether at some point.

Jeremy Corbyn, who emerged from three decades of backbench obscurity to become Leader of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the 2015 general election, is due imminently to retire again. The result of the leadership election is due to be announced on Saturday, though the large conference originally planned has had to be scaled back dramatically due to the world events which have transpired in the meantime. It strikes me that, of the six Labour MPs who originally set out to be Corbyn’s replacement, four only joined the House of Commons in 2015. Had politics gone normally they would only now be at the end of their first term, instead of well into their third.

Obviously, it may have been awkward now if those snap elections hadn’t taken place, since all elections scheduled to take place on 7th May this year have been pushed back to 6th May 2021. Presumably the general election would have had to be delayed too*, the first instance of such an action since 1944.

As noted in my posts about Paul Danahar and Terence Casey, it has become common to remark that we currently inhabit the dark timeline, or words to that effect. Neither man could decide precisely on the point of divergence. Until someone else can suggest a better point, I will choose 2015. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic is an entirely separate issue, but the issues that most prompted the calamitous musings prior to the outbreak were the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States and the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. These phenomena both had their gestation five years ago. It was in May that the Conservative & Unionist Party won the general election outright with a manifesto that included an In-Out referendum, which would likely have been dropped in coalition negotiations had that parliament been hung as expected. It was in June that Donald Trump came down that escalator and announced his desire for the GOP nomination.

Life would never be the same again. Still, at least I got to rack up my edit count in the past few years.

*Section 1 of the FTPA allows the prime minister to delay polling by statutory instrument, but only for two months as opposed to the twelve now in place.

Parliament and Devolution with Adam Evans

I should start doing caption contests with these.

Dr Adam Evans, Clerk of the Welsh Affairs Committee in the House of Commons, gave the second talk of the term. He commented that he was impressed by the turnout for a discussion of this kind by undergraduates on a Friday, especially given how many public gatherings were being disrupted by the recent pandemic.

Dr Evans was careful to note that, whatever the practicalities or political considerations, devolution is distinct in law from federalism – the devolved institutions are created on the UK Parliament’s authority, rather than vice versa.

Devolution, he noted, has been asymmetric, with different regions having different levels of devolved power. The Scottish Parliament has near-complete autonomy, with social security being the only notable area of domestic policy reservation. The National Assembly for Wales is a little more restricted, lacking control of police and the judiciary. The Northern Ireland Assembly has more complicated arrangements, with some matters “excepted”, others “reserved” and the rest “transferred”. In England there is not devolved parliament, but there has decentralisation of certain powers to local authorities and the creation of regional ones. Devolution is considered “a process, not an event” and occurs as a pragmatic response to political pressures rather than according to anyone’s master plan. There were disagreements as to what would be the outcome of the devolution process – some hoped it would kill off nationalist movements which threatened the continuation of the United Kingdom, others feared it would embolden them.

Whereas the House of Commons is elected by first past the post, which normally delivers a majority of seats for a single party, the devolved legislatures have varying forms of proportional representation, which normally make this impossible. Scotland and Wales use the additional member system, in which constituency results are balanced out by regional lists. In Wales the executive has always been formed by the Labour Party, going in and out of coalitions with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru depending the balance of power. Lib-Lab coalitions also governed Scotland for the first eight years, but for the National Party has ruled for the last thirteen years – five of them with an unexpected parliamentary majority. Northern Ireland’s setup demands a power-sharing agreement between the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties, with official opposition legally impossible for some years. The latter situation has frequently been unstable, most recently with the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that put the assembly out of action for almost three years.

Our guest talked a little too slowly, resulting in our session being interrupted by the arrival of the next class before his presentation had finished. We adjourned during pleasure as before – though not all of the buffet arrived on time and we were staring at an empty table for a few minutes – then he finished his speech in the question period by looking at Westminster’s role in the process. He noted that the Commons had adopted English Votes for English Laws in 2015, which had added a grand committee stage to certain bills which did not affect Scotland or Northern Ireland. He said that in most cases this was a mere formality, and the time needed to set up the chamber for the grand committee was greater than the time for which the committee actually sat. He also recalled SNP members being rather loudly disgruntled with the arrangement. He also looked at the constitutional guardianship role of the Lords and suggested they were in effect the chamber for the union.

[This slide reminded me of certain passages I read some time back about British politics during the nineteenth century, in which it was considered that the colonial parliaments – and indeed the British – should only have a lower house, with the Lords becoming the upper house for all of them. Obviously this policy was never enacted.]

Questions and answers are broadly summarised as follows:

Will there be a one-Yorkshire devolution deal, replacing Dan Jarvis’s Sheffield City Region? There is no great appetite for it. A proposal was made for devolution to the north east but it was rejected.

Will there be a resolution the representation of nationalist parties on regional committees in the House of Commons, and the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, or does the government think it can do what it wants now it has a majority? The Future Relationship committee is only due to exist for one year so its composition won’t be that important. As for Scotland, the SNP chair might decide to hold all the meetings in Scotland, knowing it will be impractical for English Conservatives to fly north two days a week.

For the “leveling up” project, wouldn’t it be better to give greater powers to existing local authorities rather than creating new assemblies? There has to be a balance between devolution and centralism. The UK government doesn’t want to give so much away that its own authority is undermined. The treasury has been happy to let local councils set business rates, but less keen to devolve other tax-raising powers. Notably Margaret Thatcher abolished metropolitan county councils because they were using their powers to impose tax policies that were contrary to her will, and in some cases illegal. There’s also the risk that if you give powers to the north then the south will start wanting them as well.

As is becoming a trend, I asked the final question of the sitting. Jumping on the points made in the answer given just before, I enquired as to the sustainability of the last twenty years’ devolution policy given the tendency towards competitive nationalisms in different regions – would devolution tend to a point where all parties and groups were appeased, or would the lower administrations continue demanding more and more powers be ceded until the central government had nothing left?

Evans replied that the current trend was not sustainable, pointing to similar goings-on in Spain. He noted that the Scottish Parliament was probably the most powerful provincial legislature outside the Swiss Cantons, yet the National Party still continue to insist on devolution going further. He brought up a request for Scotland to have a separate immigration policy, given its demographic differences from the rest of the UK. He also said that devolutionary politics depend on who is in power in which place, and that voters may eventually get tired of continual constitutional debates. He said that the central administration recognises the need, much of the time, to reject calls for further concessions, but that sometimes it was politically impossible to resist. If, for instance, the last general election had resulted in a Labour minority government, it may have been dependent on SNP support and therefore compelled to allow more powers to be devolved to Holyrood. The main point, Dr Evans said, is that since 1949 the UK has accepted the principle of self-determination: that if a people really don’t want government by Westminster then they cannot feasibly be forced to accept it.

Parliament and Europe with Martyn Atkins

IMG_5093

Wow, I’d never even heard of that one!

Another trilogy of outreach lectures began today. Our guest on this occasion was Martyn Atkins, Clerk of the House of Commons’s Procedure Committee since 2015. His talk was on the work of select committees within both houses of Parliament, particularly with respect to the European Union.

Atkins has given lectures of this kind several times over the last few years, and has nearly always been asked of we are out of the EU yet. Finally the answer is yes. he notes that the word “Brexit” has been banished from official communications by Her Majesty’s Governent, but hopes that he is not important enough to attract Dominic Cummings‘s ire.*

The United Kingdom’s rights and responsibilities in relation to the European Union continued from the referendum all the way until exit, and many will still continue until the end of the implementation period on 1st January 2021. Parliament’s scrutiny systems on such matters will also continue to apply during this time.

Many are still unsure as to the role of national legislatures within the European Union. The European Communities Act of 1972 gave precedence to continental law over domestic. Some had claimed that it would have been simple to repeal the act, but Atkins said this was easier said than done. He cited various statistics as to the extent of EU law – one sixth of Britain’s statute book being transposed directives, around 15% of secondary legislation being made under treaty obligations.

Atkins also referred to the “document-based system” in place, by which proposals by the European Council are sent to the United Kingdom’s Mission(formerly Representation), and deposited in Parliament for scrutiny. The government would also provide explanatory memoranda. Having left the European Union, Britain no longer has an automatic entitlement to some of these documents and must rely on the goodwill of the European Council to release them, or find out the important bits from other sources, such as the domestic governments of remaining member states with strong freedom of information laws.

The fifteen-member European Scrutiny Committee of the 58th and current House of Commons was only established four days ago. It is expected that Sir William Cash will be re-elected as chairman but this is not yet certain. Atkins said that “ministerial careers crumble before your eyes” at the committee, with particular reference to Joan Ryan and the Baroness Vadera. He also highlighted the role of retired civil servants in departmental scrutiny, noting that they “turn from poachers to gamekeepers” and know the tricks which their successors employ in order to be evasive. He also noted that the European Scrutiny attracts “a certain sort of member” but declined to elaborate.

We were then shown a summary of events in Parliament since the referendum in 2016. It was noted that Article 50 was originally supposed to take effect on 29th March 2019, but that this was then delayed until 12th April, then 31st October, then finally 31st January. Our speaker lamented that at no point had the government (in any of its incarnations) made a serious attempt to get explicit support for its position in the lower house, and that events might gone very differently had the executive and legislature gone for a more consensual approach from the beginning rather than the partisan adversarialism that had actually been observed.

Our attention was drawn to a “sad” letter written on exit day by the Earl of Kinnoull (Chair of the European Union Select Committee) to Stephen Barclay (outgoing Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union). Ministers are no longer required to attend the committee, but scrutiny will continue on matters deemed importance.

Returning to the Commons, it was noted that what used to be the Exiting the European Union Select Committee has been reconstituted as the Committee on the Future Relationship of the European Union. Hilary Benn continues to chair, but the composition has changed to reflect the general election results – there are now eleven members from the Conservative & Unionist Party, seven from the Labour Party and two from the Scottish National Party. The committee will cease to exist altogether on 16th January 2021.

That was the end of the speech. There followed the usual buffet lunch, after which we reconvened in another nearly-identical lecture theatre for topical questions. It was not possible to record the questions and their answers in full but the gist was as follows:

What are relations like between government and the select committees? Ministers are desperate not to be seen getting things wrong. If the chairman is from the opposition, or even a member from the government side who isn’t entirely on board with the frontbench’s positions, then departments might be reluctant to let ministers attend. Ex-ministers on committees – notably Jeremy Hunt for Health & Social Care – can be very forensic as they know the departments better than anyone else.

Should a Northern Ireland party have a seat on Benn’s committee? The Democratic Unionist Party was really quite influential on the committee during the last Parliament, but their power has waned now they are no longer needed for the government’s majority. Labour or even the SNP could have given up one of their seats for the Social Democratic & Labour Party, with whom they share goals.

Is the committee system fulfilling its bipartisan purpose? Select committees should operate on consensus to scrutinise government regardless of political colour, but the system in recent years has been under strain like never before.

Do you recommend any further reforms to select committees? It would be a mistake to regard the 2010 reforms as the final word. They were a response to the expenses scandal and were meant to be ongoing in the long term. You never quite know what’s going on with committee elections. The SNP are remarkably disciplined in getting members on committees, almost as if they have one candidate for one vacancy. Some MPs are frustrated that their fame outside Parliament (because they were, for instance, senior military officers or directors of large companies) may not be recognised inside and so lesser-known members might not get onto committees to which they would be suited.

[Professor Norton interjected that some committee seats are more desirable than others, with the less popular ones often spending a long time begging for vacancies to be filled until eventually backbenchers are pushed forth. Atkins agreed, and said that since the election the Conservatives took a long time to decide whom their nominees were going to be, and that in some cases this delayed the formation of committees which might have been able to start business even with empty spaces.]

*This remark struck me as a little confusing, since Mr Atkins is employed by the House of Commons and not by the government, so should be outside the jurisdiction of a Downing Street adviser.

Can You Picture It? (2019 Edition)

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

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

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

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

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

Left: The Lord Naseby in March 2018.

Right: The Lord Naseby in December 2019.

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