The Role of Select Committees with Stephen McGinness

Round two took place in the same venue and timeslot. Our second guest was Stephen McGinness, Senior Clerk in the Journal Office.

McGinness recalled that he had started working for parliament in 1998, having previously been an environmental biologist, as evidence that there are many possible routes into the political scene.

We were asked if we knew the purpose of select committees. The answer that emerged was to study complex issues in more detail than would be possible in plenary. Committees are elected by MPs with quotas for each party to reflect their overall size in the house just after a general election. It was noted that, in the last parliament especially, defections and by-elections can cause significant changes to the balance of power in the lower house which will not be reflected in committees. There are a few committees in which the party balance is different, notably the Scottish Affairs committee in which the Scottish National Party, naturally, has a larger delegation (although they did not get a majority as they had wanted).

Departmental select committees were instituted in 1979 at the initiative of Norman St John-Stevas, though others had existed for centuries before. Prior to 2010 a chairman would be elected among committee members at their first meeting. The members in turn were nominated by their party’s whips. In practice the whips would decide the chairman in advance as well. Nowadays the committees and their chairs are elected by the whole house in a secret ballot. The chairman generally does not vote except to break ties, which means that the government sometimes finds it advantageous to have an opposition member in charge and vice versa. McGinness told some stories about parliamentary manoeuvrings of those who sought chairmanships – such as Meg Hillier scooping up second preference votes for Public Accounts, or whips trying to get Nicola Blackwood atop Science & Technology as consolation for not making her a minister.

Our guest then showed us some information graphics, which he admitted to pinching from the Institute for Government, and whose content I will not bother typing out here. His slideshow also included this photograph of a committee room in portcullis house. Immediately I sensed that there was something familiar about the dark-tinted edges, the fuzzy lines and that bright purple suit top. Sure enough I uploaded in 2017 from an educational video that parliament put out in 2012.

An important point made towards the end of the presentation was that the European Scrutiny Committee (mentioned last week) is frequently overlooked by parliament, press and public. They scrutinise EU legislation many years in advance of its implementation yet outsiders only take notice at the last minute – often with alarmist reactions.

After another buffet lunch we again subjected our guest speaker to questions. Those  questions and their answers are summarised below:

How different could two individual chairs be? Some are very adamant, treating members and staff as their own personal retinue. Others are very consensual and always want unanimity. Effectiveness is somewhere in between.

Has there been a change in the nature of chairs since 2010? Elected chairs feel they have a mandate to lead and so are more confident in commanding. Whip-appointed chairs had less of a personal agenda.

Has election improved the quality of chairs? There have been downsides, but committees are now more representative and more independent. You can never guarantee the quality of reports.

Would one-party dominance reduce a committee’s effectiveness? The committee reflects the effectiveness of the whole House of Commons. When one party has a landslide – such as in the Blair years – the committees can often be the real opposition.

Could there be one improvement to the scrutiny process? Currently it is hard to get members away from Westminster. Committee members should be allowed to vote remotely.

[On this one Professor Norton interjected that a party-balanced committee could all be absent at the same time as an extension of pairing. McGinness replied that pairing is now impossible as members no longer trust each other.]

Do Commons committees work with their counterparts in the devolved legislatures? No, they hate us! Devolved administrations don’t want anything to do with Westminster.

 

Parliament and Scrutiny with Jessica Mulley

Today a great many students crowded into a rather small lecture theatre for what, as Professor Norton explained, would be the beginning in a trilogy of events this semester concerning the inner workings of Parliament. Our guest in this first instalment was Jessica Mulley, who became Clerk of the European Scrutiny Committee – which reviews all official documentation from the European Union – last September. She has worked in various clerical roles in the House of Commons since 1993.

Mulley was keen to stress the distinction between scrutiny – a collaborative process between legislature and executive – and accountability – more driven and antagonistic. She set out the three key functions of parliament: to scrutinise government, to make laws, and to authorise money. In the latter case it is the executive which possesses the financial initiative (the right to propose collecting and spending public funds), but the legislature must grant permission. She also discussed the ways in which ministers can convey information to parliamentarians. On the one hand is the ministerial statement, made in the house at the minister’s initiative, with answers given to MPs’ questions later. On the other are various forms of enquiry initiated by parliament. Each department has regularly scheduled questioned periods, though the number of oral questions which can be asked is limited. An MP or peer can also ask written questions, on which there is no limit at all, but Mulley said many found the responses disappointing compared to what could be found through a Freedom of Information request.

The category which most concerned today’s talk was the Urgent Question, which is granted at the speaker’s discretion and to which a minister must reply immediately. These were once granted sparingly, but their usage ballooned following the election of John Bercow as speaker in 2009 and then skyrocketed in the parliament just gone – mostly aimed at the Department for Exiting the European Union. As a group we were asked to discuss whether urgent questions were a good device for scrutiny. The general perception appeared to be that they were more about accountability – and perhaps grandstanding by the opposition. A civil servant from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy was in attendance, and he told us that the short-notice nature of Urgent Questions often meant that the minister could not be properly briefed on the subject before going to the dispatch box, with the result that the answer would be of poor quality. He also said that the questions sometimes covered topics outside of the department’s remit.

At was at this point that I made an intervention, relaying a complaint made by an ex-minister at an Institute for Government conference that the rise in urgent questions was an obstacle to reducing the number of ministers appointed, as departments found they always needed someone to be available at short notice. Mulley agreed that modern ministries were overlarge, but dismissed Urgent Questions as a cause.

Our next segment concerned Prime Minister’s Questions. Mulley noted that big money was made by selling broadcast licences for the occasion around the world. She asserted that PMQs were not a good form of scrutiny, because the premier does not have advance notice for the majority of the questions and so must formulate responses on the spot. This changed a little when Jeremy Corbyn took to fielding questions from members of the public on Twitter, for that was an open platform and so the government could read them. It was noted, however, that nearly all prime ministers in living memory spoke highly of the ritual, for it kept them fully briefed on the workings of government. With no advance warning of which topics would be brought up, they would have to make sure they went to the chamber each week with a complete knowledge of every nook and cranny of the state as it was at that moment.

That’s more like it.

At this point our congregation rose and went to the upper floor where a buffet table had been prepared. After the disappointments of last month’s events I was pleased to see that the food was plentiful this time. In addition to the usual chocolate brownie squares, halved sausage rolls and triangular sandwich pieces there was a plate of what looked like miniature fruit crumbles, which was new for me.

In the second half we returned to the cramped lecture hall to ask questions of our own. Mulley cited the select committees as the best form of parliamentary scrutiny, due to their evidence-based inquiry work and their operational autonomy. She recalled her horror at seeing an early version of the withdrawal agreement which would have given statutory duties to the committees, thus depriving them of the ability to control their own agenda. She said that she constantly feared receiving the call that The Queen had died, knowing the administrative burden entailed by a demise of the crown.

An attendee asked about the growing clamour in various political circles for Britain to adopt a written constitution. She said words to the effect of “We have a written constitution. What we don’t have is one single document with paragraph numbers.” and was unconvinced that the creation of such a document would, in and of itself, have any tangible benefit. This response was in tune with comments that Norton has made in recent weeks.

Finally she was asked what could be done to eliminate bullying in the Commons. Mulley said that there was a fundamental power disparity in the House between elected members and everyone else, but said that to take the privileges of MPs away would be to undermine democracy and therefore the only workable solution was to have politicians with the integrity not to abuse their position. She did however, acknowledge that relations between officials themselves were very hierarchical and noted that this was often missed by the press.

 

Forging the Iron Lady with Terrence Casey

This could be the venue, or it could be the set for an upcoming Ken Loach remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Having attended quite a few guest speeches by this point, I expected tonight’s to fit into the familiar mould. I was a little thrown-off, as were the those in charge, to find that the fixed tiers of seats in the lecture hall were folded away at the back wall and instead we were circled around a splatter of smaller tables. In retrospect it felt a misstep to wear a business suit to the occasion.

This was the Annual Norton Lecture, delivered by Professor Terrence Casey of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Trying very hard to minimise his references to Trump or Brexit, he spoke to us about the turbulent politics of the 1970s and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

As someone who has watched a lot of old documentaries about British politics, as well as listened to a lot of Professor Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures for Gresham College, I was on familiar ground for much of the talk. Casey took us through the story of how the post-war economic consensus broke down through the tenure’s of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, from the imposition of far-reaching price controls in 1972 to the Winter of Discontent in 1979. There was also the concurrent parliamentary story of the “Who Governs?” election, followed by Wilson’s achievement of a very slim majority, then the pacts with the Liberals when that got worn away.

The more original parts of the lecture (from my perspective at least) were on the backstage parts of the story – how policies were formulated and parties managed. Casey was keen to stress that the Margaret Thatcher of 1970, newly appointed as Secretary of State for Education & Science, was a far cry from the character that exists in public memory now. At that point, the notion of her ever becoming prime minister, let alone the godmother of a new political age, would have been considered farcical. Her emergence as a right-wing firebrand, he said, was more by a series of random chances (such as Callaghan’s decision against an election in 1978, or the backbench resentment of Heath in 1975) than by any divine ordination.

Casey rejected the idea that “Neoliberalism” – a term rarely spoken kindly but rather spat out in contempt by those who use it at all – was thrust upon the unwilling masses in an unethical manner by a nefarious elite. Instead he described it as the natural result of the masses falling out of love with the Keynesian regime that had prevailed before and looking for an alternative solution which the Thatcherite faction – with particular mention of Sir Keith Joseph – provided them. He also noted that whereas the throwing out of what is sometimes called Butskellism occurred quite rapidly after the economic breakdown and industrial unrest of the 1970s, the backlash against Blatcherism ensuing from the 2008 credit crunch took a much longer time to result in any serious change of course from the governments of the nations affected.

In the lengthy question & answer session which followed, I asked Professor Casey the same question which I had put to Paul Danahar ten months ago – When does he last remember politics being normal? He replied that there could never be a clear single cause or moment identified, but that the tide would have been turned by the culmination of many small factors. He also reassured us that although he had singled out the nineteen-seventies and the new tens for the purpose of his speech tonight he was aware of many other much rougher times in public discourse, all of which society survived mostly intact.

Heraldic Humour – A History

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.

FURTHER READING

The Arms of the Speakers

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.

A Herald’s Treasure Chest

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.

EXTERNAL LINKS

  • 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.

Pictures in Unexpected Places

Last week I and many other students received notice that The Lawns, that leafy undergraduate hamlet in the large village of Cottingham, would cease to offer accommodation in the next academic year. At some point I ought probably to make a post discussing this issue in more detail, but for now what piques my interest is the article which appeared in The Tab three days ago. The third photograph is of the balcony on the upper floor of the Lawns Centre, which I took in October 2017, about a month after moving into Ferens Hall, and subsequently uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. This got me wondering where else my images may have turned up.

Snooping around, I found this blog post by Beyond Nuclear International, which laments the recent death of Paul Flynn MP. Nearly two years ago I attempted to make a Wikipedia article listing all current members of the House of Commons in order of seniority. I eventually abandoned the project when I discovered that such a page existed already. Unlike the article just referenced, mine would have included the free-licence portraits of those members which had recently been published. The late Mr Flynn was not included in the new gallery, nor did there appear to be any other photographs of him that were available under the terms necessary for Wikipedia. After searching fruitlessly for a few days, I decided to fill the empty table cell with a cartoon image which I constructed using the shape tools on Libre Office. The fabricated portrait was never used on any real articles, so I rather expected it to languish in permanent obscurity. The use of my crude caricature on BNI’s sombre blog post is especially perplexing given that the page already features two photographs of the departed, the first a publicity shot courtesy of the CND and the second a screencap of parliamentary footage dubiously credited to Flickr-ite Ninian Reid.

Curiously there are to be found at least two photographs for which I am credited even though I did not take them: an editorial in The Oxford Student and a newsletter by the Shropshire Patients Group. In both cases the images were screenshots from short educational films which were released on the UK Parliament YouTube Channel in late 2012. In these cases it seems most likely that the creators of these articles found me listed on the file pages as the user who uploaded the images, and mistook that to mean that I had been the one who took those photographs in the first place. One dreads to consider what this says about the reading comprehension skills of the people of the people who produce these websites, and can only hope that the rest of their content is more carefully considered!

From the Axis of Evil to Trumpland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTERNAL LINKS

What Brexit Tells Us About The British

I think I left the oven on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely I wasn’t declined on that basis?

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

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

FURTHER READING

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

 

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.