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.

 

Meeting Philip Norton FRSA

A modern library - a bald man stands before a crowd of adolescents.

Our visitor before his crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of By-elections

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David Cameron, formerly the right honourable member for Witney

This morning the proceedings in the chamber of the House of Commons began with the following exchange:

The Right Honourable John Bercow (Speaker of the House and member for Buckingham): Order, order, Dame Rosie Winterton.

The Right Honourable Dame Rosie Winterton (Opposition Chief Whip and member for Doncaster Central): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown, to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the borough constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased.

John Bercow: The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the constituency of Batley & Spen, in the room of Helen Joanne Cox, deceased. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: The ayes have it, the ayes have it. Order, order, Mr Gavin Williamson.

The Right Honourable Gavin Williamson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and member for South Staffordshire): I beg to move that Mr Speaker do issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York.

John Bercow: Thank you. The question is that I do issue my warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a member to serve in this present parliament for the county constituency of Witney, in the room of the Right Honourable David William Donald Cameron, who since his election has been appointed to the office of Steward & Bailiff of Her Majesty’s manor of Northstead in the county of York. As many as are of that opinion will say “Aye”.

Honourable members: Aye!

John Bercow: …of the contrary “No”.

Honourable members: –

John Bercow: I think the ayes have it, the ayes have it.

The above prose records “moving the writ” – the first component of a parliamentary by-election. The House of Commons is elected at large once every few years following the dissolution of its predecessor, with all six hundred and fifty constituencies being contested simultaneously. On occasion, however, an individual seat will be vacated during the course of a parliament, requiring the electoral process to be repeated in that constituency alone so that a new member can represent that constituency in the same legislature (rather than waiting for the whole new parliament to arrive). Sometimes there will be more than one vacancy overlapping, so multiple by-elections will be held simultaneously.

Since the general election of 2015 there have so far been five by-elections (not counting the two just initiated). The first was in Oldham West & Royton, following the death of Michael Meacher. Alongside “Super Thursday” in May there were two more – Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough (for Harry Harpham, who had died in January) and Ogmore (for Huw Irranca-Davies who had resigned to contest the same seat for the National Assembly). That same day saw London elect as its mayor The Right Honourable Sadiq Khan, who promptly vacated the constituency of Tooting. All of these elections were Labour holds.

The most recent pair, however, have a different story. On the day of the Tooting by-election (16th June) there was a shooting attack against Jo Cox MP. She died a few hours later. Campaigning for the EU referendum seven days later was briefly suspended and parliament recalled from its short recess to pay tributes. The timing was unfortunate not just because of its proximity to the referendum but also because of its proximity to the summer recess. By-elections take approximately four weeks between the moving of the writ and the polling day, but for a deceased member the writ is delayed until after the funeral. In Jo Cox’s case this meant there was no time left before the summer and so the election will wind up happening more than four months after the vacancy opened.

Witney is a different story. Its vacancy opened on 12 September when the aforementioned Mr Cameron received his aforementioned appointment. In a bizarre case of the patron becoming the client, he was given the job after writing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer whom he had so recently employed at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, alongside that of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern, is an office of profit under the crown. They are mere sinecures (the manor house collapsed in the 1600s and the hundreds were taken over by other officials still earlier) which have since the mid-eighteenth century been used for the sole purpose of allowing a member of the commons to step down.

In the old kingdom of England the role of parliamentarian was a rather taxing one – pay was only nominal and attendance at Westminster deprived many of life in their constituencies. Many were elected reluctantly or even against their will. It was in this situation that a resolution was passed in 1624 banning members from resigning their seats. Decades later, though, a loophole was created by the Act of Settlement. Being desirous of reducing the influence that royal patronage held over the legislature, parliament enacted an early form of separation of powers – any MP who was appointed to an office of profit under the crown (this term then included ministerial posts) would be disqualified from his seat, but a person was allowed to be elected to the house without vacating such a position which they held already. This began a very long tradition whereby a newly-appointed minister would begin his tenure by immediately fighting a by-election to renew their mandate. As time went on and ministers of the crown became more numerous such elections became a severe nuisance with each cabinet reshuffle demanding multiple writs and a general election which resulted in a change of government would then see the new set of ministers have to contest their constituencies for a second time in rapid succession.

Changes were enacted in 1867 for the shuffling of existing ministers to be exempted. In the First World War there were acts to temporarily suspend the procedure and finally in 1926 the concept was abolished altogether. Sinecures such as the Chiltern Hundreds were the exception, surviving purely as a means of allowing a member to quit in the course of a parliament. To “take the Chiltern Hundreds” is a long-standing euphemism for resignation.

FURTHER READING

Wikipedia:

Resignation from the British House of Commons

The Act of Settlement

Ministerial by-election

Recent By-Elections

Chiltern Hundreds

Manor of Northstead

Parliament:

By-elections

Timetables

 

Encyclopedic Knowledge

The main selling point of Wikipedia is its open nature. Unlike other on-line information sources, Jimmy Wales’s gift to the world can be edited by anyone and everyone reading it. Further, where most forums or newspaper articles would request at least a name and an email address before permitting outsider contributions to be made, if not a full account established, Wikipedia allows strangers to interact with the site’s content with negligible effort or commitment. That being said, a great many regular users do sign up, as I did in February 2014. Since then I have made well over a thousand edits to various pages. The vast majority of these have been minor, often inconsequential details, but then that is how most Wikipedia edits go. Thousands of contributors make thousands of piecemeal amendments (linking one page to another, adding a picture, extending a paragraph by half a sentence, etc) which over time allow enormous and elaborate articles to grow. There are few pages which any individual can truly call their own work, for each is the product of less an elephant than an army of ants.

Theoretically any editor can write anything on any page. In practice, however, editors who attempt to cover all the information in the world will quickly find their efforts obliterated by another with superior local knowledge. In a community so vast, the generalist stands no chance. It is more prudent, therefore, to specialise in the extreme and carve out a niche, however minuscule, where one can reign supreme. In my case this was the correction and maintenance of the honorifics of British politicians.

While my primary interest would ordinarily have been the natural sciences, I knew that I would struggle to hold my own on any scientific topic compared to those with far greater qualification on the matter. I went instead for a relatively simple yet frequently error-laden topic where the corrections were simple to grasp and unlikely to be challenged.

By and large my edits were to pages rarely perused – such as colourising the illustration for John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland or establishing a new info-box for George Henry Roberts. Occasionally, though, I have moved to more populous wards, whose greater interest and attention can sometimes generate controversy and conflict. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is hotly contested – not only for her divisive political legacy, but also the mere issue of whether she should be styled as “The Lady” or “The Baroness”. If edits to the biographies of the dead were contentious, those of the living are a minefield. In particular those involved in unfolding events tend to undergo short but dense periods of extremely heavy editing over seemingly minor but often quite important issues.

Since I took up this hobby, Britain has undergone two changes of government. The first was caused by a parliamentary general election whose date was advertised as 7th May, but whose origins were several weeks earlier: When a parliament of the United Kingdom has run its course it must dissolve, to be replaced by the product of the ensuing votes. In the past the dates of dissolution and election would be a closely guarded secret until its announcement by the prime minister, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 removed this prerogative so that the expiration date of the fifty-fifth parliament was known in advance to be Sunday 30th March 2015. As midnight approached on Saturday 29th I was poised to strike, for dissolution means that the House of Commons no longer exists and thus the people formerly described as MPs are no longer entitled to that status. Their post-nominals must therefore be deleted and suggestions of incumbency rectified. On the first day of official campaigning I enacted this for the pages of more than a hundred politicians. On election night, of course, I had to begin putting them back again.

After a British general election it is traditional for the outgoing government to publish a list of Dissolution Honours. I created a page in waiting but no list appeared, and when I tried to add the names of new peers appointed immediately to the new parliament (Maude of Horsham, Altmann, Keen of Elie, Dunlop) they were swiftly struck down. Finally I gave up and, assuming that there was to be no list at all, requested that the useless page be deleted. When the list finally did appear I was on holiday with no access to the internet, so that the process was started again and almost completed without me. All that remained was to move the pages of lesser known recipients to less ambiguous addresses (such as Donald Foster (politician) to Don Foster, Baron Foster of Bath).

Later in the same year Canada had its own federal election. Though the Canadian parliamentary system is in many ways a carbon copy of our own, the events there elapsed rather differently – the Conservative Party was defeated and Stephen Harper announced he would step down as prime minister. Immediately (indeed, before the election had even concluded), the page of his victorious rival Justin Trudeau MP (Liberal, Papineau) had been edited to credit him as “Prime Minister of Canada”. He was unfit to be thus accredited, however, for his appointment to said office had not yet happened. Whereas British elections – excepting those which produce hung parliaments, of course – typically conclude with the leaders of the defeated parties vacating their posts before all of the seats have even declared, it remains in Canada conventional for several days to elapse before the resignation of a defeated incumbent actually takes effect. So it was last year that despite polling day having been 15th October, Trudeau the Younger did not come to power until 4th November. This, naturally, was too slow for the notoriously impatient citizens of the internet, so his info-box had instead oscillated between such unsupportable adornments as “Prime Minister-elect”, “Prime Minister-designate” and “Prime Minister (presumptive)” throughout the interlude until finally the undifferentiated appellation became reality.

Come 2016, the elections arrived for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Again, I raced through page after page deleting MSP, AM and MLA from every info-box I could find. I also edited the pages of the legislatures themselves to set the memberships to zero and change the party balance pictures to show empty chambers. Again, these all had to be restored for the re-elected once the results had been announced. In simultaneous occurrence was the London mayoral election, in which a smaller group of candidates battled to replace Boris Johnson MP as Britain’s most popularly-mandated statesman. Elections of this type use the Supplementary Vote, a kind of cut-price Alternative Vote system in which all but the top two candidates would be eliminated after the first round. In this case it was obvious well in advance that said candidates would be Zac Goldsmith MP (Conservative) and Sadiq Khan MP (Labour). Given that London is more populous than Scotland, and that the mayoral race has the entire city as one enormous constituency, it is perhaps unsurprising that the counting process took over twenty-four hours. The editors naturally got twitchy. As soon as newspapers began reporting that Khan was “ahead” or “set to win” there came a series of edits and reverts as various users jostled to be the first to add the “Mayor of London” category. Again there were some “Mayor-elect” attempts also, regardless of the fact that the right honourable member for Tooting had not yet been formally (or even informally) declared the winner.

As long and as complicated as “Super Thursday” might have been it could never have been Britain’s primary political event in 2016. That distinction is the property of the referendum on 23rd June, in which some seventeen million voters decided that the United Kingdom should no longer be a member of the European Union. In spite of earlier insistence that he would remain regardless (and strong requests from ministerial colleagues on both sides to do so) David Cameron told the nation that fresh leadership was required and thus he would step down at some point in the autumn. His “term_end” was at once set to October 2016 before being swiftly reverted. Again there was a dispute between the semantics of announcing that one intends to resign, resigning, and ceasing to be incumbent.

There was no time to quibble over the status of the government, though, as events were unfolding rather more rapidly in the opposition. News emerged shortly after the referendum that Labour MPs (namely the Right Honourable Dame Margaret Hodge) had called for a motion of no confidence in their leader Jeremy Corbyn, following his alleged poor performance in the campaign. These sentiments were relayed to him personally by his shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn, whom Corbyn promptly dismissed from his frontbench team. Mr Benn was swiftly followed by a steady trickle of other shadow ministers who resigned in protest, citing similar dissatisfactions with Corbyn’s leadership. Naturally I went to edit their respective pages to note their departures, only to realise that many of their offices had never been listed in the first place. When a person is appointed to be a minister of the crown – in particular a secretary of state – then there will be official correspondence including certain legal documents which explicitly say which job they have and when they got it. For junior ministers there is less available evidence (their appointments are not mentioned in Orders in Council) and though there is some documentation of their offices (such as Hansard, or official correspondence, or the government’s website) there can often be inconsistencies between references (sometimes they are just a minister of parliamentary undersecretary of state, name of department, others they have a more specific title) and often there are subtle changes in the exact portfolio whenever such a position changes hands. Marking out a clear line of succession for certain junior posts is therefore rather difficult. It is not helped by the fact that junior ministers are, by nature, given less media attention and so there are fewer sources to hand. Moving over to the opposition team, the shadow cabinet are usually fairly well documented, but it should be remembered that theirs are courtesy titles in the gift of the leader of the opposition. While mostly they correspond to the titles of those on the treasury bench, there are some (such as Michael Howard’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Family or Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Minister for Young People & Voter Registration) which do not, which heralds yet more confusion. Such was the state of affairs throughout the last week of June when, in the words of some otherwise-forgettable Twitter commentator “People whom I’ve never heard of are resigning from positions I didn’t know existed.” Eventually Mr Corbyn announced his new team, which was filled with people even more obscure. Richard Burgon MP, for example, became Shadow Lord Chancellor at the age of thirty-five, having only been elected to the House of Commons thirteen months prior. He, and many others in what surely must now be Labour’s C or even D team, had a biography shorter than that of Larry the Cat.

Eventually the “coup” subsided when there was nobody left to resign, and Corbyn still did not step down as leader. Over on the Conservative side, by contrast, the leadership election moved all too quickly. The first ballot saw Theresa May win the support of exactly half of the Conservative MPs, with Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox dropping out. The second ballot eliminated Michael Gove, which left the final battle between May and Andrea Leadsom. For the briefest of moments it appeared that an intense fight was about to erupt as Leadsom cast doubts on the barren May’s ability to govern as a non-mother. Then, suddenly, it was all over – on Monday 11th July the minister of state was seen announcing her withdrawal from the contest. The whole political landscape changed as Theresa May was left as the only candidate in the severely truncated race. Yet again the editors were quick to proclaim the new premier, as if First Lord of the Treasury were an actual barony whose abeyance had recently been terminated. Shortly after Leadsom’s surrender a meeting of the 1922 Committee was convened and May was officially declared Leader of the Conservative Party. Cameron, now even more of a lame duck than before, brought forward his resignation to Wednesday 13th July. The next two days saw an excruciating struggle to keep the relevant pages up (or rather down) to date against myriad attempts to publish the handover prematurely. After Cameron’s speech before the black door, the cameras hovered around Buckingham Palace waiting for the former prime minister to emerge and the incoming one to arrive. Finally – and after an awkward photograph of the home secretary shaking Her Majesty’s hand, Mrs May returned to Downing Street to announce that she had indeed accepted a request to form a government. Finally the moderators gave way and the edit could legitimately be made.

The relief was to be short-lived, for the new prime minister hurriedly enacted a cabinet reshuffle, sifting out the Notting Hill set in favour of her own allies. There were some short spells of confusion, such as when it appeared that Jeremy Hunt had been relieved of the Department of Health, only to find that he would remain in place (word had it that May had wanted Theresa Villiers to replace him, but then Villiers resigned and there were no other candidates available). Whereas the reshuffle was for the most part routine (if rather large), there were some notable differences with the establishment of three new departments of state (Exiting the European Union; International Trade and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) and the dissolution of two old ones (Energy & Climate Change and Business, Innovation & Skills). Many of her predecessors were criticised for rearranging departments too often, but Cameron was unusually passive in this regard – his one noticeable change was to have the department for children, schools & families renamed the Department for Education. Collectively the editors cocked up the transition where the business portfolio was concerned, as the new BEIS had a separate page created, thus preventing the old one from being moved until the erroneous creation had been deleted. Finally it was assumed that Greg Clark would be President of the Board of Trade, as all his predecessors had been. Instead, it transpired that this sinecure would actually belong to the Secretary of State for International Trade (The Right Honourable Liam Fox MP). Amusingly we discovered that government officials had made the same error themselves, with Clark being appointed president for four days until Fox succeeded him.

Now, at the end of August, the British political line-up appears to have reached a moment of relative stability. No doubt there will be further resignations, appointments and re-elections in the foreseeable future, and no doubt there will be confusion over who has what, but I or others like me will always be around to ensure that, if nothing else, their post-nominals will be accurate.

A Date for the Calendar

Left: Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP (a white-haired man in a grey suit); Middle: Paul Brand (short blonde hair, black suit, pale yellow/green tie); Right: Mike Hookem MEP (spectacles, short brown hair, grey suit with blue shirt and yellow/black stripy tie).

Paul Brand of Independent Television introduces the pundits.

Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been highly controversial since before it even began. Forty-one years ago after the original referendum on whether to stay in the European Economic Community, the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” has been put to the people, to be answered on 23rd June. This has been the biggest talking point in British politics generally, and it has also been a recurring issue at Wilberforce College.

For a long time we knew relatively little about the debate. We knew that ITV Calendar would be covering it and that students were invited to ask questions, but we had no certain knowledge of the politicians in attendance. At various points we thought we might have David Davis, Karl Turner, Diana Johnson or Graham Stuart. Then we heard that we would have Alan Johnson and a UKIP MEP (we never knew which one). A few days before the debate we even heard that Johnson had “wobbled” and might pull out. The afternoon before the debate, as the atrium was evacuated and closed off to begin the conversion to a makeshift television studio, we still were none the wiser. On the morning of Friday 13th I was finally told that we had “Mike from UKIP” and subsequently I deduced that this was Mike Hookem, member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire & the Humber.

It was at 2pm that students were finally allowed into the atrium, and there we were introduced to Paul Brand, who was hosting the installment. We had all been provided with a pair of laminated cards: the first bore a black question mark, while the second was a choice between the Union Flag and the EU’s circle of stars. Several takes were expended before Brand managed not to say “Union Jack”. We were asked to hold up the image which represented our position before and after the debate. Eventually (around 3pm) we had our panellists arrive. The seating arrangement was unusual – we thought that Johnson and Hookem would be on the floor seating opposite the students on the steps, but instead they were positioned in our midst, with some other students filling up the additional seats. Nobody could quite understand this decision.

A crowd of adolescents on stepped seating. They hold up cards with Union Flags, EU Flags or Question Marks.

The students show their voting intentions.

The politicians began by making introductory speeches on the merits of staying or leaving. Johnson made the emotional appeal to the European project, saying that the Union had been a safeguard against war on the continent. He questioned the use of the Union flag for the Leave vote, saying that Brexit was not the patriotic British option. Hookem dismissed the romanticism of “Remainians” and warned the students about TTIP. We noticed that he was relying quite a lot on his iPad.

I was the first to ask a question, which was whether Brexit would revive Hull’s fishing industry. I seem to always end up on that topic when appearing on television. Other questions followed on immigration (naturally), terrorism, commerce and the obligatory quip that “You can’t go back to the British Empire.”. Throughout the debate it became clear that the two contestants were not evenly matched – Johnson had spent many years on the front line of politics including a period in the cabinet, whereas Hookem was a fairly obscure figure whose career in the European Parliament did not even stretch two years. He was rather obviously out of his depth during much of the debate and struggled to maintain a smooth flow of words when giving answers – whereas Johnson had spent decades polishing his speeches, Hookem often communicated in short, fragmented sentences.

The debate ended with a reprise of the flag display. By this point, Johnson had clearly proven the more effective debater as there had been a clear swing from Leave to Remain among the students in attendance. Six days later, the college launched its own referendum on-line, with the result that 63% of respondents preferred to remain. The result of the actual referendum (including for the Hull area) are likely to be much different.

Meeting Diana Johnson MP

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Diana Johnson, Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull North 2005-present.

As we move into the month of May 2016, we are nearly at the anniversary of the most recent general election. Four days from now, there will be a smorgasbord of other elections taking place: the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Police & Crime Commissioners, the Mayor of London and some 125 local councils. Additionally there will be two by-elections to the House of Commons – one in Ogmore, the other in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. Not long afterwards, of course, there will also be a UK-wide referendum on our membership of the European Union.

While many of these elections are relatively low-key affairs (certainly, it will be on Holyrood that media attention is focused), there is to me a special significance to the Police & Crime Commissioners because they represent the first occasion on which I am eligible to vote. There are four candidates standing and, whereas the original elections back in 2012 were notable for the large number of independent candidates (who actually won 12 positions compared to Labour’s 13 and the Conservatives’ 16), in my Humberside area this time there are only four, and they represent what are now established as England’s four main parties: Matthew Grove (Conservative and Unionist), Denis Healy (Liberal Democrat), Keith Hunter (Labour) and Michael Whitehead (United Kingdom Independence). The system used is the supplementary vote, which means I will be voting for as many candidates as I am turning down.

On the last Friday of April, I took part in a meeting with the honourable lady the member for Kingston upon Hull North. The subject of discussion was the upcoming EU referendum. A point which came up notably in the session was eligibility for voting – our delegation contained two students from outside the United Kingdom (but inside the European Union) who were not entitled to vote in the referendum. Several others were also barred for failure to attain the age of eighteen years. There had been much clamouring for the voting age to be lowered to sixteen, as had been done for the Scotland referendum, but these were thrice rejected by the House of Commons. Our guest was quite openly displeased about this fact, and stressed that it was vital for those of us who could vote to do so, lest our generation’s voice be politically ignored – she noted that pensioners had done quite well out of recent budgets because they tend to have the highest voting turnouts.

The honourable lady was quite insistent upon her party’s unity with regards to this issue: she explained that whereas in the previous referendum (She repeatedly said 1974, and none of us thought it pertinent to say it was actually 1975.) the Conservatives had been uniformly in favour of membership of the European Community and Labour divided, in this present era the situation had been reversed and that it was now the Conservatives who were thus fractured. I might have detected more than a grain of salt in this sentiment given that her current leader (The Right Honourable Jeremy Bernard Corbyn MP) was adamantly Euroskeptic for most of his life, and has only very recently (and rather meekly) proclaimed his support for our continued membership. There are, too, a handful of Labour officeholders campaigning to leave (Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Kelvin Hopkins and Roger Godsiff). Perhaps her position in the Shadow Foreign Office compels our visitor to gloss over this issue in public.

Returning to the area of youth engagement in politics, Mrs Johnson talked about the popularity of the President of the United States (His Excellency Barack Hussein Obama) – “He’s just so cool!” – and lamented, in her view that neither his charisma nor that of the Prime Minister of Canada (The Right Honourable Justin Pierre Trudeau MP PC), could be matched by our own statesmen, explicitly giving unfavourable status to Boris Johnson MP and Nigel Farage MEP. The point she was keen to make was that most elections – especially the EU referendum – affected the young more than the old (as they would not live to see out its full effects).

One memorable moment came when the honourable lady went around the table asking each of us our intention with regards to future studies and careers. Several people mentioned biology (which struck the elders in the room as unusual) and several others law (which did not, especially given the explanation that the college did not offer politics & government or economics). I said my pursuit was chemistry, which caused Mrs Johnson to remark that I could be the next Margaret Thatcher – though she moved quickly to eliminate any inferred suggestion of thinking me a Conservative.

At this point, perhaps far too late into this post, explain what was actually discussed about the European Union – that being the topic around which the meeting was centered. Ironically it is this component of the visit of which I have the least clarity in recollection. The points which stick out the most are that the EU has guaranteed decades of peace between European countries unseen before its development, that international cooperation is increasingly necessary for dealing with global threats and that the uncertainty of Britain’s existence following a Brexit would be dangerous to the economy. She did, though, confess to an agreement with the statement that few in Britain truly love the EU.

It remains to be seen if the fear of uncertainty or the gratitude for peace will ultimately prevail as the leading motive for remaining in the European Union. Indeed, that the Remain campaign should be victorious with either strategy cannot yet be confirmed. Most polling for this referendum has shown the balance shifting daily, such that a decisive victory for either camp seems improbable if not impossible. Already, many are stirring rumours of a second plebiscite to follow should the first attempt fail to yield the result they desire. Certainly, the United Kingdom’s constitutional identity is likely to be the subject of great debate for a long time to come.

Welsh AMs Recall over Tata

A small beige room with four rows of people behind wooden desks.

The debate by the Assembly

Recalls of legislative assemblies are not unknown: Parliament was recalled to Westminster in late August 2013 (a week before their summer recess was due to end) to discuss the response to chemical weapons in Syria, and again thirteen months later for developments in Iraq. Other causes for Parliamentary recalls include the Falkland Islands, Devaluation, the Suez Canal, the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the death of the Baroness Thatcher.

What is interesting about today’s recall of the National Assembly for Wales is that it will be the last time they ever meet. On Wednesday 6th April 2016 the National Assembly will dissolve and the election (for Thursday 5th May) will officially begin. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament dissolved eleven days ago and the Northern Ireland Assembly followed on the penultimate day of March – as did the Commons and the Lords a year earlier. This crisis meeting, therefore, is the last hurrah of the current body. After this week it will no longer exist, and the Assembly which meets in May will be a new one, with different members and possibly producing a different government.

This meeting is also strange because the Assembly is not housed in the Senned – which is currently closed for refurbishment – but in the Tŷ Hywel (formerly Crickhowell House) where its predecessor sat in the early days of Welsh devolution. The cramped chamber (resembling a university lecture theatre more than a parliament), hardly provides the grandeur that might be expected for the final meeting.

BBC parliament originally expected the meeting to last from 1330 to 1500, but naturally the Welsh talked for more than double that time. There have also been calls (including a petition by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) to have the Westminster Parliament recalled. The Prime Minister has rejected this, but the cabinet are working on strategies for dealing with the crisis.

The new Welsh assembly (the fifth since devolution) will meet at some point in May.

Harold Wilson turns 100

The Nixons and Wilsons stand on a red carpet surrounded by officials and officers.

Harold & Mary Wilson pose with Richard & Pat Nixon outside the White House, 27th January 1970

Britain’s longest-serving male prime minister of the post-war era, and so far the last to ever serve non-consecutive terms, Harold Wilson was born on 11th March 1916. He first entered the House of Commons in the Attlee landslide of 1945, winning the seat of Omskirk from Commander Stephen King-Hall of the National Labour Organisation. By that point, though, he already had a fascinating career behind him.

He was head boy of Wirral Grammar School, having moved there in 1932 after his father was made redundant. In 1934 he enrolled at Jesus College, Oxford to study Modern History. Here he became politically active as a member of the Liberal Party. Later he transferred to Philosophy, Politics & Economics and joined the Labour Party instead. At 21, Wilson was one of the century’s youngest Oxford dons, teaching Economic History at New College in 1937.

As war came to Europe, Wilson joined the civil service, rising swiftly through the Ministry of Fuel and Power to become Director of Economics and Statistics. For his work he was made an Officer of His Majesty’s Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

When the war ended and a general election seemed likely, Wilson resigned from the service in order to be secured immediately as a candidate (bridging the gap as a Praelector at University College). Having been returned as an MP, he was quickly brought into the Attlee government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (the department which managed the requisitioning and development of property). In 1947 he was promoted to Secretary for Overseas Trade, which consisted largely of negotiating supply contracts with the USSR. Later that year he was further raised to the presidency of the Board of Trade (a job now held by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills). This was a cabinet position and he, at 31, was Britain’s youngest cabinet member. During his early tenure, he led a “bonfire of controls” to get rid of wartime rationing and his reputation suffered during debates over the value in sterling when he was seen as having repeatedly changed sides. Opposition to the introduction of medical charges to the National Health Service caused him to resign in April 1951 from the government, which sixth months later fell from office as Winston Churchill’s second premiership began.

Attlee stood down as Labour leader after the party lost another general election in 1955. He was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell, who returned Wilson to the front bench as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Wilson stayed there until 1961, facing down four Conservative incumbents (Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan, Peter Thorneycroft and Derick Heathcoat-Amory). He had the unusual distinction of serving on the shadow cabinet and simultaneously chairing the Public Accounts Committee, the latter role normally being given to backbenchers. After Labour lost its third consecutive general election in 1959, Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to replace Gaitskell as party leader. Later, George Brown beat him in the deputy leadership election of 1962. Wilson’s break came in January 1963 when Gaitskell died and he won the subsequent leadership election (ahead of both Brown and eventual successor James Callaghan). As the Profumo Affair sullied the government’s reputation, the opposition gathered greater public support. When Macmillan left office, the disclaimed earl (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) who followed him proved no match for Wilson at the dispatch box. The ultimate result was that the 1964 general election made Harold Wilson into Britain’s youngest premier for more than seven decades.

Yet his victory was, if anything, underwhelming: rather than the red landslide which pundits had expected, Labour in fact had a majority of only four seats. This is a curious part of Wilson’s legacy; he is famously remembered as the man who won four general elections – whereas Blair and Thatcher each only managed three. Wilson, however, had fewer years in office than either, and usually worked with much smaller majorities. Only the election of 1966 proved a decisive triumph, with Labour earning a 111-seat lead over the Conservatives whose rookie leader Edward Heath was still relatively unknown as a political figure. Heath and Wilson were vital figures in one another’s political careers: Born in the same year, they both broke the political mold by attending grammar schools rather than private, and they both came to the frontbench with records of wartime service. Their clashes across the dispatch box caused them to be seen as a modern-day Gladstone and Disreali, and began the path later completed by Thatcher and Kinnock of defining the modern day rivalry between party leaders, especially at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Another defining feature of Wilson government’s was their poor track records in by-elections, which caused the repeated whittling down of their parliamentary majorities. As the 1970s arrived Labour had lost control of sixteen constituencies. When polls suggested that their popularity had risen again, the prime minister called an election, only to find himself swiftly replaced by Heath. Wilson survived as Labour leader and after four years of Conservative rule Heath himself was in trouble with oil price rises and industrial unrest leading to three-day-weeks. A snap election was initiated. Wilson did not strictly win (it being a hung parliament in which the Conservatives actually outpolled Labour yet returned fewer MPs), yet after six days of negotiation he was once again posing before the black door. His minority government was unstable and so after just seven months Britain went back to the polls. On the second attempt Labour outpolled the Conservative and won a majority in the Commons – yet it was one even smaller than that of ten years before. This, though, would prove only a brief encore: Wilson did not intend to stay in office past the age of sixty years. On 5th April 1976 he resigned, by which point he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and drinking during the daytime. His resignation honours were derided as the “Lavender List” for giving gongs to businessmen and celebrities with little connection to public service. The list was so named after the suggestion that his political secretary Baroness Falkender had written the first draft on lavender notepaper.

James Callaghan (Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Cardiff South East) won the Labour leadership election and took over as prime minister while Wilson was made a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Sir Harold remained on the backbenches while the government deteriorated until eventually in 1979 a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons forced a general election in which Margaret Thatcher brought the Conservatives to office. Sir Harold retained his seat and continued to serve in the House until 1983 when, after achieving her second (and largest) election victory, Thatcher included in her dissolution honours a peerage for her predecessor. he declined the earldom which retired prime minsters normally enjoyed, settling for the Barony Wilson of Rievaulx. He made his last speech to the House of Lords in 1986 (on the subject of Marine Pilotage) but continued to attend that place until 1994. One year after that, he passed away from a combination of Alzheimer’s and colon cancer at the age of 79. The noble Lord’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey was attended by Sir Edward Heath, the Baroness Thatcher, the Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and the Prince of Wales.

This year, Lord Wilson’s legacy is under renewed scrutiny as we approach a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. When he called a plebiscite in 1976 on the European Economic Community (or Common Market), his cabinet was split on the issue as seven senior ministers campaigned to leave as Wilson (and indeed Heath) pushed to remain. The decisive Europhile victory briefly settled the issue, but in the following decade the Labour Party was wrought by internal divisions which kept it out of government until 1997. Now it appears that David Cameron may be facing a similar situation as six of his own cabinet ministers campaign for Brexit while the Scottish National Party have repeatedly hinted at a renewed push to break up the United Kingdom itself. Time may tell a different story but for now it appears that Wilson’s troubles of forty-one years ago may soon return to haunt Downing Street once more.