A Clean Slate

Four years ago, when watching Donald Trump’s inauguration on the television, my eyes kept flicking to the White House website. It proclaimed “Yes we did. Yes, we can.”, the triumphal culmination of eight years of Obama’s presidency. There were pages upon pages of policies, speeches, appointments and events. No sooner had the 12 noon mark passed (or 5pm for us in Britain) than it all was gone. In its place was a “transitionsplash” page showing Trump & Pence together and a link to sign up for updates. Continuing to the main site one saw that, while the template was still the same (though a more substantial redesign was done some months later), all of the old content had been removed and the biographies about the first and second couples had been changed to reflect the new incumbents. As the news was quick to point out, this was planned long in advance as part of the post-electoral transition process. The same had occurred, albeit less smoothly, when Obama first entered office in 2009. Sure enough it happened again in 2021, despite all the shenanigans over the previous ten weeks. Biden’s new site has been the subject of much excitement and a little intrigue. The old sites haven’t gone of course, rather they have been moved to the archives – preserved forever in digital aspic.

Really, changing over the website itself is the easy part – a relatively simple matter of swapping the domains around. More difficult is the treatment of the many associated official accounts on various other platforms. These are similarly archived and wiped, which I assume requires the intervention of the platform owners (as it would in many cases be beyond the capabilities of the ordinary user) to move all of the existing material to a different account name and then opening a new account under the old name. This means that the incumbent president always possesses the undifferentiated “whitehouse” address while his predecessors are specifically named or numbered, important for both practical and symbolic reasons. This only appears to apply to the presidency, however, and not to the other cabinet departments, whose websites and other outlets all carry on regardless.

The World Wide Web became available to the public in 1991, during the tenure of George Bush Sr. Since then there have been five presidential transitions, all of them occurring on 20th January of a leap year and all seeing a change of party – from Republican Bush Sr to Democratic Clinton in 1993, to Republican Bush Jr in 2001, to Democratic Obama in 2009, to Republican Trump in 2017, to Democratic Biden in 2021. Interestingly, Biden is the first challenger with a website to win. Each entailed a change of most if not all senior executive offices, making a clean break from what existed before. Not all transitions, though, are quite so discrete. Imagine that the web had launched four years earlier and that the White House had its main website up by the end of Reagan’s term. He was succeeded by his own Vice President of the last eight years and quite a few cabinet officials (such as Nicholas Brady, Dick Thornburgh and Lauro Cavazos) remained the same. Would it have made sense to wipe the slate at that point, given that much of the work being erased would have been the new president’s own? Alternatively, one could have asked the same question in 2001 had the Florida recount gone differently and Al Gore succeeded Clinton. Indeed sometimes the transition cannot even be planned – such as with Nixon’s resignation in 1974 or Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Would Johnson and Ford have been given new accounts immediately, or would they have continued with the old? Given Biden’s advanced years and hints that he will only serve one term, this question could shortly become pertinent again.

In Britain, at least for the last decade, there has been little in the way of neatness. In 2010, following an inconclusive general election and days of tense negotiation, the New Labour government of Gordon Brown was replaced by the coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg (beginning what many term “ConDemNation”). That government had no continuity with its predecessor – every single minister being replaced and no party continuing in power. The coalition survived with reasonably little churn until the long-awaited 2015 election, in which the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons while the Liberal Democrats were all but obliterated. Clegg and his ministers resigned from the government, to be replaced by an all-blue team. There was surprisingly little change in the cabinet lineup at this point – out of 30 members (22 full and 8 extras), 17 continued in the same post they held prior to the election, including all four great offices of state. Of those new appointments that were made, four were to replace the excised Liberal Democrats and three more to replace Conservatives who had ceased (voluntarily or not) to be MPs. Cameron’s second government lasted only 14 months, brought down by the EU referendum and replaced by Theresa May. Her reshuffle in July 2016 was a great deal more substantial than that of the previous year – 20 cabinet posts changing hands (including all four great offices of state) as well as one office dissolved and two created. May’s first government was to be even shorter-lived, for the next year there was a snap general election. Contrary to her intentions, this resulted in a small net loss of seats for the Conservatives, forcing her to form a minority government with confidence & supply from the Democratic Unionists. This prompted a fairly small reshuffle of just seven changes, though the next two years saw a high rate of turnover due to fallouts, scandals and protests. In July 2019 the leader herself finally resigned, replaced by Boris Johnson. That reshuffle saw 27 cabinet ministers replaced (again, including all four greats). Johnson’s first government technically still enjoyed supply from the DUP, but in practice had no majority as a large number of Conservatives defected (indeed, party discipline on important votes had broken down long before). It was only fifteen weeks before the chaotic 57th Parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives won a large majority at the ensuing election, allowing Johnson to form a second government without the need for DUP support. Fearful of too much disruption so close to the Brexit deadline, he purposely kept his existing ministers in place until February before carrying out a reshuffle, even ennobling Nicky Morgan so that she could continue her role in the other place for a few weeks.

The purpose of the preceding paragraph’s whistle-stop tour through the politics of the New Tens is to demonstrate that in the past eleven years this country has technically had six changes of government, only the first of which represented a clean break of the kind shown by recent US Presidential transitions. What’s more, looking further back we see little improvement: Brown took over in the middle of the 54th Parliament from Tony Blair, who had been in charge for over ten years of Labour rule. Before that we find an even longer period of Conservative rule, featuring during the 50th Parliament the substitution of John Major for Margaret Thatcher due to a backbench revolt. Only Blair’s succession from Major in 1997 represents a total renewal, which means that in the average Briton’s lifetime* what we imagine as the normal way of regime change – an opposition wins a majority in the House of Commons, then its leader is swiftly appointed Prime Minister – has really only happened once.

How, then, do our government’s websites adapt to events? The online presence of the Her Majesty’s Government has had several incarnations, beginning in 1994 with the Government Information Service, then moving in 2001 to UKonline, a portal allowing the public to search various smaller departments. In 2004 this was in turn replaced by Directgov, and the next month a website was established for Business Link, a service which gave advice for the commercial sector. In 2012, under the coalition, both of these websites were scrapped in favour of the unified GOV.UK, a process which I have discussed here before. Old documentation going back decades is incorporated into the site, with notices such as “This was published under the 1983 to 1987 Conservative government.”  slapped on the tops of the pages. Prior to the move, the Prime Minister’s office could be found at number10.gov.uk (or sometimes number-10, just to confuse you). After Brown left office it appears that posts relating to his tenure were hidden to make space for Cameron. It can be seen that many other accounts were changed at this point, in the aim of “reducing potential confusion to users”. I am disinclined to go through every social media account for every ministerial department, but a little checking shows that HM Treasury has been on Flickr and YouTube since 2008 (albeit the only pictures from pre-2010 are apolitical shots of the building). The Home Office likewise established a YouTube channel in 2008 but its earliest videos are from 2012. The Department for Transport’s channel, established in 2009, averts this a little.

Of course, the US President is head of state as well as head of government, so perhaps a comparison with the royal family would be more appropriate. On the other hand, the most recent demise of the crown occurred when computer science had barely emerged as an academic discipline, and long before the creation of the internet. The earliest government crawls make reference to royal.gov.uk, but the first time I can find it is 1998. The site was redesigned a few times over the following years and then, in 2016, was replaced entirely by royal.uk. A YouTube channel debuted in 2007. Of course, the firm is rather large and contains many subsidiary households, such as for the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Cambridge. There was a minor headline some years ago when it emerged that the family had been buying up domain names to prevent them being used for cyber-squatting. Most now simply redirect to the main homepage. A massive archiving and wiping operation upon the current monarch’s decease is unlikely, put perhaps the Prince of Wales site will be handed over to Prince William at the time of his investiture. Let us be thankful that the Duke of Windsor never had a Twitter account.

If Britain has any office that functionally resembles a presidency, it would be the directly elected mayors – be they for cities, counties or regions. The most obvious case, naturally, is the Mayor of Greater London, and not just because its most recent holder is now Prime Minister. Its official Twitter account just says “Tweets before 9 May 2016 are from the previous Mayor.” and hopes you won’t be too confused by the appearance of Sadiq Khan’s face next to Boris Johnson’s words. It could be worse, I suppose.

*Worldometers has the median age of the UK population at 40.5 years, which puts Thatcher’s accession in 1979 a little out of reach.

The Long Arms of the Law

The Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore died on the first of this month, having retired on the last of September. He was both the last Lord of Appeal in Ordinary appointed to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 (just ninety-four days before their respective dissolution and appeal took effect) and the last of that group’s veterans to retire from the successor Supreme Court.

Undeterred by the recent obliteration of so many such pages, I wondered if the law lords were worth an armorial list on Wikipedia, and so have begun to draft one. As with my article last year on Speakers of the House of Commons, I found that there were quite a few names on the list who died so soon after being ennobled that they miss out being recorded in the genealogy books (and the law lords are of course life peers, so no heirs or successors can hold the place). What’s more, those books themselves are in shorter supply than they were last year – whereas Wikipedians used to have access to online scans of Burke’s Peerage from 1949 (on The Internet Archive) and 1959 (on Hathitrust), those files have been removed in the latter half of this year. Our earliest edition now is a copy of Debrett’s Peerage from 1936, and that is a poor-quality scan with many sections of prose missing.

Of course, nowadays the country’s highest judges would not be mentioned in such volumes at all: The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which brought about the change barred those justices already holding peerages from resuming their seats in the House of Lords until their time on the court had ended. Further, a political decision was made that subsequent appointments to the new court would not be ennobled at all, but merely granted courtesy titles akin to those of hereditary peers’ heirs apparent. An exception was made at the start of this year when the new President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed, who had already used the courtesy title Lord Reed since his appointment to the College of Justice in 1998, was substantively created Baron Reed of Allermuir, of Sundridge Park in the London Borough of Bromley, under the Life Peerages Act 1958. It remains to be seen whether this favour will be repeated for his successors in that office.

How then, do I find the missing entries? My experience hunting down the speakers’ arms taught me the importance of looking for unofficial records, especially fan labour. I discovered some time ago the Flickr account of Baz Manning, an older heraldist who has carefully photographed a lot of armorial art and architecture over the years. In particular he has uploaded a scrupulous catalogue of the coats of arms displayed on the walls and windows of Lincoln’s Inn, where so many of Britain’s senior lawyers and judges are trained. The collection of shields of the institution’s alumni stretches back centuries, and proved very helpful to me in resuming my contributions to the Commons, which had petered out in the previous month due to running out of source material. The mean real drawback to using this method is that I have no access to the text of the original blazon, and so can only copy what the previous artist has done, and if any charge or ordinary is unclear in the image I see then it is not possible to identify it. I would not attempt to reverse engineer the blazon from the depiction and risk getting any parts wrong.

Obviously not all of the UK’s judiciary went to Lincoln’s Inn – or even necessarily to the other Inns of Court – but the proportion who did is significant enough to keep my hobby going for the present, and hopefully the presence of such a large armorial display in such a prestigious location dedicated specifically to legal professionals should bolster my case (ahem) for the notability of an armorial list for the law lords, so that it would not be so casually junked as were the others.

EXTERNAL LINKS

More Armorials

Photographs by Baz Manning, 2014

A month ago I mentioned that I was creating a Wikipedia armorial page for schools in the United Kingdom. Since then I have moved the page from Draft to Mainspace. Whether it can be called successful is not yet clear – nobody has attempted to delete it, but few have come to contribute to it either. Having run out of obvious categories of corporate arms, I went back to a personal one. Having already created a page for Speakers of the House of Commons, earlier this year I drafted one for their old counterparts, the Lord Chancellors. These were generally easier to source than those of the speakers of the lower house, for the chancellors acceded to the peerage – and thus the pages of Burke or Debrett – at the beginning of their tenures rather than the end. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 complicates matters somewhat, as the office has since been given to a disturbingly rapid succession of MPs, none of whom are yet armigerous as far as I know. The new, separate office of Lord Speaker has only had three incumbents so far and I have no information on any of their heraldic bearings or lack thereof.

That page having apparently worked, yesterday I embarked on yet another armorial, this time for the Chancellors of the Exchequer. Already I have filled in most of the entries for those who have held the office since the dawn of the eighteenth century, helped in part because the list significantly overlaps with that of the prime ministers. Now I am unsure of how to tread further, for the office is not as simple as it appears. The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom is a merger (confusingly not done until sixteen years after the kingdoms themselves were merged) of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland with the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain. The latter was itself a merger of the Chancellor of the Exchequer of England with the Treasurer-depute of Scotland. The Lord Chancellorship similarly has existed in various forms in multiple polities. I am not sure that it would be possible to make armorial pages for all of them, for some of the lists stretch back to the high medieval era and there are many uncertain entries. If even their names are not remembered then it is not likely that their blazons would be.

On a slightly different note, most major media sources have determined beyond reasonable doubt (though reason has been tested in the last few years) that Joe Biden is the President-elect of the United States. Parliamentary democracies tend to have a full-time shadow cabinet whose members are ready to form the real cabinet at moment’s notice should their party win power. In the states there is a lengthy period between election and inauguration during which the outgoing and incoming presidents negotiate the transfer of power and decisions can be made in advance about the composition of the new administration. In at least the last three instances the transition team has been construed as a formal office with its own website and its own insignia. Obama’s team used a wide rectangle with the national coat of arms adjacent to the name in a stylised typeface, notable in that it shows the heraldic achievement separated from the context of the round seal, and rather resembles the departmental branding seen in Roadkill. Trump used an oval with a depiction of the White House in the centre and his own title around the border. Biden’s team is currently using a minimalist version of the presidential seal with the number 46 at the base. Though its cause was ultimately jossed, in 2012 a Romney transition was planned, its logo being a conjoined circle and oval, the former showing what I assume to be an eagle volant, though the resolution is too poor to make out. I have yet to find one for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It remains to be seen if future presidential transitions will settle on a standardised emblem, for it seems a pity to put so much work into a brand that will only be used for a couple of months. Personally I would quite like to see the shield differenced by the three-point label of an heir apparent – though actually that could belong to the Vice-President as well. Another thing to note is that, at noon on inauguration day the White House website and all associated social media accounts are wiped clean ready for the new president to start again, with all previous content copied swiftly onto an archive site. This is necessary so that communications by an earlier administration are not attributed to those of a later one. I have a faint memory of this being a problem for the Mayor of London’s account on Twitter, where if you crawl back far enough you can see Boris Johnson’s words alongside Sadiq Khan’s face, with somewhat confusing results. It is interesting that since the launch of the World Wide Web there have not yet between two consecutive POTUSes from the same party, and I wonder how the digital transition would then be handled – especially if the new leader had been a senior figure in the administration of his predecessor.

Back to the main topic, recently I discovered (though how recently it happened I cannot say for certain) that the Heraldry Society has released its 2019 articles from The Coat of Arms as downloadable pdfs. The 2020 article titles are listed but presumably the content will remain reserved for members only until next year. The most tantalising of these is Arms and the woman: the heraldry of women parliamentarians by Duncan Sutherland, which I had already seen advertised as a live event but obviously did not have the means to attend. If the lecture was recorded then the video is not one to which I have access.

UPDATE (13th November)

No sooner had I completed the pages than a user by the name of Fram prodded several of them for deletion, as well as a few earlier such armorials that I did not create, on the grounds that the lists of coats of arms are not notable in their own right. I have a week to argue my case. So far nobody else from the heraldry and vexillology project seems to have noticed. Just in case I fail, I have backed up the code for all the affected pages in my own userspace – which was not possible for the Sudrian material on account of the non-free photographs.

 

Lords of the Pod

Today the House of Lords launched a new podcast, hosted by internal communications officer Amy Green and head of research services Matt Purvis.

The first episode focused on the way in which the house had reorganised itself due to the pandemic. The hosts began by talking among themselves to get novice listeners up to speed on the basics, as well as plugging the House of Lords Library. The Lord Speaker was then interviewed about his role and that of the institution more generally in scrutinising government and amending laws.

The Baroness Penn, currently Baby of the House, was appointed a Baroness-in-Waiting and Government Whip on 9 March, told of how her first speech in that capacity was made not from the despatch box in the chamber but from her own kitchen.

The Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall, a deputy speaker, spoke of the difficulties of adjusting at short notice to the new working conditions, with some of the woolsack team not being able to physically attend and others having to be hurriedly trained in the new system without ever having learned the old one.

The Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, Chair of the Public Services Committee, talks about Britain’s ill-preparedness for the pandemic due to lack of prior action on issues such as poverty and obesity, which otherwise might have softened the effects of the virus.

The next episode is due a month from now. The topic has not yet been announced.

The Curious Case of Barron Trump

There are many strange phenomena associated with Donald Trump and his immediate family, who spent many years in business and reality TV before acceding to the heart of government. The one that I will discuss today is the fandom that has developed in the last few years around his youngest son.

Donald Junior (1977) and Eric have been both executives in The Trump Organization and judges on The Apprentice. They are active in their father’s election campaigns and engaged in international business dealings. Ivanka (1981) was a board member of the Donald J. Trump Foundation now serving as Advisor to the President. She participated alongside her father at international conferences and diplomatic meetings. Her husband Jared (1981) was appointed Senior Advisor and Director of the Office of American Innovation, among other things. 2006-born Barron, of course, is too young to be involved in such matters, and his mother has made efforts to maintain for him an appropriate level of distance from public scrutiny. He is rarely heard to speak, and reportedly is not allowed a social media presence, so little can be known about him outside of what few snippets are uttered to the press by his parents and what can be spotted when he is brought to public events.

His relative anonymity gives Barron a fascinating quality – he becomes a sort of blank state onto which others can project their own imagination. Above all, his fans feel a pity for him having to grow up in the shadow of his dysfunctional elders, and a hope that he can be “saved” from their fates as an adult. As is to be expected, there are rumours of autism, with some even suggesting that this could have influenced his father’s credulity to anti-vaccination ideas. It is at least faintly plausible given that the president was fifty-nine years old when he conceived his last son (advanced paternal age being a known risk factor), but I would be more inclined to believe it were this not a trendy claim to make about seemingly everyone in the public eye nowadays. Of course, the common perceptions of those on the spectrum (some true, some false) often overlap with those of the people in these kinds of online communities, which could go some way to explaining why they feel a natural affinity with Barron – or at any rate more of an affinity than feel for the rest of the entourage.

Prior to Barron in 2017, the last minor son of an incumbent POTUS was John F. Kennedy Junior, who was frequently under the spotlight during his years at the White House and is immortalised in the photograph of him saluting his father’s coffin. Generally speaking most presidents’ children in the last century or so reached their majority some time before their fathers’ election, so a dependent First Son is a rarity, which of course adds to the excitement whenever it does occur.

As with much about the Trump family, certain precedents can be found in royal dynasties of centuries ago: Edward of Middleham, lone son of Richard III & Anne Neville, lived so brief and so ill-recorded a life that there is even an uncertainty of four years as to when he was born, and of about forty miles as to where he was buried. Had he not died so young then the course of British history would have been very different – the House of York might have been secured on the throne for many more decades and the Tudor coup of 1485 averted. He is important in that sense, and obviously would have been well-documented had he survived to become king, but as it is he serves as little more than a placeholder. The only contemporary likeness is a crude cartoon on the Rous Roll, and the only personal characteristic recorded was his sickliness. Two other namesake Princes of Wales fare little better: He of Lancaster was active military (and indeed was England’s only heir apparent to die in battle) so we can at least record his movements, but what we know of his personality is limited to a few sensationalist excerpts and is almost certainly exaggerated for propaganda purposes. He of Warwick survived into adulthood, but spent most of his life hidden away in the Tower of London. Again he was important as a placeholder, for Yorkist forces rallied around him as a potential replacement for Henry VII, but almost nothing is known about the man himself except that he had a mental illness, and even that is based on a one-off line written years after his death. He of the Sanctuary fares a little better in this regard, perhaps because he actually made it to the throne if (of only for eleven weeks) and spent nearly all of his life before that as heir apparent. Details were therefore recorded of his upbringing and his education, and we even have a few snippets describing his character. Even so, he is more remembered for his death than for his life. His brother Richard is a case in point – except for his child marriages and peerage there is very little in his biography that would not also apply to Edward V, and it is suggested that so many more pretenders posed as Richard than Edward precisely because the younger son was less well-documented and so granted wider latitude for invention.

For a modern example, one possible candidate is Prince John, youngest son of George V & Mary of Teck. Like Edward of Middleham his health was poor and, like Barron Trump, many suspect autism. In 1916 he was removed from public life and sent to live at Wood Farm on the Sandringham Estate (where the Duke of Edinburgh has lived since retiring in 2017) due to his increasingly-frequent epileptic seizures. He died in 1919. He has been the subject of some intrigue since his death, styled as The Lost Prince or The Windsors’ Tragic Secret. Unlike the earlier examples there was plenty of contemporary documentation of his life, but it was made public for a long time after his death. The void encouraged fiction, and some writers liked to exaggerate John’s seclusion so as to paint the family in a negative light, but later revelations indicate that he was treated as well as could be expected for the time, especially given that the First World War was in full swing.

If I had to single out one example of a historical antecedent for Barron my choice would fall upon Gioffre Borgia, youngest son (if he was his son at all) of Pope Alexander VI, who lacked his relatives’ political ambition. He is generally regarded as the innocent one in a dynasty renowned for its depravity. This is best illustrated in the Horrible Histories song about the family from 2012, in which Gioffre sits in mute confusion while his father and siblings go on about their various crimes, scandals and machinations. Gioffre lived into his thirties, playing a modest role in the Second Italian War and ruling indirectly over the city principality of Squillace.

Barron, at this point, has already most of the people to whom I have referred, and his encounter with SARS-CoV-2 appears not to have caused any harm. Nor, for that matter, has there been any sign of an assassination attempt. Only time will tell which path he ultimately takes, and whether his fans’ hopes will be fulfilled or betrayed. All we can say for certain at this point is that he’ll be extremely tall, which might be an omen for the Cambridge and Sussex children, too.

The Political Colour Wheel

It’s becoming almost cliché to say that the traditional left-right political scale is out of date, or that it doesn’t reflect reality, or that people don’t understand it. Attempts have been made to produce more sophisticated models, such as the ever-popular compass which takes the existing left-right economic axis and adds a vertical one for authoritarian-libertarian. Then you have the horseshoe, separating moderates from extremists.

Today I make my debut on the market with my invention (unless someone else has already done this, but I couldn’t find any examples online) based on the colour wheel (the subtractive one used in art rather than the additive one used in physics, since I know of few political parties that use cyan or magenta livery). The three primary colours represent the three largest political groupings in Western democracies – liberalism in yellow, conservatism in blue and socialism in red. Of course, there are other political subdivisions which can be perceived as hybrids between any two of the big three, and these are represented by the secondary colours.

Of course, despite my best efforts, this one still has major problems:

For one thing I’m not entirely sure that “Populism” is the right name for the purple section. Purple is, in this country, the colour of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which is often described as populist and which drew support from disaffected traditionalist members of the Labour and Conservative parties who did not approve of the economically and socially liberal turns those parties had taken over recent decades. Much of present discourse identifies Liberalism and Populism as the main adversarial forces in worldwide political trends, which corresponds to yellow and purple being opposite on the wheel. Of course, populism can also be described as a style rather than a substance, and one which can be applied to any existing ideology, so some may dispute its appearance here as a discrete category.

Social Democracy is here coloured orange – the hybrid of yellow liberalism and red socialism. Older readers will remember that in the 1980s the Social Democrats were a group that split away from Labour (red) and eventually merged with the Liberals (yellow) to become the party now called the Liberal Democrats (rather than the name referring to the ideology of Liberal Democracy as you might otherwise assume). They have demonstrated some confusion over the years as to what their colour should be, with orange and yellow both in use, sometimes simultaneously. To make matters worse the “Orange Bookers” among the Liberal Democrats are, generally speaking, those on the right of the party who supported to coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, rather than the left who would have preferred to ally with Labour.

Finally the green section for Libertarianism is starkly contrasted with observed practice, where most Libertarians use the same yellow livery that Liberals do. As the names imply, Liberals and Libertarians have similar roots, but in the present day would regard themselves as distinct sects. Libertarians favour maximising personal freedom and minimising the power and influence of government in all aspects of life, often crudely characterised as left-wing on social issues but right-wing on economic ones. This placement on the wheel gives it green by default, but of course in real life that colour is strongly associated with environmentalism, and most parties calling themselves “The Green Party” aim to achieve their anti-pollution goals through highly socialistic economic means (often earning them the epithet “Watermelon“). This makes them the polar opposite of Libertarians on the wheel, and indeed Libertarians in real life tend to oppose most Green policies.

If I had access to a more sophisticated graphics package I might have done the colours on a gradient so that the middle was white and the outer rim black, or vice versa. Of course, those colours are not political opposites either – white normally representing pacifism and black the orthogonal anarchism (or fascism, also seen in brown, which tends to preclude both of these).

Back to the drawing board, I suppose.

FURTHER READING

The New Spitting Image

I was born a year and a half too late to see the original Spitting Image when it aired on television. My first encounter with the series was, if I recall correctly, in late 2013 when I discovered clips from it on YouTube (a great many of which have recently been purged). Occasionally a clip show would include snippets of it, or there would be a nostalgic documentary, but watching the series properly was unfeasible.

Over my lifetime there have been a few attempts to provide a spiritual successor, but none had the staying power – or indeed the cultural weight – of the original. 2DTV (2001-2004) with its crude animation, was eventually cancelled due to low viewing figures. Headcases (2008) ran for just eight episodes. Newzoids, which used physical puppets with CG faces, appeared in advance of the 2015 general election and returned for a second series in late 2016, but then unceremoniously faded away.

Just over a year ago news broke that Spitting Image itself would be returning. Three weeks ago, it finally did. However, as before, I haven’t actually seen it. As with so many new productions, the creators have opted to bypass standard television and go directly to a streaming service. In this instance, the satirical puppet show will be the first original commission on BritBox, which was set up in 2017. It seems that Spitting Image is intended to be the “flagship” of the service which will tempt new viewers aboard. From what I have seen on various forums, there is some skepticism of this approach, with many expressing fatigue at having to juggle so many online subscriptions to get what they previously would have done from broadcast television.

The upshot of all this is that, as with the classic series, I must rely on the clips that are steadily dribbled out on the series’ YouTube channel. I had mixed views about the first few clips – while the visual design was on form, many of the vocal impressions felt lackluster and forgettable, with the action and dialogue not quite having the energy of the original. Still, it was nice to see a few nods to the older series, such as the giant portrait of Margaret Thatcher, Priti Patel reprising Edwina Currie’s role vampire portrayal, or Mike Pence copying John Major’s grey face aesthetic.

Many question now whether political satire is even possible nowadays, when public figures are rarely granted any dignity in the first place and various sectors of society are so offense-prone that any seriously biting comedy is liable to be swiftly shut down. We will have to wait and see whether this franchise is able to weather that storm. Already there is one instance of a sketch being withdrawn – whereas the original dropped a parody of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from its 1987 election special, the new one has quickly removed a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious parody about Jacinda Ardern because the sketch ended with her decapitating a COVID patient, shortly before a real beheading took place in France. A similar incident befell the Doctor Who episode Robot of Sherwood due to the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Can the new Spitting Image succeed? Only time will tell.

 

Visual Details in the BBC’s Roadkill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Peers’ Websites (or Lack Thereof)

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Special Honours

2019 Dissolution Honours

2020 Political Honours

New Ap-peer-ances

The Right Honourable The Lord Vaizey of Didcot PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTERNAL LINKS

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

UPDATE (8th September)

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

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

UPDATE (14th September)

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

UPDATE (29th September)

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

UPDATE (5th October)

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

UPDATE (9th November)

The Lords Stewart of Dirleton, another supernumerary, took his seat today. The footage didn’t cut in until Burton was already some way into the patent. Once Stewart had left the chamber proceedings were delayed while the clerk, another staff-member and a shadow minister fumbled around rearranging the clutter on the table and wiping it with sanitiser. Fowler remarked “No more cleaning?” when they appeared to have finished. To make matters worse, once Burton stood up to give the Lord Speaker the customary nod, a large black object (a cushion, presumably) could be seen to fall from his chair.