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.