Easter caption competition

Lord Norton Speaking at Politics Reception MSP_9852 copyThe most popular posts, according to my WordPress statistics, are the caption competitions, though the most extensively read in recent times has been the preceding post on same-sex marriage.  Here’s the latest caption competition.  It is a picture taken at the recent reception in Hull to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hull parliamentary placement scheme.   As usual, the winner will be the reader who provides what in my opinion is the wittiest caption.  The prize will be a copy of either Eminent Parliamentarians or The Voice of the Backbenchers.  That is, unless the winner is Tony Sands, who has now triumphed twice in the competition and so won copies of both.  Given that, I had better add Parliament in British Politics, 2nd ed., to the list.

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Why did the House of Lords vote for same-sex marriage?

54268One of the most notable features of the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act last year was the large majority it achieved in the House of Lords.  It received a Second Reading by 390 votes to 148, with every grouping in the House – Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and cross-benchers – producing a majority in support of the measure.  The scale of support, especially on the Conservative side, was greater than that in the House of Commons.

Why the large majority?  Such an outcome would have been unthinkable twenty years ago.  As Michael McManus points out in his book Tory Pride and Prejudice, there was little support in the Lords for lowering the age of consent or getting rid of Section 28, especially on the Conservative benches.  Those of us on the Conservative side arguing in support of change were in a tiny minority.   When in 2000 I spoke on the Second Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill – to lower the age of consent - I got some strange looks.  The reaction was not confined to my own side.  After I countered the claim that homosexuality was not natural – it is known in many species and is natural to those engaging in it – one Labour peer (ex-MP of the old school) said that he heard what I had said, but nonetheless thought it was unnatural anyway.  He was totally incapable of defining what he meant.

Opponents of change were not only in a majority, but were also well organised: Baroness Young ran an almost military style operation to maximise the vote against change.  Those who were wavering were swept up in the campaign and there was no organisation of any similar scale to counter it.   The Parliament Act had to be invoked in order to achieve the lowering of the age of consent.

Since then, there has a been a notable shift, not too marked to begin with, but gaining ground over time.  Initially, Baroness Young could muster her supporters to vote against change; then it became a case of the Lords rejecting a measure the first time round, but then not mustering a majority when the Commons insisted.  More recently, it became a case of just managing to garner a majority in support of change when a measure was first introduced.  However, there was nothing on the scale of what was witnessed last year.  Even supporters of the Bill were surprised by the size of the majority.

What then explains the outcome?  In part, it was poor organisation on the part of opponents.  Baroness Young was no longer with us and her successors lacked her organisational and political skills.  Opponents also made a tactical error by deciding to force a vote on Second Reading.  A number of peers who were inclined to oppose the Bill felt it wrong for the House to force a vote when the Bill had been passed by such a large majority in the Commons.  They voted for the Bill essentially on constitutional grounds, but in so doing helped create such a large majority that it was then impossible for opponents to challenge it at later stages.

However, there were more pervasive forces at work.  One was the turnover of peers over the years.  The creation of new peers by the Blair and Brown governments resulted in Labour for the first time being the largest party in the House.  However, many new members, inclined to favour reform, also came in on the Conservative side: when Conservative supporters of the Bill organised meetings, some of the newer peers (among them a number of fairly high-profile names) were notable among the attenders.  The introduction of more women into the House also helped: of women peers voting on Second Reading, 86% voted for the Bill.

The turnover, though, is only part of the explanation.  Among those Conservative peers voting for the Bill were long-serving ones who one would not necessarily expect to be natural supporters of the same-sex marriage.  Michael McManus refers to my analysis of party groupings in the parliamentary party in the Commons, but it applies also to the Lords: the ‘party faithful’ essentially were following the general mood and swinging behind change.  What was notable was that this shift was now greater in the Lords than in the House of Commons.  A combination of accepting the will of the Commons, supporting the party leadership (the ministerial team in the Lords proving highly effective) and in some cases apparently peers listening to their children or grandchildren meant a more receptive audience on the Conservative benches than had existed before.  In speaking in support of the Bill, I felt I was arguing a case that was reaching a receptive audience; I had not quite realised until the vote just how receptive.

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Foreign aid and higher education

lordnortonOn Wednesday, I spoke in a debate in the Lords on higher education.  You can read the speech hereI focused on the recommendations of the Higher Education Commission, which I c0-chair, in its report on regulating higher education.  The present system is too disparate, complex and wilting under pressure from significant developments, including the new funding regime and the entry of new providers. What is needed is not more regulation, but better regulation.  Our report offers a new, coherent scheme that maintains pluralism within the system.

However, I ended the speech with a free-standing point.  It concerns how we spend foreign aid.  There is in my view a strong case for devoting more of the aid budget to offering bursaries to study at UK universities.  That would benefit the nations receiving the aid: they would acquire more university graduates who can contribute to their economic and political development.  It would benefit UK universities, not least at a time when there is likely to be a decline in recruitment of overseas students.  It would also benefit the UK in that having UK-educated graduates around the globe is the greatest form of soft power that we have.  It would also mean that the aid was being put to its intended use and not siphoned off by a particular regime.  It would, as I argued, create a virtuous circle.  I suspect even critics of foreign aid would have difficulty decrying its use in this way.  It is something that merits being pursued.

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April’s winner

nortonobamaAs I have already decided which photograph to use for the next caption competition, I think I had better announce the winner of the April competition.  There were some fine entries.  DF Rostron deserves a commendation for a particularly clever entry.   I was anticipating some entries along the lines of: ‘It’s a pleasure to meet such a world renowned figure’.  ‘Well, thank you, Mr President’.   Tony Sands did not disappoint and in doing so came up with what I thought was the funniest entry.  Quite coincidentally, this is the second in a row in which the winning entry is the first one to be submitted.  He wins with:

” Oh really Barack, I get this all the time. Tell me a world leader who hasn’t read the Constitution in Flux and I might be interested!”

Well, it made me laugh.  Runner-up was MrJontyF with an entry that will resonate with my students.

As I know the winner already has a copy of The Voice of the Backbenchers, I will arrange for a copy of Eminent Parliamentarians to find its way to him.

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April caption competition

nortonobamaI thought I would post early the picture for the April caption competition.  This one is somewhat different from those for previous competitions.  It is taken from the BBC coverage of Barack Obama’s address to members of both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall and shows the President meeting me following his speech.  The winner will be the reader who, in my opinion, provides the wittiest caption.  The prize will be a copy of Eminent Parliamentarians or The Voice of the Backbenchers.

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Unexpected attention

_39082269_lordsstill_300The House of Lords yesterday (Friday) debated the House of Lords Reform (No. 2) Bill.  It has already been taken through the Commons by Dan Byles MP and was introduced in the Lords by Lord Steel.  The Bill is a short version of the original Steel Bill.  Because I had a longstanding speaking commitment in Glasgow, I missed the debate.  However, there were several and very kind references to me, in part because I drafted the original Steel Bill and because of my role as convenor of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber.  I wasn’t expecting to be the subject of such comment.  Perhaps I should consider missing more debates…

Much more importantly, the Bill received an unopposed Second Reading.

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Stunning scenery

magical wroxtonI do manage to take the occasional weekend off, usually by arranging something in advance so that I cannot then avoid getting away.  Each year, I celebrate my birthday by spending a weekend with friends: it is a tradition that we gather at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire.  The college is housed in a Jacobean mansion – the ancestral home of Lord North – and set in magnificent grounds.   Here’s a stunning picture of part of the grounds taken by Dr Mark Shephard.  I can claim some credit by suggesting he capture the scene, given that he had remembered to bring his camera with him and I, as usual, had left mine back in my briefcase.

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