The graduation ceremony for Hull politics students took place last Wednesday. The picture shows me with some of the British Politics and Legislative Studies (BPLS) graduates. The results were the best we have ever achieved.
As there was not an honorary degree being awarded at the ceremony, I was invited to be the speaker. My theme was that receiving a degree is not the end of a process, but rather the start of one. The degree is the springboard for one’s future, but the university experience shapes who you are and how you face the world. You may leave the campus, but you remain part of the university and the university remains part of you. This I think is particularly the case with Hull, which attracts remarkable loyalty from its graduates. They are as proud of the university as the university is proud of them.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons has published a report, A new Magna Carta? asking whether the UK needs a codified constitution. It identifies three options: a non-statutory constitutional code (akin to the Cabinet Manual), a Constitutional Consolidation Act, and a written – by which it means an entrenched – constitution.
The report is neutral on the options – it identifies the arguments for and against and invites submissions. However, the chair of the committee, Graham Allen, supports a written constitution and I was on the BBC Daily Politics programme yesterday to debate the issue with him. The debate is essentially about what a constitution is designed to achieve. Some see a constitution as a means of enshrining particular values and constraining public bodies and majority will (negative constitutionalism) while others see it as a means of ensuring the will of the people prevails (positive constitutionalism). Research commissioned by the committee contends that the existing uncodified constitution ‘fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people’. That is questionable and no basis for implementing a reform that would enshrine values above the will of the people. Under our system, the will of the people can be expressed through Parliament – we are closer to a system of positive constitutionalism than are advocates of an entrenched constitution.
Given that a constitution enshrining particular values would require interpretation, and entrenchment would put its provisions beyond the reach of a simple majority in the two Houses of Parliament, we would witness political issues being resolved through a judicial rather than a political process. There is an argument for that, but I believe in a system where political issues are resolved through debate by those elected to represent the people. If people disagree with the outputs of Parliament, they can lobby for a new law to change the situation. If Parliament is deficient as a medium for expressing and defending the interests of electors, that is a case for reforming Parliament, not an argument for an entrenched constitution.
Discussing a codified constitution is, in my view, something of a distraction from addressing flaws in our current arrangements. And, ultimately, the most powerful protector and constraint is the political culture.
I can now reveal the winner of the July caption competition. It was a difficult choice. There were some splendid entries. The number of winners could have run into double figures, but as I announced there would be a winner rather than winners – and dividing one book among several people would create some challenges – I have been disciplined and chosen what I regard as the best from an excellent field.
One or two eagle eyed readers (notably Dave Green and Rob Falconer) picked up on details in the picture that others overlooked. However, there were clear themes, usually relating to lords – or a lord – and, how shall I put this, singing the praises of the lord. I get the impression some readers think that to win they have to appeal to my vanity. That is neither necessary nor sufficient. The key criterion is that the caption has to be witty. If it is witty and appeals to my vanity, then you may be on to a winner….
After long deliberation, I narrowed the entries down to two finalists. They both picked up on Baroness Bottomley’s hand gesture and each seemed to fit especially well. The winner is sbw24 with ‘And Lord Norton’s publications occupy this much space on my new bookshelf.’ (Mark Shephard had a similar idea, but I thought sbw24′s fitted best with the particular gesture.) The runner-up is Alex M with ‘And the cake he brought to the interview was ‘this’ big!’ which combines a salient theme with the particular gesture.
If sbw24 would like to get in touch, a copy of Baroness Trumpington’s Coming Up Trumps will be on its way. And the next time I see Alex M I will buy him a cake.
As it is the start of July, I thought it time to hold another caption competition. These I know prove popular with readers, including some who do not enter the competition but report that they enjoy seeing the entries. This month’s picture shows Baroness Bottomley, Chancellor of the University of Hull, speaking three years ago at the reception at the House of Lords to mark the 25th anniversary of my appointment to a professorship at Hull. As usual, the reader to provide what in my view is the most apt and witty caption will be the winner. The winner will receive a copy of Baroness Trumpington’s best-selling Coming up Trumps.
I usually have a number of publications forthcoming. At the moment, I only have two: a chapter on ‘Continuity and Change in Parliamentarianism in the Twenty-first Century’ for the Routledge Handbook of European Politics and a chapter on the oratory of Enoch Powell.
I am, though, now at work on three other pieces I have been invited to write. One is on the Conservatives and the Coalition, another is on Parliament and the Constitution, and the third is on legislative scrutiny in the House of Lords. I am also working on an article on what happens in the event of the demise of the PM and have a conference paper to prepare on the constitutional implications of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The list is not exhaustive – I have one or two shorter pieces to complete – and is confined to research. I am also in the process of organising the 11th Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, a biennial event that draws members of parliaments and academics from around the globe – it is taking place at the end of next month.
I hope this note is of some interest. It explains much of what I am doing over the summer. I suspect its greatest use, though, will be to me, since it reminds me of what I have to do. Perhaps I should have listed the items as bullet points…
For those interesting in watching Thursday’s debate on the report of the Labour Peers Working Group on Reform of the House of Lords, the first three hours of the debate can be seen here. My own contribution comes at just over 1.43 hours into the debate. There was a clear mood in the House favouring progress on changes, not least of the sort embodied in the original Steel Bill.
I usually wait until I can confirm something before writing about it, rather than anticipating it – just in case it doesn’t happen. I should have realised I was tempting fate by concluding my last post by saying my final commitment of the day was catching the last Hull Trains service to Hull.
I arrived at King’s Cross to find the announcement that the 20:30 service was cancelled. Instead, the instruction was to catch the East Coast 20:35 departure and change at Doncaster: Hull Trains would provide transport from there. This has happened before: Hull Trains normally have a train waiting at Doncaster.
Anyway, as instructed, I caught the 20:35 East Coast service. It left King’s Cross on time. It pulled into Peterborough on time. I noticed we did not leave on time. We were stood in the station for some time before a guard announced: ‘We are sorry for the delay. The British Transport Police are dealing with an incident on the train.’ I have no idea what the incident was. I was not best pleased when I heard someone else in the carriage using a mobile say: ‘We’re delayed. The police are dealing with an incident on the train. It’s not in this carriage. No, no idea. But there was a group get on the service from Hull Trains.’ Hmmm.
Eventually, we set off – the delay, fortunately, was a matter of minutes rather than a anything too dramatic. We reached Doncaster. There was no Hull Trains. Instead, they laid on coaches. I am not a great fan of coaches, primarily because I cannot get on with work. It was a lost hour. The journey was uneventful, but looking at a dark M62 is not especially rewarding. We got to Hull just after midnight.
At least I got from London to Hull and, to be fair, I got back only an hour later than the scheduled time. Even so, it was not the usual smooth journey by Hull Trains - and the end of my previous post requires qualification. I knew I should not have tempted fate…