Different hats….

Lord Norton MSP_7912I hold several positions, with the result that I often find I have a fairly full diary as a result of working to fulfil them.  Yesterday was a day for rushing around as a result of wearing several hats.  In the morning it was a case of getting over to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in Victoria Street – a rare opportunity to get out of the Palace – for a meeting wearing my hat as co-chair of the Higher Education Commission, for a preliminary discussion on the funding of taught postgraduate degrees prior to a meeting with the minister next month.  The Commission produced a well-received report in the subject a couple of years ago.

It was then back to the Palace for lunch and then, wearing my dual academic/parliamentarian hat, to the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House to chair a panel on bicameral legislatures, part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s 63rd Westminster Seminar on Parliamentary Practice and Procedure.  The panel comprised parliamentarians from two bicameral systems (Lord Richard from the UK, Senator Omondi from Kenya’s new second chamber) and one unicameral system (New Zealand MP Andrew Williams).  There were several questions, but it was one of those occasions which could have run on for ages.  Andrew Williams conceded that what could be seen as the benefit of a unicameral system (speed in getting measures through) could also be seen as a problem.

I was able to spend some time in the chamber before, wearing my academic hat (teaching), I chaired the final session of the semester with my students on placement in Westminster.  I then headed to the Speaker’s State Rooms for the Speaker’s Lecture by Lord Heseltine on ‘Parliament and Industrial Policy’.  It was a professional performance, detailing and justifying his approach to industrial regeneration.  I attended in my capacity as a parliamentarian, though I have acquired the status of attender-in-chief, the Speaker (not for the first time) drawing attention to the fact I have endeavoured to attend every lecture since they began in January 2011.

The day was unusual, though, in that I managed to  get away from the Palace shortly before 10.00 p.m. – by my standards, an early finish.

Today was somewhat different in that I only had one major commitment.  As a peer, and particularly as convenor of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, I was in the chamber for a five-hour debate on the report of the Labour Peers Working Group on The Future of the House and its Place in the Wider Constitution.  I was one of just over thirty speakers.  It was a useful debate, with a measure of agreement on a number of reforms that could be implemented to strengthen the House.

As for the evening commitment – that’s catching the last Hull Trains service to Hull.  There’s an exam board tomorrow…

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Over here, Your Majesty….

Introduction to LordsFor the State Opening of Parliament, the chamber of the House of Lords is completely reconfigured.  The Table is removed, a boxed seating area for the Diplomatic Corps created, and the bar of the House brought forward to create more space for MPs.  I have already written a post on Lords of the Blog explaining where certain groups sit.  The Diplomatic Corps sit by virtue of seniority.  High Court judges, resplendent in wigs, sit on the Woolsack.  Behind them, there is a bench for the Justices of the Supreme Court (in their black and gold robes) and a bench for the four senior Clerks (in black robes and wigs).  There are also benches for peeresses (the wives of peers and not to be confused with women peers).  The rest of the seating is given over to peers.  The front bench on the right as you face the throne is reserved for current or former holders of senior offices, such as the Leader of the Opposition, Chairman of Committees, former Lord Chancellors and former Leaders of the House.  Baroness Thatcher, as a former Prime Minister, also sat there.  The facing front bench is occupied by the Bishops, on this occasion wearing peers’ robes.

What about the rest of us?  Basically, it is a case of first come, first served.  Members tend to have their preferred slots, but you need to get in early to sit near the front.  I am one of the early birds.  The first two or three benches in the well of the chamber – the ones facing the throne, behind the bench reserved for the Clerks – fill up about 10.00 o’clock.  I am normally on the second or third bench.  I noticed this year that after the front few benches had filled up there was a quarter-of-an-hour or more before the remaining benches started to fill.

This year, I had Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Henley, both former ministers, on my left, and Lord Marlesford on my right.  Lord Marlesford did the equivalent of the German tourist leaving the towel on the seat by arriving early and leaving his programme open on his seat before popping out for a couple of minutes.

I am not sure what value is derived from getting a seat towards the front.  One can get a clear view of the Queen, but one could probably get an even better view from the side benches.  It is the usual case of once you have found a seat you feel comfortable with, you stick with it.  (Not that the benches in the centre are that comfortable – there are no backs to them.)   It used to be the case if you arrived early, you spent about an hour-and-a-half chatting to your neighbours.  Nowadays there are screens and we can see what is going on outside.  Previously, you just sat, knowing what was going on outside – the programme gives very precise timings – but without seeing any of it.

Everything normally goes like clockwork.  This year, it didn’t in that one of the page boys fainted.  He went down with a great thud.  The Queen, however, is a great believer in the show going on and didn’t miss a beat.  We were also impressed by the fact that the Leader of the House, Lord Hill of Oareford, stood holding the Cap of Maintenance, didn’t flinch either.

The State Opening is the one occasion each year when peers wear their robes.  (Some of us own our own, others are hired or obtained by ballot.)  Nonetheless, the pictures of State Opening are the ones that will usually be used to illustrate any story about the House.   One recent report compounded matters by just showing a picture of the High Court judges on the Woolsack.  To be fair, a BBC News Online story about the House did try to get away from the standard picture and instead published a picture of a sitting of the House.  Unfortunately, it was a (pre-2009) picture of a judicial sitting – the Law Lords sat delivering judgments.

All this fuels the discussion as to whether we should not wear robes for this grand occasion.  There is a separate discussion, given the pressure on space (not least MPs having to squeeze in below the bar of the House), as to whether the ceremony itself should be elsewhere.  One could create more space by not allowing, say, the Diplomatic Corps or the peeresses to sit in the chamber.  At the moment, though, there does not appear sufficient momentum for any major change.  The biggest challenge, anyway, may come if both Houses have to decant the Palace for some years to enable  essential building works  to be carried out.

And I haven’t even addressed the question of whether we need an annual Queen’s Speech…

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A short contribution….

indexWednesday was the fourth and final day of debate on the Queen’s Speech.  Even with four days, the number of subjects drawn together for each day meant that the contributions in each  ranged rather widely.  Wednesday’s debate, for example, covered devolution and constitutional affairs, foreign and Commonwealth affairs, international development, defence, and culture.  One speaker would be covering the situation in Ukraine, another the value of the Commonwealth, and yet another the importance of maintaining the union.  There were over eighty speakers.  As a result, we sat earlier than usual and, even so, there was an advisory time limit for each back-bench speaker of five minutes.

I spoke on constitutional issues – I was speaker number 71 –  and, being well behaved, I kept to the five-minute limit.  I didn’t see much point in repeating what others said and instead raised two points which, if I didn’t raise them, no one else would.  You can read the speech here.  The second of my two points concerned potential consequences of the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  The Act stipulates the conditions in which an early election can take place.  It is possible to envision a situation in which dissident Government backbenchers, or a third party, joined with the Opposition to defeat the Government on a major issue of public policy, but – not wanting an early election – not be prepared to vote with the Opposition on a motion of no confidence.  No provision of the Act would therefore be triggered.  The Government may feel that it could nonetheless not continue and opt to resign.  We would then be in uncharted waters.  The Government has gone, but there can be no early election.  What does the Queen do?

Lest anyone think this is so unlikely we don’t need to worry about it, I can think of at least one major case where it may have happened had the Act been in force…

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May competition… and the winner is

nortonDebate-4[1]The latest caption competition produced some excellent entries.  The problem for me has been choosing between them.  I was impressed by how observant many readers were.  Some based their entries on the fact that I appeared to be clenching my fist; Dean Bullen noted that I looked as if I was about to do the Twist.  Others drew on the surroundings, be it the provision or otherwise of drink or cake, or posture of members of the audience – maude elwes clearly mistook the momentary closing of the eyes of the student on the right, where he is obviously pausing to absorb my latest profundity.  Others were more esoteric – Ilona Wheldale seemed to be on another planet or at least lost in another galaxy.  franksummers3ba lapsed into poetry, with an entry that may not win him the contest, but would merit being on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’ – and be much better than many of the poems they do use.  I am pleased that the competition has also facilitated a Transatlantic embrace between him and maude elwes.

Anyway, on to the serious business. Who has won?  I went through the entries a number of times and narrowed it down to two or three.   DF Rostron was a serious contender with ‘Coalition Government, I can see you are all successfully containing your excitement on the subject’.  However, based on the actual posture I was adopting, it came down to a choice between Tony Sands (‘I suppose I am the Carl Froch of Parliamentary Studies’), Tory Boy (Lord Norton informs students how to make a right hook in the House of Lords) and Dean Bullen (‘Before moving on to what I see as the unforeseen consequences of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, I will briefly demonstrate how to do the Twist’).   I think Dean Bullen has the edge in terms of the laugh-out-loud factor and he is therefore the winner.  If he gets in touch, the prize will soon be on its way.


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Late May caption competition

nortonDebate-4[1]I had not realised how much time has passed since the last caption competition.  So here is a late May competition.  It is another picture from the occasion when I spoke at Imperial College.  (The photographer probably deserves a prize for all the splendid action shots.)   The reader to provide what, in my opinion, is the wittiest caption will win a copy of The Voice of the Backbenchers or the 8th edition of Politics UK.   Let the entries roll…

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Not so brave

indexI was interested to see that Janet Yellen was recently confirmed as chair of the Federal Reserve in the USA.  I once chaired a meeting she addressed in London.  I am not sure why I was invited to chair it.   I suspect it was not because of my renowned expertise in international finance.  I remember it especially because when I invited questions the young city types in the audience seemed reticent about speaking, so I asked some questions that I regarded as fairly unexceptional and benign.  I received thoughtful answers.  It was only when I was leaving that some of those attending came up to me to say things along the lines of ‘I am so glad you asked that’, ‘you were brave asking that’.

Longstanding readers may recall that I have reported being at other meetings when I have had a similar experience.  I seem to have a knack of asking things that I regard as unexceptional, only for others to think I am being daring.  I was also recently with the CEO of a leading company when we bumped into a colleague in the Lords who was an old friend of the CEO.  The colleague immediately began to say kind things about me, including ‘he was so brave, he led the revolt in the Lords on….’.  The background noise was such that I didn’t catch what it was I had led the revolt on that merited the description.

What do I draw from these experiences?  The fact that I sometimes see things slightly different from others is something of which I have long been aware.  The more reflective consideration is what it means to be brave.  My view is that none of these experiences merit that description in the slightest.  In my view it is not brave unless one recognises one is doing something dangerous.  There’s nothing dangerous about me raising questions, however iconoclastic or idiosyncratic, in meetings.  The reaction doesn’t concern me in the slightest.  There’s also nothing especially brave about leading a revolt or speaking out in the Lords.  I remember when I spoke in 2000 in support of lowering the age of consent I had peers coming up the next day to congratulate me and, yes, say how brave I was.  I just took the view I had something to say.

People who are brave are those who face situations that they know or believe to be dangerous.  I don’t recall doing anything dangerous – well, except getting on planes…

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Coming up Trumps

26669_jpgThe autobiography of Baroness Trumpington – Coming Up Trumps – is, I gather, proving a best-seller.   She has, characteristically, said that she did not write it and has not read it, but those who know her recognise the words as being hers.  It is a highly readable work.  Although not heavily focused on her parliamentary career, she empathises her love for the House of Lords.

Given that there are various readers who I know are great fans of hers, a copy of the book will be the prize in the next caption competition….

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