MPs and scholars

BtfQIudCcAEfNs7I spent the weekend at Wroxton College – pictured right – in Oxfordshire, for the Eleventh Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians.  I organised it under the auspices of the Centre for Legislative Studies, as I have done for the previous ten Workshops.  The first – in 1994 – was held in Berlin, but the rest have been held in the ideal setting of Wroxton College, housed as it is in a Jacobean mansion – ancestral home of Lord North, Prime Minister under George III – in over fifty acres of wooded grounds.  Held on a biennial basis, it provides an opportunity for scholars to present findings likely to be of interest to parliamentarians.  It is co-sponsored by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), who inform their member branches of the event and hence facilitate the attendance of parliamentarians.

Each Workshop has been successful, but this was probably the most successful.  It attracted a record number of papers – you can see the list here - and the quantity was matched by quality.  Panels covered such topics as legislatures in developing nations, specific legislatures such as the Chinese NPC, engaging with citizens and the press, the Westminster system in context, and legislatures in Europe, and concluded with a plenary session addressing what constitutes an effective legislature.

Those attending were drawn from all five continents, with  MPs, officials or scholars from a range of Commonwealth nations (such as the UK, Australia, Kenya, and the West Indies), but also from nations as diverse as Jordan, Malta, Brazil, Bahrain, Burundi and Tonga.  It made for a fruitful exchange of views and experience, including in the final session.

The final announcement I made in closing the Workshop was that the Twelfth will be held in 2015, instead of 2016, in order to avoid clashing with the biennial International Political Science Association (IPSA) conference.  That means getting under way pretty soon in organising it….

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Hull’s finest: Class of ’14

Bs_zVsTIEAEBrxpThe 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.

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A new Magna Carta?

2014-07-11 13.53.21The 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.

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July competition – the winner

UOH_1022 copyI 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.

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July caption competition

UOH_1022 copyAs 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.

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Summer of writing

052I 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…

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Debating Lords reform

indexFor 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.

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