My article, ‘Speaking for Parliament,’ has been published online by Parliamentary Affairs. It will be appearing in a print edition in due course. It is based on my Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture, delivered in Speaker’s House in July.
The theme of the article is straightforward. For Parliament, these are the best of times, these are the worst of times. They are the best of times in Parliament’s relations with the executive. Both Houses are now more effective in calling government to account than at any point in modern British history. They are the worst of times in terms of Parliament’s relations with the public. People have always been critical of politicians, but recent decades have seen a growing distrust of parliamentarians. The expenses scandal may have exacerbated the distrust, but it is not the cause and has not had the impact parliamentarians attribute to it. The problem is more longstanding.
Parliamentarians have tended to adopt a ‘tin hats’ approach, retreating to the bunker until the problem goes away. Adopting a reactive and passive approach will not help enhance Parliament’s reputation. However, adopting a proactive response is hampered by the unique nature of Parliament. Parliament is an entity that comprises two distinct chambers, each of which is the sum of several hundred independent units. There is no one who can speak for Parliament. There is no equivalent, as in business, to a chair or chief executive who can respond as soon as there is a crisis. There is no CEO of Parliament. The Clerk of each House is the chief executive officer of the House, but is not the same as a company CEO. MPs and peers are not the equivalent of company employees or shareholders. The intrinsic nature of Parliament hinders its capacity to deal with attacks. Doing a good job in scrutinising the executive will not counter popular distrust. Rather, what is needed is for MPs and peers to act proactively to defend and promote the interests of the institution of which they are members.
As regular readers will know, I have variously taken issue with claims that are incorrect, but which have continued to be recycled by commentators. I suspect the problem is exacerbated nowadays by the fact that commercial pressures and a 24-hours news cycle means that news outlets do not have time to check and so simply regurgitate what someone else has said. I thought it may be helpful to draw together some previously identified in posts on the blog. (Click on the italicised title to see the relevant blog post.) As the more avid readers will recall:
1. A Prime Minister can no longer call a ‘snap’ election. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has removed the monarch’s residual power of dissolution. Some commentators, I am pleased to say, do now recognise the implications of the Act. Others are aware the Act exists, so work in reference to it, but along the lines of ‘The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a problem, but it can be fixed’. They do not say how it can be fixed. To me, that suggests that awareness of the Act’s existence does not extend to knowing its provisions. Some still seem to think that the PM can go to the Palace to request an election.
2. Magna Carta 1215 did not establish our liberties. David Cameron when PM made grand claims for the Charter as the basis of our democracy and our rights and liberties. It was not the first charter to concede rights and the rights it was protecting were essentially those of the barons. ‘Freemen’ at the time comprised a rather small body. It was not the basis of jury trials. Insofar as Magna Carta merits celebration in this country, it is the Magna Carta of 1216 (or that of 1225) and not that of 1215.
3. Mhairi Black is not the youngest MP since 1667. This appears to derive from a well-known broadcaster on election night Googling to find the name of the youngest MP in history and assuming that a 20-year old elected in 2015 must be the youngest since that time. Prior to 1832 it was far from unusual for an MP to be returned under age and for the House to accept the election, despite minors being prohibited from sitting. Charles James Fox was elected at the age of 19. One Member was elected in 1832 having just turned 18. Mhairi Black is the youngest MP since 1832. Given that MPs before 1832 who were allowed to sit under age did so despite minors being prohibited from sitting, Ms Black can point out that she is the youngest MP in history lawfully to take her seat.
4. The Conservative 1922 Committee was not formed in 1922. The Committee came into existence in April 1923. Its name derives from the fact that it was formed by a number of Conservative MPs first elected in the general election of 1922. They formed what amounted to a self-help group which they called the Conservative Private Members’ (1922) Committee. It later expanded to encompass all Conservative Private Members.
5. It is more appropriate to say referendums than to say referenda. Some people insist on ‘referenda’ without realising that as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural. That it is more appropriate to use referendums is recognised by Parliament, which is why all parliamentary reports on the subject use ‘referendums’.
I am sure readers can suggest others to add to the list….
August is the one month of the year that is both in the university vacation and parliamentary recess. I therefore have no undergraduate teaching and no formal parliamentary commitments. I normally have few meetings scheduled. One would assume it is therefore the least busy month for me and that I would have time to do plenty of posts on this blog as well as a range of other activities. If only it were so. It tends to be the busiest month.
There is a certain cycle to the month. 1st August comes and goes. At some point, I remember that the first of the month is the anniversary of me receiving my peerage and that I forgot to do something by way of celebration. The first weekend of the month is one of two weekends each year that I routinely take off. However, the rest of the month is devoted to research. This usually means completing various writing commitments. This August, I completed and submitted the manuscripts for two journal articles. I have also completed the text of a short book that is designed as an introduction to reform of the House of Lords.
The point is not only that I am fairly busy, but that once I am engrossed in research and writing I usually become oblivious to time. This can make for some long days, ending with me realising I have not got round to posting much if anything on the blog. I do remember that I need to eat, though it can be mid-afternoon by the time that I realise I need to get some lunch. I can vary meal times according to the state of a manuscript: I never waste time just sitting and eating, when I can be eating and catching up on reading.
September means – this year at least – the House sitting for a couple of weeks and then preparation for the new semester. I will still be getting on with research and writing, but it will be combined with other commitments. Christmas and Easter vacations offer no respite, because there is always marking to do. Oh well, roll on next August.
I am not sure if it is me just getting more irritable or if standards in the media are slipping (I appreciate the two are not mutually exclusive), but I get irritated whenever I see a story in which a reporter writes ‘lead’ for led or in which three or four things are listed followed by ‘and the latter’ (latter can only be used when there are two options). However, most irritating is the way in which headlines are constructed. Syntax is clearly a problem for some writers: ‘he opened the door in his pyjamas’. A good example today is the strapline: ‘Secrets of a Police Marksmen, Channel 4: Tony Long recalls his career and the five people he shot in documentary’. Either they meant ‘Tony Long recalls in this documentary his career and the five people he shot’ or it is a documentary that will have the police rushing to make an arrest.
On the BBC Today programme this morning, Baroness Grey-Thompson was interviewed about this year’s Paralympic Games, but she was referred to throughout as Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson. This is not the first time a Baroness has been referred to as Dame. It has happened before with Baroness Grey-Thompson and with Baronesses Bakewell and Neville-Jones. They were dames before they were ennobled, and it is always possible that the interviewers are not aware of their elevation to the peerage. (Somewhat odd if that is the case given that it is six years since Tanni Grey-Thompson joined the Lords.) Either that, or some presenters at the BBC simply don’t know the difference between a Dame and a Baroness.
I have never noticed a peer who was previously a knight being referred to as Sir.
In an earlier post on my participation at the Judges’ Summit held at the Vatican on Human Trafficking and Organised Crime, I promised to publish more pictures of the occasion. These are some of the official photographs. The one on the right shows me in contemplative mood. To my right are Baroness Butler-Sloss and District Judge Christopher Prince. To my left is a Japanese judge: if he appears to be young, that is because he is, a product of a career judiciary.
The picture on the left shows me signing the declaration deriving from the Summit. All the British participants signed, but with reservations about two of the articles. The final picture (above right) is one of the official pictures of the participants. It was a well attended summit, attracting judges and lawyers from around the globe. As I mentioned in the earlier post, I was the only political scientist attending. I think I can be easily spotted…
There were many very good entries for the July caption competition. They made me laugh, but then created a problem in choosing a winner. Not for the first time, I was spoiled for choice. My initial short list wasn’t that short – I narrowed it down to ten – and then after much deliberation reduced it to four. I focused on those that combined wit with attention to the details of the photograph. In order to narrow it down, I was rather strict (Matthew Oliver thus missed out, for example, with ‘As he looked around Lord Norton commented “this is one of the largest and most attentive audiences I have had for some time”‘ because I wasn’t looking round!). Nicholas Hackett went in for a bit of flattery – ‘Lord Norton statute added to square’ – and was an immediate contender. On a similar but less elevated theme, the contribution of Dean B – ‘Is the guy in black saying “These new inflatable Lord Nortons really make it a lot easier to do my job’ – raised a laugh.
After much reflection, the runner-up is Neil M with a typically original entry: ‘Yes, officer, I was standing in the square when a smartly dressed man approached, punched me in the chest and walked off with my new camera shouting that he needed it for next month’s caption competition. Fortunately, CCTV captured the whole thing.’
The winner, combining topicality with an eye for detail is Mark Shephard with: ‘Do what for Spencer Tunick? I thought I was here for an interview… away with the hands and the blue paint.’
For anybody who does not get the topical reference, see the story of the Sea of Hull here. The prize will be on its way to the winner.