Revisiting ‘The Conservative Nation’

I recently took part in a seminar, organised by Political Quarterly, to discuss the work of Andrew Gamble, author of numerousCover image works on political science, including The Conservative Nation, and a colleague when I was at the University of Sheffield.  My paper was titled ‘The Conservative Nation Redivivus?’ and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal.  It has already been published online.  Here is the abstract:

“This article addresses the relationship between Andrew Gamble’s study of the Conservative nation and his more recent advocacy of a social democratic constitution. It argues that the former—the nature of the Conservative Party, mobilising support successfully—may serve to prevent the realisation of the latter, the Conservative view of the constitution prevailing over pressures for a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom. Whereas the analysis of the Conservative nation is grounded in, and can only be understood by reference to, an appreciation of political realities, the approach to constitutional change embraced by Gamble is largely apolitical, concerned primarily with ends to the neglect of means.”

I hope that may whet the appetite to read the article.  The analysis draws on my previous typology of Prime Ministers as well as the criteria I have advanced in earlier works both for Conservative success and for achieving desired outcomes.

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Maintaining the Palace of Westminster

Three years ago I asked a question about the cost of repairing and maintaining the Palace of Westminster in the period leading up to the expected decant of the Palace for the Restoration and Renewal Programme.   The annual cost of simply keeping the Palace habitable while undertaking various projects is substantial.  I returned to the issue earlier this month and basically sought an update on costs as well as asking about the estimated risk of catastrophic failure of essential services over the next few years.   The answer, from the Senior Deputy Speaker, is reproduced below.  With major projects included, the cost in the period 2021-25 is over £400m.   By the time we decant, I suspect it will have gone over £500m.  There is also a medium risk of an essential service, such as water, failing.  At least the risk of unexploded ordinance going off is very low.


27 May 2021

The forecast cost of repair and maintenance of the Palace of Westminster in each year from 2022/23 to 2024/25, as per the most recent Medium Term Financial Plans, is set out in the table below. This includes the forecast spend on both maintenance and major projects on the Palace. There is not yet a reliable forecast for repair and maintenance beyond the 2024/25 financial year.

2021/22 2022/23 2023/24 2024/25
Planned preventative & Reactive maintenance £7,821,724 £8,156,641 £8,134,727 £8,218,493
Minor projects £2,212,473 £2,212,473 £2,212,473 £2,212,473
Maintenance team £5,013,950 £5,013,950 £5,013,950 £5,013,950
Maintenance and Minor projects £15,048,146 £15,383,063 £15,361,149 £15,444,916
Major projects £102,393,805 £140,357,071 £98,586,481 £23,504,834
Total £117,441,951 £155,740,134 £113,947,630 £38,949,749

The risks of failure relating to the physical condition of the Palace of Westminster are reviewed and mitigated as part of the operation and maintenance of the Parliamentary Estate. These risks include fire, hitting uncharted underground services, unexploded ordnance, and failure of legally required services, all of which have mitigation plans in place to reduce the risk of failure. The table below shows the current assessment of the likelihood of the top five risk events in relation to catastrophic failure.

Top 5 Risk Events in relation to Catastrophic Failure Likelihood
Fire during construction work Low
Collapsing structures Very Low
Uncharted underground services Very Low
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) or other hazardous materials Very Low
Failure of legally required services (e.g. water) Medium

Source: In-House Services and Strategic Estates Health and Safety & maintenance team risk

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Debating the Constitution

At the beginning of a new session, several days in each House are devoted to debating the 44105 Queen’s Speech, with each day allocated to a particular topic.  On Thursday of last week, the debate in the Lords was on the Constitution and the Union.  I spoke in the debate.  Given the number of speakers, the advisory speaking time was 5 minutes.  I focused on the Union, making more general comments on other constitutional issues in the last minute or so of the talk.  The speech can be read here.

My principal point was that we need to be making the case for the Union, emphasising the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, rather than being in response mode, reacting to pressure from those demanding independence and in effect making concession after concession, in the mistaken belief that this will stave off pressure for separation.  I quoted from the Constitution Committee’s excellent 2016 report, The Union and devolution (which can be read here).  It noted the ad hoc way in which power had been devolved and declared:

‘This haphazard approach to the UK’s constitution, in which power has been devolved without any counter-balancing steps to protect the Union, recently culminated in an existentialist threat in the form of a referendum on Scottish independence.  An inattentive approach to the integrity of the Union cannot continue.’

Had the Government paid more attention to the report – and indeed to other reports from the Committee on devolution, including the 2003 report  (which can be read here) on Devolution: Inter-Institutional Relations in the United Kingdom – when I chaired the Committee – it may well have been in a much stronger position.

I also made the point that we need to be making the case for the Union in all parts of the United Kingdom.  The attempts to keep Scotland in particular in the Union have exacerbated the English question, stoking resentment south of the border at the perceived beneficial treatment of Scotland (the Barnett formula, the West Lothian question).  All parts of the United Kingdom benefit from the Union.  We need to stress the benefits of remaining one constitutional union under the Crown.

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Webinar on Governing Britain

The recording of last week’s Hull University Centre for British Politics webinar on GoverningE0ikqwwXoAIj4c5 Britain can now be viewed here.

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Weighty tomes…

On Wednesday, I took part in a Hull University Centre for British Politics webinar on ‘GoverningE0ikqwwXoAIj4c5 Britain’, hosted by my colleague Dr Liz Monaghan.  It was an opportunity for her and members of the online audience to put questions about the themes developed in the book.  A recording of it should soon be available online.

There were some very good questions, not only about the book, but also about my other publications.  One was ‘What is the biggest book you have written?’  I replied that it was my first, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-74, published by Macmillan in 1975.  As20170214_192707 longstanding readers may recall, it is now available in a softcover edition.  It runs to 643 pages.  I think it fair to describe it as a solid volume of data.  My other volume on dissension, Dissension in the House of Commons 1974-1979, published by the Clarendon Press in 1980, ran to 524 pages.  I have just worked out that my first three books ran to just under 1,500 pages (1,498 to be precise).  As for the length of the typed manuscripts…

I also immediately clarified that the first Dissension volume was the longest for which I was solely responsible.  I have edited or co-authored some substantial volumes.  Legislatures and Legislators, which I edited, runs to 571 pages.  And Politics UK, which I co-author with Bill Jones and others, typically runs to about 700 pages: the 9th edition has 691 pages.  The tenth edition of the book is being published this summer.

Fear not, there is a punchline to all this…

For some reason, when someone says to me ‘I have read all your books’, I am always a little skeptical.

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The changing constituency roles of the MP

There is no job description for an MP.  Each represents a constituency and how they do so isvoting shaped by their own interpretation as well as by the expectations of constituents.  There is no one constituency role, but rather several.  In earlier research, I identified seven:

  • A safety valve, enabling citizen to express their views via their Member of Parliament; just writing can be a benefit to the citizen in getting something off their chest.
  • Information provider, giving information or advice to constituents, be it in response to a letter or call or being proactive in sending information to constituents, for example through a newsletter.
  • Local dignitary, being seen at local events and attending civic gatherings.
  • Advocate, giving support to a particular cause, by lending one’s name to a campaign or promoting it in speeches or other activities.
  • Benefactor, providing benefits to constituents or local bodies who seek them, be it the needy or greedy, through helping with subscriptions or material resources.
  • Powerful friend, intervening with Government or other agencies to achieve a redress of grievances or other assistance.
  • Promoter of constituency interests, advancing and defending interests within the constituency, such as intervening to try to save a local firm or concern, such as a dockyard, threatened with closure.

The extent to which these roles are fulfilled effectively will vary from MP to MP.  Some MPs are more constituency focused than others.  For some, being elected as an MP is the necessary first step to ministerial office.  For others, it is a means for achieving policy goals.  Donald Searing’s study of Westminster roles found that a good proportion of MPs served primarily as policy advocates.  Others see their role primarily as constituency Members.  We know from surveys of MPs that, though they are more likely to see their primary role in terms of scrutinizing legislation and government, they nonetheless get job satisfaction from helping constituents. 

How well the roles are fulfilled will also vary not only according to the inclination of MPs, but also their skills.  Some Members are more adept than others in working to achieve a redress or grievance or putting pressure on ministers to ensure a local industry is not closed.  On occasion, a Government backbencher has threatened to resign and force a by-election, which helps concentrate the minds of ministers and whips.

What is expected of the MP will also vary from constituency to constituency.  Some MPs will be heavily engaged on immigration cases.  Some will have a much lighter load than others.  The significance of the roles has also changed over time.  Until well into the 20th Century, the benefactor role was prominent.  Being an MP was not something that brought financial reward – until 1912, there was no salary – but rather was a drain on a candidate’s wealth.  On the Conservative side, the local MP was expected to help fund the local association and the election campaign.  As one politician recalled, he was identified in 1879 as a likely successor to an MP of advanced age, but ‘A contest would have cost £10,000.  I consequently refused the offer, being quite unable to pay my share’ (The Earl of Midleton MP, Records and Reactions 1856-1939, 1939, p. 55).  MPs were expected to pay an annual amount to the local party.  However, it was the benefactor role, serving a range of interests in the constituency, that was pervasive.  Sir Gervais Rentoul, elected as MP for Lowestoft in 1922, summed up the financial demands of both supporting the local party and local bodies:

‘I know as a fact of many constituencies where the prospective candidate has been required to promise an annual contribution to his Association of £1,500 or £2,000, in addition to paying the whole of his election expenses, and subscribing ad lib. to every hospital charity, cricket club, bowls club, football club, tennis club, and similar institutions throughout the division.  Indeed, something of this kind, though a smaller scale, I admit is the rule rather than the exception’ (Gervais Rentoul, This Is My Case, 1944, p. 82). 

In the case of Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), elected as MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in 1910, he received regular pleadings from constituents: ‘Nearly always a donation or subscription was involved… There was also a stream of begging letters from individuals.  All were looked into…  Often he would ask his agents to give a needy family food or clothes rather than cash’ (A. Chisholm and M. Davie, Beaverbrook: A Life, 1993, p. 85).

MPs may have spent money on securing their seats, but were not expected (or prepared) to spend much time in the constituency.  Some visited infrequently and saw having to be at constituency as a chore.  It was not unknown for Members to spend months out of the country travelling. 

That changed as the century progressed.  More MPs were elected, especially on the Labour benches, who were not financially wealthy.  In post-war years, the House became more middle-class.  On the Conservative side, the Maxwell-Fyfe reforms limited what Members could contribute to the local party.  In post-war years, the state in large measure took over the benefactor role.   Instead, the focus shifted to the other constituency roles.  MPs now devoted not money, Continue reading

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RIP Trevor Smith

I was very sad to see that Trevor Smith, Lord Smith of Clifton, had died.  (The Clifton in the title"HOL0018","Professor the Lord","Smith of Clifton",,"HOL",,"10/06/03" is Clifton, York, not – as many assumed – Clifton, Bristol.)  Until he retired from the Lords two years ago, he was part of the ‘Hull mafia’ in the House.  At the time, virtually all the political scientists in the House had taught at or studied in the Politics Department at Hull.  Trevor started his teaching career in the Department, being appointed in 1962 – a year after the Department was founded – as an assistant lecturer in public administration.  He was promoted to lecturer in 1964 and left in 1967 to pursue his academic career elsewhere.  He was eventually to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster.

Trevor was renowned for being an excellent mimic (not least of his  colleagues from his days in Hull) and had a notable sense of humour.  At one point, we decided that, as those peers who had held senior judicial officer were addressed as ‘noble and learned’ and those who held field rank in the armed forces were ‘noble and gallant’, professors should be addressed as ‘noble and scholarly’.  We decided to try this out in the chamber on an occasion when we were both contributing.  I referred to him as the noble and scholarly Lord and he referred to me in the same way.  Hansard clearly didn’t want to play ball and changed one reference to ‘the scholarly and noble Lord’ and the other to ‘the noble – and scholarly – Lord’.

Although physically somewhat infirm in later years, he continued to play an active part in the Lords, not least speaking on Northern Ireland.  Shortly before retiring from the House, he published his memoirs in which he made clear his affection for Hull.  He was part of a small Department, but one that produced some distinguished political scientists.

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Parliament and COVID-19

Earlier today, I took part in a panel discussion organised by the Institute for Government on Parliament and the Pandemic: The Legacy of COVID-19.  Also on the panel was a former student of mine, Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford and a former Sports Minister, and Matthew Hamlyn, a senior member of the parliamentary staff.  We discussed the challenges and the opportunities posed by the pandemic and what changes may be retained by either House once we are able to return to some degree of normality.

I was able to develop a theme I have pursued before, which regular readers will recognise, of the challenges posed by members not being able to meet informally.  We have managed to recreate formal space – proceedings in the chamber and committee – but not informal space; as I mentioned, there is no virtual Bishop’s Bar and no virtual corridors.  Meeting informally is crucial for information exchange and lobbying; it is also important for the socialisation of new members.  I also delineated other pressures that limit the House in fulfilling its scrutinising functions.

Looking ahead, I drew a distinction between continuity and reversion.  By that, I refer to those changes that may be continued once Westminster comes out of the present situation and those that may not be continued immediately, but may be reverted to once both Houses decant (as decant we must) for the restoration and renewal programme.  There may be an attempt to revert to some of the current practices for the sake of saving space, as well as for convenience, but not necessarily for the benefit of either House in carrying out its functions.  It may also distract from focusing on creating space for members to meet informally as well as expanding public space – that is, the capacity for the public to engage with MPs and peers – which should also be core to the restoration and renewal programme.

You can watch the seminar via the Institute for Government website:

Parliament and the pandemic: the legacy of Covid-19 | The Institute for Government

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Published and forthcoming…

The past year has not been an unproductive one in terms of publications.  The picture shows my output since last summer in terms of works I have authored or edited as well as those to which I have contributed chapters or articles.


I have given a number of talks on the themes developed in Governing Britain, which I gather continues to sell well.  It has variously returned to a high listing in sales in the ‘States and Constitutions’ section on Amazon – earlier today it was back in the top ten – and I have much appreciated positive comments from readers.   Next week, I will be recording a podcast with Iain Dale to discuss my short chapter in The Prime Ministers on the premiership of Anthony Eden.

Not being one to rest on my laurels, I have a number of publications in train, some in press and some shorty to be submitted.  I shall be contributing a short chapter for Iain Dale’s next book, which will be on American Presidents: I have penned the chapter on William Howard Taft, the only President who also served as Chief Justice of the United States.  Between now and the autumn, I have six other writing commitments to complete, most on constitutional issues.  However, in terms of what is already in press, the most substantial forthcoming publication, due out in the summer, is the tenth edition of Politics UK, which Bill Jones and I have produced, along with other contributors, since 1984.  It has established itself as a, if not the, leading textbook on British politics.

Politics UK

We tend to produce a new edition every three years or so.  Given what is happening in British politics, it is always a challenge ensuring it is up-to-date.  As for the cover, it could be described as an idealized picture – no scaffolding!

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Remembering Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams

I was very sad to read of the death at 90 of Shirley Williams – Baroness Williams of Crosby.  She had been an active member of the House of Lords until her retirement and I gather she rather regretted no longer being able to participate in proceedings. 

Apart from her commitment to British politics, she also took an interest in American politics and variously figured in the quizzes in my course on the US presidency, given that she married Richard E. Neustadt, whose work Presidential Power was a staple of the course.

She was famously disorganised and one of the best stories about her, which may or may not be true, but which has a ring of truth about it, is an occasion when she was rushing to catch a train. As she approached the barrier, she began scrambling in her bag for her ticket. The ticket inspector on the gate recognised her and said ‘That’s all right Mrs Williams, we know who you are’. ‘Oh’, she replied, ‘I’m not trying to find it for you. I need to look at it to find out where I am supposed to be going’.

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