Summer caption competition…

A question variously asked by some readers is not ‘When is your next scholarly post? The nation awaits’ but ‘When is the next caption competition?’  Conscious that some months have passed since the last one, here is one to test your imaginative skills.  I am always impressed by the ingenious captions devised by some readers, so let us see if this inspires great wit.  The photograph is taken from a debate on reform of the House of Lords held by the splendid Hull University Politics Society.  Lord Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, is on the left (in more senses than one) and I am on the right.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who comes up with the caption that I regard as the wittiest and most appropriate in context.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.  The most obvious in the circumstances is Reform of the House of Lords.  In case the winner is someone with most or all of my recent publications, I did think recently of what I thought was an attractive alternative.  Unfortunately, I have forgotten what it was.  I am at that age.  But if I remember…

Let the entries begin.  Paging Dean Bullen and Tony Sands.

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Brace, brace, brace…

I find fascinating National Geographic channel programmes on why ‘planes crash.  As a result, I have seen a fair number on ‘planes crash landing.  Watching them doesn’t do much to dispel my dislike of flying.  It occurs to me that it does, though, have some use for explaining current political events.

Think of No Deal Brexit as analogous to a ‘plane in which the pilot finds problems with the landing gear (aka Withdrawal Agreement) and is making preparation to crash land without the landing gear deployed if he cannot resolve the problem.  Passengers and emergency services are being prepared in case of a crash landing.  People are naturally worried, some petrified, of what may happen.  No nation has withdrawn from the EU under Article 50 of the TEU.  However, several planes have landed without landing gear deployed.  What we can say is that landing will be a bumpy experience.  Some ‘planes have crash landed in one part and with all passengers able to decant safely.  Others have gone off the runway and partially broken up.  Some have become a fireball.  The key point is that no one knows for certain what will happen.

Some people are pressing the pilot to stay in the air until the problem with the landing gear is resolved, if it can be.  (Some want to remain flying in any event.)  There is also an alternative pilot banging on the cockpit door demanding to be let in to take over the controls.

The analogy is not perfect, but I employ it to make the point that one cannot know for sure what will happen.  Much depends on the skills of the pilot and crew, the design and resilience of the aircraft, and prevailing weather conditions.  One can draw attention to these in forecasting what may happen – some people are more knowledgeable than others about these features – but it is only after the event that one will be able to explain with certainty what has happened.

This is perhaps a long winded way of explaining why when I am asked to say what will happen I politely demur.  At least I can now refer people to this blog.

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Bringing scholars and parliamentarians together

In 1994, I organized a Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, designed to draw together academics and members of parliaments so that research findings likely to be of practical interest to parliamentarians could be presented and discussed.  It was co-sponsored by the Research Committee of Legislative Specialists (RCLS) of the International Political Science Association (I was co-chair of the RCLS), the University of Hull Centre for Legislative Studies (of which I was, and am, Director), and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).  Held at WZB (the Berlin Science Centre), it proved very successful and I agreed to organize a second one two  years later.  I did so at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire – housed in a magnificent Jacobean mansion (pictured) – and have continued to do so ever since.  Each has been co-sponsored by the Centre for Legislative Studies and the IPU.  The support of the IPU has been invaluable, as it ensures that all parliaments are informed of the event.

The 14th Workshop was held at Wroxton College at the weekend (27-28 July 2019), drawing academics and practitioners (pictured on the steps of the College) from a total of 27 countries spanning all continents.  The countries represented included Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Cambodia, China, Finland, Greece, Guyana, Israel, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, Oman, and Sri Lanka.  A total of 27 papers was delivered, spanning a range of topics, including benchmarks for democratic legislatures, post-legislative scrutiny, and the capacity of parliaments to contribute to achieving sustainable development goals.  The final session is usually a plenary session, and on this occasion it was chaired by Meg Munn, former UK minister for women and Foreign Office junior minister, and devoted to discussing the IPU reports on Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, and Sexism, harrassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe.

In opening the Workshop, I made the point that the reason for gathering was that parliaments matter.  They are necessary to give approval to measures of public policy that are to be binding.  They are thus institutionally powerful bodies.  They do, though, differ – I referred to my typology of policy-making legislatures, policy-influencing legislatures, and legislatures with little or no policy effect.  We can learn from one another.  In closing the Workshop, I emphasized that the papers demonstrated not only the importance of legislatures, but also the significance of parliamentarians.  What came across was the fact that sponsor and aid bodies do not always realise the value of parliaments and members of parliament in facilitating development.

The event proved highly rewarding, with consistently high quality papers and excellent engagement between scholars and parliamentarians, not only during panel sessions, but also in the intervals between.  The venue lends itself to such informal dialogue.  The programme and the papers delivered at the Workshop are available on the Workshop website http://www.wroxtonworkshop.org

The 15th Workshop will be held at Wroxton in July 2021.  Further details will be posted on the Workshop website.

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Magna Carta to Brexit…

The academic term may have ended, but I am still the throes of marking as well as speaking on a range of topics – not least Magna Carta, peers’ voting rights, and Brexit, though not necessarily in that order – and chairing the first meeting of the new inquiry by the Higher Education Commission.

Monday morning was taken up explaining the British political system, and where we now are with Brexit, to a delegation of provincial legislators from Guangdong in China.  Given the content, and simultaneous translation, it was quite a challenging exercise.  I had to go from speaking to them in the Lords to the British Academy to participate in a conference, organised by The UK in a Changing Europe, on ‘Brexit and the Constitution’.  I was part of a panel (pictured) discussing ‘What kind of democracy: representative, direct, deliberative?’   My brief was to address some of the difficult questions that Brexit process poses for Parliament.  It enabled me to return to the theme I developed in Bingham Lecture in Oxford in May, as summarised in my earlier post.  I drew out the challenges posed for representative government by referendums and transient majorities in Parliament.

On Tuesday, my principal task was chairing the Higher Education Commission.  We were getting our latest inquiry under way, examining the experience of disabled students in higher education.  As chair of the Commission, I co-chair each of the inquiries, with my co-chair being someone with a particular expertise in the subject.  For this inquiry, I have two co-chairs, Lord Blunkett and Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby (pictured).  As Lord Blunkett reminded everyone, we go back a long way, having been politics undergraduates together at the University of Sheffield.  It proved to be a productive scoping session, with some new commissioners who have experience in the subject.  We will hold our first evidence session in September.

Yesterday (Thursday), I was in Hull to speak to High Court judges from different provinces in Pakistan (pictured), on the continuing relevance, or otherwise, of Magna Carta.  This is part of a regular judicial training programme held at the University for judges from Pakistan, organised by Professor Niaz Shah.  I speak on each programme, developing points from my 2015 High Sheriff’s Magna Carta lecture, summarised in a blog post at the time, in which I identify claims made for Magna Carta and explain why they are not valid.  The charter is more significant for its symbolism than its substance.

This morning (Friday), I was back in Westminster to speak in the Second Reading debate on the Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill – the subject of my preceding post – to enable peers to vote in parliamentary elections.  I noted that there was not exactly pressure for change, be it from inside or outside the House, and indeed made reference to the responses to my previous blog post.  On the issue of principle, I drew out that if the argument was that we were denied a fundamental right, then so too were those in prison.  Prisoners cannot vote and Members of the Lords, rather obviously, have significant privileges which prisoners do not.  We have a voice in Parliament.  Although four backbench speakers supported the Bill, against two speaking against, it was notable that those supporting the Bill sat down to silence.

In replying to the debate, the sponsor, Lord Naseby, said he would organise a protest outside the House in support of peers having a vote and noted that the fact that there were only two responses to my blog post may tell one something about the blog.  He has clearly never taken part in a caption competition.

That has not been the only Bill before the House this week.  The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill has attracted somewhat greater attention and returns to the House on Monday, when we also begin committee stage of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill.  There are also other political events next week likely to distract us…

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Should peers be allowed to vote for MPs?

On Friday, the House of Lords will debate a Private Member’s Bill that has the single purpose of removing the ban on members of the Lords voting in elections for Members of the House of Commons.

In 1699 the House of Commons passed a resolution barring peers from voting: “Resolved, nemine contradicente, that no peer of this Kingdom hath any right to give his vote in the election for any member to serve in Parliament”.  It continued to do so until 1999.  Up to that point, the courts had variously held, as in Earl Beauchamp v Madresfield [1872], that being a peer disqualified one from voting.   The passage of the House of Lords Act 1999 moved the disqualification from existing in common law to one, by implication, having a statutory basis, with the ban no longer applying to peers as such, but only to those who held a seat in the House.  Hereditary peers not elected to sit in the House, and peers who retire from the House under the terms of the 2014 House of Lords Reform Act, can vote in parliamentary elections.

The Lords Spiritual – who sit as Lords of Parliament – are entitled to vote, but usually do not do so.  This has sometimes been expressed as a convention, but it appears that in the past some senior clergy have admitted to voting.

Given than the ban applies to those who already have a seat in Parliament, one can see the argument that they should not also vote for members of the other House.  One already has a voice in Parliament.  It may not be as great as that of an MP, given that the Commons decides matters of taxation, but unlike MPs one’s place is permanent.  There is also the argument that it may not be wise to be seeking greater powers for ourselves.  The votes of peers in a general election are not likely to swing the outcome, but the fact of having the right to vote over and above having a place in Parliament may seem a privilege too far.  (Those who have sat as MPs can vote in parliamentary elections, but during the election period they are not MPs.)   The counter argument, which has been made since the 19th Century – this is by no means a new debate – is that the House of Commons has powers denied the Lords, not least in terms of taxation, and peers – the same as other citizens – should be able to vote for those who do determine taxation.

I would be interested in readers’ views.  Would you support a change enabling members of the Lords to vote in parliamentary elections and, if so, why?  (We do have a vote in other elections and in referendums.)  Or would you prefer to leave the situation as it stands?

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Becoming an Honorary Senior Fellow

Yesterday, I was at Regent’s University London to be installed as an Honorary Senior Fellow, the university’s equivalent of bestowing an honorary degree.  (I already have an honorary degree, from Lincoln University, so it is nice to have a separate award.)  Regent’s has a notably international student body.  The award was in recognition of my work in the field of higher education.

The ceremony took place in the splendid St Marylebone Church, a short walk from the university’s equally magnificent campus in Regent’s Park.  The picture shows me after the ceremony with one of the University’s trustees, Ken Batty, who is also a former student of mine.  He was the presenting officer, so part of the speech encompassed what it was like studying under me.

In my speech, I focused on the students, rather than me.  Ken Batty did more than a splendid job in covering my career and there was also a nice summary in the graduation brochure.  My concern was to draw out that a degree is the result of drawing on others (family, friends and tutors), is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one – it is one’s passport to the future – and it imbues, or should, more than knowledge – one grows as a person and acquires a greater sensitivity to the world around you.  It should make you not only a knowledgeable graduate, but also a good citizen.  One is fortunate to have a university education.  Not everyone has that opportunity.  As a result of what you have achieved, you can help others and not just yourself.

I ended by noting that another way of seeing a degree was not as a passport, but as a springboard.  Success is not guaranteed.  How high you reach depends on how much you put into your career.

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Post-18 education and apprenticeships

We recently had two debates in the Lords – just two days apart – that enabled me to speak on post-18 education and degree apprenticeships, the latter the subject of the most recent report from the Higher Education Commission.  I did a post about the report when it was launched.  In my speech in the first debate, on the Augur report, I welcomed many of the proposals, but drew attention to a number of problems, not least deriving from the recommendations relating to student fees.  The proposals are regressive.  I also touched upon degree apprenticeships, a topic to which I was able to return in speaking in the debate on the Thursday devoted to apprenticeships.  The principle of degree apprenticeships is widely accepted.  The problem is in implementing them.  The current system is clunky and inefficient, with two many bodies involved with inadequate co-ordination.

In both, I also touched upon the value of experience-based learning.  Combining study with some practical experience is invaluable, both for personal development and for enhancing career opportunities.  Students can show they have acquired or honed skills that employers want.  When I started organizing parliamentary placements just over thirty years ago, placements were rare.  Their value is now much more widely recognized.   Setting up a placement programme that is fully integrated within a degree structure is not easy, but it is worthwhile and an investment for the future.

The picture is from the debate on the Augur report.  Sat behind me is Lord Patten of Barnes.

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