At the reception held at the House of Lords last December to mark the 30th anniversary of my appointment as Professor of Government at the University of Hull, two of my closest friends, both former students of mine, spoke. Ken Batty announced that a group of my friends had got together to commission the painting of my portrait by the artist Alex Debenham. Sittings for the portrait were completed earlier this year. Last night, the portrait was unveiled by the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, at a reception at the Lords. Guests were as impressed as I was by the quality. I think the artist has done a superb job. All I have to decide now is where to put it on display.
Last night (Tuesday), there was a Speaker’s Lecture, in Speaker’s House, on the future of Energy, given by Caroline Flint MP and Drew Hendry MP. The Speaker, John Bercow, normally presides, but on this occasion was not able to attend. He asked me (as he has done before on the rare occasions he has not been able to be present) to chair it. He sent a short message for me to read out, explaining his absence (he was at the O2 watching Roger Federer) and concluding with ‘I will watch it [the lecture] on catch up tv and you ladies and gentlemen will have the pleasure of the great Lord Norton in the chair!’
At the previous Speaker’s Lecture, he described me as a ‘phenomenon’. I have been upgraded! In reality, I suspect it would be more appropriate to say ‘the available Lord Norton’. The Speaker regularly draws attention to the fact that, since the series started in January 2011, I have a 100% attendance record, so he could be reasonable sure I would be available.
I was in Edinburgh yesterday (Wednesday) at the Scottish Parliament with students taking our Comparative Legislatures module. It was a valuable opportunity to look at the process of dealing with legislation and how the committee system operates. The picture shows the students in the session examining the operation of the Non-Government Bills Unit.
The visit was good not only for looking at the work of the Parliament, but also for setting it within a comparative context, enabling us to consider the extent to which existing concepts and taxonomies of legislatures are helpful (or not) in making sense of the institution. The Parliament in design and processes was intended to get away from the Westminster model, yet in terms of the political culture it has proved in some respects more Westminster in approach than Westminster. The degree of partisanship is marked.
On Monday, the Lords debated reports from the Constitution Committee on The Union and Devolution and Inter-Governmental Relations in the UK. I spoke and used the occasion to pick up on a theme common to both, namely the failure of government to look at the relationship between different changes to the constitution. I argued, as I have for some time, that successive governments have undertaken constitutional change without having a coherent view of the constitution they consider appropriate for the United Kingdom. Some governments have promoted changes, justifying each on its particular merits, and others have engaged in a fire-fighting approach to pressures for change. There has been no attempt to look holistically at the constitution and delineate the basic principles that underpin it.
I mentioned that I had been asked to pen an article entitled ‘Constitutional change in the UK; unfinished business?’ My response was to say I thought it was more accurate to refer to never-ending business, as unfinished business suggests there is an end point. As governments have no clear view of what they are working towards, there is no obvious end point. We will end up with a constitution that is the sum of disparate and discrete changes.
As is clear from the reports, there is a structural feature militating against looking at the constitution as a whole. There is no Cabinet minister with dedicated responsibility, there is no Cabinet committee on constitutional change. If anything, things are going backwards rather than forward. (There was a Cabinet committee, though that only met once in nine months.) It is left to individual ministers to consider the implications of change for citizens. Cabinet therefore is in response mode, waiting to discuss specific proposals or problems as they arise. This is not a desirable situation.
I asked the minister to delineate the principles underpinning constitutional change and what plans there were to restructure government to enable it to address such change. The minister, Lord Duncan, was making his maiden speech in responding to the debate (which meant he was listened to in silence and without interruption). His speech was fluent and exceptionally well delivered. It also gave nothing away and addressed neither question.