Captured in oil

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.

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Power behind the scenes: the importance of social space in legislatures

In an earlier post, I reported on a talk I gave earlier this year at the PSA annual conference in Glasgow on the difference changes in social space in Parliament can make. On Friday, I gave a paper at the PSA Parliaments Group conference held at the Scottish Parliament on the significance, for legislatures and for members, of the use of social space.

Formal space constitutes space used for scheduled meetings, with procedures and rules – enforced by a presiding office or chair – and usually with a record kept of proceedings.  Social space is where none of these criteria apply and members meet informally.  What happens in the tea and smoking rooms, and the dining rooms and bars, of the House of Commons has been neglected by political scientists, largely because it is largely unseen and not obviously quantifiable behaviour (unlike what goes on in formal space), but it can have significant consequences.

The use of social space is important, for the institution, for institutionalisation and, for members, for socialisation, information exchange, lobbying, and mobilising political support.  These matter.  Institutionalisation and socialisation underpin the stability of the legislature.  Information exchange and lobbying can impact on the actions of ministers and the outcomes of public policy.  Mobilising political support can affect who holds, or does not hold, political office.  These are not unimportant consequences.

Take the last of these.  Politicians who fail to utilise social space to mobilise support may be vulnerable.  The failure to spend time mixing with his backbenchers contributed to Edward Heath’s loss of the Conservative Party leadership.  Similarly with Margaret Thatcher.  In the 1990 leadership contest, Michael Heseltine invaded the social space of the Commons whereas Thatcher neglected it.  Had she spent time in the tea and dining rooms, garnering support among waverers, she may have got the votes necessary to be declared re-elected.  She was only four votes short.

The paper draws out the significance of using social space.  There is more to explore, not only in comparative terms, but also in terms of how such space changes over time (the focus of my earlier talk) and how it is complemented now in virtual terms, with the use of social media, not least WhatsApp groups.  What is remarkable is the extent to which it has been neglected by scholars.

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Winner of the November caption competition

There were some good entries for the November caption competition and more than I was expecting.  There were several contenders – it was difficult to select a frontrunner – that focused on the fact that the benches were red.  Some were more focused on the general layout.  I rather liked Pendragon’s ‘When feng shui goes bad…’.  Others drew on the presence of the tea mug and the absence of cake.  Croft and tizres rather digressed to provide captions based on what I said in the interview rather than anything in the picture!

However, the winning caption is one that came rather out of the blue and made me laugh.  The winner is Neil M with: Isn’t this how Alan Partridge started?  Next stop, the 1am – 5am slot on Radio Norwich. 

The winner will be receiving a copy of Reform of the House of Lords.

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Greatness thrust upon one…

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.

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Studying the Scottish Parliament

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.

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November caption competition…

I am conscious I have not done a post for some time.  It has been a hectic few weeks – we are already at the half-way point of the teaching semester.  I plan to catch up on posts.  I thought I would resume with a caption competition, and – as a treat to readers – promise another competition in short order.  (I have an appropriate photograph, which includes some of my academic colleagues, ready.)  The picture here is of me taking part in a broadcast recently at Estuary News, the Grimsby-based community broadcast station.  I was doing the news review after recording an interview for their ‘Hot Topic’ programme.  As usual, the winner will be the caption that in my view is the wittiest and most appropriate to the picture.  The prize will be a copy of Reform of the House of Lords.

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Debating the constitution…

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.

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