The winner of the new year caption competition….

lords-speaker-lord-cormack-cliff-grantham-lord-norton-ken-batty-mp4_001298360There were some good entries for the latest caption competition.  There were a few obvious themes as well as a number of rather innovative free-standing entries.  One of the themes was cake-related, a somewhat recurring topic in the caption competitions.  The most obvious theme was to do with hand gestures and more especially fingers.  Matthew Oliver was on a roll with his two entries, one free-standing – ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who has got the most hair of us all?’ [I am pleased to say that the mirror doesn’t lie!] – and one hand-related: ‘Ok so rock, paper scissors on the count of three’.  A late entry by U maudgil caused me to laugh – ”Let’s play hand puppets’. ‘If I do a three-eared bunny, you can do the cow’.

However, emerging from some strong competition was Amene Mir with: ‘Please my Lord, may I have my finger back?

He wins the competition and will receive a copy of a recent publication.

[For any readers of a sensitive disposition, I should mention that Ken Batty has been missing a finger for a great many years, isn’t fussed about it, and found the winning entry, and several others, very funny.  He is likely to be more agitated by mention of the fact that I clearly have more hair than he does.]

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Bringing back memories – my first book…

20170214_192707Reform of the House of Lords, being published in June, will be my 32nd book (or the 43rd if you include new editions).  My first, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-74, was published by Macmillan in 1975.  It was a  643-page volume, chronicling all occasions of intra-party dissent in the division lobbies of the House of Commons from 1945 to 1974.  (It had entailed me going manually through about 3,000 division lists and about 1 million names.)  It was described in The Economist as ‘a veritable blockbuster of a book’.

It was published in hardback.  What I didn’t realise was that it has since been reprinted in paperback.  I looked recently at what books of mine were available on Amazon and saw the book was listed.  I thought it would be useful to have a spare copy and ordered it.  It arrived today.  It came as a really nice surprise.  It was almost like reliving when it was first published.

I assumed it must have been reprinted shortly after publication of the hardback edition, but on re-checking the Amazon website it appears that it was only three years ago.  That makes it even more intriguing, since it suggests there is some demand for it.

It is available, incidentally, at £40.  Not bad given that a hardcover edition will set you back at least £135…

I should add that I was very young – still a postgraduate – when the book first appeared.  It would have been published even sooner, in late 1974, had I not spotted an error in the proofs, which delayed publication.

Today’s delivery brought back happy memories of when I received my first copies.

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Reform of the House of Lords

41-5xmvtkfl__sx324_bo1204203200_I have just completed checking the proofs of my next book, due out in June.  It is a short guide to reform of the House of Lords.  It considers the functions of  the House, previous attempts at reform, and the different approaches to the future of the House. It develops the argument for each and analyses the current state of the debate about the future of the upper house in Britain’s political system.

Even governments that have sought to introduce change have generally not questioned the functions of the House.  Debate about reform addresses  usually not what it does, but its composition.  The focus is on input legitimacy (how members are chosen) rather than output legitimacy (what it does). There are chapters addressing each of the four R’s in terms of composition – retain, reform, replace, and remove altogether.

As it is a short book, I am pleased to say that it is not expensive ( £9.99).  It is being published by Manchester University Press as part of their Pocket Politics series.  It is possible to pre-order copies…

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New year caption competition

I realise I have not yet posted a caption competition this year.  I knew it was time for action when an academic colleague asked when the next one would be.  The reception in December to mark the thirtieth anniversary of my promotion to professor at the University of Hull generated a good number of photographs, many of them candidates for the competition.  This therefore is likely to be the first of several.  It shows Ken Batty speaking at the conclusion of the reception.  As always, the winning entry will be the one that in my view is the most amusing and fitting.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.lords-speaker-lord-cormack-cliff-grantham-lord-norton-ken-batty-mp4_001298360

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The continuing decline of parliamentary snail mail

45007As regular readers will know, each year I table a parliamentary question asking how many items of correspondence were received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year (and, of these, what proportion was received in the House of Lords).  The data demonstrate a clear trend.  People are no longer writing in such numbers as before.  The decline  has been especially notable this past year.  

The figures for 2005 onwards are (with the percentage going to the Lords in parenthesis):

2005  4,733,000 (estimate) (20%)

2006 4,789,935  (no % given for the Lords)

2007  4,199,853 (20%)

2008  4,135,144 (15%)

2009  3,540,080 (25%)

2010  3,082,187 (25%)

2011  2,691,576 (25%)

2012  2,544,019 (25%)

2013  2,490,256 (25%)

2014  2,234,763 (25%)

2015  2,200,504 (25%)

2016  1,652,317 (30%) 

The decline has been consistent over the past decade and now we have a year in which  fewer than two-million items of correspondence were received – almost one-third the number received ten years ago. 

The decline does not translate to a reduced workload for Members.  As I have argued before, the reduction in snail mail has been more than compensated by the rise of e-mail.  Figures are not compiled for e-mail traffic, but e-mails are cheaper and more efficient to send than snail mail.  A number of campaigning organisations encourage people to e-mail.  The change is not only quantitative, but also qualitatively.  People who e-mail are more likely to expect a quick response than someone who posts a letter.  The burden on MPs, or rather MPs’ offices, can be substantial.

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A time for serious debate…

20170128_182655The Supreme Court has issued its judgment in the Miller case and the Government have introduced the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.  Those are statement of facts.   The judgment and the consequences are much debated.  The problem is that debate continues to be characterised more by heat than by light.

There is confusion as to what flows from the judgment.  One only has to read an article in the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section by Geoffrey Robertson QC to see the problem.  (Readers may wish to see how many factual errors they can identify.)  But perhaps most seriously of all is the extent to which the referendum campaign is, in effect, being re-fought and how much  the field of debate is populated by Mystic Megs.

I have a principled objection to referendums.  However, successive governments have not had such an objection and the consequence is that referendums are now part of our constitutional practice.  (The subject was well covered in the Constitution Committee’s 2010 report on referendums.)   Parliament passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015 providing for a referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU.  The referendum was not legally binding, but the Conservative manifesto committed the party to implement the result, whatever the outcome.  The result was, in rounded terms, 52% for leave and 48% for remain.

There was no threshold to be reached for the vote to take effect.  As I have mentioned before, I raised the issue on Second Reading of the Bill, but there was no discernible appetite on the part of the two main parties to pursue the matter.

All that is, as far as I am aware, factually accurate.  One may not like having referendums, but we had one.  One may not like the result, but there was a result.  One may disagree with the judgement of the Supreme Court – I thought Lord Reed’s dissenting opinion was brilliant, but it was a dissenting opinion.  The Court has reached its judgment.

We now enter the muddy waters of the continuing debate.  I know how people voted.  I do not know why they voted as they did.  I do not know why people who did not vote failed to go to the polls.  It is remarkable how many commentators appear to know what people’s motivation was in voting for ‘leave’ (was it ‘soft Brexit’, was it ‘hard Brexit’?) and what is to be read into non-voting.  People who fail to vote are supporting by default the winning side.  They may not intend to, they may not like the result, but that is the effect.  Saying what proportion of the electorate failed to vote for leave only invites the response that an even bigger majority failed to vote for remain.

All this takes place within a wider debate as to the consequences of withdrawal from the EU.  There are two sides, reminiscent of Dad’s Army – ‘Don’t panic’ versus ‘We are doomed’ – again characterised by the presence of a good number of Mystic Megs.

It is not clear where the leadership will come in ensuring that we have an informed debate.  Newspapers tend to contribute to heat rather than light.  Referring to judges as ‘enemies of the people’ reflects ignorance on stilts and is more of a threat to the constitutional stability of the UK than the judgement of the court, though it is debatable whether the court itself has not raised the temperature unnecessarily by sitting as an eleven-member panel.  The onus now rests on both Houses of Parliament, not only in dealing with the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill but also the later Great Repeal Bill.  Whether either House is up to the challenge remains to be seen.

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The inauguration of a US President

One of my colleagues in the Lords, knowing that Donald Trump was to be inaugurated as President of the USA on Friday, asked if the inauguration was determined by the day (Friday) or the date (20 January).  It is the date.  George Washington was ibbkge5ccqaaotfmnaugurated in April 1789, but thereafter – up to and including 1933 – the President was inaugurated on 4 March.  Since 1937, the date has been 20 January.  If 20 January falls on a Sunday (as it did in 2013), the President is sworn in by the Chief Justice in a private ceremony, with a public ceremony the following day.

The longest inaugural address – lasting nearly two hours – was given by William Henry Harrison in 1841.  At 68, he was the oldest President to be elected (until Ronald Reagan and now Donald Trump) and it was a bitterly cold day.  He caught a cold and is generally believed to have contracted pneumonia.  Some sources have argued that he had a bacterial infection.  In any event, he fell ill and died a month later, the first President to die in office.

The inauguration ceremony normally takes place on Capitol Hill but on occasion, as when a Vice-President succeeds a President who has died, it has occurred elsewhere and the oath administered by someone other than the Chief Justice.  Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) was famously sworn in by District Judge Sarah T. Hughes and the only President to be sworn in aboard an aircraft.  Calvin Coolidge (1923) was sworn in by his father, a notary public.  Franklin Roosevelt is the only President to be sworn in more than twice, having been elected to four terms, though dying shortly after being sworn in for his fourth term, propelling his new Vice-President, Harry S Truman, into the White House.  The Constitution was subsequently amended to prevent a President being elected to more than two terms.

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