Eleanor Rathbone lecture

20160428_141128In an earlier post, I reported details of the Speaker’s Lecture I gave last November on Eleanor Rathbone, the remarkable Independent MP who sat in the Commons from 1929 until her death in January 1946. During her service in the House, she demonstrated what a determined and well informed Member, free of party constraints, could achieve.

The lecture has now been published by the University of Hull, following publication of the other two public lectures I gave last year: the Founder’s Day Lecture on another MP of the early 20th Century, Thomas Ferens, and the High Sheriff’s Lecture on Magna Carta.  As regular readers will know, both are freely available.  Copies of the Rathbone Lecture are available for anyone on campus – they can be collected from the trays outside my office – and anyone in Westminster: if the latter, just let me know you would like a copy or copies.

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The winner…

MB and PN BannerA drum roll…   I can now announce the winner of the latest caption competition.  There were some very good entries.  Indeed, I don’t think that on this occasion there was a duff submission.  Put another way, you were all possible winners, but I had to narrow it down.  There were some close contenders.  Tony Sands was spot on in noticing Dr Beech’s inappropriate footwear in town, and maude elwes similarly observant in terms of Dr Beech’s non-conservative dress sense.  However, at the end of the day, I decided there were two runners up as well as the eventual winner.

The runners-up were Nicholas James with a very clever: ‘Instead of writing their own vows, in a slightly unusual move, the grooms have decided to come up with a new name for their marriage instead’; and Matthew Oliver with ‘Is the man dressed up as a sign saying to Dr Beech “please stop standing on my foot”?’

However, the one that made me laugh even more was Pendragon with: ‘They were impressive, but Lord Norton realised he’d just have to get smaller business cards’.

If Pendragon would like to get in touch, recent publications will be on their way.

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The EU debate

Cggvz1uXEAAplyGThis evening I chaired a debate, organised by the Centre for Opposition Studies, on Westminster v Brussels? British opposition to the EU, with Graham Brady MP arguing the case for British exit from the EU and Sir Vince Cable arguing the case for the UK to remain a member of the EU.

As I explained in opening, I was chairing because I am on the Centre’s advisory committee and because I am neutral in terms of the present debate.  I drew attention to a recent analysis which suggested that each side in the debate was appealing to its core vote and not really making a case that appealed to those who were undecided.   I invited both speakers to make a positive case.

Graham Brady argued that there was no status quo option and that the EU was essentially an inward-looking institution, with fiscal integration being core to its future, even if that was not something desired by all member states.  He argued exit would offer an opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy.  Vince Cable challenged the argument that we could negotiate favourable trade terms with other member states.  Even if we negotiated good terms with Germany, France and others may take a very different view.  He made the case for access to the EU as a single unit.  Industries had set up in the UK because of the access to that market.

At the end, Graham Brady asked me if I was still neutral.  I had to say that I was. Some people haven’t made up their minds because they haven’t listened to the arguments.  My problem is that when I hear one of the arguments advanced by one side, I can put the counter-argument of the other.  The problem at the moment is that each side tends too often to speak in headline or sound bite terms, often adopting a lemon meringue approach: looks good on the outside, but when you bite it there is not much there.

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April caption competition

MB and PN BannerThis month’s caption competition shows me and Dr Matt Beech at a PSA specialist group on Conservatives and Conservatism event, taken some time ago.   As usual, the challenge is to come up with a caption that is witty and particularly appropriate to the picture.   The reader who submits the one that I select as the wittiest and most appropriate will, as usual, receive a copy of one (or more) of my recent publications.

I usually select a picture that I think is quite challenging, but readers regularly prove me wrong.

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Tony Blair and the office of PM

number10-door4-474-150x150I have written various pieces about Tony Blair as Prime Minister, not least the extent to which his lack of understanding of government loosened the glue that holds our political system together.  As I wrote in my chapter (‘Tony Blair and the Office of Prime Minister’) in Beech and Lee’s Ten Years of New Labour (2008), ‘In institutional terms, Tony Blair was arguably the first truly rootless Prime Minister.  By that, I mean he had no roots, no clear grounding, in politics, the Labour Party, parliament or government.  His view of all these appears to be instrumental.  He was the quintessential outsider…’.

The timing of him coming to office was also important.  The Conservatives in office had, I argued, ‘developed an arrogance borne of familiarity.  Labour entered office with an arrogance borne of ignorance.  The party, and especially its leader, did not understand government and operated as if still in opposition.  After ten years in Downing Street, Tony Blair left office still not understanding government.’  He did not understand the role of Cabinet, of parliament, the courts, or the relationship to the crown.  He combined self-confidence with ignorance of government.  He was an exemplar of a presidential style of government, not elected directly by the people, but acting as if he were.  J. H. Grainger likened him to Weber’s ideal type of independent political leader, a monocrat.  ‘Policy stems from or is endorsed by the free decision of the inner-determined, value-driven, subjective leader’.

This analysis is essentially borne out in the just-published Broken Vows, Tom Bower’s study of Blair’s premiership.  The book draws out the extent to which, in institutional terms, government under Blair was dysfunctional.  I am not here concerned with the merits of individual policies, but the process by which they were reached.  As Bower writes, ‘Even after nine years in office, Blair had a limited understanding of government’ (p. 530).   That was clearly a view shared by senior civil servants.  The book is notable also for what is generally missing from is pages.  The House of Commons rarely makes an appearance.  There are some mentions of the problems encountered in getting some policies approved, not least war with Iraq, though often in the context of mentioning that they got through with Conservative support.   The only references in the index to Parliament are ‘House of Lords reform 107’ and ‘parliamentary standards investigations 497-8, 558-9’.   One could argue that this was a fault of the book – Blair faced unprecedented levels of backbench dissent –  but it does arguably reflect Blair’s focus, which was not really on Parliament.  He joined the front bench the year after he was elected as an MP.  He was never again to sit on the back benches.  He was, quintessentially, executive man.

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More on the Strathclyde Review

In a previous post, I drew attention to the limitations – indeed the dangers – of the review by Lord Strathclyde, published in December, of how the House of Lords deals with secondary legislation.  Two committees of the House have now … Continue reading

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How not to legislate…

44101The Scotland Bill received its Third Reading in the Lords yesterday.  The Bill is an exercise in how not to legislate.

The Government agreed to implement the recommendations of the Smith Commission.  No limits were set, so when the Commission made recommendations that went beyond its terms of reference, the Government proceeded to put them in the Scotland Bill.

The recommendations led to clauses that were constitutional nonsense.  Sub-sections (1) and (2) of Clause 1 are declaratory, stating that the Scottish Parliament and Government are permanent.  As they already are, these provisions add nothing – which runs against the Cabinet Office’s own guidance on drafting legislation.  The provisions are then contradicted by sub-section (3) which provides that the Parliament and Government can be abolished only after a referendum of the people in Scotland.  In other words, they are contingently permanent!

Clause 2 is supposed to implement the recommendation of the Smith Commission that the Sewel convention be put on a statutory basis.  The clause embodies the words used by Lord Sewel in 1998.  What he said then and the Sewel Convention are different things.  I have already done a post drawing attention to this and the failure of Government to grasp what constitutes a constitutional convention.   The clause therefore departs from the recommendation of the Smith Commission, since the Sewel convention has not been transposed into statute.  All we have are the words of Lord Sewel put on the face of the Bill.  The Government want to retain a convention, yet have it in statute.  Where is Alice in Wonderland when you need her?

The problems associated with both clauses were pursued at both committee and report stages in the Lords.  At Third Reading, though, we were stymied by the fact that the Opposition supports the Bill and hasn’t really engaged with the arguments.  Indeed, there was no contribution from the Opposition Front Bench.  We were also stymied by the rules governing the admissibility of amendments at Third Reading.  They limited us from coming back with more amendments.  Two were tabled, but not moved, as a means of getting Government to accept that the minister should say more about Clause 2, which he did, including admitting that the clause was declaratory.  That was as far as we got.

The Bill constitutes bad law.  It is an exercise in how not to legislate.  Neither Front Bench emerges with any credit.

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