Remembering Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams

I was very sad to read of the death at 90 of Shirley Williams – Baroness Williams of Crosby.  She had been an active member of the House of Lords until her retirement and I gather she rather regretted no longer being able to participate in proceedings. 

Apart from her commitment to British politics, she also took an interest in American politics and variously figured in the quizzes in my course on the US presidency, given that she married Richard E. Neustadt, whose work Presidential Power was a staple of the course.

She was famously disorganised and one of the best stories about her, which may or may not be true, but which has a ring of truth about it, is an occasion when she was rushing to catch a train. As she approached the barrier, she began scrambling in her bag for her ticket. The ticket inspector on the gate recognised her and said ‘That’s all right Mrs Williams, we know who you are’. ‘Oh’, she replied, ‘I’m not trying to find it for you. I need to look at it to find out where I am supposed to be going’.

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Writing to a constituent…

I have been reading various memoirs of MPs who served in the first half of the 20th Century.  Part of this is in  preparation for the centenary history of the 1922 Committee, which I shall begin proper next year.  It has also proved useful for extending some of my analysis of the constituency role of MPs.  Many issues faced by MPs early in the 20th Century would be familiar to Members of the current House.  However, there have also been notable changes in the roles fulfilled by Members, something on which I have previously written and on which I plan a blog post in the near future.  However, the purpose of this post is to share a story from one particular MP, Sir Charles Ponsonby, elected as MP for Sevenoaks in 1935.

Ponsonby succeeded an MP who was not particularly popular.  Ponsonby did, though, find him helpful, not least because he passed on his files:

‘The only good letter I found was a reply to the bore-madman who is the bane of an MP’s life: “Dear Mr –   Thank you for your letter.  I think I see what is in your mind; and if we we met, you would know what is in mine.  Yours sincerely.”‘

Arguably an improvement on ‘Thank you for your communication, the contents of which have been noted’.

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Parliaments and referendums

The past week has seen the publication of the Palgrave Handbook of European Referendums, edited by Julie Smith.  It is a substantial volume of 730 pages addressing the theory and practice of referendums.  I contributed a chapter on Parliaments and referendums.  Although parliaments may have to legislate for referendums, there is not a substantial literature on the relationship.  

Referendums tend to be less commonly held in parliamentary systems and, in Europe, there has tended to be something of a north-side divide, most southern European nations being more likely to hold referendums than most northern nations, though the distinction in recent years has fallen away.  In the chapter, I look at different types of relationship (subordination of parliaments, non-decision making, rejection, and utilisation) as well as the decision to hold referendums.  In addition to the first-order power to initiate referendums, I also look briefly at the second-order power of regulating referendums.

The hefty size of the volume is I fear accompanied by a hefty price (even for the kindle edition), so is more likely to be found on a library shelf than a home bookshelf.

I may write more based on the chapter in later posts.

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‘I shall write to my MP…’

Constituents in post-war years, and especially from the 1970s onwards, contacted their MP in ever-growing numbers.  Concerns over housing or benefits would result in a letter being written.  More mail also started to come in on policy issues.  MPs were increasingly inundated with bulging postbags.

Constituents continue to make contact with their MP – in record numbers over the past year – but no longer by putting pen to paper.  MPs now have bulging e-mail in-boxes.  Very few letters are written.  The past year may have seen record levels of electronic correspondence, but it also saw a continued decline in the volume of snail mail being delivered to the Palace of Westminster.

As regular readers will know, each year I put down a question asking how much correspondence was received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year.  Last year, I listed in a post the volume received for each year from 2005 to 2019.  In 2005, there were 4.7 million items of mail received on the parliamentary estate.  The number dipped below 4 million in 2009 and below 3 million in 2011.  By 2016, it was 1.6 million; by 2019 1.2 million.  Last year,  the number dropped below 1 million.  There were 858,483 items of mail received.  Of these, 15 per cent are estimated to go to the House of Lords.

This means that on average an MP receives somewhat over 1,000 letters a year.  That pales beside the number of e-mails received.  In 2016-17, for example, one MP estimated that he dealt with 40,000 casework e-mails.  The ease with which constituents can send e-mails facilitates the rise in electronic communication.  It is not clear if MPs’ resources will be sufficient to keep pace with the sheer scale of the demands made of them.

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Lecturing on the constitution…

On Tuesday, I spoke to students on the Anglo-American Law and Public Policy Program at the University of California, Berkeley, on constitutional issues facing the UK.  The lecture was recorded, so here it is for anyone interested in watching…

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Launching ‘Parliaments and Post-Legislative Scrutiny’

Last week, there was an online seminar, organized jointly by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Hull University Centre for Legislative Studies, to mark the publication of Parliaments and Post-Legislative Scrutiny, originally published as a special issue of The Journal of Legislative Studies.  The work draws together various studies of the significance and development of post-legislative scrutiny.  

People’s lives are shaped by what is permitted or prohibited by law.  Law can constrain or empower individuals, regulate industry, and impose taxes, fines and provide for terms of imprisonment for those who transgress the law.  Legislatures are the bodies that have to assent to law, but approving law should not be seen as the end of the process.  A law may not have the effect intended.  It may have unintended effects or simply have no effect.   The wording may be overly broad or ambiguous.

One can argue therefore that for law to be ‘good’ law – achieving its purpose – it needs to be revisited.   It needs to be assessed in terms of whether it is achieving its desired effect.  Hence the case for the legislature to review whether a measure has achieved what it was designed to achieve.  It is important, though, that post-legislative scrutiny is not a re-run of arguments of principle that may have occurred at the time the measure was passed.  It is essential that it is assessed against what it was designed to achieve, not against what some may have preferred it to say. 

The case for post-legislative scrutiny is valid at any time, but arguably even more so at the present time.  Legislatures have variously passed emergency legislation to confer extraordinary powers to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.  There is a powerful case for putting in place systematic post-legislative scrutiny for measures passed in haste, especially where those measures are not subject to sunset clauses.  Even if they are, there is a case for post-legislative scrutiny to determine what lessons may be drawn in the event of a similar crisis occurring again. 

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Dining at the Clink….

The Times reports today that the charity, CLINK, that runs restaurants in prisons is to expand from having four such restaurants to no fewer than 74.  The charity trains inmates to work as chefs as part of the Government’s efforts to combat reoffending.   Research suggests that such training significantly cuts reoffending.

It is a very good scheme.  I speak from experience having once dined, some years ago, at the Clink restaurant at High Down Prison in Surrey.  I was there on an official parliamentary visit, as a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Voter Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, considering whether prisoners should be allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.  The restaurant was professional in every respect –  design, food, and service.  The food was excellent.   You would not know you were dining in a prison.  Not surprisingly, you could not avoid the fact in terms of coming to the restaurant – the public can dine there, but to say it is ‘open’ to the public perhaps is a little misleading, given the obvious security steps to getting in – but once in, it is a really pleasant environment.

On this particular visit, we were delayed at the end of the meal.  The regular count of prisoners had revealed one missing, so all prisoners had to return to their cells.  Only the professional staff, who train the prisoners, remained.  I was sat next to the Governor.  I think he had visions of his career ending if he were to lose a prisoner during a visit by parliamentarians.  In the event, all was well.  The recount showed everyone present.

I really do commend the scheme.  If you are near a prison that opens a Clink restaurant, do make the effort to go.  You are not only supporting a worthwhile cause, but you also get a fine dining experience.

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On the train with ‘Amtrak Joe’

I once met George W. Bush many years before he became US President.  I met Barack Obama when he was President, just after he addressed both Houses of Parliament (the meeting captured by the BBC – pictured.)  I have never met Joe Biden.  The closest link I have with his administration is that I once chaired a meeting in London addressed by Janet Yellen, who is now Treasury Secretary.  However, I did once share a train with him.  He is a great train traveller – hence the nickname ‘Amtrak Joe’ – commuting daily, when he was a Senator, between Washington DC and his home state of Delaware.

The occasion was many years ago – okay, 1976 to be precise.  I was travelling from Washington DC to New York on an Amtrak train that departed early evening, due to arrive in New York late evening.  (I was flying back to the UK the next day.)  I was told that the young Senator for Delaware, Joe Biden, was also on the train.  It set off on time and the journey was initially smooth.  However, it then stopped.  It was stationary for a long time.  I think hours had passed before it was announced that it had broken down, but that another train was on its way to tow it.  The other train arrived.  It too then broke down.  I think eventually a third engine arrived to pull (or push – I cannot remember which) the train for the rest of the journey.

Fortunately for the young Senator, the train had broken down in Delaware.  I was told that he had got so frustrated that he had decided, even though it wasn’t formally permitted, to get off the train.  I presumed he did so.  The rest of us, not being from Delaware, were not so fortunate.  The train eventually pulled into New York about 6.00 a.m.  At least I discovered that the saying ‘New York never sleeps’ was true.

That exhausts my Joe Biden recollection.  I suspect I remember it because the news being related about the Senator at least helped break the boredom of the occasion.  I am not sure I will be able to dine out on it.  I think there will be more mileage in recounting my meeting with Janet Yellen and the questions I put to her…

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The winning entry…

There were some splendid entries for the latest caption competition.  A number were on topical themes and some may possibly have been hoping to win by flattery.  (Always a good strategy by the way.)  Tony Sands was so keen that he submitted the same caption twice.

Not for the first time, I had difficulty deciding which one had the edge.  There were two that notably met the test of making me laugh the moment I read them.

As a result, I can report that the runner-up is Helen Whittaker with: ‘And as Professor Chris Whitty would say #nextslideplease…’.

And the winner is Tim Griffiths with:

‘I’m so sorry.  Honestly, I don’t know how that picture got there.  But if you would like to buy a copy…’.

If he would like to get in touch, I will arrange for his prize to be mailed.

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Now for something different… a New Year caption competition

Happy New Year to readers.  I thought it may be appropriate to have a caption competition.  The picture is not related to the season, but rather chosen because it constitutes something of a blank canvas.  I leave it to the inventiveness of readers to come up with a caption.  As ever, the winner will be the entry that in my view is both witty and appropriate to the context.

As usual, the prize will be one of my publications.  If you do not already have a copy of Governing Britain – though I like to think (ever the optimist) that only a small number of readers will fall in that category – then a copy of that is on offer.

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