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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The challenge facing Parliament in 2021

The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster remains a major issue, the latest possibility being touted that, in order to reduce costs, the two Houses should share the same building after they have decanted the Palace.  I can see merit in the proposal inasmuch as it ensures that members of the two Houses are not too far apart.  Distancing the two, as is planned with the Lords in the QE2 Centre and the Commons in Richmond House, creates problems in terms of members of one house being able to interact with members of the other.  As readers will be aware, the use of informal space in legislatures for members to meet is important and that encompasses contact between members of both Houses.

The need to decant the Palace is urgent given the parlous state of the infrastructure.  There is the danger of catastrophic failure at any time.  However, that is not the only challenge facing Parliament in terms of restoration and renewal.  There is a need for the restoration and renewal of Parliament as a political institution.

The past year has confronted Parliament with two major issues – Brexit and COVID-19.  They have been addressed largely as discrete issues, but there is a common challenge to Parliament in that each has entailed both Houses having to move rapidly to empower the executive.  The need for immediate action has trumped the requirements for considered parliamentary scrutiny.   Neither House has been able to fulfil the core task of detailed scrutiny of the executive’s actions and demand for legislative powers.  There has been some scrutiny and in the circumstances each House has managed to perform in a notably difficult situation (not least thanks to the work of staff who have ensured that this has been possible), but the level of scrutiny has clearly fallen below that which is expected and is essential to a healthy polity.

The challenge in 2021 will be to restore and renew each House as an effective body for scrutinizing the actions and demands of the executive, the Lords complementing the work of the Commons.  There are lessons to be learned from the past year in terms of working practices, though also the danger of reading too much into the capacity to work away from the estate at the expense of ensuring members and staff can interact informally.  Holding meetings online should be seen as complementary to meeting in person, not as a replacement.  There will be the need for contingency planning in the event of another emergency.  However, the key and immediate work necessary will be to get both Houses back, as and when conditions allow, to ensure effective scrutiny and to think in what ways that can now be strengthened.  One possibility, coming back to my opening observations, would be to consider ways in which members of one House can interact more regularly with members of the other.  Having members dispersed around the country, acting as isolated entities, strengthens the executive.  So too does each House operating in isolation, and sometimes ignorance, of the other.  The more engagement there is between the two Houses, the stronger the Parliament.

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The arrogance that threatens politics

When giving talks about Parliament, I open by saying that Parliament matters because politics matter.  Politics is the resolution of disputes about policy that is to apply to a particular community.  If there is unanimity, there is no politics.  If a decision is imposed without discussion, there is no politics.  Debate is at the heart of politics.  Each House of Parliament has a set of rules designed to facilitate debate.  The chamber is a bit like a court room: evidence is adduced on either side of the argument and a decision reached.  The rules governing the procedure are accepted and applied.  Politics is core to a healthy polity.

However, the health of the system is threatened by what would appear a growing unwillingness to engage and listen to counter arguments.  Not just comments by individuals on social media, but also various newspaper columns, reflect an unwillingness to listen to the other side.  One side is put exclusively and with certainty.  There is an arrogance about the expression – the inherent belief that one is so obviously right that no opposition is tolerated.  The arrogance takes two forms.  One is the arrogance of ignorance.  This is where someone simply asserts a view, with no evidence base, but simply the belief that they are right.  Twitter tends to facilitate this.  Indeed, it also reinforces it through the facility for Twitter bubbles, people only following and liking others who share the same belief.  There is no listening to anyone who expresses a counter view, no willingness to consider or engage with empirical evidence that challenges their views.  The second is the arrogance of the intellect.  Here, the individuals are well informed, but they present evidence that solely supports their point of view and are dismissive of any counter-argument.  The belief in the rightness of their views means there is no room for doubt.  They speak with a self-assurance that may make for a feisty comment piece in a newspaper or a platform oration, but which is dangerous if the person has the capacity to determine the outcome of policy. 

One finds this arrogance on both sides of the Brexit debate.  As a result, there is no debate, no engagement.   Each side proceeds on the basis of assertion and not justification.  It is a more a case of insulting one another than debating one another.  Zealots on both sides often appear to lack any sense of self-awareness.  The result is a debate that is toxic, though ‘debate’ is perhaps to elevate the slanging match to an undeserved level.

Lawyers, academics and politicians have a common interest in knowing both sides of an argument.  Even if one is arguing the case for one side, derived from a particular philosophy or brief, one needs to be aware of the counter-arguments.  Being able to understand the arguments of one’s opponents strengthens your own case and makes you a more powerful advocate.  It ensures that you are aware of the limitations of your own arguments.  You can then reflect in order to overcome any weaknesses or possibly even adapt your position.  One may even find the evidence such that you change your mind.  That is a sign of strength, not of weakness.  

As an undergraduate, I studied under Bernard Crick, who wrote the influential work, In Defence of Politics.  His work remains as valid now as when first penned.

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Problems of a hybrid House – 3

Although we now have hybrid, rather than virtual, sittings, the House suffers from the fact that most peers necessarily contribute to proceedings virtually.  No more than thirty members can be in the chamber at any one time.  A result of this is that it is difficult to get a sense of the mood of the House.

When speaking in the chamber, it is possible to look around to gauge the reaction of those sat listening (or, worse still, not listening); some nods and smiles provide encouragement, shaking of heads and blank looks may give one pause for thought.  A rising crescendo of dissent may convey that it is time to sit down.  Some peers will persist in the face of notable and audible disapproval, even though they have clearly lost the House.  It is clear to everyone, or sometimes virtually everyone (that is, everyone but the speaker), that they have lost the House. 

This is especially important for ministers.  A combination of peers intervening to put critical points, and others making disapproving noises – especially from the benches behind the minister – can convey to the minister that they have run into problems.  The response of peers to a critical intervention – clearly indicating that the intervention has hit the mark – can make the minister realise that they have lost the argument.  I once intervened in a minister’s speech, when he had spoken at some length and was clearly about to finish, to ask what the Government was going to do differently as a result of the report we were debating compared with what it did before.  He had spoken at length on the report without indicating any action would result.  It was clear from the murmurs of approval from members sat around me that my point had hit home and the minister knew it.  Such reactions embarrass Government and get noticed.  Now, a minister can make a statement without interruption and without knowing whether she or he is carrying the House. 

The situation is arguably less bad in the Commons, given that the chamber can accommodate 50 MPs and it is possible to get some sense of how Members are reacting.  In the Lords, the challenge is more acute. 

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Problems of a hybrid House – 2

Regular readers will be aware that have variously drawn attention to the importance of the use of informal space in legislatures.  In an earlier post, I summarised my article on the subject published in Parliamentary Affairs.  In that, I identified the importance of the use of informal space for the institutionalisation of a legislature as well as the consequences for members in terms of socialisation, information exchange, lobbying, and mobilising support to further or protect one’s career. 

It is impossible to fully appreciate parliamentary activity without reference to members mixing informally.  What happens in formal proceedings – in the chamber and committee rooms – may be shaped by members meeting informally to discuss action and swap information.  During a time of crisis, members may huddle in the corridors and tea room to consider what they should do.  Unplanned encounters may result in a member gleaning information that transforms their plans.  The information may take the form of gossip and may not be accurate, but it my still affect how a member behaves.  It can be a significant learning experience.   Members mixing informally also limits the executive, given that members can talk – and plot – away from the prying ears of ministers and whips.

Members are aware of the value of meeting colleagues informally and of the extent to which it forms a major part of the parliamentary day.  It is difficult to understate the serendipity of informal contact.  A chance encounter can prove the catalyst for notable action.

One of the problems of moving to meeting in hybrid form, with most members operating discretely away from Westminster, and with only up to thirty being able to be in the chamber (and socially distanced) at any one time, is that informal contact is limited or non-existent.  Working remotely strengthens the position of the party leadership.  When working remotely, there is far greater reliance on information sent by the whips.  Use of social media and watching proceedings online may help offset this reliance to some degree, but the party leadership enjoys a decided edge in the supply of regular information.  Information sent shortly before a division is not offset by information sent by other members.  There is no opportunity for a quick conversation with those sat on the benches by you.  Contact between members via social media is useful, but usually the result of a decision to get in touch rather than a chance encounter. 

I was giving a paper at a conference panel earlier this week on this and I stressed the impact especially on contact between members of the two chambers.  My contact with MPs is more likely to be as a result of bumping into them when walking over to, or when having a cup of tea in, Portcullis House – or even when walking along Millbank late at night leaving the Palace – than as a result of arranging a meeting.  A good number of these chance meetings have resulted in action on my part or that of the MPs (including on occasion ministers).  All that is gone. 

It is a feature of parliamentary life that by its nature is not that apparent to those outside Parliament, but it is something of which many members are acutely aware.   

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Problems of a hybrid House… 1

Thanks to modern technology, the House of Lords is able to meet in hybrid form, something that would have been impossible until relatively recently.   The House maintains some of the features that are core to fulfilling its functions.  Committees continue to meet, take evidence and produce reasoned and influential reports.   Legislative scrutiny continues, with some legislation being considered until late at night.   Votes take place and the Government can, and does, get defeated.  It has suffered a number of important defeats in recent weeks.

All this, though, masks some serious limitations, not always that apparent to observers.  It is a case of what is missing.  One problem, albeit not the only one, and one of which peers are acutely aware, is the absence of spontaneity.  Following a report from the Procedure Committee in June, the House agreed, notwithstanding the usual rules of procedure, ‘No member may intervene on other speakers’.  This has essentially killed the opportunity for proper debate.  One simply gets a series of statements.  Most crucially, it means no one can challenge ministers when they speak.  Replying to a debate in normal conditions, a minister may find peers getting to their feet to challenge dubious or incorrect claims.  Knowing that they may be challenged, they prepare for that.  Now, they can read out a brief knowing they will not be interrupted.  It is possible at the conclusion of a debate for a peers to signal that they would like to speak after the minister, but that is a cumbersome process (one has to e-mail the clerk who e-mails the peer in the chair or on the Woolsack, assuming one knows or can find the e-mail address in time) and in any event pressures on time militate against prolonging proceedings.

The result of the change is to tip the balance in favour of the executive.  It limits the House in undertaking meaningful debate and for challenging ministers effectively.

Other problems I will identify in later posts…

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Did you get your copy?

I have previously drawn attention to how well Governing Britain was doing in pre-publication sales, topping the Amazon Government and State Constitutions list on more than one occasion and coming close to the top of the UK politics list.

It was published by Manchester University Press on 17 September.  In the event, sales exceeded expectations.   The publishers tweeted that the first print run sold out within two weeks.  Equally gratifying (and a relief) was the fact that the comments on it have been very positive.

I like to think this is a result of both content and style.  I was gratified to see that recent research found that the use of jargon in academic outputs reflected a lack of confidence. Some authors write works designed to show how clever they are.  I like to write for the intended audience.  My aim is to produce an accessible text, which means short sentences and, as far as possible, little or no jargon.  I also believe in not writing at excessive length.  In this case, the chapters are relatively short and the book overall comes in at just over 200 pages.  When Reform of the House of Lords was published in 2017, one reviewer on Amazon basically complained that it was too short, not a criticism normally levelled at academic tomes.

I am doubtless aided by the fact that the publishers have done a splendid job of production and delivered the work in hardback for £16.99.  I know one should not judge a book by its cover, but I think it looks good – an adornment for any bookshelf.

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The winning entry….

The latest caption competition attracted a splendid range of entries.  They were notable not only for quantity, but also quality.  It was difficult to select a clear winner given how many met the ‘laugh out loud’ test.  Several merit a commendation.  There was a tendency to play on the name of hippos.  However, the entries that stood out for me were more directed at the specifics of the picture.

Both Ged Mirfin and Dean B appeared especially keen, given the number of entries they submitted.  The former deserves a commendation for penning entries that were both humorous and educational.  The latter deserves a commendation for his entry – ‘What’s got 10 legs and a new book out? Lord Norton and two hippos’ – as well as being the first to identify the location, at least at county level; Paul Rosson pinpointed the actual venue.

I enjoyed also the entry from Jonathan: ‘Lord Norton looking smug after shopping the hippos for breaking social distancing’.  However, in a very tight contest – with a lot of grouping near the finish line – the winner is Ken Batty with:

Just eat the grass and keep your head down or he’ll try and sell you one of his books.

A prize will be on its way.

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Time for some light relief… a caption competition

Apologies for not having provided a caption competition sooner.  In these difficult times, I thought now may be the time to provide an opportunity for a little light relief.  This photograph was taken for the express purpose of the competition.

As usual, the ready who comes up with the caption that in my view is the wittiest will win a recent publication – Governing Britain, unless the winner is already a proud owner of a copy.

I may offer an additional prize for anyone who can  identify where the picture was taken.  The person who took it is not eligible to answer.

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Already making an appearance…

Regular readers will be aware of the imminent publication of Governing Britain. It is being published formally on 17 September.  Some booksellers, however, already have copies and have been fulfilling orders.  Several people have tweeted to say that their copies have arrived.  Indeed, some received copies of the book before I did.

What has been especially gratifying has been how well it has already sold.  It moved up the bestseller list on Amazon to No. 1 under ‘Government and State Constitutions’ and no. 7 in ‘UK Politics’.  It then fell back, but earlier this week was again at No. 1.

I don’t think I have had a book that has achieved this measure of success so quickly.  It many respects, it is counter intuitive.  The publishers, Manchester University Press, have done a superb job in terms of production – a fine hardback for under £17 – and obviously I like to think that the content is worthy.  However, under normal conditions, I would be speaking at conferences and attending a range of meetings at which I would be distributing flyers for the book.  I would be sending out invitations to launch parties in Westminster and Hull.  I was also scheduled to speak on the book at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.  In the event, none of these activities was possible. The only way I have been able to promote it has been through Twitter.  This certainly seems to have had an impact.

It has been especially gratifying as to how many people have not only tweeted that they have the book, but also said how much they are looking forward to reading it. My only worry now is if this is followed by silence…

For anyone who has not got a copy, it is available at £16.99 ($25.50 in the USA) – I see Amazon are offering it at £11.99 – and in a kindle edition at £13.59.

Talking of kindle, The Impact of Legislatures – which costs over £100 for a print copy – is now available in a kindle edition for only £32.39.

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