Don’t say it

Over at lords in purdah, Baroness Murphy has been identifying phrases she wishes never to hear again.  One phrase I would like never to hear again is the one used when seeking to justify some constitutional reform, such as a new electoral system or an elected second chamber: ‘Well, other countries have them’.  The fact that other countries have them is not,  in itself, a commendation for change.  Imagine if someone argued for a military dictatorship in this country.  Is ‘Well, they exist in other countries’ really a justification for pursuing that particular option?  The fact that something exists elsewhere does not mean it delivers similar or even greater benefits than what exists in this country.  If someone wishes to draw on experience overseas, they should carry out a detailed study of the effects of particular institutions or processes, but that perhaps is too much like hard work.

And on the topic of phrases I would like never to hear again, here’s a couple more: ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ (of course you can have smoke without fire) and ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’ (what’s the point of getting cake?).  I could go on – as I am sure could readers.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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23 Responses to Don’t say it

  1. Croft says:

    I would like never to hear again,…’There’s no smoke without fire’

    I think there ought to be an exception for Flanders and Swann for their memorable bon mot about the Profumo Affair.

    ‘There’s no smoke without fire’: “nil combustibus Profumo” 🙂

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: Indeed, though nowadays I fear that not many people are likely to know who Flanders and Swann were or, more worryingly still, what was the Profumo affair.

      Talking of Profumo, I used him recently as an illustration of how a disgraced politician could redeem himself. It was in the context of the proposal to expel peers. I was making the point that it should be possible, in truly exceptional circumstances, to confer a new life peerage on someone who had previously been expelled from the House. If someone had been expelled for, say, lying to the House – Profumo’s offence in parliamentary terms – but then engaged in the extended and commendable social work of the sort performed by Profumo, there may be a case for recognising that exceptional work. Unlike some disgraced politicians who claim to have turned a new leaf, there was little doubt of Profumo’s dedication to helping others.

      I should add, before anyone misunderstands my point, I am well aware that Profumo was not a peer!

      • Croft says:

        I felt sure you’d know who they were (and probably know the joke anyway – but the familiar ones are sometimes the best). Profumo did seem to redeem himself in a way that I can’t really think of another example.

        On the point of expulsion, doesn’t that create something of an illogical hole. If you are saying the house could permanently expel a member (it would have to be the house as the example you gave was lying not a criminal offence) then you would seem to create the paradoxical situation that you could be expelled for lying to the house or for a 1yr+ criminal conviction but not for a lesser criminal conviction. You previously argued that you didn’t feel the house could punish someone a second time after their conviction even though that is exactly the situation in the police/military and various other professions where they have the discretion to sack convicted members.

        On the general point I see no reason for someone not to be sent back to the house if they redeem themselves though I suspect it would take quite a brave PM or Holac to do so.

        (As to Profumo he was a peer of sorts, I had to check as I remembered it being Italian, he was the 5th baron Profumo in the peerage of Sardinia!)

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I do indeed remember them. I merely took lying to the House because that was Profumo’s sin in parliamentary terms, but for expulsion it would actually need to be an offence that incurred a penalty of one year or more imprisonment. It would indeed be a brave PM or HoLac that took such a decision, but then again it would need to be a truly exceptional case.

  2. Carl.H says:

    I think my Lord is becoming, not angry but perhaps frustrated at the ease of which these reforms look like being bought about and I don`t blame him.

    But then I have always been of the mind a Dictatorship is the best form of Government if one has the right dictator, relying on the people to make the choices can often be the worst possible scenario.

    Perhaps now some of the educated Lords will see what the people have known for a long time, the choice at election is bad, worse or worst.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I am not assuming that these reforms will be brought about with ease. Indeed, I shall be working hard to ensure that they are not.

      On dictatorships, I think my attiude is the same as my attitude towards censorship. I am all in favour of censorship as long as I am one of the censors. Otherwise, it’s a dreadful thing.

  3. maldencapell says:

    In any case, elected second chambers aren’t that common. If we wanted to argue ‘other countries have them’, then the strongest case would be chambers which are indirectly elected or a mixture of appointment and direct and indirect election.

    If you look at Europe, the only directly elected second chambers are in Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, and in all three the second chambers are neutered as they are echo chambers for the Lower House.

    Germany’s Bundesrat is active and strong but it’s a chamber to represent State governments. France’s is a chamber representing local councillors, mayors and bureaucracy. Spain’s second chamber is a mixture of appointment, direct election and representation of the devolved regions.

    Holland’s Upper House is a blend of co-option, election and indirect election. Belgium’s represents federal states and linguistic communities.

    It really is a nonsensical argument for change to argue that direct election is common. It really isn’t.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maldencapell: Well put. There appear to be two common misconceptions. First, that most nations have bicameral legislatures and, second, that most second chambers are wholly elected. Approximately two-thirds of nations have unicameral legislatures – so, on the ‘well, other countries have them’ line of reasoning, that’s a case for abolition – and where second chambers exist, a majority are not wholly elected. A plurality are, as you indicate, chosen by some mixed method. No type (elected, mixed, appointed) commands an absolute majority. Wholly elected ones, as you say, do not necessarily add value to the process and it is not clear why Italy has a second chamber given that electors vote for it on the same basis as the first chamber.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        Perhaps it is a simple matter of a lack of political will and muscle to abolish the second chamber. I cannot say I have read much about the subject, but my understanding is that Italian politics is very much like Greek politics, and characterised by extensive corruption, stifling bureaucracy and Roman-style patron–client relations between politicians and their constituents. That this is the country that has given birth to the Mafia is not much of a help, either.

  4. Carl.H says:

    ” I shall be working hard to ensure that they are not. ”

    I hope you are not alone in that. Though with it being a manifesto issue I think it will be a hard fight. Any vote for the parties with in it in their manifesto is a way of legitimising it.

  5. Lord Norton says:

    Carl.H: There’s a difference between the manifesto of the winning party and a policy deriving from post-election bargaining.

  6. maldencapell says:

    Lord Norton: I agree. I read a very interesting piece by an Italian professor and former Senator called Polidano who studied the Italian Senate and berated it as a pointless chamber despite it being in law equal in powers to the Chamber of Deputies.

    By the way, I spotted you by the Despatch Box today, I would have said hello but I was in a meeting!

  7. Lord Norton says:

    maldencapell: I may do a post shortly on how busy it is in the Palace. If you had said hello, you would not have been the only person to do so. I shall now be even more vigilant in looking at who is around. 🙂

  8. wannabeexpat says:

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Your post reminds me of a comment of Sir John Stokes which went along the lines of ‘we shouldn’t compare ourselves with other, less fortunate parts of the world’.

    How right he was!

    Wannabe Expat.

  9. Of such constitutional reformers, Edmund Burke wrote that ‘with them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one.’

    ‘I wish my countrymen,’ he said in his Reflections, ‘rather to recommend to our neighbours the example of the British constitution, than to take models from them for the improvement of our own. In the former they have got an invaluable treasure.’

    To repay the salutation here expressed by others, Happy St George’s Day to all!

  10. The phrase I’d never like to hear is “something must be done” (which has a usually unvoiced even uglier brother “well we have to do *something*”)

    New legislation isn’t necessarily the answer to every problem in society. For example, drugs policy is still keen on criminalising substances as they appear instead of solving the social problem at its roots.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Chris Nicolson: I agree. The ‘something must be done mentality’ has driven too much legislation recently. On one Bill the justification offered was ‘The public demand action’. I pointed out that there was no evidence that the Bill being presented to us constituted the action that people wanted. Too often, the legislation is the result of panic, generating too much legislation and law that, as you say, doesn’t really answer the problems of society. It is essentially a substitute for really getting to grips with an issue.

  11. macarthursmutterings says:

    “you can’t have your cake and eat it’ (what’s the point of getting cake?). I could not agree more, now wheres my cake….

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