Oh dear

I am in the middle of marking undergraduate dissertations.  One student has just written that Michael Martin was the first Speaker to be forced out of office since Sir John Trevor in 1695.  Oh dear.  Send for the firing squad.  As readers of my posts on Lords of the Blog will be well aware, this is just one of the myths that the media keep repeating.   Let me correct this one and a couple of others.

1. Michael Martin was not the first Speaker to be forced out of office since 1695.  Two other Speakers were voted out of office after Sir John Trevor: Sir Fletcher Norton in 1780 and Sir Charles Manners-Sutton in 1835.  The  removal of Manners-Sutton, by 316 to 306 votes, was highly contentious.

2. Peter Mandelson is not Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool.  He is Lord Mandelson.  As explained in a post on Lords of the Blog, there is no territorial designation that forms part of his title

3. MPs are not more loyal to party nowadays than they used to be.  The high point of party loyalty in terms of parliamentary voting was actually the mid-1950s.  Indpendence on the part of MPs increased in the 1970s and has reached record levels in recent years.

The media also tend to be misleading in illustrating stories about the House of Lords with pictures of the State Opening of Parliament.  The State Opening of Parliament is precisely that.  It is the annual meeting of Parliament, not a meeting of the House of Lords.  You don’t see stories about the House of Commons illustrated with pictures of MPs stood at the Bar during the State Opening.  Still, it is not quite as bad as The Times, which once accompanied a story on the Lords with a picture of men in robes and wigs.  They were judges – nothing to do with the Lords.

No doubt readers will have picked up on other errors in media coverage of Parliament…

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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19 Responses to Oh dear

  1. Jonathan says:

    Lord Norton, I was wondering about hung parliaments and the proposal to go to fixed-term parliaments. If no-one can form a successful government, we may have another election in a few months’ time. But how would that work if parliaments were fixed-term? Muddle along for five years? (That’s how it is in local government, I suppose.) On the other hand, if you allow the collapse of the administration to trigger a new election, all the incumbent PM would have to do is ask his MPs not to “support” him in parliament when he feels like having an election, then there would be no point in a fixed-term.

    • Croft says:

      Jonathan: Try goggling Germany and the Schroeder no-confidence motion and you can find plenty of articles about how that vote was engineered.

      On the fixed term debate I do find the problem seemingly simple. Reducing the maximum term to 4yrs, which is the non wartime/hung parliament, average anyway and prime ministers will lose almost all opportunity to fiddle with election timings. |There is a pretty small summer window for elections. No government would go at yr 1/2/ or likely 3 as they would not have had enough time to implement their manifesto. It seems to get around all the technical problems of inventing rules to handle ‘no confidence’ on fixed terms systems. I can’t see the problem – other than to government that like to fiddle the timing – but perhaps I answer my own question.

      “I am in the middle of marking undergraduate dissertations….Send for the firing squad.

      cough “F” cough 😉

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I agree – that’s a much neater, and flexible, solution.

      • Croft says:

        Just as a follow up I was trying to think of the last 5yr parliament when the government wasn’t clinging on for grim death and lost! (2010 (?), ’97, ’64. ’45 doesn’t count as it was a 10yr house but the government still lost. Indeed can anyone quickly remember a 5yr parliament (or 7yr prior to 1911) that won!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: 1992 would be the most recent example of a five-year Parliament where the Goverment was re-elected. The last five-year Parliament in which the Government had a clear majority but lost was 1964. I exclude 1979 and 1997 in that in each case the government was, in your terminology, clinging on for grim death.

      • Croft says:

        Doh! I supposed I’d mentally excluded that as the government was already in the beginnings of its terminal decline (internal dissent over Europe etc) that led to ’97. Most people (including many Tory MPs) expected them to lose but to be fair it did win a majority however illusory it proved with later defections and by-elections defeats.

  2. Lord Norton says:

    Jonathan: You identify the problem. Where you have rigid fixed-term legislatures, you have to stagger on. Some systems do make provision for an early election in exceptional circumstances, but as you indicate this is then open to manipulation.

  3. Carl.H says:

    My Lord the misleading of the people by the media is no worse than the misleading of Parliament by some people, I`m especially thinking of Government statistics here.

  4. Tea sipping student says:

    My Lord, I am terribly sorry to read that a student made such a mistake.

    A more conscientious student would surely include a note when writing about the Speaker which highlights precisely that the media have misrepresented a number of facts about the office!

    A number of Commons research papers highlight other errors. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2001/rp01-030.pdf

  5. ladytizzy says:

    Despite your best efforts it remains a widely-held perception that the Whips enforce party loyalty.

    Have the Whips done a lousy or superb job?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: The whips generally do a good job, but it is important to remember that effective whips are not the cause of a cohesive parliamentary party but rather the reverse: whips are only effective where there is already a cohesive party. Whips facilitate cohesion, they do not cause it. The principal power of the whips is persuasion; they have relatively few actual powers. They sometimes have to rely on bluff and bluster.

  6. Carl.H says:

    Well considering MP`s or ex MP`s seem to back up that the whips enforce party loyalty it`s hard to deny.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: See my comments in reply to ladytizzy. The whips cannot enforce loyalty among members who do not intend to vote with the party. They can make a difference with waverers, but don’t make a difference with those who take a determined line. The main tasks of the whips are those of communication (between leaders and led) and management, not the enforcement of party discipline. Party cohesion is essentially a natural feature: even when there is not a whip on (in other words, a free vote), MPs tend to vote on party lines. This is only to be expected, like-minded Members voting together.

      • Carl.H says:

        “Most of the time, the whips rely on offering treats to loyal MPs; places on fact finding missions to the Bahamas or perhaps a knighthood. However, Paxman details cases where the whips turn to little short of bribery, blackmail and even verbal or physical abuse to ensure MPs vote the right way. Often enforcing tight discipline where there is no manifesto commitment, or even in contradiction of the manifesto.”


      • Lord Norton says:

        Carl.H: Some whips can be quite intimidating (in manner or stature) – it depends on the nature of the back-bencher, and how committed they are to their cause, as to whether they are unduly influenced by whips’ behaviour. MPs who hold firm views and are determined to vote against their party do so, and do so now more often than before.

      • Carl.H says:

        My Lord that appears condoning of bullying of weakest.

        It is not acceptable that if a backbencher is weak in nature he be bullied into voting another way.

        We can say with certainty that parties often put up for election their preferred candidate in safe seats, if these are “yes” men, the weaker variety, the system is corrupt.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Carl.H: Indeed, the problem may lie with weak MPs rather than the whips, though given MPs’ voting behaviour the weakness is less than it was.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        “Put a bit of stick about… Make them jump.” 🙂

        I wonder how much works like House of Cards may have changed the public perception of Whips (to the worst). My guess is, not that much.

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