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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Obtaining copies….

20160311_103237Further to my previous post, if any reader in the UK who is not on campus or in Westminster, and thus not able to collect copies personally, would like copies of both the Magna Carta and Founder’s Day Lectures, just send an A4 self-addressed envelope, with stamps to the value of £1.26, to me at the University of Hull (HU6 7RX) and copies will soon be on their way to you by first class mail.

In monetary terms, the booklets are free.  In intellectual terms, of course, priceless. Oh yes.

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Founder’s Day and Magna Carta lectures

20160311_103237As regular readers will know, I gave a number of public lectures last year.  One was the University of Hull’s Founder’s Day Lecture, on 23 April, which I gave on the subject of Speaking for Hull: Thomas Ferens as Parliamentarian, analysing Ferens’ role as MP for Hull East from 1906 to 1918.  I summarised the lecture in a post shortly after the event.

A second was the Magna Carta Lecture, sponsored by the High Sheriff of East Yorkshire, Jim Dick, and the University, held on 16 June.  Entitled The Continuing Relevance of Magna Carta: Symbol or Substance? it drew a large audience.   Again, I did a post summarising the theme.

A third was the Speaker’s Lecture on Eleanor Rathbone: An Independent Force of Nature, which I gave in Speaker’s House on 3 November and which was broadcast on BBC Parliament on 7 November.  Again, details can be found in my post on the blog following the lecture.

I am very pleased to report that the first two lectures have now been published by the University.  The third will be published shortly.  If anybody would like copies (I have copies reserved for dedicated readers), do let me know.  Any reader who is on campus or in Westminster is welcome to collect a copy of one or both.  I will post further details shortly for anyone who would like copies mailing.

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The winning entry is…

5063459-largeThere were some excellent entries for the caption competition.  I thought it was a challenging competition, but readers showed their usual ingenuity.  Some raised aspects I had not considered, not least barry winetrobe identifying a particular type of lodge.  (Mind you, we do have the Hull mafia.)  There were several rather good late entries, including tizres with ‘Keep smiling and hope no-one notices we’ve just unveiled the Bishop’s washing line’ – a strong contender.  Ken batty clearly decided he wanted to go one better than Tony Sands when it comes to multiple entries.  His ‘It’s curtains for Norton’ was a leading contender.  Tony Sands was a contender with his second caption, but I decided I did not want to upset the headmaster.

At the end of the day I went with my ‘laugh out loud’ test and opted for the entry that caused me to laugh the loudest when I first read it.  The winning entry is therefore Neil M with:

Is the other chap saying “I don’t know who he is. We didn’t invite him. He simply turned up with his own set of net curtains on wheels and demanded to be allowed to open something. Anything. I managed to get him outside until Security arrived”.

A recent publication will shortly be on its way to the winner.

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