Friday 26 March 2010

Washminster Takes A Short Break

Washminster is taking a short break. It will return on Tuesday 6th April - the day Parliament returns from its (very short) Easter Recess. It would not be unexpected if an announcement were made that day about the date of the General Election. Washminster will set out the context and procedures from that point until Parliament is dissolved. It will then provide the background to the election.

In the event of an earlier announcement, Washminster wil return immediately.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Election Day

We will probably hear soon if an election is to be called for May 6th. Both Houses will rise for the Easter Recess on Tuesday 30th March. They will return a week later on Tuesday 6th April. It is regarded by many as likely that an announcement would be made on 6th - and the "wash-up period" would begin.

A House of Commons Standard Note (SN/PC/05085) says " the Government will decide what its priorities are and seek the co-operation the Opposition in getting legislation through. In doing so there will invariably be sacrifices to be made. Some Bills might be lost completely, others might be progressed quickly but in a much-shortened form. A lot will depend on where the Bills are in the legislative process and whether or not they are controversial."

Once business is completed (perhaps on Thursday 8th April) Parliament would be prorogued. It would then be dissolved (probably on Monday 12th, the last date for this in the election timetable - see House of Commons Research Paper 09/44)

One circumstance (other than Gordon Brown deciding not to call a May 6th election) would lead to a different date. The death of the Queen during the election period. s20 Representation of the People Act 1985 would postpone the election day by two weeks (20th May).

Monday 22 March 2010

Does Britain need a "Written" Constitution?

As I outlined on the post of October 7th last year, while Britain doesn't have a single document called a "Constitution" it does have a wide range of sources (in written form) which contain the constitutional rules.

It may be inconvenient (though as American Law Students know - the study of Constitutional Law doesn't end with reading the few pages of the Constitutions Articles and amendments - there is much caselaw; lots of authoritative writings - and practices English students would recognise as conventions) - but is that reason enough to codify it. As the history of the Law Commission shows - codification is not so easy to achieve in practice.

Perhaps the more important issue is - are there aspects of the British Constitution which urgently need addressing? Do the current rules adequately protect against the abuse of power?Is relying on legally unenforceable conventions a sufficient guard against a temptation to break conventions when convenient? Is the constitutional system working very well?

If we are to face a period with a hung Parliament - will our practices be robust enough - or will key people have to make things up as they go along?

The US Constitution resulted from an intense period of reflection and argument about the purposes of 'government' and how to avoid the power granted being abused.

There are now extensive sources available to look at what happened in that convention. The Avalon Project contains many resources. I've recently read two very interesting books on the convention - The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison (further details here) and Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier (further details here)

Perhaps it is time to sit down and consider the UK Constitution in 2010!

Sunday 21 March 2010

The Motorway Marginals

A new phrase has entered the British political lexicon this year - the "motorway marginals". Many of the seats most at play in the coming election are close to the major motorways in Britain. (Perhaps that's not a great surprise - the motorways were planned to link the areas of greatest populations)

The Independent reported at the beginning of this month "Tory strategists have identified a "golden ribbon" of marginals along three busy motorway corridors: the M62, M6 and M5." The M62 links together the northern conurbations of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull. The M5 runs from Birmingham to Exeter - close to the SW of the Birmingham conurbation - and the cities (smaller towns than the post industrial revolution population areas - but ancient cities) of Worcester, Gloucester & Taunton - and the Bristol conurbation.

The M6 actually starts in South Leicestershire (in the seat I stood in twice - which has always enjoyed a 'healthy' Conservative majority) through (after 1/2 a mile) the super marginal of Rugby - and then through the conurbations surrounding Coventry; Birmingham; Stoke on Trent - between Manchester & Liverpool - Preston & Carlisle. Blackpool is not too far away.

I would also add that the M1 passes by key marginals in northern London; Luton; Milton Keynes; Northampton - and through the super-marginal area around Nottingham and Derby. The M1 continues to Leeds.
The M4 runs from West London - through another area of supermarginals - to Slough; Reading; Swindon; Bristol; Cardiff and Swansea.

To get interactive maps of motorways in England (and the latest traffic news!) visit the Highways Agency website.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Peers Suffrage

Viscount Tenby asked the government earlier this week - whether they plan to change the law to allow peers who are members of the House of Lords to vote in general elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government's 2008 White Paper on House of Lords reform proposed that Members of a reformed second Chamber should be able to vote in elections both to the House of Commons and to the reformed second Chamber. The proposals would enable all members of the peerage and new Members of the second Chamber to vote in all elections.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that incisive reply. Is he aware-I am sure that he is-that once those in custody have been given the vote, which rightly seems likely to happen in the near future, the only people unable to do so will be those who are judged incapable of voting and Peers of this House? With so much dissension about the constitutional reform of this House across and among parties, would not the Government welcome the chance to bring in a relatively easy amendment that would command support on all sides of the House?

Lord Bach: I am not sure that it would get absolutely unanimous support across the House-I have to say that first-although I think that it would get general support. However, our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber-so perhaps we should move to a reformed second Chamber as quickly as we can.

Lord Waddington: Would not the Minister agree that, whereas Members of the House of Commons represent their constituents, we have the great privilege of representing ourselves in Parliament? Leaving aside what may be in store for us in future, is not the present set-up entirely justifiable? Why should we have the right to have an MP represent us when we can represent ourselves?

Lord Bach: I do not think that the constitutional position could have been put better, but I am looking forward myself to being able to vote in a general election again.

Lord Acton: My mother's father-the late, late, late Lord Rayleigh-adopted the American colonists' mantra, "No taxation without representation". Does that not answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington?
Lord Bach: It is an extremely effective mantra. Whether it actually answers the noble Lord's constitutional point, going back to the resolution of the House in 1699, I am not entirely certain.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: Would not the Minister like to divide the Peers from the lunatics?
Lord Bach: I do that every day.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: Would the Minister confirm that it is in order for Lords spiritual, who are not Peers, to vote in general elections, and that they should therefore be encouraged like all good citizens to use their vote?

Lord Bach: There is no bar to the Lords spiritual voting in parliamentary elections. However, I understand that it has long been the tradition that they do not do so. While they are not Peers, they none the less sit in this House and can therefore participate in person in the proceedings of Parliament instead of being represented in the House of Commons. There is no legal bar to the Lords spiritual voting in a general election; it is very much a matter for them.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, as the Minister said, there was cross-party agreement in the group that led to the 2008 White Paper on this issue. Does he recognise that that was 89 weeks ago? What have he and his fellow Ministers at the Ministry of Justice been doing all this time? Apparently there is now the promise of a draft Bill or some draft clauses. What is this going to be-is it serious legislation or is it simply electioneering at the fag end of this Parliament?

Lord Bach: The noble Lord will remember that, as I understand it, the cross-party group was made up of Front-Benchers. There are many others in this House who are not Front-Benchers who do not always share precisely the views of their Front Bench.

Lord Kinnock: I ask my noble friend to be slightly more incisive than he was even in his very incisive first Answer and anticipate the spirit of future reform by inserting a small government amendment in the forthcoming constitutional Bill that would enable those Peers who wanted to vote, as well as voting for a Member of Parliament, to vote for a Government, and those Peers who did not want to vote to be able to abstain. By those means, he would satisfy everyone.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I have always found everything that my noble friend has said extremely tempting, but on this occasion I have to resist what he has to say. Our view is that provisions on voting in general elections are best dealt with in the context of a fully reformed second Chamber.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I declare an interest: I have never been able to vote at all. How many people, other than me, did not vote in the previous election?

Lord Bach: Of those entitled to vote, some 38 per cent.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, my noble friend made reference to a new reform Bill, which has been referred to as a constitutional Bill. An amendment could be incorporated into it, as has been suggested, to deal with the question of Peers voting in the general election. However, my understanding is-my noble friend referred to this when he talked about differences of opinion between the Front Bench-

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord Davies of Coity: Sorry. My question is: can my noble friend guarantee that this House will support the reform Bill that the Front Benches are agreeing to?

Lord Bach: I find as months go by that I can guarantee really nothing at all. I have certainly never been able to guarantee anything that is before this House.

Friday 19 March 2010

Libel - A chilling effect on free speech

In the case of Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd. and Others, [1993] 2 W.L.R. 449 the Courts declined to allow a local authority to sue for libel. They feared that to allow government bodies and political parties to sue for defamation "must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech"

But individuals can use English libel law to intimidate and silence their critics. The BBC, in a classic example of English understatement said about Robert Maxwell - "Many people cowered from criticising him, not least because of his readiness to confront his critics in the libel courts." Criticism of the man was stifled during his lifetime by his aggressive use of threats of an expensive legal battle. It didn't take long for editors of publications to avoid the risk of upsetting him.

The issue became a matter of international concern as a result of gagging orders which meant that national newspapers were not able to report parliamentary questions. [The Trafigura Affair, 2009]

A report in the Guardian outlines how Jack Straw, the current lord Chancellor, intends to address the issue. It is available here.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Independent MPs

The Hansard Society held an event on Tuesday - "Independent MPs – what can they bring to Parliament?" - I would have loved to have gone, but as I have a mountain of marking to do - with very tight deadlines, I had to cancel my attendance.

However the audio is available at -


Details of the Speakers are available here.


Student elections are currently underway. I'm always pleased to see young people actively participating in elections, though I've seen some practices that would not be tolerated in local or national elections. For examples the offering of sweets to voters!

So for my law students participating inn student elections - a bit of legislative background.

Representation of the People Act 1983 s114 Treating

(1)A person shall be guilty of a corrupt practice if he is guilty of treating.
(2)A person shall be guilty of treating if he corruptly, by himself or by any other person, either before, during or after an election, directly or indirectly gives or provides, or pays wholly or in part the expense of giving or providing, any meat, drink, entertainment or provision to or for any person—
(a)for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting; or
(b)on account of that person or any other person having voted or refrained from voting, or being about to vote or refrain from voting.
(3)Every elector or his proxy who corruptly accepts or takes any such meat, drink, entertainment or provision shall also be guilty of treating.

I knew one MP who would never a buy a round of drinks in his constituency - on the grounds that he might be accused of treating. I guess his party workers felt it didn't apply as they were already committed to voting for him - but it was probably best to be cautious!

Other information on election offences can be found at http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/d_to_g/election_offences/

Wednesday 17 March 2010

"It is a tremendous force for good"

This was written of Congress - not a century ago - or in some "golden age" - but in Henry Waxman's recent "Waxman report".

The minutae of process - and the long time that legislation can take to develop - often obscures what is achieved. In Waxman's book - which I heartily recommend to citizens and propective legislators [both sides of the Atlantic] looks at a series of case studies in which the legislative process and effective scrutiny have brought benefits to citizens.

This is a year in which elections will bring many claims that Washington and Westminster aren't working. It will be claimed that "money talks" - yes it does - but as Waxman points out "run as it should be, it [Congress] ensures that no special interest can ever be powerful enough to eclipse the public interest"

Do you not believe that? Well read Waxman's arguments in his book.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Procedure and Practice in the House of Lords

This afternoon the House of Lords will consider the following business:-

The following two motions are expected to be debated together:

Privileges The Chairman of Committees to move that the Report from the Select Committee on the Guide to the Code of Conduct (2nd Report, HL Paper 81) be agreed to.

House Committee The Chairman of Committees to move that the Report from the Select Committee on the Rules Governing the Use of Facilities (2nd Report, HL Paper 47) be agreed to.

These deal with Members' behaviour.

The following two motions are expected to be debated together:

Procedure The Chairman of Committees to move that the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 51) be agreed to.

Procedure The Chairman of Committees to move that the 3rd Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 82) be agreed to.

These amend Standing Orders and practices relating to European Business.

Private Eye

Private Eye is probably the closest British publication to the Onion (See 13th March post) - but it is much more. The magazine has a serious side - exposing abuse of power - be it by politicians or the media. As a result of British libel law - it has been subject to a number of legal actions and threats of legal action.

Sometimes I can be greatly annoyed by Private Eye - but thank goodness we have freedom of the press. I'll gladly put up with a bit of irritation - for the value of a magazine which can expose abuses of power. Sadly the mainstream media is more interested in celebratory gossip. Abuse of power is more serious. (and by the way - thanks to Sarah & Matt, I enjoy a subscription)

The website is accessible here.

Monday 15 March 2010

Woody Guthrie and his music

Last week the Institute for the Study of the Americas held a musical recital and commentary entitled "All You Jim Crow Fascists! Woody Guthrie's Freedom Songs". It was presented by Will Kaufman of the University of Central Lancashire. It was a very interesting evening - lot's about the life and the developing of Guthries beliefs - and some great music, illustrated with slides.

If you want to see Will Kaufman (or hear his singing of particular Guthrie song) see his MySpace page accessible here.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Out of sync

Daylight Savings Time begins today in (parts of) the United States. However in Britain and Europe the clocks will go forward in two weeks time (28th March). Therefore if you are watching C-SPAN or BBC Parliament - be aware that the time differences are less for the next fortnight.

There is an amusing (and informative website about Daylight Savings Time accessible here.) An article specifically on British Summer Time is here.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Video on Senate Rules

There is an excellent 42 minute video on the subject of Senate rules at GovNews. It is a presentation and Q&A by Senator Tom Udall.

The video can be accessed here

The Onion

Travelling on the train to work yesterday (the leg from Nuneaton to Leicester), the gentleman sitting next to me was reading the online version of "The Onion". The paper is produced in hard copy form each week in the United States. When I'm in Washington DC I always make sure to pick up a copy as I enter the the Huntington Metro Station.

If you haven't discovered it yet (and Borders in the UK did a lot to introduce British folk to the magazine and its annual publications) you can access the website here.

Friday 12 March 2010

Congress & Parliament

Henry Waxman's book, "The Waxman Report", jointly written with Joshua Green deserves to be more widely read. As well as a useful guide to practices within the House of Representatives, it sets out what individual legislators can achieve.

There are two main parts to the book. The first is entitled "The Art of Making Laws" in which he describes how some specific pieces of legislation, which have been of great value to citizens, were enacted into law. The second part is "The Art of Oversight".

Too many media reports (and lets be honest, politicians are complicit in this) concentrate on the theatre. Speeches, soundbites and tactical manoeuvres get all the attention. Too many academic studies over emphasis the importance of roll call votes and the so-called 'rational choice theory'.

Yet legislatures work through lots of negotiations - in which individual legislators; whips; other party and legislative leaders; officials; constituents and lobbyists work out solutions to problems.

Legislatures rarely make good, popular theatre. Citizens are (at best) bemused, often angered by the languages and practices - and this can lead to alienation. Henry Waxman reminds us that, quietly, much can be - and is - achieved. Citizens and legislators can take inspiration from this book.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Parliamentarians run for Sports Relief

Yesterday - on a VERY cold March afternoon - a number of MPs and Peers ran for the 'Sports Relief Charity. Here are the pictures

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Parliamentary Reform

Last night the Hansard Society held a meeting at which the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw spoke. It was part of their "Parliamentary Reform Lecture Series". Mr Straw began by making the important point that constitutions are about how power is distributed.

The Lord Chancellor argued that a strong Executive, able to get its business through, is a strength of the British system. "Things get done". He contrasted this with the difficulties that President Obama faced in passing healthcare legislation - and expressed the view that had Britain adopted the American system, Nye Bevan would have been unable to create the National Health Service in the 1940s - to the great detriment of millions of British people.

But Mr Straw recognised that there is an imbalance between the Government and Parliament needing to be addressed.

The myth of a supine Parliament was challenged. Mr Straw argued that there was never a 'golden age' - and supported his arguments from comments made from 1895 to 1976. He pointed out that in the 1970s the government really did have the upper hand. There were no select committees - no broadcasting of Parliament - no Freedom of Information Act. The power of the whips has been greatly reduced since. The House of Lords was largely a docile body (at least when there were Conservative governments).

The Lord Chancellor put forward the proposition that reform has transformed Parliament since 1997. In support of this he pointed to

  • the way that select committees had been enhanced (paying handsome tribute to Mrs Thatcher for allowing Norman St John Stevas to set up the system of Departmental Select Committees)
  • the removal of hundreds of hereditary peers from the House of Lords - which is now smaller but more active and assertive
  • the establishment of the Grand Committee in Westminster Hall which offers greatly increased opportunity for MPs to raise issues
  • the creation of the Scrutiny Unit to assist committees
  • establishment of a regular practice of the Liaison Committee questioning the Prime Minister
  • introduction of "topical questions" in the Commons Chamber
  • more written Parliamentary Questions accepted than ever before
  • buttressing MPs' ability to get information through the Freedom of Information Act
  • the requirement in s19 of the Human Rights Acts for Ministers to state whether the bill they are presenting is in their opinion compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (something which he said had "changed the way Government operates"
  • pre- and post- legislative scrutiny
  • the replacement of Standing Committees in the legislative process with Public Bill Committees which are able to take evidence
  • the programming of bills. Mr Straw recognised the validity of some of the criticism of this - but noted that they avoided the unnecessary filibustering and guillotines which had curtailed real discussion of legislation. He argued that under the old system little scrutiny took place while the opposition were filibustering - then a guillotine would be imposed allowing very little meaningful scrutiny. He acknowledged that there was a need for more scrutiny on the floor and suggested that time limits on speeches rather than programme motions may be the best way to move ahead.

Four major areas for reform were highlighted

  1. Commons Reform - which was now moving ahead in the wake of the expenses scandal
  2. Lords Reform - upon which he said "the time has now come to complete the process"
  3. Wider Constitutional Reform - focusing on - the electoral system and addressing the crisis of trust.
  4. Discussing the balance between Direct and Representative Democracy (He pointed to recent events in California and Switzerland as warnings about too great direct democracy)

Mr Straw's final remarks concerned Conservative proposals for cutting the size of the House of Commons. He made an impassioned attack on this proposal - which is not to be put to the British people in a referendum, and which had not been discussed with other parties. He described it as "a dangerous piece of gerrymandering" which would disproportionately reduce the representation of urban areas, Scotland and Wales. He pointed to the Electoral Reform Society which had warned that the proposal would destabilise the link between constituents and MPs.

Details of this speech - and future meetings in the Parliamentary Reform Lecture Series will be available on the Hansard Society website.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

The Structure of Government Departments (UK)

Listen to a classic conversation from the first episode of "Yes Minster" here.

There are a lot of 'Secretaries' in a Government Department! There are two structures within a typical Government Department.

The Political Structure

The Political Head of a Department is usually called the "Secretary of State for (name of Department)". Sometimes they are known by a different title (The Chancellor of the Exchequer - who has overall responsibility for the Treasury. The Secretary of State for Justice currently has the title of 'Lord Chancellor') - They will be members of the Cabinet.

The next rung down is the Minister of State. At the most junior paid level is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.

Some of the Ministers may be assisted by a PPS (Parliamentary Private Secretary). These are unpaid MPs who acts as a minister's eyes and ears in Parliament, making sure the minister is kept well informed of backbench opinion. While they are not members of the Government, they are regarded as part of the "payroll vote" and are expected to vote with the government - or resign. It is often the first step towards a ministerial career.

Press Here to see the Ministers in the Department of Energy & Climate Change. and Here for the Ministry of Justice.

The Civil Service Structure

In the UK Ministers are assisted by Civil Servants - who are professional staff, not political appointments. There are strict restrictions on their political activity. The most senior Civil Servant in a Department is the Permanent Secretary. They run the civil service within that Department and are also the "Accounting Officer" for the Department. There is an excellent guide to the Civil Service available here. [See about us: Leadership]
Larger Departments may have an official known as the "Second Permanent Secretary". At the next level down are the "Director-Generals". The Structure within DECC is available on a pdf. here.

Ministers have their own Private Office, headed by their Private Secretary. The Private Secretary to the Secretary of State is the Principal Private Secretary.

Monday 8 March 2010

The Sir John Dankworth Story

Another superb 'Jazz Matters' yesterday morning at The Stables. Peter Vacher gave a presentation on the life and work of Sir John Dankworth. He began by playing "Three Blind Mice", the chart-topping piece which involves variations on the famous childrens' song. I particularly liked the way that Peter Vacher illustrated the way that Sir John's music developed and the sheer range of his abilities.

The transtlantic influence was discussed. Sir John was a clarinetist before (and after) taking up the Saxophone. Benny Goodman was a key influence. Mr Vacher described how Laurie Morgan brought back 78s of 'be-bop jazz' from New York - and shared them with budding British jazz musicians such as Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott. British be-bop then developed. In the late 1940s Johnny Dankworth was one of the jazz musicians who played on the transatlantic liners. They would perform on the crossings (all styles of music, not just jazz) - and then head for the jazz clubs in New York where the leaders of the be-bop movement, such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, were performing. Mr Vacher illustrated with recordings of Sir John how he both learned from these masters and developed his own style.

The presentation finished with the theme from "Tomorrow's World" - composed and performed by Sir John Dankworth.

Sunday 7 March 2010

TV Drama and Real Life

There are two TV programmes that I particularly enjoy - and which are also useful portrayals of how the political systems in Britain and the USA work. They are "Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister" and "West Wing". Many of the storylines are based on actual events.

NPR did a piece recently on how real life mirrors a West Wing Story line. It's an interesting piece and I recommend spending eight and a half minutes listening to it.

It may be accessed here.
The episode referred to is "Let Bartlet be Bartlet" (Season One, Episode 19)

Saturday 6 March 2010

General Election Timetables

There is an excellent House of Commons Library Standard Note on "General Election Timetables". It sets out the statutory timetable - and applies this to seven possible dates (May 6th is still the bookies' favourite). It is likely that the announcement of the General Election will be made a few days prior to day 0 (the last date for dissolution). This enables the Government to get any outstanding business through (with the negotiated agreement of the other parties)

The paper can be accessed here.

Friday 5 March 2010

Watching Live

Live feeds from the various chambers can be accessed via the following links:

When the relevant chamber is not sitting - recordings and other material are broadcast.

Thursday 4 March 2010

What the People Think

Last night the Hansard Society published its 7th annual "Audit of Political Engagement". As usual it contains the results of polling and further research which will be pored over and reflected upon by all those with an interest in the health of the British body politic.

The report is larger this year - with relevant analses and commentaries on two central questions.

* how have the expenses and related scandals affected attitudes to MPs and Parliament?
* how can public involvement, and in particular, electoral turnout be raised?

For all the furore over the scandals of the lat year the report found that "There has not been a fundamental realignment of views about MPs and the political process as a result...for the most part, it has merely confirmed and hardened the public's widely held scepticism about politicians rather than changed their views"

Another significant finding is that "proposals for constitutional, political, and parliamentary report in the light of the MPs' expenses scandal have yet to resonate with the wider public"

Furthermore "there is a huge gulf between the public's perception of what they think MPs should be doing and what MPs actually do."

The report highlights the need for effective education.

There is a useful division of people into eight groups. (Details of these groups - and how to engage with them is discussed in Chapter 6)

1 Politically Committed
2 Active Campaigners
3 Interested Bystanders
4 Detached Cynics
5 Politically Contented
6 Bored/Apathetic
7 Disengaged/Mistrustful
8 Alienated/Hostile

This should be a helpful tool to tackle the concerns of different sectors of the community.

I commend this report to you - which can be downloaded from here.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Greensboro Sit-Ins

Yesterday I attended a conference entitled "The Launch of the 1960s Civil Rights Protest: The 50th Anniversary of the Greensboro (North Carolina) Sit-Ins and the Formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee". It was held at the British Library Conference Centre - and had been jointly organised by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.

During the day there were three panels. The first was "The Sit-Ins: Activism and Reaction". The history of the sit-ins was outlined - with a paper by John Kirk on 'The Sit-Ins and the Courts: Little Rock, Lupper and the Law, 1960-64. This described how the law was used - and described the US Supreme Court case Lupper v Arkansas. George Lewis considered "the impact of the Sit-Ins on the ideology of Southern Segregationalists - while Clive Webb discussed Southern White reactions to the Sit-Ins.

The first afternoon session dealt with the emergence and impact of the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee. (SNCC - pronounced 'Snick'). Peter Ling argued, with an impressive use of statistics - that this was not one committee, but several. His colleague at Nottingham University, Professor Sharon Monteith, described some of the writings of key players - and how their stories (novels and short stories) give us an insight to the SNCC. Joe Street spoke of the intellectual transformation of SNCC impacted upon their view of community.

The final panel dealt with the international dimensions of the Sit-Ins. Simon Hall considered how 'Cold War Patriotism' influenced both sides of the dispute. Segregations alleged that it was a plot by Communists to attack the South's way of life - while pro-civil rights activists stressed how the actions of the segregationists was undermining the USA's role in promoting democracy around the world. Stephen Tuck described how the events affected other countries - including the UK.

A book based on the day's conference is anticipated.

The primary event in the campaign of Sit-Ins took place on 1st February 1960 -when four African-American students - Ezell A Blair Jr (later known as Jibreel Khazan); David Leinhail Richmond; Joseph Alfred McNeil and Franklin Eugene McCain - sat down in a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth's in Greensboro. They were refused service. A sit-in began and grew over the following days. A website on the subject can be found here.

An interview with Franklin McCain can be listened to -

Tuesday 2 March 2010


Fifty years ago the Senate had begun what was to become a marathon session. Senate Leader, Lyndon Johnson had begun an attempt to push through civil rights legislation. On February 15th he used a procedural device aimed to get the measures passed quickly (in Senate terms). Instead of introducing a Senate Bill he took opponents by surprise by a series of moves -

* he asked for, and received unanimous consent to proceed to consideration of a House passed bill, H.R. 8315. This was a minor, non-controversial bill authorizing the Army to use particular offices on a specific base for new purposes. No one objected.

* during consideration of the bill, he invited Senators to propose amendments which would introduce civil rights provisions. This meant that what became a civil rights bill would avoid being referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where opponents could keep it tied up. Also, when it was returned to the House - as 'merely' Senate amendments, it wouldn't need a rule granted by the southern controlled Rules Committee.

To defeat the anticipated filibuster by the hardcore of less than 20 southern Senators, Johnson announced that the Senate would go into continuous (24 hour a day) session from 29th February. This would have tested the stamina and resolve of those that would try to filibuster. Senator Talmadge came up with a way to turn the tables. The hardcore 18 were arranged into "platoons" of 6 senators - each platoon was responsible for continuing the filibuster for a day (with two days 'off'). On the day they were covering a 'squad' of 2 would be responsible for 8 hours. Quorum calls were regularly made - this forced the majority to have at least 49 Senators available at all times. Otherwise, the senate would be adjourned - and those sustaining the filibuster would get a rest - and a new 'legislative day' would begin. Senators were only allowed 2 speeches per legislative day - so this would have meant that the filibuster could be sustained.

An aide to Senator Paul Douglas explained "A Senator who was filibustering didn't have to show except every third day and didn't have to speak except every sixth day. The people who were trying to break the filibuster hads to be around...at all times, to answer the quorum calls...The effect of it was to wear out the people who were trying to break the filibuster, rather than to wear out the people who were filibustering"

Floyd Riddick, in a journal article entitled "The Eighty-Sixth Congress: Second Session" which appeared in the Western Political quarterly in 1961 revealed that -

"The "around the clock" session ran from February 29th through March 8th - a nine day continuous session lasting 157 hours and 25 minutes, broken only by a 15 minute recess on March 2 and a recess over Sunday March 6 - giving a 42.5 hour respite. The longest unbroken period took 82 hours and 2 minutes, from March 2 to March 5, during which time there were 13 roll call votes and 51 quorum calls."

Johnson finally called off the continuous session when a cloture petition was filed. It failed 53-42. A watered down administration bill (rather than Johnson's bill) was referred to the Judiciary
Committee. It made it into law - but "in the end the bill satified no one completely".

Monday 1 March 2010

The Great Offices of State

Sadly this post is only for those accessing the internet from the UK (though in the US you could contact BBC America to ask that the series be broadcast in the USA - press here or BBC World for other countries from here)

The BBC has recently broadcast a series about the Great Offices of State in the UK (Home Office; Foreign Office & the Treasury). True to the ethos of the BBC it is succeeds in being entertaining and informative (and provides a solid education in the working of the British system). There are interviews with politicians and civil servants covering a long period of time. The role, challenges and practices of each department are covered. The series is presented by the well respected veteran political reporter Michael Cockerill. The programme's website can be accessed here.

The programmes can be watched by following the links below (please note that these programmes are only available for a limited period - the site mentions 4th March)

I would strongly recommend the series to anyone with a general interest in the way government operates in Britain - and particularly students of politics, history and Law.