Saturday 31 March 2012

Collective Responsibility

Ultimately, the enforcement of the doctrine of ‘Collective Responsibility’ is down to the Prime Minister.

As the current version of the Ministerial Code states “Decisions reached by the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees are binding on all members of the Government.”

Harold Wilson, in his book describing his last period in office as Prime Minister (March 1974- March 1976), “Final Term” describes the problems he faced over ‘collective responsibility’.

At a meeting of a sub-committee of the National Executive Committee [the Governing body of the Labour Party] in May [1974] three ministers dissociated themselves from Government policy by voting for a critical motion about [Chilean ships]…The problem was to come up again just after the October [1974] General Election, when three ministers voted in favour of a National Executive resolution criticizing the Government over a routine naval visit to Simonstown.”

Wilson wrote to the three offending Ministers – Tony Benn; Judith Hart and Joan Lestor:-

Your vote in support of the Simonstown resolution at yesterday’s meeting of the National Executive Committee was clearly inconsistent with the principle of collective responsibility…..I must ask you to send me in reply to this minute an unqualified assurance that you accept the principle of collective responsibility and that you will from now on comply with its requirements and the rules that follow from it, in the National Executive Committee and in all other circumstances. I must warn you that I should have to regard your failure to give me such an assurance, or any subsequent breach of it, as a decision on your part that you did not wish to continue as a member of this administration.”

Friday 30 March 2012

Writing Constitutions

Having just finished marking the first eTMA on the Open University’s W201 course, I’ve read the phrase “unwritten constitution” many, many times in the last few days. It’s one of the key characheristics of the UK Constitution – but the term only appears in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The first occurrence in Hansard (the almost verbatim report of what was said in Parliament) is in the 1850s, and it is rare until the 1870s. It was then that the idea of an unwritten constitution became popular (Bagehot has a lot to answer for!)

This was one of the nuggets contained in the lecture “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World 1776-1848” given by Professor Linda Colley. She highlighted how popular writing constitutions had become after the Americans and French had excited peoples’ interest. London, a popular destination for political exiles from around the world, saw an incredible exchange of ideas.

Professor Colley is currently writing a book on the subject. She’s a historian – but her lecture was full of interest for those with an interest in Constitutions – and as I come to the subject as an academic in both the legal and political science fields, I found it fascinating. She described the work of people like John Cartwright and Jeremy Bentham, and traced the interest in the Magna Carta. There was an explosion in constitution writing as the idea spread that Government could be “simple, accountable and broadly based”. Perhaps it’s time for us in Britain to return to those interests of the late 18th and early 19th Century?

Thursday 29 March 2012

The Development of a Convention

At the start of the Twentieth Century, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, sat in the House of Lords. By 1963 it was an accepted convention that Prime Ministers could only sit in the House of Commons. No law was ever passed; no resolution tabled in the House of Commons - the convention arose because the constitutional actors believed that it bound them.

Clearly the change in powers in the Parliament Act of 1911 altered the relative importance of each House - but there was no express suggestion in that statute about where the Prime Minister should sit. The key milestones were:-

1900 – Lord Salisbury is Prime Minister (until 1902)

1923 – Lord Curzon is considered as possible successor to Bonar Law, but Stanley Baldwin is chosen. The view was prevalent that this was because Curzon was a Peer.

1940 – Lord Halifax, though more popular within the Conservative Party, does not take over from Chamberlain, as doubts expressed about whether a Peer should be Prime Minister

1963 – Lord Home stands down as a Peer and is elected to House of Commons after becoming Prime Minister. Lord Hailsham had renounced his peerage in the hope of becoming Prime Minister.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

One Vote!

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the confidence vote which brought down the 1974-79 Labour Government, and brought forward the 1979 General Election. For my study of whips during the 1979-2010 period it was a key event - so I have amassed much material on the events of the day.

There was confusion on the night. Jimmy Hamilton, a Labour whip had given a thumbs up sign to the Labour benches, mistakenly believing that the Government had just succeeded. However it was 311-310 for the motion of no confidence. Alfred Broughton, the MP for Batley and Morley was gravely ill - the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, thought it would have been inhuman to have him brought to Westminster (from Leeds - a 400 mile roundtrip) in an ambulance for his vote to be counted. He was to die a few days later.

This was one of the few examples in the 20th Century of a government defeat leading to the fall of a government. (There have been many government defeats  in the House of Commons –  but only three were defeats which were regarded as confidence votes - Jan 21st 1924, Oct 8th 1924 & Mar 28th 1979.

There are various accounts of that day in political memoirs; biographies and histories. An article by Roy Hattersley can be found here.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Separation of Powers

The US Constitution is built upon the foundation of a separation of powers. Montesquieu, amongst others, had highlighted the importance of ensuring that the differing functions of legislating (making law); executing the laws (carrying out the laws and providing day to day administration) ; and judging - both interpreting the laws and deciding in invidual cases - should be in the hands of separate groups of individuals. Hence a member of Congress cannot be at the same time a member of the Executive (serving the President) or a member of the judiciary.

On the face of it, Britain seems to show a fusion, rather than a separation of powers. The doctrines of ministerial responsibility are based on the principle that Government Ministers will also be members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor was for centuries a member of Parliament (almost invariably in the House of Lords); the presiding officer and major player in the Lords; a member of Cabinet and an active judge.

However - it is useful to remember that Montesquieu actually praised Britain as a shining example of 'separation of powers'. It can be fairly described as a major principle of the British system. True fusion of powers ended with the decline of absolute royal power.

The House of Commons Library have produced an excellent paper on separation of powers. It is available here. Students of UK Constitutional Law (including Open University W200 and W201 courses) will find that the process of condensing the information in this paper will assist their revision immensely.

Monday 26 March 2012

The Passage of Power

Friends of mine know how much I value Robert Caro's work on Lyndon Johnson - if you see my facebook page you'll see I list it as one of my favourite (set of ) book(s). Which is why I was so excited to see this in the daily email sent by Politico.

THE NEW YORKER PREVIEWS CARO'S FOURTH LBJ VOLUME - "[I]n '[Annals of History:] The Transition," the historian Robert A. Caro takes readers through the dramatic events of the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination, from the point of view of the future President Lyndon B. Johnson. In this excerpt from the much anticipated fourth volume in Caro's lauded series about President Johnson, 'The Passage of Power' [out May 1], Caro presents a portrait of a man on the verge of transition ... [T]he day began for Johnson with the belief-the fear-that he might not be on the ticket with J.F.K. in the coming election. That very day, back in Washington, a witness was providing Senate Rules Committee staffers with evidence that he said linked Johnson to Robert G. (Bobby) Baker, the subject of a scandal that had been exploding in the capital, and ... Life magazine was mapping out an investigation into the sources of Johnson's wealth. The Vice-President's trip to Texas wasn't going well: he had failed to heal the bitter rift between two major Texas democrats, Governor John B. Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough; the previous day, in San Antonio, Yarborough had refused even to ride in the same car with Johnson. 'Given what the President was seeing for himself in Texas-that Johnson was no longer a viable mediator between factions of his party in his home state-and what was happening at that very minute in the Old Senate Office Building, the President's assurances that he would be on the ticket might start to have a hollow ring,' Caro writes.

"Johnson himself, Caro writes, believed that his political career was 'finished.' Caro details the moments after the shots were fired-Johnson being flung to the floor of his car by a Secret Service agent who lay on top of him for protection, the tense moments at the Dallas hospital as Johnson awaited news of Kennedy's condition, and the mad rush to get Johnson aboard Air Force One amid fears that the assassination might be part of a conspiracy-during which an immediate change took place in Johnson. Jack Valenti said that, 'even in that instant, there was a new demeanor' in the new President. 'Whatever emotions or passions he had in him, he had put them under a strict discipline,' Valenti said, so that 'he was very quiet and seemingly very much in command of himself.' There had been, in Valenti's words, 'a transformation.'

"Caro elucidates the thinking behind ... the decision to call Bobby Kennedy about the oath of office, and to take the oath on the plane in Dallas, rather than flying back to D.C. to do so. 'Even in this ?rst hour after John F. Kennedy's death, Lyndon Johnson seems to have had feelings that would torment him for the rest of his life-feelings understandable in any man placed in the Presidency not through an election but through an assassin's bullet, and feelings exacerbated, in his case, by the contrast, and what he felt was the world's view of the contrast, between him and the President he was replacing; by the contempt in which he had been held by the people around the President; and by the stark geographical fact of where the act elevating him to o?ce had taken place,' Caro writes. However, 'through the recollections of people present in the room' when Johnson took the oath, 'there runs a common theme,' Caro writes: 'a sense that, out of aimless confusion, order was quickly emerging' due to Johnson's quick decision-making and leadership. 'You see, it was just that he was coming back to himself,' Horace Busby, a longtime Johnson aide, explains to Caro. 'He was back where he belonged. He was back in command.' Caro writes that, 'for the ?rst time in three years, he looked like the Lyndon Johnson of the Senate ?oor. Now he had suddenly come to the very pinnacle of power. However he had got there, whatever concatenation of circumstance and tragedy-whatever fate-had put him there, he was there, and he knew what to do there.'" Abstract, and link for subscribers http://nyr.kr/GRd8Kt $18.98 Amazon pre-order http://amzn.to/GQ0CgY

David Lloyd-George

On this day in 1945, David Lloyd-George died. His importance in modern British political history is underlined by the fact that his statute is placed in the Members' Lobby of the House of Commons, at the entrance to the House itself - an honour shared only with the other great war leader, Winston Churchill.

It was his budget in 1908 which led to the battle with the House of Lords, resulting in the constitutional crisis that was finally resolved by the passage of the Parliament Act 1911.

Although he was a great Welsh man (and the only Welsh politician to become a British Prime Minister), he was actually born in England.
Details of the Lloyd-George museum can be found here.

There is a piece about him on the BBC website.   There are a number of excellent books about him. The two below are, interestingly enough, both by current Labour Peers.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Michael Gove

Estelle Morris (Baroness Morris of Yardley), a former Secretary of State herself (and a former teacher - rare for a Secretary of State for Education) gave an interview about the radical plans that the current Secretary of State is pursuing. Subsequently he has used powers to remove governing bodies who have resisted his wish to see schools "choose" Academy Status. His links to Rupert Murdoch are outlined here. His position, and connections with Atlantic Bridge are summarised here.

One of the weaknesses of Parliament is that is unable to stand up to the Government. Standing Order 14 gives the Government of the day control of all but a limited amount of parliamentary time. The doctrine of Collective Ministerial Responsibilty requires not only Ministers, but their unpaid assistants (PPSs) to vote with the Government or resign. Most backbenchers rarely "rebel". The House of Lords can be 'packed' by party loyalists. Once a Government is formed it is in the driving seat - even if it has a weak electoral mandate.

The video of Estelle Morris can be viewed here. (Apologies that watching the preceding advert is unavoidable)

Saturday 24 March 2012

Dicey and the Rule of Law

I've argued before that the great value for law and politics students of A V Dicey is that he has encapsulated central doctrines of the UK Constitution in lists of three pithy points. That makes it easier to see how different aspects of an idea are connected - useful when first learning a topic - but also great as a foundation for revision.

When writing essays, be it for term papers or TMAs, the list given by Dicey can provide a useful structure when describing; explaining; applying and discussing a doctrine.

On "Rule of Law" as a key doctrine in the British Constitution - Dicey pointed (as ever) to Three Key principles -

(1) "no man is punishable or can lawfully be made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law" - a respect for the Rule of Law means that there will be no arbitrary punishments. Only when a breach of a PRE-EXISTING offence occurs - and the person is tried in a properly constituted and impartial Court - can a citizen be punished.

(2) There is "equality before the law." As Denning put it "Be you ever so high, the law is above you" - No one is above the law, whatever their background or status. Similarly - as Magna Carta promised in 1215 - "To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice"

(3) "The constitution is the result of the ordinary law of the land." Parliament (a partly elected body) will be able to pass whatever laws it wishes. The people are free to elect representatives who are free to legislate without the constraints that a perhaps centuries-old Constitution - written by fallible men in very different circumstances - would impose.

Friday 23 March 2012

The Most Politically Controversial Statements on Education

Education - as you might imagine of a University lecturer with a family which has been involved in education for three generations - is close to my heart. Online Colleges have produced a list of the ten most controversial statements about Education made by politicians. Of course it is US based - but values are shared across the Atlantic. (And worrying Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education - a journalist not an academic or a teacher - is very much influenced by some of the right wing ideas emanating from the USA).

The article starts -

"No one argues that the American public education system is in crisis. But the question of how to revive it is a difficult and increasingly partisan one. Many politicians, no strangers to rhetoric, have grown fond of using public education as their whipping boy, giving favorable crowds what they want to hear but often stirring controversy in the process. Here are 10 of the most buzz-worthy quotes that stirred up a hornet’s nest.

President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

The campaign trail has historically been a place where reason and common sense go to die, and in the 2012 election that seems to be holding true. GOP candidate Rick Santorum recently made headlines by calling President Obama a “snob” for supposedly saying every American should go to college so that he could “remake people in his image.” Apart from the fact that the president never said that, Mr. Santorum happens to hold three degrees — one more than President Obama.

“Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.”

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney would like you to note that he was making odd jabs at education well before Rick Santorum. In September 2011, Romney attempted to paint a picture of the president drinking brandy with east coast intellectuals while mocking blue-collar workers. The “faculty lounge” in question was apparently another reference to Harvard’s faculty lounge, the first coming in August. Romney told veterans Obama’s foreign policy is weak, saying, “That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge, but it’s not what they know on the battlefield.” There’s just one problem, Mitt old chap: you went to Harvard and Harvard people donate money to your campaign.

Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.”

Your 9-year-old doesn’t have enough money, you say? Well has he thought about being a janitor at his school? Thus proposed candidate Newt Gingrich at a Harvard (big surprise) speech in November 2011. Newt Gingrich was born 70-years-old with white hair and a tie, which explains why he had no idea it would be excruciatingly embarrassing to be a janitor at your own school. Or that the suggestion was pretty darn offensive.


The full article is available at http://www.onlinecolleges.net/2012/03/20/most-politically-controversial-statements-on-education/

Perhaps one day I will post some of the comments of Michael Gove and his sidekick, Nick Gibb - but while you might think the comments are funny, I could weep!!!!

Thursday 22 March 2012

Congressional "Casualties"

Roll Call regularly updates its Casuality List - Members who have either left, or have announced that they are leaving Congress. It's a useful tool for seeing which races will be fought in an "Open" seat. Incumbents have great advantages, and many seats only change hands when a long serving member retires. It's also useful for noting who is moving on - as many of you know, I am coming to the end of my studies for my Ph.D. looking at whips in  the four Houses of the US Congress and UK Parliament. As I shall be visiting Washington DC shortly I'm keen to know which whips and former whips will be leaving town at the end of the year.

The current list of "casualties" is

Appointed to Senate — (1 House: 1R)

House: Dean Heller (R-Nev.), 51, 3 terms

Running for Senate — (12 House: 6D, 6R)

Todd Akin (R-Mo.), 64, 6 terms
Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), 50, 7 terms
Rick Berg (R-N.D.), 52, 1 term
Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), 61, 7 terms
Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), 56, 3 terms
Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), 49, 6 terms
Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), 40, 2 terms
Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), 64, 3 terms
Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), 44, 4 terms
Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), 38, 3 terms
Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), 56, 6 terms
Bob Turner (R-N.Y.), 70, 1 term

Running for Other Office — (3 House: 1D, 2R)

Bob Filner (D-Calif.), 69, 10 terms
Ron Paul (R-Texas), 76, 8 terms *running for president, & has announced retirement at end of this Congress.

Mike Pence (R-Ind.), 52, 6 terms

Retiring — (23 House: 14D, 9R; 10 Senate: 6D, 1I, 3R)

Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), 69, 14 terms
Steve Austria (R-Ohio), 53, 2 terms
Dan Boren (D-Okla.), 38, 4 terms
Dan Burton (R-Ind.), 73, 15 terms
Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), 52, 5 terms
Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), 62, 12 terms
Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), 53, 4 terms
Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), 71, 18 terms
David Dreier (R-Calif.), 59, 16 terms
Barney Frank (D-Mass.), 71, 16 terms
Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), 68, 13 terms
Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), 66, 7 terms
Wally Herger (R-Calif.), 66, 13 terms
Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), 73, 10 terms
Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), 82, 18 terms
Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), 77, 17 terms
Brad Miller (D-N.C.), 58, 5 terms
Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), 70, 9 terms
John Olver (D-Mass.), 75, 10 terms
Todd Platts (R-Pa.), 50, 6 terms
Mike Ross (D-Ark.), 50, 6 terms
Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), 40, 3 terms
Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), 74, 10 terms
Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), 87, 3 terms
Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), 68, 5 terms
Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), 64, 3 terms
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), 68, 3 terms
Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), 77, 4 terms
Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), 69, 3 terms
Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), 70, 4 terms
Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), 70, 2 terms
Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), 65, 3 terms
Jim Webb (D-Va.), 66, 1 term

Defeated in Primary — (3 House: 1D, 2R)

Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), 65, 8 terms
Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), 67, 10 terms
Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), 60, 3 terms

Resigned — (6 House: 5D, 1R; 1 Senate: 1R)

Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), 41, 3 terms
Jane Harman (D-Calif.), 66, 6 terms
Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), 61, 8 terms
Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), 47, 2 terms
Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), 47, 7 terms
David Wu (D-Ore.), 56, 7 terms
John Ensign (R-Nev.), 53, 2 terms

Died — (1 House: 1D)

House: Donald Payne (D-N.J.), 77, 12 terms

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Budget

This afternoon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered his budget statement. It was delivered to the Chamber of the House of Commons. This is appropriate since Ministers are accountable to Parliament - and major policy statements and decisions should be delivered to Parliament - and an opportunity given for MPs to comment and to ask further questions. The statement though is only an outline. It is accompanied by large documents (though thankfully not as large as the documentation released as part of the US President's budget. They were available for MPs and Peers to pick up once the statement had been made. A set of them are sitting in front of me now, as I write this in Portcullis House (the most modern part of the Parliamentary Estate - linked by a tunnel to the main Palace of Westminster - which includes the 913 year old Westminster Hall). The documents include - in bright red - a Copy of the Budget Report - a 116 page document which includes an Executive Summary and the Report itself and details of the Budget Policy decisions. There is a Budget Forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility. A second document published by the Office for Budget Responsibility is its "Economic and fiscal outlook". Lots of detail for MPs to use in their consideration of the Budget. The Budget debate has already begun on the floor of the House of Commons; a Finance Bill will be introduced and the Treasurt Select Committee will seek to scrutinise the Budget. The documents, and associated press releases (many of which will be published in full in tomorrow's serious newspapers) can be downloaded (for free!) at www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/budget2012.htm (see links of the right of the page)


Let’s be honest about this. National leaders are rarely shrinking violets. They have navigated the highways and byways of government to reach the very top of the political ladder. There are thousands of people who have run for Parliament, but only 650 sit in the House of Commons. Many MPs become mere footnotes in (local) history – but Members of the Cabinet have risen through the ranks to reach the very top. That takes a certain amount of toughness – and ability to see off competitors.

This is important to remember when the power of conventions in the British system is considered. These very powerful people feel constrained to obey conventions – even though the convention may stop them achieving their goals, and despite the fact that conventions are, by definition, unenforceable by the Courts.

So why are they obeyed? Political Scientists treat politicians (and other constitutional players) as economic actors. Their behaviour is determined by their wish to gain and maintain power (see David Mayhew on “Congress the Electoral Connection”). It would be nice, though sadly naïve, to imagine that conventions are kept purely out of respect for tradition. They are observed because the costs of breaching a convention are greater than the benefits to be gained. The convention that the Monarch always gives the Royal Assent to bills passed by both Houses of Parliament keeps the Monarchy safe from republicanism. The short term advantage for a Queen or a King of refusing Assent would be bought at the cost of political controversy that could ultimately end in the removal of an unelected hereditary post filled by virtue of birth not merit. Even if the refusal to grant Assent were popular on that particular issue – people would be concerned that the Monarch could thwart the popular will at any time. The costs of killing a convention could return to haunt the person who did it. A Prime Minister could refuse to resign after losing a vote of confidence – but probably at the expense of tearing his party apart. The advantages of upholding conventions may be long term – but they are great.

For almost a hundred and fifty years there was a “convention” that US Presidents would hold the office no longer than the two terms that Washington himself served. When FDR ‘broke’ this convention, it was turned into a constitutional requirement (22nd Amendment). The flexibility – which could have been useful should the end of a two-term presidency come at a time of extraordinary crisis – has been lost. The flexibility within the British constitution is highly prized – and powerful leaders know that it could be costly to give it up for mere short term advantage.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Why all Lawyers should read...

...the works of Thomas Paine.

There are many thought provoking comments made by this remarkable. Here are a few to reflect upon:-

"A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody" - Rights of Man part 1, 1791. Has this new relevance when Government is handing over powers to corporations to carry out tasks once reserved to democratically elected (and accountable) bodies? Does the abandonment of regulation Threaten the accountability of those who exercise great economic (and political power)?
“It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil”

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” – perhaps of relevance to the doctrine of precedent; to ‘conventions’ as a source of constitutional authority, and the remaining importance of the ‘Royal Prerogative’

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” – consider with reference to the protection of Human Rights, both inside and outside the country.

“Wealth is no proof of moral character, nor poverty of the want of it.” – Worth keeping in mind as we reward the very rich, and penalise those on modest incomes – especially as a particular variant of ‘moralism’ is being increasingly used in the treatment of those previously helped by the benefits system.

On the English Constitution "But that it is imperfect, subject to convultions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise, is easily demonstrated."

Could I recommend reading two of his most famous works - "Common Sense" and "Rights of Man"
The Thomas Paine Society's website can be accessed here.

Monday 19 March 2012

Thetford & Norwich

On Friday we took a leisurely drive towards Norwich. We stopped in the town of Thetford, just off the A11. It's a town I had always wanted to visit, as it was the birthplace of Thomas Paine. It's a very pleasant small town to visit (Jones the Butchers does an excellent sausage in a bap - and tea is available at the Art Gallery in the Guildhall). There is a town trail relating to Thomas Paine. The leaflet is available in a PDF. We did the trail, and I look took lots of video footage - which I will turn into a short video about him. (It may be a little while as I am currently in the middle of marking W201 eTMAs and preparing documents for my next meeting in Hull for my Ph.D.).

Afterwards we drove on to Norwich. We viewed the exterior of the Castle (a tour will be undertaken on a later visit). There was a memorial to Robert Kett - leader of "Kett's Rebellion" in 1549 - "a notable leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions". The rebellion which took his name was one of many at the time againgst enclosures. The already rich and powerful were re-distributing wealth away from ordinary people towards themselves. Eventually some people said, enough is enough.

By the way the Budget Statement will be made in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Saturday 17 March 2012

St Patrick's Day

A happy St Paddy's Day to all my readers.

Apparently the surname "Morgan" could mean - the person who came from across the sea. Many Irish people moved to South Wales as the coal and steel industries developed. But before that there were frequent crossings of the Irish sea. So perhaps I have Irish ancestry. In any event my wife's family comes from Waterford.

But St Patrick himself may have been Welsh. Some believe that he was born in what is currently "Wales", whilst others (possibly the majority of scholars) think he was born in the then Welsh-speaking area of Strathclyde in Scotland [There are a number of specific Celtic languages]

In "The Life of St David"(written in the late 11th century by Rhigfarch (Rhygyfarch) but supplemented by Geraldus Cambrensis around 1200), Patrick is told of coming to Wales as a bishop and vowing to serve God at Glyn Rhosyn (now St. David's). But, he was warned in a dream that the place was reserved for someone who would arrive thirty years later. He was then shown Ireland in the distance by an angel as he stood on a rock called "the seat of St. Patrick." Patrick's mission was to evangelize the distant land, a task that he carried out in a remarkably short period.

{Many thanks to the Wales on Britannia website for this information}

Whether he was born in Wales, or I have Irish ancestry - I will be celebrating the day. I hope that everyone who attended last night's 18th Annual St Patrick's Day Fête in Fairfax hosted by Congressman Gerry Connolly had a great evening. I also hope that you have a great day.

Friday 16 March 2012

The purpose of writing is to communicate...

I mentioned in a recent post that word limits were required in undergraduate law essays to develop the skills of succinctness and focus. As a tutor in law I often find that some students, attempting their first law essay, tend to go over the top in the language they use. They suffer from the misconception that lawyers should write with an old-fashioned, complex style. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The purpose of writing is to communicate. Not only is "legalese" off-putting, it hinders communication. I recently accompanied someone as a friend when they had to see a solicitor (following the death of their husband). After we left, she said to me - "I didn't understand a word of what he was saying". During the meeting I had to explain to her what it meant. ('translate' would be an appropriate term.) The solicitor even said "you put it so much better than I do". It should not be like that. Clients see their solicitor (and pay them considerable sums of money) for their expertise. It is the lawyers job to explain to their legally unqualified client - what it means. That doesn't mean treating them like idiots - but putting into understandable English the relevant points.

Thursday 15 March 2012

The City of Milton Keynes

Andrew Pakes reported in a tweet yesterday "Cabinet Office say #MiltonKeynes has missed out on city status. Good campaign bringing the city together. Disappointing result."

I may be a radical, but I was irritated by the campaign to plead with the Queen for her to "honour" Milton Keynes with city status. [As with most things, although the decision is made in the name of the Monarch - in practice it is a government decision - for my students - see 'Royal Prerogative'].

Milton Keynes is already a city. It is not the gift of the State or a Monarch. A city is made by its citizens. This is recognised in the United States. For 20 years I lived in the ancient settlement of Northampton. It was Henry II's favourite place in England (I think Chinon was his favourite place - I understand why) - and Parliaments have met there. But it has consistently been refused city status. In 1264 the town rebelled against the King - the scholars who had set up a university there were kicked out (imagine, it could have been Oxford and Northampton - but Oxhampton doesn't sound as right as Oxbridge) - and so local stories say the King swore that Northampton would never have a university or be a city. Well it has its own University now (2005). But unlike the much smaller Northampton in Massachusetts, it remains a mere borough.

It's about time British people asserted their rights. Let's be honest, there is a strong tradition. In 1215 the King was forced to sign the Magna Carta. The claim to the divine right of Kings and to tax without the consent of the people was resisted and Charles I lost his crown (and his head). British people have rioted to win the rights we now enjoy.

My passport now describes me as a "British Citizen", not a subject. I like my status as a citizen - both of the UK and of Milton Keynes. The local council is a unitary authority - having the same powers and responsibilities as 'cities' such as Birmingham, Leicester and Coventry. The only thing stopping Milton Keynes being a city is a bunch of bureaucrats who seem to have decided to award the 'honour' to another place in the name of the Queen.

If you want to get rid of wasteful bureaucracy - get rid of them. Let's stop pretending that we can only be citizens if we plead with the Crown to give us a 'gift', and she graciously bestows it upon the place. It is not an honour, but our right.

So I will continue to call the city where I live, the City of Milton Keynes - and recognise the right of my neighbours in Northampton to enjoy the same status as their younger, smaller, namesake in Massachusetts.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Negative Political Advertising

We all deplore it - but, so it seems, it can be extremely effective. That's the reason why so many candidates (and especially their "independent-expenditure only" followers ['SuperPacs']. The most memorable political ads - and probably the most effective - in the last half century have been negative (from LBJ's "Daisy Ad" invoking fear of the possible consequences of Barry Goldwater's 'extremism'...

through the Willy Horton "revolving doors" ad by Bush to undermine the Dukakis campaign in 1988.

C-SPAN recently broadcast a programme on the history and current use of negative political advertising. It is available to view here.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Watch the race - as it continues

Tonight the results of the Primaries in Alabama and Mississippi (and the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa) will be known. A joint Politico/C-SPAN broadcast will be streamed live here. There is also an interesting primary in AL06 (Alabama 6th District), where the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus faces a major challenge. An article in Politico gives some background.

A copy of the sample ballot for the republican primary in Chilton County (part of AL06) can be viewed here.

The live simulcast begins at 7.00pm Eastern Time. British (and other European) viewers are reminded that Daylight Saving Time began in the US on Sunday, so until 25th March the time difference is one hour less. (11pm UK - midnight Western Europe). More from C-SPAN at -

How good are the pundits?

Political coverage (and sports; and entertainment....) is increasingly dominated by "pundits" - people who give their "analysis" of events. They trade on an aura of expertise - but are they any good? I am a listener to the podcast by WNYC "On the Media". In their latest  podcast they feature a piece on holding pundits to account for their predictions.

The website that was featured is pundittracker - http://blog.pundittracker.com/. It goes live this spring, but in the meantime features a blog. It is not limited to the political pundits, but looks at those who make predictions about sport; the Oscars; and finance. It uses statistics to get a picture about performance. We are now accustomed to the words of politicians coming under the microscope with such websites as FactCheck - but now the pundits themselves can be checked. Not a bad thing when "framing the debate" is often more important than the details of the issues.

Monday 12 March 2012

Law and Morality

I remember a discussion with an academic colleague - who was of the view that 'law' and 'politics' were two academic disciplines that should never be mixed. As you can imagine we disagreed strongly on that one. Constitutional Law (particularly in Britain, but the same applies to countries with written constitutions where all the major rules are set out in that document) is about the inter-relationship of legal rules and political practice.

A legal issue is also at the centre of political discourse. My W200 students have recently submitted their first assignment (eTMA in 'OU-speak'). I'm currently marking them. The first question reads -

"You have read the following paragraph in a letter to a newspaper; “In my view, if something is immoral, it should also be illegal. Also, the difference between civil law and criminal law is pointless; if someone has done something wrong, the same court should be able to deal with all the issues”.

Discuss the views expressed in this letter, explaining the differences between
a) Law and morality, and
b) Civil law and criminal law.

Evaluate the extent to which you think the views expressed are correct."

I may deal with the criminal/civil issue in a later post - but if you look at the current debates going on in the USA the issue of the relationship between law and morality is central. Most people agree that there is an area of personal morality which is entirely private. The State should not interfere. There is also widespread agreement that some acts have public consequences and the State should intervene to promote or dissuade such behaviour. The argument is over where the lines are drawn.

Some call for "the State to get off the back of business". They don't want the State interfering in how they conduct their business affairs. Others say that the State should intervene to protect people from those with fewer scruples. That's why we have health and safety legislation. It's why trading standards is one of the oldest functions of government. Today most people regard slavery; child labour; misleading advertising as immoral - but should the State criminalise such behaviour. Have a look at the debate about regulations with this perspective.

In the US at the moment we see debates about the state enforcement of morality in the sexual area. Some people genuinely believe that homosexuality is wrong - but should the State deny the legal protections of long term relationships (such as the right to inherit property or to have a say in the medical treatment of a partner) to those who don't share that moral view? That is what the debate about the legalisation of gay marriage is about. Should those who oppose abortion be able to enforce their will on those who disagree? We've even seen attacks on contraception.

So law and politics are closely related. In a democracy we the people have the responsibility for the laws in our society. The results of this years elections in the USA and France will have an impact on where the line is drawn between the 'personal' and the public. Our representatives will decide when faced with the economic crisis, whether the burden is shared fairly or not (and we could argue about what a fair share means - our personal morality will influence this). The politicians we elect will have the job, on our behalf, of holding those who wield power to account (for example the Murdoch press; the Bankers; those who run companies and choose to allocate the greater rewards to themselves whilst stripping the rights and rewards for their workers). Whatever your views - as a citizen in a democracy - you have a duty to play your part in determining where the boundaries should lie. YOU make the laws....

Saturday 10 March 2012

Taking Down the Words

Two earlier posts today show an example from earlier this week of "words being taken down".

CQ's "American Congressional Dictionary" defines "Taking Down the Words" as "Requiring that a member's remarks be read to the chamber so that the presiding officer may determine whether they are offensive or violate the rules of that House. When any member makes a point of order against such remarks and asks that the words be "taken down", the alleged violator must immediately sit down and await the Chair's decision".

If they do breach the rules, the words mayb be struck from the record - Wednesday's Congressional Record: Daily Digest records:- "During the course of debate, exception was taken to certain words used and a request was made to have words taken down. The words were reported to the Committee of the Whole and the Chair subsequently announced that the Committee would rise.

The Committee of the Whole rose and after review, the Chair ruled that the remarks constituted a personality directed toward an identifiable Member and announced that, without objection, said words would be stricken from the record. Subsequently, the Chair announced that the Committee of the Whole would resume its sitting."

On H1240 of Congressional Record - House Mr Frank's offending remarks have been replaced by "***", but the clerks reading of the words objected to are set out in full!!!

The Congressional Record App is available here to download to your iPad (and yes, I have it on mine!)

Full details of procedure can be found in the "Constitution; Jefferson's Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives" § 960, 961 [from commentary on the rules], 368, 369 [from Jefferson's Manual]

In the British Parliament such offending statements can also be the subject of points of order. [Remember that Jefferson was a great student of British parliamentary procedure - and many of the procedures in his manual are taken from the reports and books he read about the House of Commons].

In earlier editions of "Erskine May" there is a table listing "Unparliamentary Expressions" (p445 19th Edition, 1976) - which include "Blackguard...Cad...Coward...Criminal...Dog...Guttersnipe...Hooligan...Hypocrites...Jackass...Cheeky Young Pup...Rat....Swine". Standing Orders 43 & 44 sets out the punishment - (The Speaker) "shall order (the offender) to withdraw from the House during the remainder of that day's sitting...he may name such Member" and even suspend the offender.

How to get sent off.... (Part One)

This week Representative Barney Frank (MA04) got sent off - not from the football field, but from the House of Representatives. His "foul" can be watched below.

There was then a lengthy delay while the words used were reviewed....

Later today I will produce a commentary on the events

How to get sent off (Part 2)

The words were ordered to be taken down and stricken from the record.

Friday 9 March 2012

238 Lords a Leaping...

It's an interesting time in the House of Lords at the moment. The Coalition Government is continuing to push through controversial legislation - despite all party concerns in the House of Lords. It has suffered a number of significant defeats.

However the Executive retains some high powered weapons to force its will. In the Commons it can push legislation through the House with limited scrutiny. Ministers are bound by the doctrine of collective responsibility - which means that they are expected to vote with the Government (whatever their own personal reservations) or RESIGN. Commons whips can make persuasive arguments to backbenchers who are desirous of re-selection or advancement. The convention that a government defeat on a motion of confidence will bring down a government is also a useful threat to use against backbenchers who are minded to rebel. (John Major famously reversed a defeat on the Maastricht Bill in 1993 by bringing back the issue the next day as a motion of confidence - see the Wikipedia article). Rebels in marginal seats decided they preferred to fight another day than face a General Election at which they faced almost certain defeat.

Recently, and very controversially, they refused to accept Lords Amendments by using a wider definition of "Money Bill" than had been used previously (read the row that ensued in the House of Lords (Hansard) - I was there to watch this from the gallery).

Sadly, the most important battles against the Welfare Reform Bill; the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) and the Health and Social Care Bill has been fought in the Lords, rather than in the Commons. This is for the reasons set out in the second paragraph of this post.

Opposition Peers (Labour); and Crossbenchers have been at the forefront of these fight. Some limited support has come from dissident Lib-Dem Peers - but most of the time they have backed the Government. Breakdown of votes by party can be found on the Lords Divisions database.

Labour Peers have been buttressed by tweets supporting their campaign - and have used tweets to get out the message. This week they established a website - Labour Lords. Whether you agree with them or not (and in the interest of full disclosure I have worked for - on both a paid and unpaid basis - some of those Peers, and continue to work with them) - it is worth following - just to see how - in this technological age - opposition in the House of Lords is carried out.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Word Limits

As an "Associate Lecturer" at the Open University, much time is spent between March and September marking 'eTMAs' (Electronically submitted 'Tutor Marked Assignments') for the Law Degree courses that I teach on. The OU, like all universities offering Qualifying Law Degrees, has challenging word limits. This is neither arbitrary nor an unnecessary extra burden on students.

It is intended that law students be encouraged to develop the skill of succinctness (apparently there are those who believe that lawyers have a tendency to say in ten words what could be said in three!!!!). The clients of lawyers deserve communication from those they have sought advice from, which is focused; understandable; and to the point!

So how can someone develop the skill of succinctness?

Part of the process of writing an essay involves revising, perhaps a number of times, what has been written. I believe that in journalistic circles the process is called “sub-editing” or “subbing”– For example

this sentence -

He was not paying due care and attention when driving and this resulted in an accident.” (16 words)

Could be rewritten as - “His failure to pay due care and attention resulted in an accident” (12 words)

And then further revised to “His insufficient care and attention caused the accident” (8 words)

The more someone does this, the more succinct their writing style becomes – and focused upon what is essential and what isn’t really needed – which is the real purpose of having word limits!

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Beyond Super Tuesday

The results are in - and the analysis done - but what next?

The contest for the Republican nomination will continue - but does it remain the most important election facing the US? It is being reported that some Republicans are privately conceding that their chances of seizing the presidency are fading away. Instead, they argue, all efforts need to be concentrated upon the Congressional races. As one rather stark argument puts it - if Obama is to be re-elected, the republicans should make sure that he is a lame-duck President from the day of his second inauguration. A Congress with a majority in both the House and the senate could do that. They would set the legislative agenda - and seek to overturn any vetos coming from him.

It's not an inspiring vision - but does emphasis the independent power that Congress enjoys (and what a contrast with the UK Parliament - which is run by the Executive).[yes I know that I'm being provocative with that last comment - but will happily defend my assertion if challenged - so send your comments to this blog!]

The Congressional Elections do matter - and they look as interesting as this fascinating Presidential Race (and I write this after a night with little sleep - the time differences between Milton Keynes and the US - especially Alaska, are a bit of a nuisance). Last night saw the first member versus member primary in Ohio - and there are more to follow in other states as a result of the redistricting which has followed the Census. Dennis Kucinich (current OH10) was defeated by Marcy Kaptur (current OH09) in the new 9th District of Ohio. In OH02 Brad Wenstrup, with Tea Party support, ousted the sitting Member, Jean Schmidt.

Washminster will, as in 2008 and 2010, be looking at the key Congressional races as the year unfolds...watch this space!

Tuesday 6 March 2012

A ballot paper for Super Tuesday

Thanks to Rich Corbett's blog , it is possible to see what the primary ballot paper looks like. It'll come as a bit of a shock to British readers - as our papers are a lot less complicated.

The Ballot paper looks like this

Super Tuesday

Once again, it's "Super Tuesday" in the USA. The day upon which a number of States have their presidential primaries or caucuses. In an ideal world (if you are hoping that "your" party will win the November election) - the nomination will be sown up on, or by this day. Of course this hasn't happened for the Republicans this year.

The States where the action will be are -

Alaska - caucus
Georgia - Primary
Idaho - Caucus
Massachusetts - Primary
North Dakota - Caucus
Ohio - Primary
Oklahoma - Primary
Tennessee - Primary
Vermont - Primary
Virginia - Primary

The important thing to remember is that each state has different rules. Some are open, others are only for registered Republican voters. The results are binding in all of today's caucuses - though some earlier ones (such as last Saturday's caucus in Washington State), are non-binding. In some states the delegates will be allocated proportionally to the number of votes cast, while in certain circumstances - it changes to 'winner take all'. In some States not all candidates have been able to get on the ballot paper (Virginia only has Romney and Paul - the VA rules can be found here.). It's an evening for either sitting there with the detailed rules for each state Republican party - or letting the experts explain who gets what. (Even then the experts can differ - which explains why different websites have different figures for the numbers of delegates won by each candidate).

Monday 5 March 2012

Back to Bury

Last week I spent a couple of days in, what is becoming, my favourite town in England (with the exception of course of Milton Keynes, of course). Usually past at speed on the A14, it doesn't look very attractive from that highway. The sugar factory is not a great delight (visually or by smell). However the centre of the town is delightful - and full of history. I made this short video while I was there.

Saturday 3 March 2012