Tuesday 19 February 2013

Annie's Bar

I’m working through my notes and printed articles which have formed the background to my Ph.D. research – checking through to see if there is anything I missed before I submit. There was one article I had missed completely (though sadly it won’t provide any additional ‘evidence’ for my thesis).

It was an article about a 1996 Channel Four Series called “Annie’s Bar”. I didn’t watch it at the time (I was a busy County Councillor with a heavy load of teaching commitments across the Midlands – with a General Election coming up!). I thought that all traces would have disappeared, but I found it on 4OD. It sensationalises and exaggerates a bit – it is a drama after all – but it is actually quite good on explaining parliamentary practice. There's quite a bit on whips - I recognised some of the 'sources', and the originals go get referenced in my thesis - though the reality is they were rare events rather than the norm (which is suggested in the drama)

If you are able to watch it (I’m not sure if it is available outside the UK) – it’s quite enjoyable. I’m happy to answer any questions arising about parliamentary practice (and what has changed since 1996). Just drop me a line or post a comment.

The programme (details and access to each episode) can be found at http://www.channel4.com/programmes/annies-bar/4od

Monday 18 February 2013

The Monkey Cage

If your interest is Political Science, then it's worth taking a look at the blog (and signing up for updates) - called the Monkey Cage. I was told of it because it does excellent reports of elections around the world - but it has so much more. It takes on sloppy journalism (akin to Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science', save that it deals with poor use and understanding of political science research). It also has lots of articles ranging across the discipline of political science and related areas.

It is written in the USA - and has (save for its worldwide election coverage), an emphasis on US politics. It has an impressive list of contributors (and it was Sarah Binder's piece on the film, Lincoln [Lincoln: Best film ever about...the House of Representatives!] that persuaded me that it was a film I HAD to see.)

I subscribe my email (link on the blog). I can strongly recommend it.

Sunday 17 February 2013

My Favourite Newspapers

We all have our favourites - mine are the Guardian (UK); the Washington Post (US) and Le Monde (France). It's interesting to compare stories - and news priorities across these papers! It is amazing how easy it is today to follow news in other countries. I remember when things were very different - when satellite broadcasts were rare and short. Now thanks to the internet we can get the latest news as it happens and often unfiltered by a broadcaster. (Yes - I can - and do - watch the US Congress; UK Parliament; European Parliament and Assemblee nationale on my computer.)

I do regret that there is less coverage of what is actually said in Parliament/Congress/EP & An. As a youngster I used to enjoy reading the Parliamentary reports - now we have sketchwriters (I love Simon Hoggart's pieces) and journalists explanations - but you can't beat the raw material!

What do you think? Is it time for the papers to revive the parliamentary page?

Saturday 16 February 2013


Some people give twitter a bad name. They feel compelled to tell the world every minor detail of their life (as if we could care less!). However don’t let that put you off – twitter can be a useful tool for keeping up to date with news. Long before I started sharing my opinions (actually not too long – after all, I’ve been involved in politics since I was a teenager – and the sort of person who has stood for councils; Parliament and the European Parliament, is rarely slow to share their “insights/prejudices etc” with everyone else!!!!) I used Twitter to gather information.

The first step, if you haven’t done so already, is to set up a twitter account. Then “follow” the tweets of those that will provide the information. Use the search facility on the right hand side of the top of the screen.

I follow

For UK

o UK Parliament
o House of Lords
o Hansard Society
o BBCWestminHour
o BBC Parliament/DL
o PA Westminster
o HuffPostUKPolitics
o BBC Radio 4 Today
o DailySunday Politics (BBC)
o Sky News
o Guardian Politics
o Laura Kuenssberg (ITV)
o Carolyn Quinn (BBC)
o Norman Smith (BBC)
o Sean Curran (BBC)
o Toby Helm (Observer)
o Andrew Sparrow (Guardian)
o Ann Treneman (Times)
o Alex_Stevenson (politics.co.uk)
o Jon Snow


o Roll Call
o The Hill
o Politico
o National Journal
o Slate
o Nancy Pelosi (House Minority Leader)
o Steny Hoyer (House Minority Whip)
o Senator Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader)

For France

o Le Monde
o Francois Hollande
o Axelle Lemaire (Depute in Assemblee nationale representing Europe du Nord)
o Parti Socialiste

For the European Union

o European Voice
o European Parliament

Friday 15 February 2013

Compare and Contrast

It’s no coincidence that the phrase “Compare and Contrast” often appears in exams and essays. It’s a great way of developing understanding. It is possible to get some idea of the British constitutional system just by reading descriptions of the rules applicable in the UK – but ‘compare and contrast’ with the constitutions of other countries, and you’ll deepen your understanding greatly. Similarly, working out how other countries have devised ways of resolving similar problems can give greater insight into our own solutions.

One of the purposes of the Washminster blog is to provide the tools to do such comparisons. Its main focus is the legislatures of the UK; US; France and the European Union. However, context is needed – so the politics, history and traditions of each country/Union is needed too. Your comments are welcome – just let me know if there are particular topics you’d like to see dealt with by Washminster.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Get to know the UK Supreme Court

There is now an excellent website about the UK’s Supreme Court. It is full of useful information about the work of the Court; the Justices – and links to full law reports of Supreme Court judgements.

If you are planning to visit the court – there are details of access – but most importantly, details of the cases which are being heard. So if you wish to take the greatest benefit from your visit – you can prep in advance – and be in a much better position to understand the arguments that you will hear.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

See for Yourself

Reading about Parliament and the Courts in a textbook can sometimes be less than exciting – and a little bit dry. One of the best ways to gain an understanding of how they work is to visit them in person.

Apart from some limited exceptions (mainly where young people are involved), the courts are open to the public. A visit to a Magistrates Court and a Crown Court can help make sense of ‘criminal procedure’. You can see the arguments put forward by the prosecution and defence; the examination and cross-examination. The role of key personnel may be seen. What role does the judge or the clerk play? What interactions are going on between the lawyers; the magistrates or the jury?

The higher courts – the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court – are worth visiting too. More emphasis is placed on legal argument than challenging the ‘assertions of fact’ by witnesses.

For information about the courts – There is a list of Magistrates Courts here; and a Court finder here. The Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand has the High Court and the Court of Appeal, but there are also ‘branches’ of both in major cities (such as Birmingham).

Parliament is open to the public. Visit the Parliamentary website for details of how to visit – for the tour; or to sit in the Chambers and committees.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Ministerial Responsibility

The central constitutional doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility is a topic of interest for Parliament this week. Tomorrow (13th February) there will be a debate in Westminster Hall [14.30 to 16.00] on ‘Collective Ministerial responsibility’. During this period Baroness Miller of Hendon, a former Government Whip, will “ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the constitutional convention of cabinet collective responsibility as confirmed in the Ministerial Code remains in force” as the first of the daily questions in the House of Lords.

The Ministerial Code (which I have supplied to all my Open University W201 Students, but is available to all at http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/content/ministerial-conduct-and-guidance) sets out the doctrine and its applicability. In summary – “The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This in turn requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in Cabinet and Ministerial Committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained.”

There are two aspects to the doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility – Collective, as set out above – and individual. The latter means that the Minister is responsible to Parliament for the work done (or that should have been done) by his department.

The current (10th) edition of Allen and Thompson’s ‘Cases and Materials on Constitutional and Administrative Law’ contains some very good material on the subject (pages 206 to 228). If you have time, it is worth consulting the original material, rather than the excerpts. Parliamentary Material can be found at (General : Hansard: Select Committee Reports) and Government material at (General: White (& other Command) Papers).

If you want to watch Wednesday’s business – the best site to visit is Parliament Live, which despite the name keeps archives.

Monday 11 February 2013

The Week Ahead - and the impact of constitutional principles

My apologies – a bout of illness has kept Washminster ‘grounded’ for the last week – but, hopefully, the blog will be back from now on.

It’s an interesting week ahead. The big event should be Tuesday’s State of the Union speech by the President. (Wednesday, very early hours – if you are in the UK). It will set out the legislative agenda that the President would like to see. However, unlike the Queen’s Speech, which is written for her by the Government, Obama doesn’t have the power to enforce his will. In the UK the Government can announce its programme – and know that it will get most if not all its programme through. This is (at least for the Executive) shows the downside of the separation of powers.

Michael Gove will be accused of misleading Parliament over his knowledge of bullying by his aides. He told the Education Select Committee recently that he had not heard of any complaints, but a major payoff was made to a complainant. Either he misled the committee or he is incredibly unaware of what is going on in his department. Either way, because there is a coalition majority – and he commands the confidence of the Prime Minister – he’s not going to face any parliamentary imposed sanction.

On the other hand – separation of powers again at the heart of this – Obama will face a challenging week as his nominees for the Cabinet face confirmation in the Senate. He can’t rely on the Executive controlling the legislature as it does in Britain.

Saturday 2 February 2013

The Mind Gym

The radio has always been a useful tool to acquire information and provoke thought. I find it particularly useful when lying in bed or whilst driving. With wifi access to ‘internet radio’, the opportunities to access even more material has greatly increased.

Last night I was tuned in, via my iPad to C-SPAN radio. There were a couple of interesting, and thought provoking programmes, that I listened to. The first was a presentation by someone from the NRA talking about gun control. All sorts of constitutional issues and arguments were discussed. Then there was a programme about campaigning in the 2012 elections.

The BBC World Service has some interesting programmes, as does Radio 5 Live. Radio 4, particularly during the hour between 8pm and 9pm on weekdays puts on some useful ‘thought provokers’. Then there are the various Law and Parliamentary programmes.

The BBC has a great app for phones and tablets - available here. The BBC and C-Span also produce a wide range of podcasts that can be signed up for - which allows listening to their output even when out of wifi range. (very good when walking around Furzton Lake or to the railway station!)

Whether one is studying; researching; keeping up with current affairs; or looking to keep one’s brain active – radio has much to offer.

Friday 1 February 2013

Welcome to Washminster

Today marks the official start of many Open University courses. I’d like to welcome all students – particularly my own – who I’ll be meeting tomorrow in Oxford (W201) and Birmingham (W200) and in Reading (W200) on 16th February. Both courses are interesting – and I will be posting frequently on subjects relevant to these courses.

If you’re not one of my students – you too are welcome on Washminster. The blog focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the British Parliament; the US Congress and the European Parliament. So there will be lots of relevant posts if you are studying UK or US constitutional Law; British, US or European politics; EU Law; or history. Please do make any comments – either on the substance of posts, or matters you’d like to discuss further.

Washminster has been going since 2007 – and you might find it interesting (or even useful) to look back at previous posts. There’s a search engine – or you can look at posts by date. I was in the US for the presidential elections of 2008 & 2012; at Westminster when some interesting events occurred (such as the day when Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister).

Currently I’m coming to the end of my studies for a Ph.D. looking at whips in the four Houses of the British Parliament and US Congress. That’s the reason why Washminster has been quiet over the winter – I’m writing up. I’ve still a little more to do but full service should return to Washminster in the not TOO distant future.

Once again, Welcome to Washminster – and if you are starting your studies today (OK, I know many of you will have read quite a bit already & a few are even progressing with their first eTMA – not due in until 6th (W200) or 13th (W201) March!) – can I wish you well in your studies.