Gay Marriage, Conservative Divorce?

‘Prediction is very difficult’, said Niels Bohr, ‘especially if it’s about the future’ – and it’s always potentially embarrassing when you revisit things you wrote and in which you had confidently predicted what was to come.

Take, for example, this 2009 article, looking at the likely state of the Conservative Parliamentary Party after the election.

It argued the party would look very different: lots of new MPs, more women, more from ethnic minorities, although no less middle class than before.  That was at least right, if fairly easy to predict.  It went on to argue that in the short term this would be good for the whips, because new MPs are less rebellious, but that balancing their demands with those of the more established MPs  would cause problems of party management. That was (at best) only half right, with the new MPs being far more rebellious than expected.

It also argued that there was a group of existing rebellious Conservative MPs whose behaviour was unlikely to change, and of those it identified almost all have indeed continued to cause trouble for the whips (save for the most rebellious of the lot, Ken Clarke, who finds himself in the Cabinet – but let’s see how long that lasts…). And it argued that whilst there would be backbench trouble ahead, there would at least be a short honeymoon. That one proved almost completely wrong; the honeymoon was so short as to be non-existent.

When it came to the issues that might trigger discontent, it argued that predicting which issues would cause difficulties for in government was ‘a bit of a mug’s game: too much depends on the circumstances in which legislation is introduced, how it is handled by ministers and so on’. But it argued there ‘are several issues where at least the potential for trouble is clear’, of which ‘the most obvious’ was Europe.  So, again, correct, if fairly obvious.

The other area highlighted was issues ‘such as abortion, Lords reform and homosexuality’.  Whilst not traditionally high politics, these issues can often be defused at least in part by allowing backbenchers to vote as they please, but as the example of fox hunting showed after 1997, such issues can matter to backbenchers more than some traditionally important ones.  And (as the 2009 piece noted), based on their voting thus far, ‘David Cameron, and especially George Osborne are much more socially liberal than much of their parliamentary party, and that split will need to be handled carefully’.

Abortion has already caused some headaches.  The vote on gay marriage – which has been promised before the next election – will be another good test of this thesis.  Whilst the Conservative Party’s relationship with the issue of gay rights is more complicated than it first seems – as the excellent new book Tory Pride and Prejudice shows – the stance of the majority of Conservative MPs over the last few years has been predominantly hostile to moves to liberalize the law, whenever they’ve been given a chance.

In March 2007 for instance, 85 Conservative MPs voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which brought into force provisions for gay adoption. This dwarfed the 29 Conservative votes for, on a free vote, which included David Cameron.

It is true that the majority of those Conservative MPs to vote – again on a free vote – backed the Civil Partnership Bill itself in 2004 at both Second and Third Reading, but on a lowish turnout in both cases, and when it came to the detail of the bill many dug their heels in.  By Third Reading, the division was 43 Conservatives for, 39 against, with the rest absent.  Our suspicion is that there will also be a lot of convenient absences over gay marriage.

Much will depend on how the mass of new MPs behave.  Conventional wisdom is that they are more socially liberal than those they replaced.  Maybe so, but by how much?  One other point made in that 2009 paper is that it is not easy to read directly across from attitudes claimed when outside the Commons to those inside, and we’ve so far had relatively little hard evidence on which to judge claims about the new intake.  There have been just over 40 free votes since the 2010 election, but many have not been on issues that would provide much or any insight into how the new MPs will vote on an issue like gay marriage.  Until they vote, like everyone else, we’re just guessing.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The Iron Lady Special Edition

The Iron Lady has been a great success with cinema audiences. It has also provoked much comment about what it says about Thatcher and Thatcherism and also provoked speculation about what impact it might have on current political attitudes.

As we don’t like to be left out of a heated debate, some of us at Nottingham have had our say over the last few weeks.

Steven Fielding put the film into context by looking at earlier dramatisations of the ex-Prime Minister.

Emily Robinson reflected on Mrs T’s own reflections on History.

Matthew Bailey suggested that if the film encourages audiences to sympathise with its protagonists that might be no bad thing.

Finally, Steven Fielding asked if it was, after all, a political bio-pic with the politics left out?

How to be an MP

I recently spoke at the book launch for Paul Flynn’s latest book How to be an MP. It was, people think, the first book launch held in the Speaker’s House, and was introduced by the Speaker, John Bercow.  I think I was invited to speak because, a few months ago, when Paul Flynn was getting lots of stick for offending someone or other (and those who know him know that doesn’t help narrow the time frame down very much) I tweeted that people should leave him alone because he’d written what I described as ‘the single best thing ever written about being an MP, full of humour, insights, wisdom’.

That quote was about his earlier book Commons Knowledge, which came out in 1997, but with publisher’s typical chutzpah that quote has found its way onto the jacket of the revised and updated book.  But no complaints: if the new book is half as good as the old book, then it’ll be a cracker.  For those of us who have to teach parliament to undergraduates, an up-to-date Flynn publication is a Godsend.  There are lots of good books out there about Parliament, but many of them are – bluntly – a little dull (I may even have written some of the duller ones), and it’s useful to have something with a bit more punch to get students interested in the topic.

I dug out my old copy of Commons Knowledge to prepare for the launch and almost every page has some underlining or marginalia.  Every page is quotable.

For example:

Those who are slightly mad, eccentric or possessed by demons are magnetically attracted to MPs. The obsessive, the weirdos and devotees of religious cults ventilate their irrationality at great length and frequency to Members (p. 63).

All MPs know exactly what he means.

Or this, from p. 27, his advice for aspirant ministers:

Cultivate the virtues of dullness and safety. Be attuned to the nation’s lowest common denominator of conscience, idealism and cowardice. At all costs avoid any appearance of humour, originality or interest in your speeches.

Whatever, whoever, can he mean?

Or this, p.93:

The expectation is growing of the omnipotence of MPs as a point of help of last resort… A woman rang me from a hotel in Milan to say her husband had died ten minutes ago and asked what should she do next. I was paged in the Chamber by a man who complained that the dustmen had left his emptied bin in the middle of the drive. He had been forced to stop his car and move the bin to the side. I asked why he was ringing me. He said he had already run 10 Downing Street and they told him to contact me.

One point that I made during the speech was that what MPs do does matter.  The public do notice what goes on in the Commons.  In September last year there was wall-to-wall media coverage of the latest report by the Committee On Standards In Public Life showing the extent to which MPs expenses had damaged the standing of Parliament and MPs.  The next day, however, some of my colleagues at Nottingham reported some more up-to-date figures, which showed that the way Parliament had responded to the phone hacking scandal had led to a noticeable increase in trust in MPs.  The latter survey also revealed that hacking had damaged the reputation of journalists, both broadsheet and tabloid, which may explain why, with the honourable exception of Bloomberg, not a single national media outlet covered the second story.

How To Be An MP is dedicated by Paul to David Taylor, MP for North West Leicestershire until his death in late-2009. David was always incredibly helpful and kind to me in my work, – and I say that despite the fact that he caused me lots of problems.  Because when you’re studying the way MPs vote, the last thing you want is people who vote in both division lobbies at the same time. David Taylor wasn’t the first person to do this as a means of recording an abstention, but he raised the art of double voting to an art form.  Back in 1997, the Modernisation Committee said that it would be in favour of an Abstention option in the Commons, but nothing happened, and once he’d realised he could do it de facto, David was soon abstaining all over the place.  I once got into an argument with a Labour MP who told me that the act of voting in both lobbies was known as a Skinner Abstention.  That was rubbish, not least because Dennis Skinner has never abstained on anything in his life, ever.

Previous Speakers are on record as deprecating the act of double voting, but I’m hoping that the current reforming Speaker, in his infinite wisdom, will somehow get it on record that they’re a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and they should hereafter be known as Taylor Abstentions.

And there I was following the advice on p. 50 of Commons Knowledge, where it says:

Flatter the Speaker, subtly.

Philip Cowley

Who or what is ‘progressive’?

On 3 July 2012, I am hosting a one-day conference, exploring the contradictory and shifting meanings of the word ‘progressive’ in modern British history.

Over the past few years, this has become a ubiquitous political word, with all three main parties vying to present themselves as the most progressive. All three have also drawn upon the idea of a Lib-Lab progressive tradition, stretching back to the late nineteenth century. However, the roots of that tradition are by no means as stable as they sometimes seem, and have lent themselves to a variety of interpretations. Moreover, ‘progressive’ has also been applied to a diverse range of causes: from eugenics to gay rights and from theosophy to evolution.

I am looking for papers which explore contemporary and historical uses of the word ‘progressive’. Can anything be described as ‘progressive’? How has progressivism been promoted and resisted? What does this tell us about attitudes towards progress and modernity?

As well as historians and political scientists, I’d also like to hear from politicians, journalists, policy-makers and pollsters. If you would like to contribute please go here or contact me at my Nottingham email address.

Emily Robinson

Happy Birthday, International Drug Control?

One hundred years ago today the International Opium Convention was signed at The Hague.

The original 11 signatory countries agreed to introduce national legislation banning a particular menu of drugs, more for reasons of prejudice and economic vested interests than for their inherent danger. As a result, many drugs remained legal, notably tobacco and alcohol. Since then 182 countries have signed up to the various prohibition conventions that eventually came under the auspice of the UN and the number of substances banned have ‘grown like Topsy’ and continue to do so as the world becomes awash with ‘legal highs’ that are quickly added to the list.

As the author of the soon-to-be published Fixing Drugs: the politics of prohibition I wonder is this birthday a matter for celebration and whether we should look forward to more of the same?

Certainly prohibition has resulted in many happy returns for international criminals who control drug trafficking and for terrorists and insurgents who benefit from the easy pickings of the black market. These profits are paid for by the peasant farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world (like Peru, Bolivia and Afghanistan). They are paid for in the health of drug users (predominantly the young) exposed to the risks of ingesting drugs of unknown strength and purity. They are paid for through the fear and insecurity in the daily lives of those living in areas where drugs are traded and trafficked, in which systemic violence is the norm for enforcing contracts and defending or extending turf. Mexico is unlucky enough to be on the drug war’s front line.  These profits are paid for by tax payers across the globe, forced to foot the bill for the massive anti-drugs-industrial-complex: the exponential growth in the criminal justice bill, the overcrowded prisons, the producers of chemicals and hardware for enforcing crop eradication. It is measured in the opportunity cost of resources poured into a costly failed policy. It is paid for in the criminalization of usually law abiding young people, who are simply doing what young people do – taking risks and experimenting with drugs – legal and illegal.

So, should we sing Happy 100th Birthday International Prohibition or should we say: the party‘s over? As I argue in my forthcoming book, there are alternatives, such as decriminalisation and a serious attempt to deal with supply, that governments across the world now need to consider very seriously indeed.

Sue Pryce