Military Intervention in Syria: The Only Option?

This week has been one of the deadliest in the uprising across Syria since protests began against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The incessant shelling of civilian areas has provided the latest chapter in the increasingly protracted and bloody saga of the Arab spring.

Attempts by the disparate anti-government forces to bring to an end the nigh-on 40-year rule of the al-Assad family have been met with brutal suppression by the state military.

The Syrian civilian death toll is now estimated to be around 5,000.

When comparing Syria to other countries wrapped up in popular uprisings across the Arab world it is clear there are haunting echoes of Libya: an intractable regime unleashing the full force of military power against rebel areas with no heed for human rights or international pressure.

Although an Arab League-sponsored conference is being held this weekend to help foster a peace accord, there are still roadblocks to a diplomatic solution.

Foremost among these is an inability to secure a UN Security Council resolution designed to bring about political reform in Syria, given how Syrian allies Russia and China, both with strong economic ties to the country, used their veto to block the move.

But is military intervention the only viable solution?

Not necessarily. A military strike against Syrian army positions would come up against powerful opposition from al-Assad’s allies. Colonel Gaddafi did not have friends in such high places. And it is not entirely clear what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

There is not a cohesive opposition movement in Syria. Instead there are numerous dissident groups and militia movements.

But with intervention looking improbable the breaches of human rights continue. We must hope this latest round of diplomacy is more successful at bringing this authoritarian blood-letting to an end.

This article by Dr Andrew Mumford, a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, originally appeared in local media in Nottingham.

Boris Johnson, Papua New Guinea and Hegemony

In 2006, prior to his status as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was revelling in the slow disintegration of New Labour. With ethnocentrism now added to his infamous crassness, he declared that, ‘For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party’.

Ignoring diplomatic outrage from Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner in London and refrains from almost all circles, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (his full name) then added oil to the fire by thanking Papua New Guinea’s High Commissioner for her criticism while stating, ‘I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us’.

Perhaps the affront could have been avoided if only this former Etonian, graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and distant relative of David Cameron, had been given the earliest opportunity to consult some of the essays in a recent edited book collection on Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion

The book provides excellent scholarship on colonial Papua New Guinea and its subsequent formation as a modern state. One remains hopeful that the readership of Ballots & Bullets might be broad enough to include former members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, such as Boris Johnson, or David Cameron, or George Osbourne, in order to affirm the merits of this book and its approach to understanding hegemony in and beyond the Asia-Pacific region.

But if now, what does this volume offer in and beyond the debunking of prejudiced assumptions about Papua New Guinea?

Given its primary focus on the Asia-Pacific region, Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion (edited by Richard Howson and Kylie Smith) presents a series of theoretical and empirical essays that provides new insights on the study of hegemony but also on the political economy and regional geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific.

Hegemony can refer to cultural, ideological and moral leadership combined with coercive dynamics and it is important in the Asia-Pacific context because of the different historical situations and class actors involved in the region over, and through, which hegemony is exercised. The book is therefore centred in debates, reflections, and controversies on the notion of hegemony, drawn from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in order to provide alternative readings of hegemonic processes in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, it delivers a set of new regional and theoretical views that adds to the focus of my own book Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy.

One of the main messages delivered in Howson and Smith’s Introduction is that ‘hegemonic authority exercised as domination must impose coercion at some level of intensity and focus so as to ensure the dominant interests are protected’ at the state level or world order. This subtle comment is crucial in that it recognises the mix of coercion and consent that defines a situation of hegemony, namely a form of power through which class rule is conducted that blends together different cultural, social, coercive, and intellectual dimensions.

As a result, a focus on various ‘hegemonic principles’ binds together many of the essays within the book, notably on hegemony, imperialism and colonial labour (Andrew Wells); the World Bank and neoliberalism in Vietnam (Susan Engel); hegemony and neoliberalism in India (Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Timothy J. Scrase); the Australian experience of neoliberalisation and subalternity (Damien Cahill; Kylie Smith); and U.S. geopolitics and Japan (Yoko Harada).

A further key motif of the book is the relationship between hegemony and passive revolution, with the latter referring to ruptural conditions of political, social, or economic transformation and upheaval that result in a restoration of dominant class rule. One example of passive revolution would be the case of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that, as outlined in my latest book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, led to specific forms of state intervention from above and mass mobilisation from below to shape Mexican history throughout the twentieth century.

Returning to the edited volume, essays on hegemony and Japan (by Yoko Harada) and Papua New Guinea (by Charles Hawksley) give further empirical attention to the condition of passive revolution in alternative contexts. The real gem is Hawksley’s chapter and his focus on the modernising project of state formation and development in what would later become Papua New Guinea (PNG). This process is understood as a passive revolution in that it was induced, planned, and executed through the colonial state to entrench the conditions for capitalism within the emerging state of PNG. To quote Hawksley directly: ‘The commonsense of capitalism, including the subjugation of citizen to state, of local politics to the state, and of people to the market, has failed to take a stranglehold on the people of PNG’.

For this reason among many—pace Boris Johnson—one would not want to cast the people of PNG as leading ‘lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity’, especially given that such a blameless existence can hardly be seen to apply to any class-ridden society. Hawksley’s essay is thus a classic contribution to the debates on passive revolution and delivers an exceptional interpretation of Gramsci relevant to historical and contemporary conditions in global politics.

Overall, then, what this fascinating book reveals is that the categories developed by Antonio Gramsci are alive and kicking and that he continues to have a bearing on politics across different times, places, and spaces.

I would highly recommend dipping into these new analyses on the politics of hegemony and giving it a try!

Adam David Morton

Aristotle and Natural Law


A new book by Dr Tony Burns, from our School of Politics and International Relations, offers an important new examination of Aristotle’s political thought and its relationship to the natural law tradition.

The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, challenges recent alternative interpretations of Aristotle, and argues that his ethics is most usefully seen as a particular type of natural law theory.

It is commonly thought that the natural law tradition is important because the concept of natural law – understood as a ‘higher law’ – is associated with that of natural rights, often referred to as human rights. It is sometimes thought that the concept of natural can be used to ground a belief in the existence of rights of that kind. Consequently, it can also be used a vehicle for criticising states that abuse such rights.

The book, Aristotle and Natural Law, argues that although there is a tradition of natural law theorising that can be used in this way, this is not in fact how Aristotle thought about natural law, and its relationship to positive or civil law.

Dr Burns shows that the type of natural law theory to which Aristotle subscribes is an unusual one, because it does not allow for the possibility that individuals might appeal to natural law in order to critically evaluate existing laws and institutions. Rather, its function is to provide legitimacy for existing laws and conventions by providing them with a philosophical justification from the standpoint of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Burns claims that this way of thinking about natural law can be traced in the writings of a number of thinkers in the history of philosophy, from Aquinas through to Hegel, but argues that because this tradition begins with Aristotle it is appropriate to describe it as ‘the Aristotelian natural law tradition.’

See the profile of Dr Anthony Burns

Can We Justify Hereditary Peers? No, Not Really.

Following the removal of all but 92 hereditary peers in 1999, Lords reform has stalled and divided over the next way to proceed. With reform expected to feature in the upcoming Queen’s speech, even optimists acknowledge the weight of obstacles ready to prevent the passage of a largely or wholly elected second chamber. What we have is likely to be how we will proceed in the foreseeable future, with a wholly appointed chamber supplemented by 92 peers still exercising their anachronistic birthright. But can any justification be sought for the continued participation of hereditary peers?

Lord Younger of Leckie defends his position by claiming hereditary peers ‘have a better voting and attendance record than the appointed peers as a whole [because]… appointed peers are more diverted by business activities and outside directorships.’ Lord Howe considers his fellow hereditary peers are ‘more independent…[and] some of the most assiduous attendees. A great many sit on committees of the House’. Others use the justification that they contain a ‘considerable body of expertise’, which would be eradicated upon any future ejection from the House.

This research sought to analyze whether they genuinely bring something necessary, worthwhile and complementary to the House of Lords. Before the 1999 reforms, hereditary peers showed on average considerably lower attendances rates compared with life peers. However, following the removal of all but 92 of their number the opposite trend occurs, with hereditary peer attendance as much as 22% higher than life peers in the 2004-05 session. Clearly, the hereditary peers that were most committed to parliamentary work were the ones who remained after 1999, but does attendance translate to participation?

In reality, what we hear is silence. Throughout 2011, hereditary peers on average only made half as many oral contributions in the chamber compared with life peers. Perhaps their greater attendance rates can instead be reflected through select committee work?

Lord Brabazon of Tara, the current Chairman of Committees comments that the political parties and crossbenches naturally choose peers in their recommendations ‘who are interested in the subject and, in the main, volunteer for the job and are able to give the necessary time’. Although during the 2001-02 and 2004-05 sessions hereditary peers were about 20% more likely to sit on at least one select committee, in 2011 it is life peers who are now slightly more likely to sit on committees. As the influx of new life peers are now well established within the Lords, the chamber no longer relies on the continuity offered by the hereditary peers, thereby explaining why hereditary peers actually do not play an exceptional role in committees.

Andrew Turner MP presents the view that hereditary peers are ‘the epitome of independence’, contrasted with the ‘partisan appointments’ created through the influx of life peerages. However, when tracking the rebelliousness of hereditary peers, the findings are minimal with 40% not rebelling a single time in 2011 and 71% not rebelling more than once. Again, arguments that they play a distinguishable role appear unconvincing.

But to give credit, there are certainly a small number of hereditary peers who do demonstrate an impressive individual commitment to Lords work, particularly on committees prompting the notion that should the hereditary principle ever be completely eradicated, there is a strong case for certain peers to be granted life peerages.

On average, however, this study of hereditary peer participation does not provide sufficient defence to justify their role as being convincingly different or complimentary to the role performed by life peers, proving the arguments of many defenders of the principle to be incorrect. Hereditary peers show greater attendance rates, but they appear no more likely (and in some areas dramatically less likely) to perform the cumbersome work of parliamentary scrutiny.

This conclusion is probably more important now than ever before: if hereditary peers are attending en masse but not contributing significantly, then as of 2010 they are collecting a parliamentary allowance for every time they attend, perhaps enjoying the social benefits of the House even if they are not contributing a great deal in terms of the nitty-gritty of parliamentary work.

As greater reform has proven irreconcilable with varied interests, the hereditary principle remains upheld, but it also fails to be legitimately defended by those who possess the title.

David Rank, Undergraduate at @NottsPolitics. See his personal blog.

Confessions of a Diary Secretary

Confessions of a Diary Secretary – a comedy that exploited the then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s affair with a civil servant – was broadcast on ITV in February 2007. While this period now seems a world away, as I argue in this post on my personal blog, Confessions raises questions about the media’s representation of politics that remain relevant today.

Steven Fielding

Time to be Bloody, Bold and Resolute

Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE is an Honorary Special Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

The European economic crisis just gets worse. It is agonising watching this greatest of slow-motion train wrecks take shape in front of us as the key participants duck the fundamental issues and instead turn on each other and turbo-charge the crisis.

History may be repeating itself. Similarities to the 1930s abound. Some key leaders have raced to cover up their own failings by pointing the finger, though after decades of increasing co-operation we might have expected them to avoid the obvious trap.  Germany blames feckless southern European nations, yet heaped loans upon them and manipulated the single currency to its own benefit. Sarkozy ignores French structural and bank woes, and fingers the UK financial sector. Cameron may be in a difficult position, but events continue to show that the UK is not the issue, far less responsible for Europe’s mess.

The really big issue is the scale of the mess that Europe, the West and the UK are in together. Only months after rating the US national debt as the single greatest security risk, General Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, speaking about Europe recently said that he is “extraordinarily concerned because of the potential of civil unrest and break-up of the Union”. The UK’s Chief of Defence has weighed in with similar warnings.

Across the West the immediate focus is economics. The root problems, of course, go much deeper and wider. After recent summit’s it would appear that we are now in danger of economic war – almost of survival mode – as friends and allies default to extreme, short-term, protectionist and zero-sum ‘me-first’, not ‘community-first’ positions. Link our economic situation to some of the other root problems to do with our values, political and governance structures, and social cohesion and we should ask ourselves how bad things have to get before we go into temporary national emergency mode encompassing economic and social mobilisation appropriate to the scale of the overall challenge?

The UK may find itself in a situation where the government, people, business, and civil society groups need to work together to cope with system-wide economic disaster. A 21st century – very different – ‘blitz spirit’ crisis. We must be brutally honest about our situation. No-one knows precisely what or when things will happen, but the situation will likely only get worse. Rather than continuing to fudge and duck and wait until the Eurozone implodes and takes us down with it, we should be “bloody, bold and resolute”, as Shakespeare put it – going strategic and getting ahead of events and trends rather than being reactive and doing ‘too little too late’.

Any roadmap or manifesto for a ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ strategic approach to dealing with the immediate economic crisis must at the same time address other core strategic challenges – including international security, climate and environment change, energy security, and social cohesion. Somewhere in Whitehall, some clever people may have begun to think through what until very recently was unthinkable – producing outline principles and steps for emergency response to unprecedented economic disaster. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Major General (Retired) Tim Cross CBE was commissioned into the British Army in 1971 and has commanded at every level, from leading a small Bomb Disposal Team in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s to commanding a Division of 30,000 in 2004/07.

After various tours in the UK and Germany, he completed a tour with the UN in Cyprus in 1980/81 before attending the Army Staff Course in 1983, returning as a member of the Directing Staff in 1987. After an operational deployment to Kuwait/Iraq in 1990/91, he attended the Higher Command and Staff Course in early 1995 before serving as a Colonel in Bosnia in 1995/96 and 1997.  In 1999, as a Brigadier in command of 101 Logistic Brigade, he deployed to Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo and was appointed CBE in the subsequent operational awards for his work in leading the NATO response to the Humanitarian crisis.

Handing over command in 2000 he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies and then, in 2002, became involved in the planning for operations in Iraq; he subsequently deployed to Washington, Kuwait and Baghdad as the Deputy in the US-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, later re-titled the CPA (the Coalition Provisional Authority). He returned to the UK in 2003, took over a key staff appointment before assuming command of one of the three Divisions of the UK Field Army from October 2004. Retiring in January 2007 he was the Army Adviser to the UK House of Commons Defence Committee for 5 years.

 A Defence Adviser to a number of UK/International Companies and a Visiting Professor at three UK Universities, Tim is also a Local Lay Minister in the Church of England, Trustee of a number of Christian and secular Charities, and a Director of two International Aid Agencies.

Just How Effective is John Bercow?


By the time John Bercow was elected to the Speakership in June 2009, the expenses scandal had rocked public trust in MPs and Parliament. There was a palpable appetite for change. The previous Speaker, Michael Martin, had resigned on a wave of bad press regarding his involvement in the scandal. His resignation caused one Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell, to remark that “removing Michael Martin is not the end, it is the beginning – a new Speaker has to be a reformist, they need to be progressive”.

This was the context into which John Bercow was elected. As the new Speaker remarked in an interview with me, it was “the perfect opportunity for a shake-up”. Others who I interviewed, such as Natascha Engel MP, also described the scandal as a “golden opportunity for reform”. In fact, Bercow had made a speech to the Hansard Society only three months after his election, which outlined his goals for Commons reform, most of which focused on the “rights and duties of the backbench MP as an individual player”. Bercow also complained that “backbenchers become figures of real significance only when either the parliamentary numbers overall, or on a contentious measure, are so tight that literally every vote counts”.

Bercow aimed to give more direct legislative power to backbenchers through Commons reform, a concept that opposes most theoretical models of the British Parliament. Mezey, for example, describes Parliament as ‘reactive’, and theorises that it is very difficult for anyone but the executive to legislate due to procedural restrictions. My argument, however, is that the context of Bercow’s election made it far easier for him to have influence in the reforms debate, when compared with the previous Speaker.  Evidence in favour of this argument would go some way to disprove Mezey’s theory and would show a progressive change to Parliamentary procedure in favour of backbenchers.

It would first be helpful to provide some evidence that, around the time of the expenses scandal and election of the new Speaker in June 2009, there was appetite in the House for reform. Early Day Motion 1627 is a good example of this. It gained a respectable 103  signatures, and is called ‘Reform of the Speakership and Select Committees’. Of the signatories, almost half (43) were Labour MPs. Lib Dems and Conservatives made up the other two quarters, with 24 and 23 signatures respectably. Apart from a slight under-representation among Tories, and a slight over-representation of Lib Dems (which may be explained by the Lib Dems’ natural inclination towards reform), these numbers almost perfectly reflect the makeup of the House at the time, showing it was a bipartisan issue.

Amongst other things, the motion demanded that ‘Parliament should be reinstated as an independent forum by empowering the Speaker, select committees and backbenchers’. This motion was tabled just over a week before the Speakership election in June 2009, and gives a good insight into the mood of the House at this time. Although it does not provide evidence that the Speaker has been effective in influencing reform, it does show that Bercow had a clearer mandate than his predecessors to make active changes to House procedure.

But where, exactly, has the Speaker exerted influence, and where there is the highest chance of finding a causal link between the Speaker’s actions and reform?

The most obvious place to start is where the Speaker has some form of control over debate, and Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is the most prominent example.  It is well- known that the Speaker is deeply unhappy with the conduct of individuals during PMQs, illustrated by a speech he made to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, in which he stated that “we cannot ignore the seriously impaired impression which PMQs has been and is leaving on the electorate”. He also described the current PMQs as “a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum”.

Bercow’s ideas for reform have included shifting the focus back to backbench MPs by speeding up the entire process and shortening questions. This would leave time for more backbenchers to ask questions, and improving the quality of scrutiny. Though Bercow admitted in an interview with me that he has “so far made very few changes” to PMQs, his influence has already had a positive effect on the quality of these weekly jousts between MPs and the Prime Minister, as we can see below. Under Martin (indicated in bold), the average number of backbench questions was 18. Under Bercow, it has risen to 23.


Number of backbench questions in PMQs


Total no. of questions

Opposition Leader Questions

Backbench or minor party questions

29/11/00 25 6 19
27/06/01 25 6 19
24/04/02  24 6 18
19/11/03  25 6 19
15/12/04 23 5 18
06/04/05 23 6 17
22/11/06 26 5 21
07/03/07 23 6 17
02/07/08 24 6 18
10/06/09 21 6 15
01/07/09 27 7 20
15/07/09 24 6 18
21/10/09 30 6 24
06/01/10 25 6 19
24/03/10 30 6 24
24/11/10 32 6 26
12/01/11 30 6 24
16/03/11 31 6 25
18/05/11 34 6 28
15/06/11 30 6 24

To obtain these figures, I randomly chose 10 PMQ sessions for each Speaker (making sure they were reasonably spaced out for fairness), and counted the number of questions given to backbenchers. The result showed a marked difference: on average, backbenchers were able to ask five more questions under Bercow than under Martin.

The importance of these statistics, however, is up for debate. On the one hand, shorter questions gives backbenchers more opportunity to hold the Prime Minister to account. In fact, this 30 minute slot is the only time a backbench MP can direct an oral question at the Prime Minister in such a high profile environment. Thus, it could be argued that Bercow has made the session far more relevant for normal MPs. If this is the case, it can be argued that Mezey’s theory is already weakened by the existence of a more relevant and effective PMQs.

However, these statistics are also limited in terms of what they tell us about the Speaker’s influence on reform. They cannot tell us, for example, how many  backbench questions led to action by the government. It is also possible that there has been no change in the way in which the government deals with backbench problems, and that their legislative power has not been developed at all. The straight comparison between Martin and Bercow is also limited because there could be other factors apart from the expenses scandal which made this reform easier for Bercow than Martin. In my view, it has been easier for Bercow to pursue this line because there was such clear distaste and distrust of the PMQ format, and even before the expenses scandal.

Of course, PMQs is not the only time a Minister is held accountable for his actions. Each month, every minister must face the MPs in a session of Question Time to justify their actions. Many argue that this is, in fact, a more effective form of scrutiny, as the House tends to be quieter, and the questions tend to be more focused on the Minister’s area of responsibility. Although it is not the Speaker’s job to decide which questions are answered, he does have control of the ‘Urgent Questions’, which are asked at the end of Question Time.

Urgent Questions are important for the reform of the role of backbenchers, because they allow flexibility in the questions that can be asked of ministers, with no need to pre-warn the minister on the exact nature of the question. They improve the quality of scrutiny in the House and, again, make backbench MPs’ roles more relevant.

At his election, Bercow pledged to allow more of these urgent questions, stating that he hoped “to grant around one urgent question a week”. To test this, I have chosen two eight week periods: one of which John Bercow presided over, and the other Michael Martin. Although not conclusive proof, this should give some idea to the impact Bercow has had on Urgent Questions. The results are shown below.


 HC Debs, Session 2008-9, Volumes 489, 490, 491, 492


Incredibly, in the eight week period for which I randomly chose to analyse Martin’s usage of Urgent Questions, he did not table a single one. During the same period two years later, Bercow reached his target of averaging one Urgent Question per week, in some weeks tabling two on consecutive days. Neither periods were near a general election, and neither had any major event which may have boosted the number of Urgent Questions. In fact, Bercow boasted in one speech in 2011 that “in the 12 months before I had the honour to be elected Speaker, precisely two… [urgent questions] had been awarded”.

If we can assume that the pattern over these four months is a reflection of Bercow’s and Martin’s usage of Urgent Questions, then it highlights important differences. As a specific part of his agenda, Bercow had the mandate to increase Urgent Questions with the blessing of the House due to, in his words, the “reputational carnage of expenses”. The success of this change, though small, illustrates how effective the Speaker can be in influencing reform. Indeed, Bercow believes that “the revival of the Urgent Question has made the House a more relevant and unpredictable place”, which “can only assist the cause of scrutiny by examination”. Martin had no such mandate or inclination to reform this part of Commons procedure, and this is clearly reflected in the statistics. A stronger, more relevant questioning of ministers which promotes good scrutiny further weakens the theory put forward by Mezey.

Another aspect of Parliamentary business in which Bercow has shown great interest in reforming is Private Members’ Bills. Several of his speeches have highlighted his ambitions to improve PMBs’ relevance. For example, in one speech Bercow claimed that scrutiny of the government could be far better if MPs exploited “the opportunity of a Private Members’ Bill to highlight deficiencies in the law”. As a starting point, I thought it may be interesting to see if the Speaker’s enthusiasm for Private Members’ Bills has had any effect on their success rate in the House. As above, bold text indicates sessions in which Martin was Speaker.

Under Bercow, the results show over a 100% increase in the success of Private Members’ Bills. It seems, then, that PMBs have become more relevant in recent sessions. The numbers are still extremely low, however. In the 2008/9 session, just 5 PMBs out of 110 were successfully made into law. The other limitation of this evidence is that there is no way of categorically proving that this increase in Private Members’ Bills is down to Bercow’s push for reform. Private Members’ Bills are still highly unlikely to succeed in the House, and it is possible that more time is needed for the implementation of the reforms to see a real empirical improvement.

To truly test Bercow’s influence on the debate surrounding Private Members’ Bill reforms, it is more useful to examine how his speeches have affected the eagerness for his suggestions to be implemented. It is sometimes argued that the main role of PMBs is to highlight a problem in policy to the government, and not necessarily to change the law by itself , but as an ambassador for backbench MPs, Bercow advocates ‘rigorous testing’ of PMBs, and does not believe they should simply be talked out.

In essence, he wants PMBs to do better in the House.

In his key speech to the Hansard Society, Bercow also announced plans for the rejuvenation of Private Members’ Bills. Since doing this, he has stirred up a debate amongst Parliamentarians and academics alike regarding the benefits of implementing these changes. Among these suggestions is the idea of moving the day in which PMBSs are debated away from Fridays, and “putting them more squarely in the heart of a sitting week rather than their present somewhat isolated berth”. Fridays are widely regarded as a difficult day for legislating, as it is the day most MPs set aside to go to their constituencies for surgeries. Placing PMBs on this day further alienates them from the average MP, forcing them to choose between legislation and constituent work (views echoed by several MPs, including Tessa Munt MP).

The Hansard Society’s proposals for reform include moving the day of debate away from Fridays, stating that “the aftermath of the expenses scandal and the increased interest in measures to re-balance the relationship between Parliament and the executive” and “the election of a reforming Speaker of the House of Commons” were both justifications for imminent reform. This report is a perfect example of how Bercow influenced a debate on Commons reform, as well as giving weight to the argument that it was the expenses scandal that has allowed him to do so. Although, so far, this reform has not come to fruition, the Speaker’s position on the subject, made so public in his speeches, cannot have failed to influence the debate.

The expenses scandal led to doubt and distrust in elite politicians, and called for a re-balancing of power. Reforming Minister’s Questions and Private Members’ Bills are two aspects of Parliamentary procedure where it is entirely possible for the Speaker to make legitimate changes which improve the quality of scrutiny and legislation in the House, which is why the data I collected are related to these parts of House business. Comparisons with Michael Martin show a change of pace in Parliament after he left, which allowed Bercow to come into the House with a strong agenda for change, and actually have the mandate to follow through.

Just over two years into his Speakership, we can already see direct changes that have positively affected the backbenchers’ role, with plenty of scope for future improvements. His effectiveness in influencing the debate, however, is not only illustrated in the physical improvements in the House. His speeches are also an important part of this: as a highly respected political official, his rhetoric on Commons reform is an effective tool for promoting his ideas and inviting other MPs to join debate. It is highly likely that, in the future, further reforms will be made in the House due directly to Bercow’s determination to create a more relevant and effective legislature in the House of Commons.

Charlotte Boreham is a Third Year Undergraduate @NottsPolitics , studying for a BA in Politics

Making Sense of Chief Whips

On Friday, the Government Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, spoke to students on our second year British Political Parties module.  The next visiting speaker on that module is a former Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith.  That’s two Chief Whips in a couple of weeks.  So what’s the collective noun for Chief Whips?

Believing in the wisdom of crowds, I asked twitter.  And answers included: a threat, an obeyance, a clusterf**k, a black book, a thumbscrew, a crack, a dungeon, a coven, an inquisition, a flail, a discipline, a lash, a sewer, a headlock, a fist, a golden shaft, an omerta, an Urquhart, a looming, a panic, an oppression (that one even came from a former whip), a McAvoy (a Westminster in-joke), a walnut (very clever), and a persuasion.

It’s fair to say that whips have got an image problem…

Professor Philip Cowley

Then and Now: Debt and the Nation-State

The long-established sovereignty of the developed nation-states of the West has been under strain now for several decades, beset by the forces of globalisation, for good or ill. For some of the nation-states of western Europe, the sovereign debt predicament has brought this long term trend to crisis point.

In January, Germany proposed that a European Commissioner be appointed to control Greece’s budget and taxation. Successive Greek governments have brought the country to grief, the argument went, and therefore the creditors of the state should have the moral right and the power to suspend the Greek government’s – and ultimately the Greek people’s – right to determine that most basic aspect of sovereignty: the power to decide how state finances are to be raised and spent, which is to say the power to decide how the state is going to do anything at all. While this proposal has been taken off the table in light of the agreement of Greece’s major parties on further austerity measures in return for a second eurozone bailout, the fact that Germany even put forward its proposal is of massive concern.

In one sense, we’ve come full-circle – for the very idea of the modern nation-state is owed to the problem of debt, as I argued a little while ago in an article in International Studies Quarterly.

The important figure is a French abbot, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, who in 1789 published an explosive pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate? The context was a debt crisis, in this case of the French public finances. King Louis XVI had borrowed enormous amounts of money to fund two wars with Britain. In the Seven Years’ War the king lost most of his overseas territories, and the American War of Independence failed to produce any of the expected trade gains with America. Sieyès’ fear was that Louis would declare the French state bankrupt. To do so was just a matter of the king having to convince the politically powerful Church and landowning class to believe that the ‘capitalists’ – those who had lent money to France, mainly commoners of the new but growing bourgeoisie, and some foreigners – were out to overthrow the old orders. Sieyès was convinced that this would lead France back into war with Britain – most of the foreigners who had lent money to France were British – and would be ruinous for the real toilers and labourers – the people with whom he really sympathised – who depended for their wages on the bourgeoisie.

The fundamental trouble, then, was that the interests of the French state seemed to be too exclusively identified with the interests of the Church and gentry. What is the Third Estate? is famous for its condemnation of these groups as indolent parasites expecting everybody else to do all the work, and yet still outweighing everybody else – the third estate – in France’s emergency parliament, the Estates-General. Sieyès was the brains behind the French Revolution. In May 1789 he managed to convince the representatives of the third estate that they were in fact the real representatives of the whole French nation – the people who actually did stuff, rather than just living off the fat of the land or church tithes. They formed the National Assembly, and eventually drew up a new constitution. This new constitution envisaged a role for a monarch; it fell to slightly later revolutionaries such as Robespierre to take another step and throw him off too.

That was the practical political revolution wrought by Sieyès. The conceptual revolution was in two parts. First, Sieyès argued that the interests of the French state weren’t the same thing as the interests of French landed property; that all kinds of property ought to be protected by the state. The new government, representing everybody, should be able to set the rate of interest – which in private transactions was set by the creditors – because that government represented the majority of the lenders to the public coffers, who were French citizens. That way, the government would stand a good chance of getting France back on to an even keel, and of placating the creditors.

Second, and of greater significance, Sieyès argued that the debt belonged to everybody, and not only those – the monarch and propertied class – who actually contracted it. And this ‘everybody’ included future generations. Until this point, the abstract notion of the ‘state’ was very much tied to the personality of particular rulers; think of Louis XIV’s famous dictum, ‘The state, that’s me’. For Sieyès, the state should be viewed like ‘a species in natural history. The individual grows, withers and dies; the species endures’. States were more than the people who personified them, more even than the living citizenry. They had a continuous existence. Only with this new conception of the state could there be proper responsibility for the public debt. Sieyès gave a new name to his civil species: he called it the nation. The rest is history.

Sieyès’ invention is coming undone, and the culprit, ironically, is public debt. A few years ago, writing in the London Review of Books at the time of the debates around the prospective Constitution for the EU, the political theorist David Runciman argued that Europeans were badly in need of a new Sieyès. Given the present sovereign debt crisis, analogous to that which spurred Sieyès into action, it’s clear that that need is now greater than ever before.

Ben Holland