Merry Christmas! We’ll see you in the new year

Snow

Image by Bob Peace

That’s it from Ballots & Bullets for 2012. It’s been a great year here on the blog.

We had updates from a number of elections, including the Tawain elections, guest posts on the French elections from Prof Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi of 500 Signatures, and posts on the Russian elections.

We’ve had posts from Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart on rebellious MPs, including their Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions.

And the Polling Observatory have been updating us with their monthly analysis of the political polls, which saw the appearance of UKIP for the first time: February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, November, December. They also brought us the latest on public opinion following the UKIP, Lib Dem, Labour, and Conservative conferences.

We’ll be back in January with more posts on the latest elections, world events and polls. We’ll see you then!

Forget A Christmas Carol, Bleak House is the best Dickens for a cold winter’s night

Christmas market

In Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, the king’s son Mamillius is asked what story he would like. He replies:

A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.

For me, Dickens is best for winter, so when I was asked to choose and defend my favourite book at the East Midlands Salon Balloon Debate, it had to be Dickens’ Bleak House.

The first word of Bleak House is ‘London’. Samuel Johnson said ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. I think the same goes for Dickens as a writer of London. Dickens immerses us in the novelty and mystery, the energy and misery of the nineteenth century city.

And having put us in London, Dickens immediately plunges us into the mud and fog surrounding Chancery and English law, the focus of his social satire in Bleak House. The mud is ‘accumulating at compound interest’, we are told, in keeping with the world’s leading capitalist city. The fog is ‘cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of [a] shivering little ’prentice boy’, while the gas light ‘has a haggard and unwilling look’. In Dickens’ London, the buildings and elements feel alive. So even before we enter Chancery and are introduced to the slow workings of the law, we already have a picture of the murkiness and mire of litigation.

Bleak House’s plot is framed around the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, an inheritance dispute. The case has lasted so long its original parties have died, and those who have inherited the case have grown old in turn. When the final judgement is pronounced there is nothing left of the original inheritance, dissipated on litigation fees. Jarndyce and Jarndyce is proverbial as a bad legal action and a cautionary tale against litigation taking over your life.

Bleak House is not just a satire of law, but of false morality, whether in the form of fashionable convention, religiosity or philanthropy divorced from personal concern and care for others.

Dickens’ social commentary is animated. His is a world full of right and wrong, heroes and villains. Where individual conscience and care for others matters. Dickens judges individuals’ actions and metes out justice without impunity. Villains get their just desserts, the fallen are redeemed, and the virtuous are rewarded. Dickens even sentences one villain – Krook – to spontaneous human combustion in a poetically and theatrically satisfying end.

So what of his characters? Who to choose? The ruthless Tulkinghorn? The sponger Harold Skimpole? The wasted Miss Flite, consumed by Jarndyce and Jarndyce? Sir Leicester Dedlock with his aristocratic gout?

Two of my favourite characters are the philanthropist Mrs Jellyby and the road-sweeper Jo.

Mrs Jellyby is a tyrannical egotistical philanthropist ‘who devotes herself entirely to the public… and is at present… devoted to the subject of Africa…’ Absorbed in her ‘telescopic philanthropy’, she is oblivious to the cares of those around her, and incapable of saving and looking after anybody, not even herself. As Dickens mischievously comments, ‘Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.’ Dickens’ satirical portrait of Mrs Jellyby questions the humanitarian character of her humanitarianism – questions that remain relevant to the international humanitarianism and global disaster management of our own day, as I explored in Global Disaster Management and Therapeutic Governance of Communities for a recent issue of Development Dialogue.

Dickens’ critique speaks to the concerns of many aid workers over the humanitarian sector becoming overly bureaucratic and losing a sense of personal compassion.

Unlike his Mrs Jellyby, Dickens cares about individuals in the mass, and wants to retrieve them from anonymity. This concern is shown in Dickens’ portrait of Jo, which demands that we care about the road-sweeper:

It must be a very strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets… To be hustled, and jostled, and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere… To see the horses, dogs and cattle, go by me, and to know that in ignorance I belong to them, and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend!

Moreover, Jo’s road-sweeping has a moral and social redemptive dimension, metaphorically clearing away the murk and mire represented by Chancery.

In summary, Dickens’ interweaves his social satire of law and society into a plot of mystery, romance, comedy, and pathos, and above all, character.

Vanessa Pupavac

Image by David Dixon

A sneak peek inside the forthcoming issue of Parliamentary Affairs

Parliamentary AffairsParliamentary Affairs, which was established in 1948, is a peer-reviewed academic quarterly covering all aspects of government and political representation directly or indirectly connected with Parliament and parliamentary systems in Britain and throughout the world. 

It is co-edited by Professor Philip Cowley and Professor Jonathan Tonge and is published by Oxford University Press in partnership with the Hansard Society.

In the forthcoming issue Stephen R. Bates, Peter Kerr, Christopher Byrne and Liam Stanley analyse the opening sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) for the last five Prime Ministers in order to test a general perception that PMQs has become increasingly a focal point for shallow political point scoring rather than serious prime ministerial scrutiny.

Their data appear to confirm that PMQs has become both rowdier and increasingly dominated by the main party leaders.

It also indicates that Prime Ministers are increasingly expected to be able to respond to a wider range of questions, female MPs are as likely to ask helpful questions but less likely to ask unanswerable questions than male counterparts, and MPs are less likely to ask helpful questions and more likely to ask unanswerable questions the longer their parliamentary tenure.

More surprisingly perhaps, our findings also suggest that, at the beginning of their premierships at least, Thatcher and Brown appear the most accomplished in terms of the fullness of their answers, and Blair and Cameron the least accomplished.

You can read this paper online here.

30 minutes with John Bercow

John BercowJohn Bercow is possibly the most famous Speaker of the House of Commons in modern  history, and he’s not even half way through his self imposed nine year term. His shifting political positions, high profile confrontations, outspoken wife, short stature, verbose oratory, all make John Bercow a recognisable and easily caricatured figure.

I am currently researching the effect of Bercow’s reform agenda – which aims to empower backbenchers – on his relationship with frontbench MPs. Not the most exciting topic on first appearance, but I have found some interesting tales of parliamentary dissent, and found praise for the Speaker from unlikely sources, including the infamous Nadine Dorries. It is because of this research that Mark Stuart asked me to chair the Q&A session with John Bercow during the Parliament in the UK module’s recent trip to Westminster.

After sessions with Andrew Lansley (Leader of the House), Sir George Young (Chief Whip), Steve McCabe (former Labour whip), and Jack Straw (Former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House), I was excited to finally meet Bercow. It’s odd to meet someone you’re writing an essay on; the abstract suddenly becomes real. The first thing that struck me was that he isn’t as short as I thought, maybe because I am not tall myself, but I do think the enormity of the Speaker’s Chair adds to the “dwarf” caricature.

During the Q&A session Bercow displayed the passion, whit, and self-deprecation for which he is known. He answered questions on The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body in charge of MPs expenses, with a determined and zealous defence of MPs and the agency, whilst admitting there is still room for improvement. He diplomatically deflected a question on the convention that the three major parties do not contest the Speaker’s constituency by saying the decision lay with the House.

I questioned him on his high profile confrontations with MPs, such as former Government Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin and former Health Minister Simon Burns, who called Bercow a “sanctimonious little dwarf”. Bercow jovially repeated this line to the audience to a response of awkward laughter. He admitted he could have dealt with the situation involving McLoughlin better, and should have kept his temper, but maintains that he is not a “barer of grudges” and holds no ill will towards the two.

After my 30 minutes with John Bercow I think I will have to rewrite parts of my essay. I have come away with the impression that Bercow does want to uphold Parliamentary integrity, even if he is still prone to the occasional outburst, self-promotion, or longwinded speech.

Adam Charlton is a third year BA Politics student at the University of Nottingham.

Do the public even know what ‘statutory’ means?

Edmund Burke

Do we need statutory regulation of the press?  Perhaps the press should be regulated, but in a non-statutory way?  Or maybe we need statutory under-pinning of any regulation?  As the row about Lord Justice Leveson’s report has raged, I’ve wondered about another question: do the public even know what ‘statutory’ means? Let alone statutory under-pinning, which, as Matthew Parris noted, sounds like a type of corsetry. So, with the help of the polling company YouGov, I tested this. Read the unexpected results –  Poll: Statutory? of Statue Tories?

Philip Cowley

Image by Steven Christie