Hugh Pemberton

Hugh Pemberton is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of Bristol, UK. He is an expert on the political history of Britain since 1945 with a particular interest in economic policy, the history of UK government, the Labour and Conservative parties, and British pensions policy.

A poodle bites back?

Thoughts on the Rutnam Affair and the politicisation of the Civil Service since the 1980s.

Sir Philip Rutnam’s resignation as Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, and his legal action for constructive unfair dismissal is unprecedented. That is not to say it is unexpected. It is but the latest symptom of Britain’s failing constitutional settlement, and of the uncertain role that permanent civil servants have played within that constitution over the past forty years. It is unlikely to be the last such crisis. Ministers’ assumptions about the poodle-like function of their civil servants may have to be reset, or the Civil Service itself formally politicised.

It is certainly true that senior civil servants have been moved within Whitehall before to get them away from a minister with whom personal relations had broken down. But an unwilling, forced and premature resignation of a top civil servant has been very unusual in modern times.

Two earlier premature departures stand out.

In 1992, Sir Peter Kemp, was forced out of his role in the Cabinet Office after a bust up with recently appointed minister William Waldegrave. But the situation is not really analogous. Kemp, was not as senior as Rutnam, being one grade below the rank of permanent secretary. Kemp had also made many enemies within Whitehall as the man tasked with implementing Mrs Thatcher’s Next Steps reforms, whereby around three-quarters of all civil servants were moved out of Whitehall departments into ‘executive agencies’ – a change which marked the demise of the unified and uniform Service prescribed by the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report. The sheer scale of Kemp’s difficult working relationships across Whitehall really explains why he could be forced out by the then Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler.

Another potential parallel is Michael Howard’s dismissal of Derek Lewis in 1995, as Colin Talbot has argued. But Lewis was not the head of a Whitehall department. Rather, he was an external appointment by Kenneth Clarke, Howard’s predecessor as Home Secretary, as chief executive of the Prison Service (one of the new Executive Agencies set up under Next Steps). So he was much less senior than Rutnam, and operating not as the head of a Department but of a subordinate arms-length organisation. He was simply a convenient fall-guy for ministerial failings that led to the highly embarrassing escape of several IRA prisoners.

But the Lewis Affair does have something to tell us about the Rutnam Affair.

To consider why, we have to wind back the clock to the late-70s and early-1980s. Those years marked a significant break with the preceding 40 years. During and after the Second World War, ministers and their senior civil servants had governed with relatively few problems arising between them. That this was so was because, for all the party-political disagreement over the ends of policy, there was often a remarkable level of cross-party agreement on the means by which those ends might best be delivered by civil servants.

The most notable exception is Tony Benn’s fractious relationship with Sir Anthony Part, permanent secretary at the Department for Trade and Industry – a problem conveniently solved by Benn’s demotion by Wilson after the 1975 EEC referendum.

Benn’s certainty that Part was manoeuvring against him to derail Labour’s “Alternative Economic Strategy”, was a signal that the relatively harmonious relationship between ministers and their senior civil servants was beginning to break down. That this was so was a product of a move away from ‘consensus’ as the two major parties began to shift away from the political centre in search of very different policy solutions to what they perceived to be the decline of the UK as a world economic player. Both policy means and ends had in consequence become politically contested.

The major break came with Margaret Thatcher. She had come to see the Civil Service as engaged merely in the management of national decline not in its reversal, and as inherently less efficient than the private sector. She perceived the Service as self-interestedly pursuing its own agenda and thus a barrier to the realisation of what came to be called the ‘Thatcher revolution’. That vision of obstructionist civil servants thwarting the will of their ministerial overlords was nicely captured by the Yes Minister TV series from 1980.

Civil servants felt profoundly threatened by Mrs Thatcher’s negative view of the Civil Service, and by the Thatcherite drive for efficiency, for it involved a radical shrinkage of the Service (a quarter of a million posts were lost between 1979 and 1997) and much institutional upheaval. But she was particularly threatening because the position of the permanent Civil Service within Britain’s uncodified constitution was very unclear.

In response, the first attempt to codify the role of the modern Civil Service came with the so-called ‘Armstrong memorandum’ in 1985. Promulgated by Robert Armstrong (Head of the Civil Service, and Cabinet Secretary), this set out the function of the Civil Service as follow:

“Civil servants are servants of the Crown. For all practical purposes the Crown in this context means and is represented by the Government of the day. … The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day.”

And it laid out the duties of civil servants to ministers thus:

“The Civil Service serves the Government of the day as a whole, that is to say Her Majesty’s Ministers collectively, and the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service. The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department in which he or she is serving.”

The implication was that the function of a civil servant was simply to implement the will of their ministerial master.

Armstrong’s memorandum was welcomed by ministers. The precepts it laid down were welcomed too by their successors, not least by Labour when it took power in 1997 – for Labour feared that a Civil Service which had served Conservative ministers for eighteen years would resist change (in reality, after many years of stasis as the Thatcher revolution consumed itself under John Major, civil servants were simply aching for a competent and purposeful government of any political hue).

Both major parties therefore embraced the codified subordination of the Civil Service to their respective political wills in the 1980s and 1990s.

But, while the Armstrong Memorandum marked a significant step towards a new world of formal Ministerial and Civil Service codes of conduct (published in 1992 and 1995 respectively), it over-simplified the function of the Civil Service and the relationship between senior civil servants and their minister.

Armstrong’s memorandum noted that the Civil Service was a non-political and professional service, with civil servants “required to serve the duly constituted Government of the day, of whatever political complexion.”. Political impartiality (first codified by the Northcote Trevelyan report in 1854) was thus affirmed. So too was the need for civil servants to retain not just the confidence of ministers today but of their successors.

That was all well and good, but what Armstrong skirted around was the fact that future ministers might be of a different party. In other words, it was essential that civil servants diligently implement the decisions of ministers without allowing themselves to become slaves to their underpinning ideology.

That need to maintain long-term trust across the political divide inevitably required civil servants to maintain a certain objective distance. But it was and is all too easy for this natural (and required) reserve to be seen by ministers as politicised obstructionism.

Armstrong also dodged the thorny question of “the national interest” in the context of a breakdown of two-party politics and the increasing chance of large Commons majorities being delivered on relatively small vote shares and declining turnouts (the Conservatives in 1987, for example, had a sweeping majority of 102 with just 42% of the vote).

Moreover, as Armstrong noted, a fundamental function of a Civil Service adviser was/is to provide “honest and impartial advice” to their minister. It is hardly unknown for policy ideas dreamed up by a small number of politicised think tankers or opposition SPADs to disintegrate on contact with reality. So, inevitably, civil servants must sometimes advise that a policy will be too administratively complex, or costly, or politically difficult. “Speaking truth to power” is a fundamental requirement of civil servants, but it is all too easy for ministers to make the mistake of viewing advice contrary to their wishes as actively obstructionist.

In addition, though ministers tend to be supremely confident in their own abilities, the reality is that a minister without experience of running a government department can easily fall prey to overconfidence. This is a particular problem when someone with little prior ministerial experience is appointed to run a major department – as Priti Patel was when she became Home Secretary last December.

The reality is that government departments can be huge. The Home Office, which has nearly 33,000 staff, is far from the largest.

Source: Civil Service Statistics, 2019

Large organisations are by their very nature slow moving beasts, and it is all too easy for a minister without experience of running one to overestimate the Department’s capacity to execute rapid change, and to dismiss cautionary advice as politically inspired.

In short, the resignation of Philip Rutnam comes as no surprise. This government is a highly ideological one – moderate Tory ministers having been winnowed out during the ructions of last year during the government’s internal civil war. Moreover, Boris Johnson’s government is in a hurry (inevitably, given its commitment to forge a deal with the EU by the end of the year, or leave and trade with it on WTO terms) and thus intolerant of delay.

This is also a government which is highly resistant to naysayers, however expert, and to the idea that the nature of large-scale bureaucratic administration might impose limits to the speed of change.

Couple that with a very inexperienced but highly confident minister and it is no surprise that the relationship between Priti Patel and her most senior permanent civil servant broke down.

This may prove to be a fleeting crisis. But I doubt it. The nature of the new administration and the history of ministers’ desire to politicise the Civil Service suggests Rutnam’s will not be the last constructive unfair dismissal of a senior civil servant. At some point, we may be forced to revisit the issue of the relationship between ministers and civil servants, and put right some of the inadequacies of the present codification of that relationship. Or we may have to move to a new model of public administration in the UK, one more like the USA with its array of politicised executive appointments in the Federal administration.

This blog post draws on research conducted during the writing of The Official History of the Civil Service, Vol. 2 (R. Lowe and H. Pemberton, to be published by Routledge in May 2020).

In an unprecedented crisis, how useful is precedent?

Bercow picBrexit has pushed British politics into uncharted waters in which the furore over Speaker of the House of Commons’ failure to follow precedent in Parliamentary procedure seems slightly surreal. In an unprecedented situation, perhaps the ability of the Speaker to create a new precedent should be seen as a strength of the constitution not a weakness?

John Bercow has been the object of much criticism from (overwhelmingly Conservative) ‘Leaver’ MPs for his decision to allow an amendment to a government motion (‘the Grieve amendment) on the grounds that it is ‘unprecedented’ for such a motion (required in order for the Commons to have a debate) to be amended.

The Grieve amendment proposed that in the event that the government loses next week’s vote on the Brexit deal agreed by the Prime Minister with the EU the Commons will have the right to vote on alternatives – which will likely run from no-deal, via ‘managed no-deal’ (whatever that means) and ‘Norway-plus’, to approving a second referendum.

Bercow’s decision is therefore of enormous significance, and the fact that MPs voted in favour of the Grieve amendment may well turn out to be a key moment in determining the outcome of what is a highly-charged and acrimonious debate over Brexit.

Not surprisingly, those wishing to keep alternative options off the table were livid, and they attacked the Speaker for his break with Parliamentary precedent and accused him of provoking a ‘constitutional crisis‘.

There is, however, something faintly bizarre about assuming past precedent must necessarily govern the operation of the House of Commons in a situation without precedent.

Supporters of Britain’s ‘unwritten’ constitution (often, ironically, Conservative MPs) have in the past seen one of its key strengths as its flexibility. Actually, these days, considerably more of our constitution is written than is assumed, but Parliamentary procedure is one area in which there remains a good deal of murkiness. The closest the House of Commons has to a rule-book is ‘Erskine May’ – first compiled in 1844 by the then Clerk of the House of Commons, Thomas Erskine May.

Ironically, Erskine May has been described by the present Speaker as ‘the definitive guide to parliamentary procedure’ (although, oddly in this age of digital sources and ‘open government’, it is not freely available to British voters via the internet. You either have to go to a library – and good luck with that if you don’t have access to a university library – or buy your own copy, which costs a cool £408). And there are many examples of Bercow speaking approvingly of precedent.

But for all its constitutional weight, Erskine May amounts to no more than a delineation of procedure on the basis of past precedent and conventions. It is also a living document, now in its twenty-fourth edition, that has evolved over time as the environment within which the Commons operated changed. In short, Erskine May offers a set of rules that have evolved over nearly two centuries but though the rules guide Parliamentary procedure they can change.

The problem with ‘precedent’ is that we are today a long way off the British political map as a result of Brexit. The attempt to achieve it may not be ‘destroying Britain’s constitution’, as some have put it, but is certainly testing it in unprecedented ways.

One of the reasons Brexit is so testing of the constitution is that the relationship of the UK towards ‘Europe’ has been politically problematic since the early talks that led to the creation of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the now ‘European Union’. Britain stood aside from the new institution established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, then chose to form another competing cluster of nations (the European Free Trade Area), then became disenchanted with that at the start of the 1960s. It then attempted twice to enter the then European Economic Community before finally joining in 1973. Having joined, it then promptly held a referendum on membership in 1975, which the electorate endorsed (the subject of an excellent recent book by Robert Saunders, Yes to Europe!), then one in 2016 that repudiated it.

But membership of the EEC/EU was not just politically controversial in the UK, it was consistently a challenge for its political parties politically. Each of the two main parties has over time flipped between support and opposition. And each of them has always been internally divided, with those intra-party divisions are all too evident today.

The key issue here is that the government of the UK has traditionally been operated by two major political parties that are meant to consolidate and mediate political support for alternative policies. This they are plainly no longer doing (and, in truth, have not been doing for some time but Brexit has made the failure all too clear – see my July 2016 PolicyBristol blog post). Each of the two major party leaderships is at odds with a significant fraction of their own MPs, their members, and their potential voters. A cross-party coalition of around three hundred MPs appears to support a second referendum on Brexit, which at the point I am writing is supported by neither of the two main party leaders but which is by some margin the most popular of the three most likely options in Britain’s ‘Brexit trilemma’.

In addition, in ‘normal times’ Brexit would be the responsibility of a government with a clear majority in the House of Commons. Instead, the May government has a minority of MPs, a third of which wish to replace her as their leader. In these conditions the government is seeking to push Mrs May’s Brexit deal through the House of Commons in a vote that almost nobody seems to think can be won.

The result of all this is that the UK’s political system has suffered the equivalent of a stroke.

In this unprecedented situation what use is precedent? If the constitution is under strain, and precedent is providing an unreliable guide, then perhaps an ‘unprecedented’ evolution of that constitution is a sign of the system working?

The 2017 General Election: first thoughts

Writing on the morning after the election, the fog of war has lifted to reveal a battlefield on which all sides are claiming victory but nobody has actually won.

Others more prescient than me wondered before the election if it did not have a whiff of another ‘snap election’ – 1974. It turns out they were right.

Then Ted Heath went to the country to secure a strong mandate to deal with an issue of national importance (in those days, union power) but found that he ended up with fewer not more MPs. Ted held on in No.10 for a while but eventually Labour formed a minority government.

But the arithmetic and the politics this time are not those of 1974.

What might be the lessons of yesterday’s vote?

First, though the Conservatives are the largest party, their loss of seats (even as their vote rose as Britain returned to a two-party system) represents a major defeat for the programme on which the Prime Minister went to the country – in the expectation of a landslide victory.

Second, austerity economics no longer holds sufficient appeal to deliver victory. The Conservatives ran on a programme of continuing austerity, Labour on ending austerity. The relative fortunes of the two parties suggest that an alternative to apparently never-ending austerity holds significant electoral appeal.

Third, a hard-Brexit appears to have been rejected. The Conservatives promised a hard-Brexit, Labour a soft-Brexit (along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and the Liberal Democrats no Brexit at all). Both major parties managed during the campaign to close down debate on Brexit. Nonetheless, the setback to the Conservatives suggests that a hard-Brexit resonated with too few voters. (We should remember that whilst 51.9% of voters embraced ‘Leave’ in 2016 they were far from agreed on what form that departure should take).

Fourth, the result represents a significant personal victory for Jeremy Corbyn. Many, including me, were sceptical that he could go beyond energising young people and actually get them to vote. We were wrong. Delivering both a large increase in Labour’s vote and an increase in the number of its MPs is a major achievement.

Where might we go from here?

First, we will likely see a Conservative minority government, sustained in office by the DUP. Though today’s politics are not those of the 1970s, the experience of that decade is that minority government is possible, and indeed if done well can provide sufficient leverage for the party in question to go to the country and increase its majority (as Labour did in October 1974).

But minority government is hard, tiring, and unstable. The governing party must fight every vote in the Commons as if it could lose. Concessions must be made. A minority government finds itself in a constant bidding war as it seeks to bribe smaller parties to lend the government their votes. Even then key votes will be lost. MPs must practically live in their offices and in the tea rooms and bars, constantly on hand in case a division is called and their vote is required. Exhaustion soon sets in and there is a risk of growing paralysis.

Second, we must, surely, see a major reality check on Brexit. Moving to exit the EU represents the biggest governmental challenge in the UK since the dark days of 1940. Having initiated Article 50, the sands are already rapidly running through the hourglass. Yet we have yet to start negotiations. Instead we are indulging in an orgy of national introspection – indeed the absence of discussion about Britain’s future place in the world was perhaps the most striking feature of the recent election campaign. This cannot go on.

But the election leaves the (presumably) future Conservative government in an exquisitely difficult position. It has embraced a series of negotiating positions that presume (indeed demand) the hardest of hard Brexits. Yet the voters appear underwhelmed. So, either the government must push on to deliver its promise, and face possibly cataclysmic rejection at a later date. Or it must change course.

Third, whichever party forms the next government, and whoever is our prime minister, given the political difficulties and conflicting signals generated by the election result, it is difficult to see how we can possibly begin negotiation with the EU-27 on the present timetable. Asking for a pause in the process looks almost inevitable.

Fourth, Labour has moved left, and its general election performance – even though it did not deliver victory – is impressive enough to ensure that this policy shift is going to be long-lasting. It will be a surprise if opponents within its parliamentary party do not fall into line.

Finally, Mrs May has been significantly discredited, not least in the eyes of her MPs. She is unlikely to be able to keep a lid on simmering discontents in her parliamentary party – not least those who oppose her hard-Brexit policy. This will be a significant force for instability both in domestic and foreign policy

But whatever happens it’s all going to be fascinating.

Industrial strategy, past and present

On Monday 23 January, Theresa May and her business secretary Greg Clark launched their ‘industrial strategy’ green paper, promising that their proposed strategy would not be on the lines of the ‘fatally flawed‘ approach of the 1970s, which sought on the whole to protect industries and firms in difficulties as a result of the economic crises of that decade (and thus protect jobs) rather than to help encourage the industries of the future.

The government’s attempt to embrace the idea of an industrial strategy as opposed to more narrowly focused and ad hoc ‘industrial policy’ is welcome. Indeed it is almost certainly essential given the degree to which the economy will have to be reconfigured as a result of Brexit. The promised long-term vision is a necessary starting point, and if the assurances of a partnership between government, ‘innovators, investors, job creators, workers and consumers’ across the United Kingdom actually comes about this will be a significant step forward.

Later, I will be blogging about the contents of the green paper but before that I want to question the government’s reading of history. Industrial strategy predates the 1970s, and anyway it’s really an exaggeration to talk of a wide-ranging and coherent strategy for industrial development in that decade. In fact, the era of industrial strategy par excellence is the 1960s. I’ve written on this in the current issue of the journal Juncture, arguing that the era was much more successful in promoting growth and productivity than is generally acknowledged, and there is a short summary version of this piece to be found on the PolicyBristol blog.

A brief perusal of the current green paper suggests its aims are considerably less ambitious than those of the 1960s, not least in terms of government spending on infrastructure and on encouraging private sector investment. Assuming the strategy implemented looks something like the current policy proposal, its likely achievements are likely to be correspondingly more limited.


Labour moderates’ naivety lost them control

The text below is a letter from me to the Financial Times, published on 17 August 2016 .

Jeremy Corbyn, Tolpuddle 2016, 1 cropSir, Henry Mance, in “Labour’s leadership battle exposes civil war for soul of party” (August 12) observes that moderate Labour MPs can take heart from the example of the 1980s — when, supported by rightwing trade union leaders, they fought and won an internal battle with the hard Left for control of the party. That “history lesson” is misguided because it assumes too much overlap between conditions then and now.

First, the 1980s fightback was led by moderate and rightwing trade unionists who “fixed” key party committees. Today Labour has few affiliated unions, they have less internal influence, only four of them really matter, and of those the two largest are less anchored in the private sector and dominated by the Left. Second, the hard Left did not lead the party in the 1980s. Now it does. And the court ruling that Jeremy Corbyn must automatically be on the ballot means he is not going away.

Third, the means by which the leader is elected is utterly changed. In the 1980s the membership had only 30 per cent of the vote. Now power lies almost entirely with members and supporters. Fourth, this is not a membership divided between “extremist” activists and passive moderates. Revolutionary socialists have plainly joined the party, they are active, and they make life unpleasant for their opponents. But Labour’s median member has plainly moved Left.

In short, “moderate” MPs need to take a cooler look at the possibilities. Through their naivety they opened up the party to whoever was prepared to pay to change it and then voted for Christmas by lending nominations to a candidate of the hard Left. Thereby they lost control, probably irrevocably. Mr Corbyn will probably win again, and Labour’s journey to the Left will then continue.

Moderates have only two realistic options: surrender, or fight on by forming a new official opposition in parliament.

Dr Hugh Pemberton
Reader in Contemporary British History, University of Bristol, UK

Brexit requires radical change in the UK political system

An updated version of this piece can be found on the PolicyBristol blog.

What have we learned in the eight days since Britain voted to leave the EU by a margin of 3.8 percentage points?

The country has jettisoned the foreign policy followed by all governments since 1961 yet the political class is paralysed even as the country drifts into dangerous economic waters. Put bluntly, nobody has a clue about how Brexit is to be achieved (or about what a ‘hard’ Brexit might involve). This is a moment of catastrophic political failure on a scale unprecedented in modern British history and it calls into question fundamental features of the country’s political system.

First, it is clear nobody has the slightest idea how the exit is to be accomplished.

Those campaigning for a Leave vote had no plan for how an exit from the EU might be achieved in a way that would not impose lasting damage on the country by crimping exports to countries that represent 45% of our overseas trade.

Astonishingly, no serious contingency planning had been put in place within Whitehall (it is not as yet clear whether senior Civil Servants as well as ministers are to blame for this). Whitehall, which I understand was in chaos before the referendum as it woke up to the real possibility of Brexit, is having radically to reconfigure and reorientate itself, though it lacks many of the skills demanded by Brexit.

So far there is no sign of clear real plan of action.

Second, many of the predictions of the much derided ‘project truth’ are proving accurate.

The pound has collapsed to a low not seen for 35 years – not a bad thing for exporters but a serious loss for international investors in our economy, and in our government’s debt, that may have consequences for their confidence in UK economic management.

There are serious concerns that the widespread economic uncertainty is leading to large scale cancellation of investment, creating the conditions for recession. Many large firms are already implementing plans to redeploy parts of their business and workforce to the Continent.

By any standards this is a very serious economic challenge. In the long-term, as Mr Carney said earlier this week, the economy will adjust but there are clear and large risks in the near- and medium-term.

Third divisions within British politics are paralysing the construction of workable solutions to the economic and foreign policy crisis.

  • Leave campaigners had no plan partly because they did not really expect to win but mainly because they were themselves divided between those for whom control over immigration and protection for British workers was the overriding priority and those for whom free-trade was the main goal: aims that are irreconcilable without leaving the European Economic Area because membership of its single market is dependent on the acceptance the free movement of people as well as of goods and services within it.
  • The Conservative party is similarly divided and as a result has embarked on a leadership election at just the time when, as the governing party, it should be concentrating on leading the country.
  • Labour’s internal battle between the hard Left and its soft Left and Blairite remnants has reignited with a vengeance. Preoccupied with its civil war it is failing to fulfil its role as an Opposition party in Parliament. And the impasse between the party in Parliament and the leader and his supporters amongst the membership means the party may soon split.
  • The only party with a clear policy is the SNP: which is clearly planning to use Brexit as the means by which to achieve independence, thus signalling the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.
  • Profound divisions in Northern Ireland have the potential to reemerge in an ugly way as the division of Ireland becomes once again a physical reality.

Because of the political chaos there is almost no political leadership (George Osborne’s acceptance of the need for deficit financing to maintain growth notwithstanding).

Parliament has not properly debated the consequences of the referendum vote, and at present has no plans to do so.

At the moment we are essentially reliant on a lame-duck Prime Minister and on Civil Servants and the Bank of England to fill the policy vacuum. The Bank has risen to its challenge admirably, though its governor has warned of the limits to its capacity to keep the economy on an even keel. Civil Servants are plainly doing their best, but in the absence of a clear and politically legitimate steer on how to handle the crisis they risk being left politically very exposed if things go wrong.

Our politicians are clearly failing us.

This is about more than the mendacity of some unscrupulous politicians (on both sides of the referendum, though the winner of that inglorious competition was plainly Boris Johnson – a man for whom the linked concepts of hubris and nemesis appear to have been invented).

We have to acknowledge that the howl of rage that was the Leave vote said something about the politics of this country.

The plain fact is that the political system no longer adequately represents the interests of large swathes of the British electorate.

For many years the first past the post electoral system proved effective at forcing the two main parties to consolidate and mediate interests on both sides of the political divide, and ensured that the competing political visions that resulted were tested at the ballot box.

On the whole that system worked well in the quarter of a century after 1945 when between them the two main parties were taking between 87 and 97 per cent of the vote.

It began to work less well as substantial numbers of people began to lose faith in those parties and we first saw the rise of a significant third party (in Feb 1974, for example, the Liberals took nearly 20 per cent of the vote), then the creation of the SDP (in alliance with the Liberals in 1983 taking over 25 percent), then the rise of the SNP, the Greens, and, more lately the growing vote for UKIP.

One may not like UKIP, but the fact that it gained only one MP in 2015 with 12.6 per cent of the vote was clear evidence of the failure of the current electoral system to give voice to large numbers of people. So too was the fact that Labour hoped to win that election with a ’35 per cent’ strategy.

A system that can deliver a government opposed by 65 per cent of voters on a turnout of only 61 per cent (as happened in 2005) is plainly broken. We have turned a blind eye to this for decades; the Brexit vote has made that failure all too obvious.

At the same time, ‘Europe’ has proved a particular problem for the main political parties. Both have at times been fundamentally divided on whether to support membership of the EC/EU and over time the parties have reversed their positions. Only the Liberal Democrats have been consistently pro-EU, only UKIP consistently anti- – and look where that got them in terms of Parliamentary representation.

So we now have to ask serious questions both about the UK’s electoral system and about the ability of its two main political parties to mediate interests and consolidate them into policy programmes supported by a large proportion of the British electorate.

Last week I argued that today’s generation of politicians were facing a crisis akin to that of May 1940. I continue to think this.

The political challenge of unravelling Britain’s close political relationship is immense (people better informed than I estimate it will take a decade). At the same time Brexit poses a substantial economic challenge to an economy not yet fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2007-8.

Yet our politicians stand by. And it is the political vacuum that makes the situation so dangerous.

There will be a wealth of human misery caused by yet another recession. Many, particularly amongst those who voted Leave, will be disappointed further in their political representatives. Add that to the sense of disenfranchisement and the fear and xenophobia whipped up by the referendum and we have the making of something truly nasty.

In short, I think we need political action, we need it now, and we need it to be effective and enduring.

I continue to believe that this probably requires a rapid and significant realignment of British party politics around its centre and I am coming to the conclusion that it may also demand the reconfiguration of both its electoral system and representative institutions.

The EU referendum crisis is this generation of MPs’ ‘Narvik’ moment

In the wake of the EU referendum result the UK faces a crisis unparalleled in peacetime. The financial crash of 2008 was bad enough, but at least our political system was not then in melt-down. Today, half a century of carefully crafted foreign policy has crumbled to dust. Each of the two major parties has descended into civil war, with each riven by differences of opinion about the costs/benefits of EU membership. The economy, still fragile eight years on from the 2008 financial crisis, teeters on the edge of another recession (as does that of the EU, which has also been badly weakened by events in the UK both economically and politically). More than this, the divisions within the country are so severe that the very existence of the UK in its current form is now clearly in doubt.

One has to go back to May 1940 to find a moment when the country last faced an existential crisis like this – with the loss of Norway to Nazi Germany. This was a shattering blow for British strategic policy and it precipitated a loss of confidence in the government’s ability to prosecute and win the war. Over two days of debate in the House of Commons between the 7th and 8th of May 1940 (the ‘Narvik’ debate) it became clear that around a hundred Conservative MPs had lost confidence in their leader and, though the government won the vote, the effect was devastating. Within two days the country had a new prime minister and a government of national unity.

I think there are lessons here for today’s MPs.

  • It is up to MPs to react to the referendum result and to decide on the way forward. We should remember that the result is advisory not legally binding.
  • Parliament was and remains sovereign (despite much recent rhetoric to the contrary). The actual decision to leave must be taken by Parliament. MPs, and only MPs, either individually or collectively have the power to determine what happens now.
  • The Queen appoints a prime minister who can command a majority of the House of Commons.
  • The prime minister does not have to be a party leader (for example, Churchill did not take over the leadership of the Conservative Party until October 1940).
  • Particularly in times of emergency good MPs remember that their function is to represent what they see as the best interests of their constituents (and by extension of the nation), not just the interests of those who voted for them.

As Burke famously put it in his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774,

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

It is pretty evident that an immediate, effective and enduring party political response to the crisis is not going to be constructed, the parties being themselves divided over the issue and presently each at war with each other over who should be leader. MPs are going to have to work this out for themselves.

Which leads on to another major issue: is the present party system fit for purpose? For 70 years ‘Europe’ has cut across traditional party allegiances – indeed it might be argued that this is precisely why we find ourselves in the mess we are presently in. Perhaps the time has come to think creatively about how interests might be represented better politically. Perhaps, in short, the time has come for new parties and a new government to emerge out of the political rubble. But if that is to happen it needs to happen quickly.

Replacing Trident: some lessons of history for Labour

The Labour Party is presently considering its future policy on the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system. If anyone is interested, I have submitted my thoughts on this to the party’s International Policy Commission. In that submission I explore the history of Labour Party policy on nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament since the Attlee government, I conclude, with some regret but also with a hefty dose of political realism, that renewal of the deterrent (though not necessarily via a replacement submarine launched ballistic missile system) makes political, economic, and strategic sense for Labour and for the country. You can find the full submission here (pdf).

Embed from Getty Images: Trident Rocket, test launch at Cape Canaveral, 1 Jan 1980

Fully funded PhD studentship to research modern British history

Are you interested in undertaking PhD research in the field of modern British history and, particularly, in the modern history of philanthropy in Britain? If so you may be interested in a studentship at the University of Bristol to write a modern history of the Society of Merchant Venturers, a Bristol institution dating back to 1552 that is akin to a City of London livery company. The SMV is an important charitable presence in the city of Bristol and the proposed project will research its development as an institution since the mid-1970s, in the process intersecting with a period during which there was a national shift from provision of key services by government to charitable provision.

This  doctoral scholarship is for £14,075 p.a. (rising in years two and three in line with AHRC rates, subject to satisfactory academic progression and the building of a productive working relationship with the funder), full tuition fee support (£4,052 for 15/16) plus up to £500 p.a. for research expenses commencing in January 2016 (though the start date can be subject to negotiation). The deadline for applications is 9 a.m. on 19 Oct.

/… Further details


When in a hole, stop digging

Nobody watching the news last night (2 Sept 2015) and seeing the conjunction of a drowned Syrian toddler being carried tenderly from the sea and Mr Cameron robustly holding the line on migration can have failed to see that Britain’s current policy on migration has run out of road.

This repudiation of refugees is shameful. It leaves us looking callous and self-interested. It is also utterly self-defeating in that we are poisoning the well of cooperation amongst key European countries on which are depending for the renegotiation of our relations with the EU.

The Prime Minister’s key problem is that in 2009 he rashly committed himself to a target for net migration, Wise heads noted at the time that this was a profoundly mistaken promise because it is a number over which the UK government has incomplete influence, was at odds with other policy priorities, and would inevitably box him in once he was elected.

Once in government, Cameron duly found that:

  • We cannot prevent inward migration of other EU citizens without leaving the EU.
  • Net migration includes the return of British citizens living abroad, whom we presumably have no intention of repudiating.
  • It encompasses overseas students, whom BIS is eager to encourage to come and study here, not least because they contribute so much to the funding of our universities; and
  • It includes skilled workers necessary to our future economic performance.
  • Finally, net migration includes refugees, leaving us in the unenviable position of doing as little as possible to help those fleeing Syria (a country, let us not forget, that we and the Americans helped destabilise via the inadequate post-conflict planning of the Iraq War).

Two tried and tested political history lessons come to mind:

  • Don’t commit the classic political mistake of setting a target for a measure over which you have no control.
  • When in a hole stop digging.

The Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party, urgently need to come to terms with the present refugee crisis (and here the postwar resettlement in the UK of people from the Continent displaced by war and the influx of 90,000 other European nationals under the European Voluntary Worker programmes of the late-1940s might provide useful models).

More generally, Mr Cameron needs to change the national conversation on migration if he is to break out of the box in which he has imprisoned himself. Sometimes leaders really do have to lead, not follow.

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