How an arcane piece of parliamentary procedure may force the government to release its Brexit impact assessment studies

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government approach to opposition day debates

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this Parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are twenty opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had seventeen of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government Ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although Ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates; Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of martialling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat Pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on Universal Credit on 18th October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a Minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

Perhaps most interestingly, in response to a question from the SNP MP, Pete Wishart, about whether the Leader of the House could be compelled to explain the government’s ‘refusal to participate in the democratic arrangements of the House’, while the Speaker made clear that he could not compel the government to respond to the vote, he added that:

…mechanisms are available to him and others, on both sides of the House, to try to secure a governmental response, if they wish. If they do, they certainly will not find the Speaker an obstacle to their endeavours.

This, coupled with the Leader of the House’s subsequent statement that the government would respond to the universal credit defeat, ‘no more than twelve weeks after the debates’, perhaps prompted Labour to search diligently for an effective trap for the government. By the time of last week’s opposition day, Labour had clearly identified just such a mechanism.

A motion for a return

The opposition day motion tabled by Labour on 1st November was as follows:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of 26 June 2017 to Question 239, be laid before this House and that the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.

As with other opposition day motions this session the government did not seek to amend the motion and did not contest it in a vote with the result that the motion was carried and is now a resolution of the House of Commons.

However, in the wording of this motion, which was slightly different to the standard opposition day motions, Labour had set a trap for the government. Opposition day motions, including the one on armed forces pay tabled earlier same day, usually begin with a phrase along the lines of ‘This House notes…’ The motion requesting the release of the Brexit impact assessments, however, was worded as ‘an humble Address’ to Her Majesty in what is known as, a motion for a return. It was this unusual piece of parliamentary procedure which sent observers, and Members of Parliament, to seek out Erskine May’s authoritative tome on parliamentary practice.

The relevant section of Erskine May describes a motion for a return as follows:

Each House has the power to call for the production of papers by means of a motion for a return. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is called for by means of an Humble Address the Queen;… The power to call for papers was frequently exercised until about the middle of the nineteenth century. It is rarely resorted to in modern circumstances since much of the information previously sought in this way is now produced in the form of Command or Act Papers but the power has a continuing importance since it may be delegated to committees, thus enabling them to send for papers and records.

Although this is not a widely used practice, by tabling a motion for a return Labour were seeking to invoke parliament’s power to call for persons, papers and records. As noted in Erskine May this power is now largely associated with parliamentary committees, but select committees have this power because it is a power of the House, not the other way around. Although, as Erskine May notes, this power is not absolute, it is generally accepted as an important parliamentary power and one which members on all sides of the House would not like to see eroded.

The motion was clearly designed to turn a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding one. Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary stated at the beginning of the debate that it was his belief that this was a binding motion which was designed to make it, ‘impossible for the Government to pull their usual Wednesday afternoon trick of not voting on Opposition day motions or not taking any notice of them.’ There was much discussion on this point in the debate, during which three different Speakers sat in the Chair, but there was some consensus on both sides of the House that the motion was binding. Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, observed that although Erskine May does not use the word, ‘binding’ it does refer to the power of the House to call for papers and ‘power is something pretty forceful, and is much more than just an expression of will.’ Eventually, Speaker Bercow concluded that ‘…motions of this kind have traditionally been regarded as binding or effective. Consistent with that established pattern, I would expect the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household to present the Humble Address in the usual way.’

Another consequence of Labour’s tactic, which was alluded to by the Speaker, was that the request for the release of the Brexit impact studies will be made to the Queen. A ‘humble address’ is the mechanism by which Parliament communicates with the monarch and is generally used in relation to Parliament’s response to the Queen’s speech or non-contentious issues such as passing on congratulations to the monarch. It’s use in this case prompted criticism from some, that Labour was trying to drag the Queen into the Brexit debate. The reason why a motion for a return refers to the monarch arises from the fact that government departments are created by royal prerogative, and are, in effect, branches of the Privy Council. Hence, Secretaries of State become Privy Counsellors and departments are designated with the prefix ‘Her Majesty’s…’, although HM Treasury appears to be the only department for which this is now widely used. As a result, as the Speaker made clear, Labour’s request will be communicated to the Queen, ‘in the usual way’, although the response, of course, will come from the government.

The passing of a motion for a return also raises the prospect of the government being held in contempt of parliament if it does not abide by the resolution. This was also the subject of some discussion in last week’s debate, including in relation to how long the government might take to make the assessments available. In this case the Speaker was less willing to be drawn, noting that accusations of contempt would need to be made in writing to the Speaker, but that it was up to the House itself to arbitrate in cases of contempt.

It is not yet clear how the government will respond to this defeat. The Chair of the Brexit select committee, Hillary Benn, has written to the Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union, to request that the assessments be made available and promptly. It is unlikely that the government will want to challenge parliament on this issue, not least because its negligent attitude towards opposition day votes has already prompted criticism from its own benches. Moreover, a refusal to cooperate may well be seen as eroding the power of select committees, setting a poor example to those, particularly outside parliament, who may be minded not to cooperate when called to give evidence. There has been some discussion as to whether the assessments might be redacted before being handed over, although the motion makes no provision for that, but it seems likely that the government will agree to some arrangement to make the assessments available to parliament in some form.

Free Erskine May

An interesting corollary of this episode is that it has prompted repeated calls for Erskine May to be made freely available online. While copies, including an electronic version, are freely available within Westminster, few outside can afford the £400+ price tag for the latest edition, and last week’s events led many struggling to locate their nearest copy. Making Erskine May freely available online was one of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy in 2015, and in response to a question the day after last week’s opposition day debate the Leader of the House agreed that it should be available online. It is to be hoped that this, along with the government’s response to last week’s interesting exercise of parliamentary power, is not long in coming.


This post first appeared on the PSA Parliaments Group blog, and subsequently on the UCL Constitution Unit blog.

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Propping up the dignified elements of the constitution: the peculiarities of the Court Circular

IMG_2133Tucked away at the back of The Times newspaper, somewhere between the obituaries and the weather, is the Court Circular. The Court Circular is a record of the previous day’s royal engagements.

It is a peculiar report consisting of a simple list of engagements without commentary or photographs. Engagements are listed in order of succession, with the Queen’s engagements listed first and running through to the Duke of Kent (31st in line to the throne). Announcements are also listed by palace rather than individual royals. Hence the Queen’s engagements are listed under Buckingham Palace, as are those for Prince Andrew, Prince Edward and Princess Anne. Princes William and Harry’s engagements are issued by Kensington Palace, and those relating to the Prince of Wales by Clarence House. Formal titles are used throughout, Princess Anne is The Princess Royal, Edward the Earl of Essex and Prince Harry, is Prince Henry of Wales.

The Court Circular was reportedly begun by George III in 1803. Frustrated by inaccurate reports of royal engagements in the national newspapers he appointed a ‘Court Newsman’ to provide the press with a daily record of engagements. According to the Palace the Court Circular is written by the Private Secretary’s Office at Buckingham Palace and a copy is always approved by the Queen before it is published. It is reported verbatim in three national newspapers, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Scotsman. Copies of the Court Circular, as reported in The Times, are clipped in the Palace and kept in bound volumes in the Royal archives.

The Court Circular is undoubtedly a fascinating record of the work undertaken by members of the royal family, and is presumably considered to be a useful demonstration of the way in which the royals provide value for money. Indeed, since 1979, Tim O’Donovan, a retired insurance broker and avowed royalist from Berkshire has kept a running total of royal engagements producing an annual league table of the most active royals which is published in the letters page of The Times at the end of each year. The 2016 list was topped by Prince Charles with 530 engagements, closely followed by his sister, Princess Anne who carried out 509.

It is not just the number of royal engagements but also the breadth of activities which is revealed by the Court Circular. On the 11th October, for example, the Princess Royal, in her capacity as President of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, opened the pattern weaving shed at Holland and Sherry Limited, in Peebles in the Scottish borders. As President of Riding for the Disabled, she then visited their Berwickshire group headquarters in Eyemouth. In the afternoon, as President of the Scotch Beef Association, she visited Hardiesmill Farm in Berwickshire before heading back to London to attend the Court Autumn Dinner of the Fishmongers’ Company, for whom she is ‘Prime Warden’.

While such a busy daily schedule is not uncommon, particularly for the Princess Royal, not all members of the royal family are quite so busy. For example, on the same day that the Princess Royal was touring the Scottish borders, the Court Circular reported that the Duke of Kent, attended a dinner at the Cavalry and Guards club in Piccadilly.

More significantly, the Court Circular provides a record of the intersection between the monarchy and politics. Most notably it provides a record of meetings of the Privy Council, lists those in attendance and announces the appointment of new members. It was the Court Circular which reported on 11th November 2015, that Jeremy Corbyn had become a member of the Privy Council and that he had, ‘made affirmation’, rather than being sworn in on the Bible. It also records meetings between the monarch and the Prime Minister, although the content of such meetings, of course, remains secret. It revealed, for example, that last week the weekly meeting between the Prime Minister and the Queen took place on Wednesday, rather than on Tuesday as is customary. This was presumably because, as was reported in the previous day’s circular, the Queen arrived back from Balmoral on Tuesday, and was perhaps too tired or too late to attend, although such extraneous details are obviously not provided.

What is perhaps most unusual is that three national newspapers continue to print the Court Circular. While it does serve to provide an element of transparency in relation to some of the more opaque aspects of the British constitution, the Court Circular is now available on the Royal Family’s, detailed and prodigious, website. The Royal Family also have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Had George III had the benefit of the internet it seems unlikely he would have bothered with the services of a court newsman. The Times stopped devoting a full page to reporting the previous day’s debates in Parliament in 1990. It is perhaps indicative of the endurance of what Walter Bagehot termed the dignified elements of the British constitution, that they continue to be a feature of some of our national daily newspapers, long after regular reporting of the efficient (and democratic) elements has ceased.

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Public opinion and the future of the monarchy

It was announced this week that the Queen would not be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph at this year’s remembrance service, but would watch the ceremony alongside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, from a balcony at the Foreign Office. The wreath will be laid by her son and heir, Prince Charles. The Queen is now 91 and the Duke of Edinburgh is 96, and this is a sensible and understandable decision. The Duke of Edinburgh retired from all public duties earlier this year, and there has been a gradual rolling back of the Queen’s roles. Younger members of the royal family have taken on some of her more arduous duties, most notably overseas trips, with Prince Charles naturally taking her place at many of the more formal events, such as the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings.

This is a natural development but it does, perhaps, raise questions about the long-term future of the monarchy. While it is to be hoped that the Queen lives a long and healthy life, Britain will have to adjust to an increasingly elderly monarch and someone else will inevitably ascend to the throne. How the public responds to these changes may have a long term impact on the monarchy.

Public support for the monarchy

Monarchy1There is little doubt that the British public are strongly committed to the monarchy. Opinion polls consistently indicate that less than one in five would like Britain to become a republic while around three quarters favour Britain remaining a monarchy. Moreover, support for the monarchy remains extraordinarily stable. Even at the time of the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when polls indicated some dissatisfaction with the Palace’s response, support for Britain remaining a monarchy held steady. As shown in the graph above, there is even some evidence that support for the monarchy has increased in recent years.

Moreover, when presented with the options for an alternative head of state, support for monarchy is even higher. In an Ipsos-Mori poll from 2016 which asked whether Britain should continue to have a King or Queen as head of state or an elected President, 86% supported retaining a monarch, while only 12% supported moving to an elected President.

It is also apparent that a large proportion of the public not only like the monarchy, but also think it is positively beneficial to Britain. Polling by Ipsos Mori between 1984 and 2002 indicated that while there was a fall in the proportion of people who thought Britain would be ‘worse off’ if it abolished the monarchy, this view was still held by more people than those who felt it would not make a difference. In more recent polling by YouGov from 2015, 68% of respondents agreed that the monarchy was ‘good for Britain’, while in Opinium polls from earlier this year, 70% thought Britain is perceived more positively abroad because of the monarchy, while 66% believed the monarchy benefitted the economy.

Personal approval ratings

It is, however, difficult to disaggregate public support for the monarchy from the personal approval enjoyed by the Queen. The Queen enjoys a level of personal support which exceeds that for the monarchy as an institution. In four polls, taken by Ipsos-Mori between 2006 and 2016, between 85 and 90% said they were satisfied with way the Queen was doing her job, with those expressing dissatisfaction in single figures, giving a net approval rating consistently over 80 points.

In contrast support for other members of the royal family is lower and also less stable. In the same Ipsos Mori poll from 2016, 71% were satisfied that Prince Charles was doing a good job, 15 points lower than satisfaction with the Queen, with 11% believing he was doing a bad job. This was nevertheless a considerable improvement on 1998 when Charles’ net approval rating dipped to 39 points. In September 2016, ICM asked a series of questions about how well or badly people felt different members of the royal family were doing in their current public role. In total 72% thought the Queen was doing a good job, with 47% agreeing she is doing a very good job. In contrast, only 47% felt that Prince Charles was doing a good job, and only 14% the he was doing a very good job, while a total of 15% thought he was doing a bad job.

A life sentence?

It is periodically mooted that the monarchy should skip a generation and pass over Charles, directly to his son, Prince William. Barring an untimely death this is highly unlikely, but support for the younger royals is higher than for the current heir to the throne. ICM found that 71% felt that William was doing a good job, and 67% that Harry is doing a good job in his current role. In 2016, Ipsos Mori gave Prince William a net approval rating of +73 compared to +60 for his father.

There is, however, little support for the Queen stepping down to make way for her son or grandson. In a poll taken to mark her 90th birthday in 2016, only one in five expressed support for the Queen abdicating, while 70% wanted her to remain on the throne for life. There was little more support when the same question was couched in terms of retirement rather than abdication, this was supported by 32%, while 61% still wanted the Queen to go on for life.

The public, however, appears somewhat more divided on whether Charles should forego his inheritance in favour of his son. In a series of polls on this question by Ipsos Mori, despite an obvious dip in 1997, the majority of the public consistently think that Charles should not give up his right to the throne in favour of William, but only by a relatively small margin, with between 47 and 64% believing Charles should not give up the throne.

The long-term future of the monarchy

The monarchy is undoubtedly secure as long as the Queen remains on the throne. If public support is a factor, the long-term future is, perhaps, less clear. Support for retaining the monarchy is significantly higher among those who are older. In Ipsos Mori’s latest poll on this issue, 84% of those over 55 supported retaining the monarchy, compared to 66% of 18-34 age group. This is still a significant majority, but amongst 18-24 year olds 47% favoured Britain becoming a republic while 43% wanted to retain the monarchy. There is little difference in support for the monarchy across England and Wales, but republicanism does appears to have more support in Scotland, with one in five favouring a republic compared to, for example, one in ten in the North of England.

Monarchy2

The public also have some doubts about the long-term future of the monarchy. According to an Ipos Mori poll in 2012, while 90% expressed the belief that Britain would still have a monarchy in 10 years’ time, that had dropped by a third to 60% when asked if Britain would be a monarchy in 50 years and by over a half to 42% when people were asked to consider the next 100 years. Although in a similar poll for YouGov in 2015, 62% supported the view that the monarchy would still be around in 100 years.

What is more clear is that Charles is less popular, in some polls considerably less popular, than his mother. His sons’ generation enjoys greater support. This may be because they are young and attractive, producing children and appear relatively accessible. In terms of presenting a positive image of the monarchy, William and Harry are probably doing a good job. However, they will need to continue doing this for as very long time before William becomes King.

One reason why the Queen is so popular is that she has been on the throne for a very long time. Anyone under the age of 65 can remember no other monarch. The Queen was 25 when her father died and she ascended to the throne. She was recently married, had two young children and gave birth to two more after becoming Queen. This young family were every bit as interesting and appealing as the current generation of young royals. Since then the royal family has weathered some personal storms and the country, and its place in the world, has changed beyond all recognition, but the Queen has remained a remarkably stable fixture.

However, because she has reigned for so long, in the years ahead Britain will need to adapt to a very different monarch and monarchy. The Queen will age and may well retreat more fully from public life. Her successors will not sit on the throne for anywhere near as long. If the Queen lives as long as her mother, Charles will be 78 when he ascends to the throne. If he lives as long, William will be 68 when he becomes King, William’s son older still. Unless fate intervenes, for a long period Britain is likely to have a series elderly monarchs with relatively short reigns. Sustaining popular support for the monarchy in such circumstances may well be a challenge.


Ipsos Mori Royal Family/Monarchy trends index page.

YouGov Royal Family index page.

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Parliamentary Private Secretaries and the irresistible rise in the payroll vote

The role of unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) and the impact of these appointments on the size the payroll vote has been something of a preoccupation of this blog. I first wrote about the payroll vote in a post in 2013, which showed how the number of PPSs had increased more than fourfold over the last century, from less than 10 to over 40. It argued that these unpaid positions, which are often seen as the first rung on the Ministerial ladder, are used by governments as a means of promoting loyalty amongst its own MPs, effectively increasing the number of guaranteed votes in Parliament. By 2013, when counted alongside paid, (and unpaid), Ministerial positions, this meant that 39% of coalition MPs held government posts which they would need to resign if they wished to vote against the government.

Another problem, which was discussed in this post in 2015, is that it is often quite difficult to find out which, and crucially, how many, MPs hold positions as Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Prior to the 2010 general election the Conservative Party promised to make government more transparent, and following the election did publish a list of PPSs. However, this list was never updated and, although such a list presumably always exists, it has proved remarkably difficult to track down. Following the 2015 general election after unsuccessful attempts to track down a list of PPSs from various sources including the Houses of Commons library, I was eventually able to secure a list, by effectively submitting a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office. This list, which was published on this blog, has been widely used including by the House of Commons library.

It is therefore, pleasing to note that following the general election this summer the current government published a full list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries on the government website. This is a positive development and it is to be hoped that, unlike in 2010, the list is kept updated following reshuffles and elections.

The list reveals that there are currently 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, five more than following the 2015 general election. There has also been a change in the allocation of PPSs. The Prime Minister now has two, George Hollingbery and Seema Kennedy. Secretaries of State all have their own PPS, but only one Minister of State, Brandon Lewis the Immigration Minister, is now listed as having a PPS. While most government departments have retained two PPSs, in a change from previous practice the second PPS is designated as supporting the ‘Ministerial team’ rather than the Minister of State. This may be a more accurate reflection of their role, it may also be designed to avoid the criticism that allocating second-tier Ministers their own PPS looked rather like padding out the payroll vote. The Home Office, inexplicably, has four PPSs attached to it, supporting the Secretary of State, Amber Rudd, the Minister of State, Brandon Lewis, and two further PPSs supporting the rest of the Ministerial team. It is not clear why this is the case, the Ministerial team at the Home Office, which comprises six Ministers, is no larger than several other government departments including the FCO, the DWP and the Cabinet Office.

Finally, what does all of this mean for the payroll vote? Without a majority the government’s ability to ensure the support of its own members is clearly crucial, and without any drop in the number of Ministerial and PPS appointments, the proportion of MPs who are bound to support the government has inevitably increased. There are currently 83 Ministers in the House of Commons and 18 Whips, although five of these hold more than one post. Which means that 96 MPs are Ministers or Whips. When added to the 46 PPSs, this means the payroll vote in the House of Commons is comprised of 142 MPs (10 more than in 2015). 45% of Conservative MPs must now vote with the government or resign their post. Calls to limit the size of the payroll vote are often heard from observers of parliament and occasionally from those who sit within it, but clearly the temptation to draw ever more MPs into the cosy embrace of government, continues to prove irresistible to those in power.

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Choosing a politics textbook

booksChoosing a textbook for your first year politics course can be a daunting prospect, as much for those delivering the course as for students embarking on a degree in politics. As I write this a pile of no less than eight different politics text books totters on the edge of my desk, many of them in multiple editions. Most are designed as broad introductions to British government and politics and cover broadly the same ground. Alongside them sits an, albeit smaller, pile of politics dictionaries, and a diverse assortment of general introductions to recent developments. Selecting a single volume from this ever growing pile is no easy task.

One simple and effective criteria is to select the most recently published textbook on the basis that if a week is a long time in politics then the years between editions of most standard textbooks amount to a political epoch. However, the pace of political change in the UK over the last few years means that most politics textbooks are out of date long before they hit the bookshops. Publishers generally attempt to keep up with the electoral cycle so that new editions of established titles appear after each general election. But with two general elections in a little over two years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events is beyond the resources of most publishers and indeed those responsible for writing textbooks.

One solution often adopted is for publishers to issue supplements or append additional chapters to popular texts covering recent events. For this reason I have once again chosen to recommend Michael Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK, a 3rd edition of which was published in August 2015. Palgrave have rushed out a 2017 update to this book reflecting recent changes to coincide with the start of the new academic year. This is not a new edition but largely appears to comprise the addition of a new preface by Moran covering the EU referendum and the 2017 election. Nevertheless, the book which was published after the 2015 election also has much to say on other recent developments. The debate over Scottish independence, for example, is treated in considerable depth and reflects the book’s overall aim to expand our understanding of British politics and governance beyond the dynamics of Westminster and Whitehall.

For more complete coverage of recent events one will need to wait for the 9th edition of the popular Politics UK franchise by Bill Jones and Philip Norton and on this occasion, Oliver Daddow, which is dues for publication in February 2018. The 8th edition of this excellent textbook was published in 2014, and is now somewhat dated. Nevertheless, it does have much to say on the coalition government and is highly recommended. Moreover, the inclusion in recent editions of Politics UK of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 8th edition includes interesting pieces by Mark Garnett on the 2011 riots, Peter Riddell on the decline of the mainstream media and Michael Moran on whether it is possible to buck the markets. One problem with this is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published. While students will be able to use the 8th edition of Politics UK throughout the first year of a politics degree, I would also recommend that they read the short endpieces from earlier editions such as Andrew Gamble on the legacy of empire and Chris Mullin on the parliamentary expenses scandal from the 7th edition and Hugo Young’s excellent essay in the 6th edition.

Indeed, it is the case that most recent editions don’t offer an entirely new perspective, far from it. One of the reasons that textbooks can go through many editions in a relatively short space of time is that recent developments are generally absorbed into an existing, usually successful, framework. It is the nature of textbooks that they rarely present cutting edge, original research but provide a distillation of current received wisdom on particular issues, and at best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, the chapter headings and indeed the content is broadly the same as in previous editions.

Partly as a result of this, another criticism of many politics textbooks is that they often focus too much on explaining the relatively unchanging systems of government, but provide less effective commentary on the more dynamic politics which takes place within them. While most will provide an introduction to the principal actors and institutions of the British political system they can, at times, read like guidebooks or manuals, which explain how the system works but not why it operates in a particular way. Rather like a Hayes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates but don’t consider the impact of whoever is driving it. This is a point well made in this review from The Times Higher in which Eric Shaw observes that some politics textbooks, including an earlier edition of Politics UK, can:

…leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally [they] exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

In many of these books the answer to the question ‘who runs Britain?’ often begins something like ‘Britain is a parliamentary democracy….’ which perhaps somewhat misses the point. In response to this, in previous years I have recommended Dearlove and Saunders excellent Introduction to British Politics, which covers much the same ground as many of the other textbooks but in many areas offers a more thoughtful and critical edge. Sadly, the most recent edition was published in 2000 and is unlikely to meet the needs of students starting their degree this week. The previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree, so the prospect of another edition any time soon are remote.

Another, perhaps slightly odd, consideration is whether textbooks are single-authored or include chapters by a range of different authors. It is the nature of academic research that most scholars tend to develop depth of knowledge over breadth. The advantage of books with multiple authors is that individual chapters are usually contributed by experts on each subject. Single-authored books in contrast reflect the expertise, but also the limitations, of a single author’s knowledge. Writing a textbook which encompasses in some depth every aspect of British government and politics is a tall order, even for the most accomplished scholar, as this article in The Time Higher observed.  Nevertheless, some, including Michael Moran, have done so with some success.

Moreover, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can be lacking in those written by multiple authors. There is also often an appealing quirkiness which can make single-authored textbooks somewhat more readable. While nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, if forced to do so I would choose something like Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK.  A new edition of Kingdom’s book, now jointly authored, with Paul Fairclough, author of several A level politics textbooks, was published in 2014, and is well worth a look. The chapters on ‘Social Context’ and ‘Mind Politics’ are particularly valuable and I have long admired Kingdom’s, at times amusing, recommendations for further reading, and particularly viewing, at the end of each chapter.

A slightly different kind of politics textbook is represented by the multi-authored or edited collections which don’t seek to explain how the political system works but instead provide informed commentary on the most recent developments. These books won’t help one to understand, for example, how parliament works or the relative merits of different electoral systems but they will help to explain what impact recent governments have had on political institutions and processes. By seeking to be current, these books have a built in obsolescence but they are vital and thought-provoking and should be read alongside the standard textbooks. The most prominent example of this genre is the Developments in British Politics series which is currently in its 10th edition, imaginatively entitled Developments in British Politics 10. The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 by Anthony Seldon and Mike Finn, is another valuable example, from a series which has charted the ‘effect’ of every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher.

Recent years have seen a growth in the publication of study guides. Some of these such as the Palgrave Study Skills series are designed for students across disciplines. Of these, Stella Cottrell’s  Study Skills Handbook is still the best, but there are now a bewildering array of other guides in the series covering subjects such as essay writing, undergraduate research and critical thinking. Discipline specific study guides are less common. Robert Leach’s Politics Companion  is perhaps the best example for the politics student. It is a useful reference work which combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more subtantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and an invaluable section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam.

A recent addition is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. This short guide not only provides an introduction to the subject but also invaluable commentary on what one is likely to encounter when studying for a degree in the subject, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

Finally, a word about dictionaries. It may seem somewhat obstinate in the days of the internet and Wikipedia to recommend that students buy something as antiquated as a dictionary but a good dictionary of politics will be an invaluable addition to the politics students bookshelfd. It is important to remember that studying politics at this level is a specialist pursuit in the same way as engineering or medicine. One would not expect a medical student to Google a patient’s symptoms, and similarly a politics student confused about the single transferable vote or the nature of multiculturalism would do well to reach for the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics rather than their iPad. There are other dictionaries on the market and Bill Jones’s Dictionary of British Politics has a good pedigree and is distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit.

Nobody needs eight politics textbooks, not least me, a single edition of the most recent will generally suffice, as long as one understands that each has its limitations and there is much to be gained from dipping into the others from time to time. Having a copy sitting on the edge of one’s desk will be a considerable source of information, a useful prompt to do some reading and an occasional cure for insomnia. For much else the library beckons.

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