What challenges have faced the China-UK relationship since the handover of Hong Kong and how have these challenges been overcome?

IMG_2100International Relations student, Natalie Read-Bone, was winner of the 2017 Baylis, Smith and Owens prize for the best first year essay on international politics, awarded by the University of Lincoln School of Social and Political Sciences. Natalie’s essay on Britain’s relationship with China below, reflects on the undoubted tensions in that relationship since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 but also suggests the underlying priorities which have allowed some of these tensions to be overcome, and which will be crucial to the development of a positive and healthy relationship in the future.

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The relationship between Britain and China has been a “long and complex” one (Brown, 2016, p.6), with the UK being the first of the Western countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, the relationship has been described by the British Embassy Beijing as “strong and constructive” (British Embassy Beijing, 2017). The reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 created possibilities for a “new chapter” of even more “constructive relations” between the two countries (Breslin, 2004, p.409). However, the relationship since the 1997 handover has been a volatile one, in which the relations have reached both incredible lows and incredible highs, and the overall relationship has been increasingly unpredictable (Brown, 2016, p.6). Both China and the UK have utilised trade and soft power to improve the relationship; after 1997 the UK aimed to develop “commercial opportunities” and promote positive social and political change in China (Breslin, 2004, p.409). Trade has been increasing since 2004 and China is now the UK’s second largest import partner – in 2014 imports were worth £37.6billion and exports £16.7billion (Office for National Statistics, 2015). On the other hand, the multiple challenges faced, have varied in size – from overarching aspects of society such as human rights, to personal disputes with British leaders. Despite this, in the “successful” 2015 State Visit to the UK, Chinese president Xi Jinping is said to have established a “Global Partnership” that represented both countries commitment to strengthening the cooperation in this new “Golden Era” (British Embassy Beijing, 2017). In a time when Britain is negotiating its exit from the European Union, its foreign relations, particularly those with China, are of significant importance. Therefore, it is essential to analyse the challenges that these relationships have faced and the ways in which they have been overcome, in order to be fully prepared for future developments.

One of the major challenges that has faced the China-UK relationship is China’s approach to human rights. China has been accused of systematically curtailing many human rights (Human Rights Watch, 2015) whilst promoting the “China Model of Democracy”, which aims to enhance economic growth “at the expense of civil and political rights” (Subedi, 2015, p.437). It is not just the UK that are opposed to China’s lack of human rights, it is said that many in Hong Kong also see the PRC as a threat to their freedoms and rights (Krumbein, 2014, p.156). Freedom of expression and freedom of press are two areas that are frequently hindered by the Chinese State. A recent example of the breach of freedom of expression was the arrest of at least 20 people in March 2016, in connection to an open letter that called for President Xi’s resignation (Amnesty International, 2016). China’s public service broadcasting (PSB) policy has also been accused of “prioritizing social order” over the political and civil rights of individuals (Chin, 2012, p.898), with the government controlling and censoring media with the aim of propagating government policies (Krumbein, 2014, p.152). Some Chinese academics believe that PSB is symbolic for its move towards democracy and transparency, however one of the State policy-makers disputes its role in upholding citizens’ civil and political rights (Chin, 2012, p.903).

China’s human rights record has caused a number of moral issues in regards to the UK’s relations with China. The appearance of China on the shortlist for the 2000 Olympic games for example, caused a global uproar, with countries claiming that the human rights reputation that China carried was in opposition to Olympic values. The European parliament urged that Beijing was rejected and the UK foreign minister agreed that Beijing would be a “bad choice” (Keys, 2016, p.9). These conflicting desires created a temporary divide between China and the UK. The UK also experienced a divide with Europe in its approach to human rights in China, as it continued bilateral negotiations on the matter whilst other European states did not (Breslin, 2004, p.144).

In fact, in overcoming the challenge of human rights, the UK has been very open and efficient when working with China. Throughout 2015 the UK “cooperated with China on projects in priority areas including torture prevention, the death penalty, women’s rights, and civil society” (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2017). It can definitely be suggested that China is making a significant attempt at improving its human rights, and has enacted almost 250 laws related to human rights over the last three decades (Subedi, 2015, p.440). The problem however has not been completely eradicated and requires continued development with the assistance of the UK, if the UK wishes to continue and strengthen the relationship with China. If this does not happen and China does not fulfil the protection of human rights this will “eventually stifle China’s economic development” (Subedi, 2015, p.451), decreasing its attractiveness and influence on the rest of the world, including the UK.

Another, arguably more complicated, challenge that has faced the China-UK relationship since the 1997 handover, is the rise in the Chinese military.  This is arguably more complicated than human rights as it also largely involves the US; whilst the UK has taken a cooperative stance to the growing military, commending the modernization and looking for closer military cooperation (Chinese Embassy, 2012), the US has become incredibly concerned with the growth, and has consequently engaged with a “pivot” of 60 percent of its “naval and aerospace power” towards the Asia Pacific (Evans, 2013, p.165). The challenge of the growing military has been present for decades, it has been suggested that the build-up began under Deng Xiaoping (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.3) and that by 1998 China was rivalling the US on military power ((Bernstein and Munro 1998) Breslin, 2004, p.415). One of the key indicators of the increasing military power is the Chinese defence budget, that has only become available due to the high rate of economic growth in China (Cordesman, 2014, p.65); in 2014 the defence budget was $130 billion (US) – a rise of 12.2 percent, and in 2015 it had risen a further 10 percent to $145 billion (US) (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.5).

This growing military tension between China and the US has created an indirect challenge for China and the UK; the UK has been making efforts to improve its relationship with China since the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997, and wishes to continue this into the future, however, historically British alliances lie with America, with the close relations between the two Western countries termed the “special relationship” (Dumbrell, 2009, p.64). Again, this an issue made more sensitive by the recent vote for Britain to exit the European Union, as the UK will need to be developing and expanding its diplomatic relationship with both China and the US.

This is not a challenge that has been overcome but one that has simply been moderated with the maintenance of strong relations with both China and the US. There is arguably a lack of a physical problem to overcome, as it has been suggested that whilst China may have military power, they must still acquire the ability to utilise it – in doing so they must overcome the problem of an ageing population decreasing potential military personnel, and an increasing demand for better pay for personnel (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.26). It is also suggested that the main aim of the Chinese military build-up is to ensure an “active defence” as opposed to the US view that China is preparing for war (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.25). China is a “major trading partner and exporter” for the US (Cordesman, 2014, p.65), this will be key to overcoming this challenge. Highlighting the economic importance and interdependence of both countries’ economies will be crucial in maintaining peace, and allowing the UK to continue building its relationships with both China and the US.

The China UK relationship has not just experienced large societal and political challenges such as military disputes and human rights abuses, it has also faced challenges on a much more personal level. One of the most significant of these personal disputes came in 2012 following a public meeting with the then prime minister, David Cameron, and “exiled Tibetan spiritual leader”, the Dalai Lama. Following the meeting, the relations between China and the UK were plunged into “the deep freeze” as a number of meetings with Senior UK ministers were cancelled by the Chinese government (Financial Times, 2015).

Relations between China and Tibet have been controversial for a long period of time, Tibet used to be considered its own country until China invaded in the 1950s. Now Tibet is considered an autonomous region of China. Tibet has always been a very strongly Buddhist area, which has always been “threatening and difficult” for the Chinese state to deal with (Mukherjee, 2015, p.61). Following the invasion and the subsequent Chinese suppression of Tibet, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. Since then, China has closed 99 percent of Tibetan monasteries and has banned images of the Dalai Lama (Free Tibet).

China’s foreign ministry had warned the UK government to consider the “serious consequences” of meeting with the Dalai Lama, and after the meeting, stated that the actions of the British leaders had “seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s core interests, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. The foreign ministry later announced concerns that the meeting with the Dalai Lama, who is “regularly vilified by the Chinese government” and is still living in exile with the Tibetan government (Mukherjee, 2015, p.73), was showing support for Tibetan independence and anti-China forces (BBC, 2012).

This put a tremendous strain on China-UK relations and required strong efforts by the Cameron-Osborne government to overcome the tensions. After nearly a year of very little ministerial contact between the two countries, David Cameron was finally able to get approval to go to China to talk with either president Xi or the Chinese prime minister. In an interview prior to the meeting in China, a Chinese H.E Ambassador gave an interview to Chinese media in the UK about China UK relations, in which he stated that the only significant issue was a lack of political mutual trust. This was therefore one the topics discussed in the meeting of the heads of state (Chinese Embassy, 2013a). Following the meeting the Chinese Embassy stated that the two countries were of significant economic importance to each other and that they should “push for long-term healthy development of bilateral cooperation” (Chinese Embassy, 2013b). Whilst the potential for increased trade and investment had left the Chinese premier describing the relationship as “indispensable”, it would seem that the former UK prime minister did not successfully repair relations with the Chinese citizens, as Chinese media called Britain “replaceable” as Britain was “no longer a big country” (BBC, 2013). This could be seen as an opportunity for the UK to improve its public diplomacy in China as a form of soft power (Nye, 2008, p.94).

The China UK relationship has been extremely volatile since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 (Brown, 2016, p.6). Some aspects have been positive, i.e. the increase in trade and the promotion of positive political and social change (Breslin, 2004, p.409) whilst some have been challenging, i.e. the growing military (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.3) threatening the US UK special “relationship” (Dumbrell, 2009, p.64). The important thing to note however, is that any challenges that have faced the China UK relationship have been overcome, either by increasing trade opportunities, highlighting the economic interdependence of countries or working cooperatively to develop new social standards. When faced with challenges in the future it will be important to reflect on the actions taken to relieve tensions in the past, this will be crucial to maintaining a positive and healthy China-UK relationship, which will be at the top of UK priorities as it negotiates its exit from the European Union.

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General Election 2017: constituency profiles – Lincolnshire

In electoral terms the area between the Humber and the Wash is to some extent a microcosm of England. Labour is well represented in the urban industrial constituencies in the north. To the south, the largely rural county of Lincolnshire is dominated by the Conservatives. There are pockets of support for UKIP in the less affluent coastal communities to the east and declining support for the Liberal Democrats in the south of the county. Labour does not dominate in the county town of Lincoln as it does in the nation’s capital, but it does control the city council. Lincoln is something of a bellwether constituency and is the most marginal of the greater Lincolnshire constituencies.

There are 11 parliamentary constituencies in the three counties of North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire and Lincolnshire. Two of those seats, Scunthorpe and Great Grimsby, are currently held by Labour and the remainder are Conservative. Although there was no change in any of these 11 constituencies in the 2015 general election, a number of the seats were keenly fought. This was partly the result of a growth in support for UKIP in the region, and also because a number of prominent local MPs stood down in 2015, most notably in Great Grimsby and Boston & Skegness, leaving parties without an incumbent advantage.

The loss of any of these seats in 2017 would be significant for the party concerned. As the most marginal of the 11 seats, Lincoln would appear the most likely to fall, but the constituency looks safer than it has in the past and the Conservatives are confident of holding on. Labour may feel less secure in Scunthorpe and Great Grimsby.

Attitudes towards the EU may have a significant impact on voting in the region. In last year’s referendum, 59% of voters in the East Midlands voted to leave the European Union and the region contains some the most Eurosceptic constituencies in the country. UKIP have enjoyed considerable support in local government across the region and came second in five of these eleven constituencies the last time they were contested. However, despite considerable efforts UKIP have failed to turn this into electoral success at Westminster and in last month’s local elections in Lincolnshire UKIP lost all of its seats on the county council. If the collapse in the UKIP vote is mirrored in the general election, where those voters transfer their support may have a significant impact on the outcome in a number of constituencies.

This post seeks to provide an overview of the seats in the greater Lincolnshire area and review the prospects for the 2017 general election.

North Lincolnshire

Brigg and Goole

The constituency of Brigg and Goole was created in 1997 and sits on the border of North Lincolnshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire. The seat comprises the Labour voting port town of Goole and a rural hinterland around the market town of Brigg. It is by no means obvious territory for either of the main parties. The constituency is overwhelmingly white, with 95% of residents born in the UK, an estimated 66% of whom voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum.

The seat was held by Labour from 1997 until the 2010 general election, when it was won by the Conservative, Andrew Percy on a huge swing from Labour. Percy consolidated his position in 2015 with 53% of the vote and a majority of over 11,000. Percy, a former teacher and Hull City Councillor is a prominent local figure. His national profile was enhanced by his appointment as Minister for the Northern Powerhouse in 2016.

Brigg and Goole is the kind of seat Labour need to win to return to the sunny uplands of 1997-2005 but it is unlikely to happen at this election.

Scunthorpe

Scunthorpe is more natural Labour territory. Like Brigg and Goole it was created in 1997. The town of Scunthorpe is the third largest urban area in the region after Grimsby and Lincoln. The town is dominated by the steelworks on which a large number of jobs depend. This is a precarious industry and closure was threated in 2014 when Tata Steel announced its intention to sell. The steelworks were sold to an investment company in 2016 for £1, and to the delight of many in the town reopened as British Steel Ltd.

Labour have held the seat since 1997, although their majority has fallen from over 14,000 to a little over 3,000 in 2015. The MP, Nic Dakin is the former principal of John Leggot College in Scunthorpe. He was elected in 2010 when he took over from the disgraced MP, Elliot Morley, who stood down following his imprisonment for false accounting in relation to his parliamentary expenses.

Although once a safe Labour seat, Scunthorpe is one of two Conservative target seats in the region, alongside Great Grimsby, both of which could fall if Labour have a bad night. Scunthorpe is the most delicately balanced. It would only require a 4.24% swing to the Conservatives to unseat Labour. However, Dakin is probably in a safer position than his colleague, Melanie Onn, in Great Grimsby. Having been MP since 2010 he is more well-established and may attract the gratitude of some voters for his role in brokering a deal to keep the steelworks open.

North East Lincolnshire

Great Grimsby

Grimsby is one of the oldest parliamentary constituencies in the country, having sent representatives to parliament since 1295. It is now an almost entirely urban constituency comprising the docks and historic fishing port. Although it retains a fish market most fish are now flown in from Iceland and the declining fishing industry has been a touchstone for Eurosceptic support in the town. With relatively high levels of unemployment and deprivation Grimsby epitomises the ‘left behind’ voters disillusioned with the traditional parties and strongly opposed to Britain’s membership of the EU. In last year’s referendum 71% of voters in Grimsby said that Britain should leave the EU.

The seat was held by the flamboyant Labour MP and former TV presenter, Austin Mitchell from 1977 to 2015. However, like Scunthorpe, Grimsby has seen a gradual decline in Labour support and in his last general election in 2010, Mitchell secured only a slim majority of 714.  In 2015, Mitchell’s replacement, Melanie Onn, managed to increase that to over 4,540 but Great Grimsby is still high on the Conservative target list. A swing of 7% to the Conservatives would see it fall.

Onn was born and grew up in Grimsby but has only had two years to establish herself as the town’s MP. She is not from the Corbynite wing of the party and there were calls for her to be deselected when she supported a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. She is also in the uncomfortable, but not uncommon, position of being a ‘remain’ MP in a constituency which voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.

The seat was strongly targeted by UKIP in 2015. Their candidate, Victoria Ayling, had previously contested the seat for the Conservatives, almost wiping out Austin Mitchell’s majority in 2010. Onn’s campaign in 2015 was not helped by Mitchell’s claim that Labour could select ‘a raving, alcoholic, sex paedophile’ and still beat UKIP. Nevertheless, UKIP’s efforts in Grimsby have largely misfired. Although they secured 25% of the vote in 2015, they were beaten into third place by the Conservatives.

UKIP are once again targeting the seat, fielding the MEP and fisheries spokesman, Mike Hookem, a robust campaigner who was famously involved in a ‘scuffle’ with another UKIP MEP at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2016. However, the most likely scenario is a collapse in the UKIP vote which may benefit the Conservatives. The constituency could provide an interesting test for the theory that UKIP have acted as a ‘gateway drug’ for Labour voters moving to the Conservatives.

Cleethorpes

On its landward side Great Grimsby is surrounded by the constituency of Cleethorpes. Cleethorpes is, however, quite a different constituency than its neighbour. In addition to the seaside resort of Cleethorpes which is contiguous with Grimsby and the port of Immingham further up the Humber, the Cleethorpes constituency also comprises a significant Conservative-voting rural apron stretching south into Lincolnshire and west along the Humber.

The constituency was created in 1997 and was held by Labour until 2010 when it was won by the Conservative Martin Vickers. Vickers, who is a politics graduate from the University of Lincoln, had been an election agent for the Lincolnshire MP, Edward Leigh, and had unsuccessfully fought the seat in 2005.

Although Cleethorpes was targeted by both Labour and UKIP in 2015, Martin Vickers held onto the seat and increased his majority. Vickers is a vocal Eurosceptic which has helped him to see off the challenge from UKIP. His main challenge comes from Labour who beat UKIP into third place in 2015. Labour’s candidate is Peter Keith, who also fought the seat in 2015. He is the husband of the former Labour MP for the constituency, Shona McIsaac, who Vickers defeated to take the seat in 2010. Although Labour have long believed they can retake the seat, the Conservative majority of 7,893 looks pretty secure this time.

Cleethorpes is one of two seats in the region where all of the candidates in 2017 are men. The other is South Holland and the Deepings.

Lincolnshire

Gainsborough

The large rural constituency of Gainsborough in the north-west of the county of Lincolnshire has been held by the veteran Conservative MP, Edward Leigh, since 1983, but the seat has elected Conservative MPs since 1924. Aside from the small towns of Gainsborough and Market Rasen, the constituency is largely comprised of open fields and pig farms.

The Labour candidate in the seat in 2015 was David Prescott, the son of the former Deputy PM, John Prescott. This had little discernible impact on the electorate and Leigh increased his majority to over 15,000, securing 53% of the vote in 2015. This year Prescott, who was a speechwriter for Jeremy Corbyn, failed to be selected for the much safer Labour seat of Hull West and Hessle, vacated by Alan Johnson. Gainsborough is one of the seats where UKIP, who came third in 2015, are not fielding a candidate. It is a Conservative certainty.

Louth and Horncastle

To the east of Gainsborough and the south of Cleethorpes is the constituency of Louth and Horncastle. Although, like Gainsborough, this is a predominantly rural constituency it does include some pockets of deprivation on the Lincolnshire coast around Mablethorpe, which have generated support for UKIP. There is also a scattering of Labour voters, notably in the market town of Louth, where the rock star Robert Wyatt delights local Conservatives by posting ‘Vote Labour’ posters in all of the windows of his town centre home.

Louth and Horncastle is a safe Conservative seat. Prior to 2015 it was held by the father of the House, Sir Peter Tapsell, who was first elected to Parliament under Harold Macmillan in 1959. Tapsell’s successor, Victoria Atkins, is a former barrister from London. In something of a break with tradition, in what is a very traditional county, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all fielding women candidates in Louth and Horncastle.

Although Louth and Horncastle has not had anywhere near the levels of immigration of the neighbouring constituency of Boston and Skegness, there was strong support (70%) for leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum and UKIP came second in the constituency in the 2015 general election. Atkins supported Britain remaining in the EU, but has supported Theresa May’s approach to Brexit since then. She increased the Conservative majority in 2015, securing over 50% of the vote. We should expect little change this time and the main interest lies in whether Labour, the Liberal Democrats or UKIP come second.

Boston and Skegness

Boston and Skegness is one of the more interesting seats in the region. Famously the most Eurosceptic constituency in the country, an estimated 75% of voters in Boston and Skegness voted to leave the EU. The constituency comprises the market town of Boston, the seaside resort of Skegness and a large expanse of arable land. Tourism and agriculture provide the bulk of jobs in the constituency. Large numbers of migrant workers have been drawn to the constituency to work in the agricultural sector. 10% of the population of Boston were born outside of the UK, mainly in the new accession states of the EU. The response to the large influx of migrant workers in a small market town has been mixed. While some have expressed concerns about the pressures placed on services such as schools and hospitals, others argue that the influx of young families has prevented the closure of schools with declining rolls and ensured the retention of maternity provision at the local hospital.

The constituency has been held by the Conservatives since it was created in 1997. The previous Conservative MP, Mark Simmonds, who stood down prior to the 2010 general election, did not endear himself to local residents by complaining about the meagre level of his parliamentary expenses. His successor, the boyish, Matt Warman, pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of supporting ‘remain’ in the EU referendum against the wishes of the majority his constituents, largely by offering a dignified and considered defence of his position and refusing to embrace the ill-informed knockabout that characterised much of the referendum campaign.

UKIP slashed 8000 votes off the Conservative majority in Boston and Skegness in 2015, but still came in second. They will try to unseat the Conservatives again in 2017 and the seat has been targeted by the UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall. However, the prospects are not good for UKIP. The party lost all of its seats on the county council in May, Nuttall has proved somewhat accident prone as party leader and, unlike UKIP’s 2015 candidate, has no connection to the constituency.

South Holland and the Deepings

Situated to the south of Boston & Skegness, the constituency of South Holland and the Deepings, is a fenland constituency centred around the market town of Spalding. It is the Conservatives 10th safest seat in the country. The current MP, the transport Minister, John Hayes, has held the seat since 1997. His majority of 18,567 is somewhat lower than the almost 22,000 votes he secured in 2010, although he did increase his share of the vote in 2015 to 59%.

This is another seat in which support for leaving the EU exceeded 70%, but Hayes unlike his neighbour in Boston and Skegness was happy to support his constituents in this.  As in other seats in the region the main interest here is who comes second. UKIP came a distant second in 2015 with 22% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats were second in 2010 and Labour in 2005.

South Holland and the Deepings is one of two seats in the region where all of the candidates in 2017 are men. The other is Cleethorpes.

Grantham and Stamford

This is another safe Conservative seat in a largely rural constituency. The two towns of its name bookend the constituency. Grantham is, of course, the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, but the town itself is largely Labour voting. This is not without its tensions. Proposals by the, Conservative dominated, county council to name the new Grantham bypass after Lady Thatcher caused a level of controversy not seen in the town  since the local museum was offered a statue of the former Prime Minister.

Labour support in Grantham is, however, more than balanced by Conservative voters in Stamford in the south of the constituency, home of the Burghley horse trials. The sitting MP, Nick Boles, has a majority of almost 19,000. Boles was a close friend of David Cameron and has held a number of Ministerial posts since first being elected in 2010. He has recently received treatment for cancer, but has, thankfully, announced that he will contest the 2017 election.

The only way Labour could take this constituency is if Boles crossed the floor of the House of Commons and defected to the Labour Party, which is, of course, exactly what his predecessor Quentin Davies did in 2007.

Sleaford and North Hykeham

This will be the third time in three years that the voters of Sleaford and North Hykeham have been given the opportunity to elect their MP. Stephen Phillips who was elected as the Conservative MP for the constituency in 2015 stood down in 2016 in opposition to the government’s approach to Brexit. Phillips, who supported Britain’s exit from the EU, was nevertheless frustrated at Theresa May’s unwillingness to allow Parliament to be involved in the process. The subsequent by-election was won by the Conservative candidate, Caroline Johnson, a consultant paediatrician who campaigned, amongst other things, against the proposed overnight closure of A&E at Grantham hospital.

Johnson secured more than 50% of the vote in the by-election, albeit on a very low turnout. Her nearest rival, the UKIP candidate, Victoria Ayling (who fought in Grimsby in 2015), won 13.5% of the vote. The by-election was most notable for the woeful performance of Labour, who came second in the constituency in 2015, and fourth after UKIP and the Liberal Democrats a little over a year later.

The 2017 general election should be a little different, not least because there will be almost half the number of candidates than 2016, and turnout should be higher. Nevertheless, it is hard to see the Conservatives doing anything other than increasing their majority. Labour must do better here.

Lincoln

Finally, the city of Lincoln. This should be the most interesting of seats. Lincoln claims to be the oldest constituency in the country and is often presented as a bellwether constituency, changing hands when the government does. It was Conservative from 1979 to 1997, Labour from 1997 to 2010 and Conservatives since then. However, prior to this Lincoln was a safe Labour seat from 1945 to the mid-1970s, and for a brief period in the mid-70s was represented by the independent Lincoln Democratic Labour MP, Dick Taverne.

The city has changed considerably in recent years. The creation of large housing developments to the south of the city have hollowed out the city centre prompting boundary changes which have added more rural and Conservative voting wards from the fringes. At the same time the presence of the university has brought into the city over 10,000 students, whose vote could be decisive, if they could be persuaded to vote.

The Conservatives have a fairly slender majority of 1,443 in Lincoln. The sitting MP, Karl McCartney held the seat against expectations in 2015 and increased his majority. Further reinforcing the impression that the seat is a good indicator of the national picture. McCartney is both an affable and abrasive figure who is prone to publicly remonstrating with those he feels have slighted him. Rather like the Prime Minister he has avoided head to head debates with the other candidates, prompting some criticism in the local media. He will, however, feel confident at having seen off Labour’s challenge twice already.

In truth the seat is not perhaps as marginal as McCartney’s slender majority would suggest. Boundary changes prior to 2010 added two heavily Conservative voting wards to the south of the city which largely cancel out Labour votes in the city. The Conservatives may congratulate themselves on holding on in Lincoln, but they are perhaps making rather heavy weather of what should be a much safer seat.

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Good for the Conservatives, bad for the country: four reasons why a snap election is a bad idea

This post first appeared on the LSE Policy and Politics blog on 18th April 2017.


IMG_1512The Prime Minister has announced her intention to seek Parliament’s approval for a general election on 8th June. The Prime Minister’s surprise statement was long on bold intent and short on logical explanation. There are clear political benefits for the Conservatives in holding an election at this time. Labour are languishing in the polls and the government has a small majority, which may well be eroded over time by divisions in the Conservative Party or the outcome of ongoing investigations into MPs’ campaign expenses at the last general election.

However, what is good for the Conservative Party is not necessarily what is good for the country, and there are a number of reasons why a general election at this time is a bad idea:

  1. It is simply not necessary. The Prime Minister somewhat petulantly asserted that ‘we need a general election and we need one now’ because she claims the political divisions at Westminster are jeopardising the Brexit negotiations. Leaving aside the bizarre complaint that opposition parties at Westminster are involved in opposing the government, this assertion more than any other in the Prime Minister’s statement, is hard to reconcile with reality. A little over a month ago the Prime Minister secured parliamentary approval for triggering article 50 with an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. While the country remains divided on the question of Britain’s membership of the EU, what is striking about events at Westminster is the manner in which MPs from both sides of the chamber have been willing to line up behind the government on this issue. This is despite the fact that prior to the referendum, with the exception of the DUP, the majority of MPs from all parties who declared their position were in favour of remaining in the EU. If as the Prime Minister asserted in her Easter message that there has been a ‘coming together’ behind Brexit this has taken place at Westminster, not however, in the country.
  2. A general election will not alter the reality of the referendum result. Britain remains fundamentally divided on the question of EU membership and a general election will not alter that fact. In last year’s referendum 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and 16.1 million voted to remain in. Opinion polls since the referendum indicate very little change in public opinion on this question. The Prime Minister’s recent statements suggests that this is something about which she is in denial. A general election will not enhance the Prime Minister’s mandate for leaving the EU, last year’s referendum did that, and the Prime Minister cannot hope to secure the support of 52% of voters in a general election, and the government’s mandate for the more complicated issue of negotiating a settlement will always be less clear than that provided by a simple in/out referendum. A general election will almost certainly change the parliamentary arithmetic but it is very hard to see how it will unite the country on a question on which it remains so fundamentally divided.
  3. It is unlikely to change the fundamental divisions across the UK and may accelerate the break-up of the Union. Another factor about which the Prime Minister appears to be in denial is that the majority of people in two of the four nations which make up the UK, voted to remain in the EU. A general election will do nothing to change this fact, and may reinforce the arguments of those who would like to break-up the Union. If the polls are to be believed, and we have little else to go on, Labour will lose seats to the Conservatives in England, but there will be little change in Scotland. Even if the SNP lose some seats, it seems highly unlikely that they will not hold a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster. The Prime Minister has been dismissive of SNP demands for a second independence referendum. However, if the SNP retain a majority of seats in Scotland on a general election which they will surely fight on the question of a second independence referendum, the SNP’s case will be significantly strengthened. The Prime Minister may calculate that a general election at this time will significantly enhance the fortunes of the Conservative Party in England, but if the price of that is the break-up of the United Kingdom, it is an extraordinary gamble.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, this is a significant and worrying distraction from the pressing issue of negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. It is less than three weeks since the Prime Minister triggered article 50 and set the clock ticking on Britain’s exit from the EU. This is arguably the most significant and challenging negotiation any UK government has faced in recent times. Most informed observers concede that it will be extremely difficult to complete negotiations within the two-year time frame offered by article 50, and that leaving without a negotiated settlement would be undesirable. Yet the Prime Minister thinks now would be a good time to set this aside and focus instead on a general election campaign. Even if the Conservatives retain or enhance their majority, time will be lost – a manifesto will need to be drafted, Ministers, including the PM, will need to spend time campaigning, and a new government will need to be formed. Whoever is in government when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, may well rue the time wasted now. The inevitable churn caused by a general election will also undermine parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process. Parliament is currently deeply involved in scrutinising Brexit. A large number of select committees are conducting inquiries into some aspect of the implications of Brexit, a select committee for exiting the European Union has only recently begun its work. This will all come to a halt, inquiries will be quickly wound up or suspended, and new select committees will need to be appointed after the election. It is hard to see how this will enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process.

There are clear potential benefits for the Conservative Party in holding a general election now, but it is very hard to see how this is in the national interest. If the Prime Minister genuinely aspires to give the British people a say, then proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process and ultimately a parliamentary vote, even a second referendum once the real costs of withdrawal are known, would be preferable to an opportunist election now.

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What happened to the Easter Act, 1928?

Source: UK Parliament

Source: UK Parliament

As students, schoolchildren and their teachers are acutely aware, Easter this year was ‘late’. Unlike Britain’s other major religious holiday, Christmas, the date of Easter is not fixed. Easter Sunday (Easter Day) can fall on any Sunday from March 22nd to April 25th. One result of this is that school and university terms between Christmas and Easter can vary considerably in length. Yet as parliamentary nerds are aware the date of Easter was fixed by an Act of Parliament as long ago as 1928, when Parliament passed legislation to ‘regulate the date of Easter Day and days or other periods and occasions depending thereon.’ The Easter Act, 1928, was a short Private Members’ Bill which fixed Easter day as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. It applies to the whole of the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

If then, the date of Easter is fixed in UK law, why is it still subject to considerable fluctuation, and why this year did it fall one week later than specified in legislation?

The answer is that while the Easter Act received Royal Assent in February 1928, the central provision of the Act has never been brought into effect. In general a Bill comes into force on the day it receives Royal Assent. However, in some cases Bills include a commencement clause which sets out the timing or the circumstances in which the provisions of an Act will come into effect. In general this either specifies that an Act, or part of an Act, will come into force at a specified time or that it will be brought into effect when the government brings forward a commencement order. A commencement order is a Statutory Instrument which gives effect to the provisions of an Act of Parliament, because the Act to which they relate have already been passed by Parliament, commencement orders, are not generally subject to Parliamentary debate.

The inclusion of a commencement clause means that an Act of Parliament can remain on the statute books, but inactive, until such time as the government of the day chooses to bring it into effect. While government’s generally aim to enforce legislation within their own lifetime, if a commencement order is not introduced and the legislation is not replaced by a subsequent government, provisions can remain on the statute books, but unenforced, long after a government has left office. The Easter Act, 1928, is perhaps the most long-standing and famous example of such an Act.

The commencement clause in the Easter Act specifies that:

This Act shall commence and come into operation on such date as may be fixed by Order of His Majesty in Council, provided that, before any such Order in Council is made, a draft thereof shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and the Order shall not be made unless both Houses by resolution approve the draft either without modification or with modifications to which both Houses agree, but upon such approval being given the order may be made in the form in which it has been so approved: Provided further that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body. (s.2(1))

It is the final provision of this clause which has prevented the Easter Act from coming into force. Although the Bill was originally brought forward following a recommendation of a committee of the League of Nations in 1926, the international Christian community has since failed to come to agreement on the timing of Easter. The Bill itself was carefully drafted to ensure that the government was not legally bound to accept the views of the Church, but successive governments have taken it to mean that the Act would not be brought into effect until there was a general consensus on the part of the various churches of the Christian faith as to when Easter should fall.

The failure to enact the provisions of the Easter Act has been the subject of occasional parliamentary interest since 1928. This has generally taken the form of repeated questions by a succession of, perhaps slightly obsessive, MPs who have variously argued that fixing the date of Easter would benefit Britain’s businesses, regularise school terms or allow workers to enjoy more spring sunshine. The most recent example of this is the Conservative MP, Greg Knight, who for the last seven years, has heralded the imminent arrival of Easter by asking the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, when the Easter Act would be brought into force. Incidentally, Mr Knight has also been a vocal advocate of retaining British summer time throughout the winter.

There have also been a number of unsuccessful attempts to bring forward Private Members’ Bills to force the commencement of the 1928 Act. While these have allowed for more lengthy, and occasionally esoteric, debate on, amongst other things, the ecclesiastic and lunar explanations for the timing of Easter, they have been no more effective in persuading the government to give effect to the Act. In 1951 the Labour MP, Sir Richard Acland sought to bring forward a Bill to amend section 2 of the Act to bring forward its provisions without the need to consider the opinions of the Church. More recently, in 1999 the Conservative hereditary peer, Earl of Dartmouth, sought to bring forward the Easter Act 1928 (Commencement) Bill, which would force the government to give effect to the 1928 legislation. Earl Dartmouth argued that ‘the floating date for Easter has its real basis in neither religion nor science but in what might be termed happenstance or even accident’. He argued that ‘businesses, retailers and all manufacturers would all like to know the date of Easter well in advance’ and that ‘such a fixed date would also make life easier for parents, teachers and all would-be tourists and travellers.’

Despite several decades of parliamentary questions on the subject, and several Private Members’ Bills there is little evidence that there is any prospect of a change to Easter’s floating date. The responses of successive governments to questions on the Easter Act have differed little from that offered by the Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, in 1939:

I am afraid it is impossible to bring the Easter Act into force until there is agreement amongst the religious communities, and there appears to be no immediate prospect of such agreement.

Despite falling church numbers, and a growth in the observance of other religious faiths, the inability of successive governments to do something as simple as fix the date of a public holiday is indicative of the continued impact of religion on British life. The continued failure to give effect to the provisions of the Easter Act also illustrates the difficulty of legislating in an area defined by global forces beyond the government’s control. It is not the will of the British people, or the vagaries of party politics, which have frustrated application of this decades old legislation, but a seemingly interminable debate within the global Christian community. The Easter Act is also a stark illustration of the importance of commencement clauses. The Easter Act may be an extreme example, but it does provide a warning that getting provisions onto the statute books does not guarantee that the proposed changes will come about. In scrutinising legislation it is worth noting that commencement clauses matter, and those wishing to bring about real legislative change should take care to examine them in detail.

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“To advise, warn and deliver”: Ken Clarke on the proper role of the civil service

The Conservative MP, Ken Clarke, is one of the most experienced MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons. His Ministerial career has spanned the Thatcher, Major and Cameron years, and has seen him occupy many of the seats around the Cabinet table, including Secretary of State for Health, Education, Justice, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clarke’s recently published memoirs, Kind of Blue, are an engaging read and his comments on the changing nature of British politics over his long career are particularly illuminating.

One significant change since the Major years has been the expansion in the use of special political advisers (SPADs) as temporary civil servants brought in to support the role of the Minister. While the use of special advisers is not new their numbers grew considerably following Labour’s election in 1997, from 38 in the final year of the Major government to 70 in Labour’s first year. Despite criticisms from the Conservatives in opposition, the number of SPADs has remained high, with 92 in the Cameron government elected in 2015.

Ken Clarke is, perhaps not surprisingly, largely unimpressed with this development and offers the following defence of the long-established role of the permanent civil service:

I am a great believer in and defender of the non-political Civil Service, and a great fan of the many hard-working and talented civil servants with whom I have worked over a long career. I deeply object to the growth in the number of politically appointed advisers, who are exempt from the requirements on civil servants to be appointed on merit, to behave with impartiality and objectivity, and to act so as to retain the confidence of future governments of a different political complexion. Many of these so-called special advisers are not nearly so expert as they think they are and simply magnify the political faults of their ministers. Any suggestion that the top posts in the Civil Service should be politicized is, to me, deeply suspect. However, this fine British tradition of a non-political Civil Service only works so long as the civil servants accept that their role is not to determine policy, but rather to advise, warn and deliver. K. Clarke (2016), Kind of Blue: a political memoir, Macmillan, p.264.

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