Why has the Prime Minister chosen to call a general election now?

The ability to choose the timing of a general election is a significant resource in the electoral armoury of a Prime Minister. It allows a Prime Minister to go to the country at a time which is most advantageous when, for example, the opinion polls are favourable, the economy is buoyant, or events (a military victory or national sporting achievement perhaps) have conspired to generate a positive national mood.

It is, however, a diminishing resource. Parliament cannot sit for longer than five years and if a governments enters its final twelve months without holding an election, the opportunities to hold an election can rapidly diminish. If the polls are not supportive or the economic situation is unstable, a government may be forced to hold a general election at a time which is less than advantageous.

There is considerable speculation as to why the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has chosen to hold a general election in July but, whatever the reason, this is hardly a shock or snap election. The electoral clock has been running down since the start of the year and the last date on which an election could have been held is 28th January 2025.  

The Prime Minister could have chosen to go to the polls in May to coincide with the local elections which is the customary time for a general election. It is not clear why he did not choose to do so, but many had speculated that once the opportunity for a May election had passed the Prime Minister would go to the country in the Autumn.

However, the room for manoeuvre in the Autumn is relatively limited. An election could not be called until September after Parliament had returned from the summer recess. This would mean an election in mid to late October. Any later would take it beyond the end of British Summer Time. Once the clocks go back, nights begin to draw in and party activists may be less inclined to tramp the streets in search of votes, and voters may be less inclined to answer the door. A November election would probably have meant the Prime Minister would have to endure another party conference. These generally take place in September but can provide a prime opportunity for MPs and party activists to conspire against a leader struggling in the polls.

Moreover, the weather in the Autumn is altogether more unpredictable and few would relish another election in the depths of Winter. If the Prime Minister was tempted to leave it until as late as possible even his most fervent supporters would wish to avoid an election campaign which spanned the Christmas holiday.

In contrast a summer election does not seem entirely unpalatable. Notwithstanding the downpour which accompanied the Prime Minister’s announcement of the election, the weather should be fine in June and July. This will help to encourage party activists to head out onto the doorsteps once again, even if it is only a couple of months after the local elections. It may also encourage turnout, particularly amongst older voters who are more likely to vote Conservative.

The Prime Minister may also be hoping for a poll bounce if England, although perhaps not Scotland, do well in the European Football Championships which begin in mid-June and reach the quarter-final stage the week after the general election.

None of this should obscure the fact that from the government’s perspective this is not an ideal time for a general election. No Prime Minister would want to call a general election when they are twenty points behind in the polls. In fact, a Prime Minister would generally do anything they could to avoid an election in such circumstances. It is clear that many Conservative MPs think the PM should wait, in the hope that the situation improves. The only reason you would not do that is if you genuinely believed the government’s position might get worse.

The fall in the rate of inflation which was announced on the same day as the general election may provide the Prime Minister with a crumb of comfort. Although ironically this good news has been knocked off the front pages by the general election announcement. However, if the government has chosen to pin its hopes for electoral victory on this tentative sign of economic recovery that may be because they do not expect it to be sustained.

The summer may also reveal the weakness of some of the government’s other policies. Most notably its immigration policy. The Prime Minister may have been tempted to wait for the first flight to leave for Rwanda, but it is far from clear when that might be. Moreover, the small number of asylum seekers sent to Rwanda are likely to be eclipsed by the large numbers who will almost inevitably arrive on the South Coast in small boats across the summer months.

The simple fact is, no matter how bad the current situation is for the government, with barely six months to go before he is forced to call an election, the Prime Minister may well have calculated that this is as good as it gets. It is hard to disagree.

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What are the implications of having the Foreign Secretary sitting in the House of Lords?

The most surprising aspect of Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet reshuffle has been the appointment of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, as Foreign Secretary. Cameron is no longer an MP and as it is a convention that government ministers sit in Parliament, he has accepted a seat in the House of Lords in order to enable him to take on the role.

Cameron’s appointment raises a number of interesting questions: about the ministerial career of former Prime Ministers; the appointment of Cabinet ministers from the House of Lords; and the implications of this for parliamentary scrutiny.

The political career of former Prime Ministers

David Cameron’s return to front line politics with a seat in the Cabinet is by no means unique but is relatively unusual. As has been widely reported, the last former Prime Minister to take a Cabinet post after leaving office was Alec Douglas-Hume, Conservative Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964, who served as Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath, from 1970 to 1974. Interestingly, Douglas-Hume had previously served as Foreign Secretary while sitting in the House of Lords before becoming Prime Minister. He gave up his seat in the Lords in 1963 in order to become Prime Minister, and for his second term as Foreign Secretary he sat in the House of Commons as the MP for Perth and Kinross.

Other former Prime Ministers who have taken on Cabinet roles after leaving office include Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, who went on to serve as Foreign Secretary, from 1916 to 1919 in the wartime administration of Lloyd George. Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain were both given the opportunity to remain in the Cabinet after stepping down as Prime Minister, with the largely honorary role of Lord President of the Council. Although in Chamberlain’s case this was for only a short period until his death in October 1940. 

In recent years, however, there has been a tendency for Prime Ministers to leave parliament completely shortly after leaving office. John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and most recently Boris Johnson all announced they were leaving the House of Commons shortly after the end of their premiership. Cameron’s appointment to the House of Lords is also relatively unusual. Although it had until recently been customary for former Prime Ministers to accept a seat in the House of Lords, Margaret Thatcher was the last former Prime Minister to do so. Of the seven former Prime Ministers currently alive, Cameron will be the only one sitting in the House of Lords, although two, Theresa May and Liz Truss, continue to sit in the House of Commons.

Why has David Cameron been given a seat in the House of Lords?

In order to enable David Cameron to be appointed to the Cabinet, Rishi Sunak has given him a seat in the House of Lords. Although there is no legal requirement for government ministers to sit in Parliament, it is a very strongly held convention. This is based on the principle that ministers must be directly accountable to Parliament and only members may answer questions on the floor of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

It has been argued that the convention that ministers must be sitting members of Parliament limits the pool of individuals the Prime Minister can draw upon when making ministerial appointments. In a number of other states, ministers can be appointed from outside the legislature which arguably allows for a wider range of talented individuals to be drawn into the government. In the UK, a Prime Minister who wishes to make a ministerial appointment from outside Parliament does have the option of making someone a member of the House of Lords in order to make them available for ministerial office.

This practice is not particularly unusual. Gordon Brown made a number of direct ministerial appointments to the House of Lords including the former MP, Peter Mandelson, who left the Commons in 2004 but was elevated to the Lords in 2008 in order to become Secretary of State for Business, and Andrew Adonis who was appointed to the Lords in order to become a minister in the Department for Education and Skills. David Cameron himself appointed several business leaders to the House of Lords in order to give them ministerial roles, including Stephen Green, the former group chairman of HSBC and Ian Livingston, the former chief executive of BT. More recently, in 2021 the UK’s former chief negotiator for exiting the European Union, David Frost, was made a peer by Boris Johnson, and appointed as Minister of State in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for Brexit.

An alternative approach could have been to find a safe seat for David Cameron which would have allowed him to return to Parliament as a member of the House of Commons.  This would, however, be dependent on a safe seat being made available, possibly by an MP who was already planning to stand down at the next election. This may also have been a decidedly risky strategy given that the government has recently lost several by-elections in supposedly safe seats. In 1964, Patrick Gordon Walker was appointed as Foreign Secretary by Harold Wilson despite having lost his seat in the 1964 general election. He subsequently resigned after losing a by-election in a supposedly safe Labour seat. Moreover, while Cameron may be happy to take on the role of Foreign Secretary, he may not have been prepared to return to the day-to-day grind of fighting an election and being a constituency MP. 

While it is not particularly unusual for governments to make appointments to the House of Lords in order to allow individuals to become ministers, it is relatively rare for members of the House of Lords to hold such senior ministerial office. There are usually somewhere between twenty and thirty ministers in the House of Lords, compared to around eighty in the House of Commons. Governments need to appoint ministers in the Lords to enable someone to speak in the upper House on behalf of each government department, but ministers in the Lords tend to hold more junior ministerial positions, as Ministers of State or Parliamentary Under-Secretaries. In recent years, the only member of the upper House who has routinely sat in the Cabinet is the Leader of the House of Lords.

This was not always the case. Up until the end of the nineteenth century it was common practice for Cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister to sit in the Lords. The last Prime Minister to sit in the Lords was Lord Salisbury who left office in 1902, although the practice of appointing Foreign Secretaries from the upper House continued well into the twentieth century. Lord Curzon was Conservative Foreign Secretary from 1919 to 1924 and was widely expected to succeed Andrew Bonar Law as Prime Minister in 1923. He lost out to Stanley Baldwin in part because it was felt the Prime Minister should sit in the Commons. Lord Halifax was Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of the Second World War and, as noted above, the Earl of Home, was Foreign Secretary before renouncing his title, perhaps mindful of Curzon’s difficulties, to become Prime Minister in 1963. The last Foreign Secretary to be appointed from the House of Lords was Lord Carrington, who held the post from Thatcher’s election in 1979 until his resignation following the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

What are the implications of the Foreign Secretary sitting in the House of Lords?

Lord Carrington’s experience is perhaps revealing of the difficulties Lord Cameron could face. With Carrington unable to answer questions in the House of Commons, answering Foreign Office questions in the Commons was delegated to two junior ministers. In most circumstances this worked admirably well, but when the Falklands crisis erupted, MPs in the House of Commons did not conceal their anger at their inability to question the Foreign Secretary directly. In addition to being accountable to Parliament for their department, senior ministers play an important role in defending the government and the Prime Minister. Lord Carrington’s inability to provide the kind of support the PM needed in the House of Commons contributed to his decision to resign. Lord Cameron may be a useful and experienced ally to the Prime Minister in public and in the media but there is little he can do if things get sticky in the House of Commons.

Cameron’s appointment also means that there is real concern about the impact on parliamentary scrutiny of having the Foreign Secretary sitting in the Lords. The Foreign Secretary will not be available to answer departmental questions in the Commons, which come around about once a month. Nor will he be available to answer urgent questions, which are much more common now than they were when Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary. In particular, if there is a major international incident which threatens international security or UK interests, the government’s response in the House of Commons will be provided by a more junior minister, who quite possibly does not attend Cabinet. Alternately if the situation is particularly grave, the Prime Minister may find himself delegating for the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons. Which may appease the Commons but won’t make life easier for the Prime Minister.

The Speaker of the House of Commons was quick to make a statement about the need to ensure that parliamentary scrutiny of foreign policy is not undermined by Lord Cameron’s appointment:

[G]iven the gravity of the current international situation, it is especially important that this House is able to scrutinise the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office effectively. I have therefore commissioned advice from the Clerks about possible options for enhancing scrutiny of the work of the Foreign Secretary when that post is filled by a Member of the other House. I also look forward to hearing the Government’s proposals on how the Foreign Secretary will be properly accountable to this House. 

On the other hand, the Foreign Secretary will not avoid parliamentary scrutiny altogether. The House of Lords is likely to institute its own mechanism to provide regular questions to the Foreign Secretary. Moreover, there is considerable expertise in foreign affairs in the Lords, including several former permanent secretaries from the Foreign Office. As a new peer, Cameron will also be unfamiliar with the practices of the second chamber and will quickly realise that he cannot rely on the same level of support in the chamber as he once enjoyed in the more partisan House of Commons.

The Foreign Secretary will also not entirely avoid scrutiny by MPs. Although he can’t appear to answer questions in the chamber of the House of Commons, members of the House of Lords can appear before House of Commons select committees. He is likely to be much in demand from the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs, as well as a number of joint committees which comprise members from both Houses, most notably the joint committees on human rights and national security and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

As a former Prime Minister, David Cameron is an experienced parliamentarian, but his ministerial experience is confined to that of being Prime Minister. He may find the role of Foreign Secretary and the demands of adapting to scrutiny in the House of Lords particularly demanding. It is also possible that the absence of a Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons may place increased demands on the government and even the Prime Minister himself. Both will be hoping that the benefits outweigh the undoubted challenges ahead.

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How did the Prime Minister win a vote in Parliament and lose her authority?

It is remarkable that after a series of U-turns on key policy announcements and the resignation of two senior members of her Cabinet, the event which may well have precipitated the Prime Minister’s resignation was a parliamentary vote on an opposition motion which the Government actually won.

To be sure, many would argue that the Prime Minister’s position was already untenable before Wednesday evening but any hopes of retaining office went downhill quickly following the chaotic mismanagement of a vote on a Labour motion on fracking. While the Labour Party may take some pleasure in contributing to PM’s downfall, much of the damage was self-inflicted.

What is an opposition day debate?

Wednesday was one of twenty afternoons set aside in each parliamentary session to debate issues raised by opposition parties. Although so-called opposition days allow the opposition to set the agenda, they rarely cause serious difficulties for a government which can command a majority in the House of Commons. A government with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition motion. Moreover, even if the government loses a vote on an opposition day motion, in most cases these are not considered to be binding and the government is not obliged to make any changes in response. Consequently, government’s may even choose to ignore an opposition motion entirely and not bother voting at all. Opposition days do provide an important opportunity for opposition parties to raise issues of concern and possibly to embarrass the government by forcing its MPs to vote against something which may be popular, such as extending free school meals, but can’t generally be used to force the government to take action.

Labour’s motion on fracking was slightly different in that it included a clause which would set aside the standing orders of the House of Commons, which state that the government has control over parliamentary business. The motion then allowed for the opposition to take control of the parliamentary order paper at a later date (29th November) in order to bring forward a bill which would ban the use of fracking in the UK. This was an unusual tactic but reflects a similar episode during the Brexit debates in 2019, when a group of MPs took control of the parliamentary agenda in order to bring forward a bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

This was an interesting tactic by Labour, facilitating a parliamentary vote on the standing orders which can be changed by a vote in the House, rather than seeking to press the government to take action without any real power to compel it to do so. As a result, the opposition sought to turn a non-binding opposition motion into a resolution with real effects. This meant the government could not afford simply to ignore the opposition motion and cede control of the legislative agenda to Labour.

Moreover, Labour’s decision to focus on fracking was also key. The Prime Minister had proposed lifting the ban on fracking, but this is an issue on which Conservative MPs are divided. Not only was a moratorium on fracking included in the party’s 2019 manifesto, but several Conservative MPs  represent constituencies where plans for fracking have been subject to considerable local opposition. In short Labour sought to force Conservative MPs to vote against a key manifesto pledge and in favour of something which many of them oppose. By combining this with an attempt to take control of the parliamentary agenda, Labour effectively forced the government into a position in which it felt the need to whip its MPs to vote against the motion.

Three-line whips and confidence motions

While Labour might be seen to have laid a trap for the government, the chaos which followed was largely self-inflicted. The Conservative response was to issue a three-line whip, effectively compelling Conservative MPs to vote against the opposition motion or be subject to disciplinary action. Given the size of the government’s majority this should have been enough to defeat the motion. It is possible that several Conservative MPs would have abstained, some may even have decided to vote for the Labour motion, although this seems unlikely. Although this is a serious disciplinary matter, as several commentators have since observed, the penalty for abstaining on a three-line whip is unlikely to have extended to having the whip withdrawn and, if the MPs in question had particular constituency concerns, the government would usually have been sympathetic to their predicament.

However, at some point on Wednesday, the Government decided to make this a confidence motion, implying that if the government was defeated it would be forced to resign and call a general election. Although set piece votes, such as those on the Queen’s speech or the budget are generally considered to be confidence issues which the government must win, the government can declare any vote a matter of confidence. It was, however, a considerable escalation of the stakes to make a vote on an opposition motion on such a divisive issue a confidence vote.

Ironically opposition days can be used to table motions of no confidence in the government and unlike most opposition day motions these are considered binding. Given the difficulties facing the Truss government Labour may well have considered this, but perhaps dismissed the idea on the grounds that a confidence motion was more likely to unite Conservative MPs around their leader. By choosing to turn a vote on which its MPs are divided into a confidence vote, the Conservative leadership, however, managed to create a level of disruption which the Labour opposition could not hope to have achieved simply by tabling a confidence motion. MPs who might reasonably be allowed to quietly abstain on an issue which was particularly sensitive in their constituencies, were now being asked to put their own re-election chances on the line to prop up the Prime Minister.

It is not clear why the government chose to do this. One must assume that Conservative whips felt that a three-line whip was not enough to ensure victory and there was a real danger that Labour would win the vote. It is also worth considering the wider implications of a Labour victory. If Labour had been successful in seizing the agenda and bringing forward its own legislation on this issue, it might well have repeated the trick on subsequent opposition days, significantly disrupting the government’s own legislative agenda.

It’s hard to know what intelligence Conservative whips had about the scale of the potential backbench rebellion on the Labour motion but there is very little evidence that a sizeable and damaging rebellion was impending. On Wednesday afternoon less than a handful of Conservative MPs publicly stated that they could not vote with the government on this motion, and most of the dismay on Conservative benches revolved around the fact that the government had chosen to make this a confidence issue.

Confusion in the chamber and in scuffles in the lobby

The government’s problems were compounded by the handling of the issue as the day progressed. Having decided to make this already divisive issue the one on which the Truss government would survive or fall, someone in number 10 got cold feet and decided not to risk it. The minister closing the debate at the despatch box, Graham Stuart, dismayed the House by stating that ‘quite clearly, this is not a confidence vote’, repeating ‘obviously this is not a confidence vote’. Stuart was asked to clarify this by the Conservative MP, Ruth Edwards, who stated ‘many of us have been told today by our Whips that if we vote for, or abstain from voting against, this motion, we will lose the Whip.’ His response, ‘that is a matter for party managers, and I am not a party manager’ was hardly a lesson in clarity.

The effect of this was twofold. There was clearly some confusion as to whether this was a confidence issue. Stuart’s initial statement that it was not a confidence issue was arguably clear, but his follow up did little to settle the matter, particularly for MPs who had been told all day by the whips, presumably in the most robust terms, that they must vote with the government to prevent a general election. Secondly, it is apparent that this last-minute change had not been communicated to the whips, effectively undermining their authority. As Conservative MPs made their way into the division lobbies there were reports that the chief whip and the deputy chief whip had both resigned, and for several hours afterwards the government was unable to confirm if either were still in place.

There were also reports of an unseemly row between Conservative MPs in the division lobby. A groups of Conservative MPs, including cabinet members, were accused of physically manhandling at least one reluctant Conservative MP into the lobby in support of the government, prompting the speaker to launch an investigation into bullying.

To compound the confusion, in the commotion in the division lobbies it is apparent that several MPs failed to record their vote using the electronic card readers when entering the lobbies. For a time it appeared that the Conservative rebellion was even greater than it eventually proved to be, and perhaps most remarkably, that the Prime Minister had not voted.

In the end the Conservatives won the vote with some ease. The Labour motion was defeated, it was later announced that the whips had not resigned, and the record was corrected to show that the Prime Minister had voted with most of the rest of her party. Thirty-two Conservative MPs abstained, although some of these will have had permission to miss the vote and will presumably have been paired with an opposition MP who was also missing.  In a bizarre coda at 1.30 in the morning Downing Street issued a statement that although the vote had not been a confidence issue, it had still been a three-line whip and those who did not have a reasonable excuse for their absence would face ‘proportionate disciplinary action.’ It is not clear if this process had begun by the time the Prime Minister resigned twelve hours later.

With its fracking motion Labour presented the government with a knotty problem, which certainly required careful handling. Instead, the government contrived to alienate its own embattled backbenchers by selecting the nuclear option and making it a confidence vote. It then further alienated them by changing its position only minutes before the vote took place. The melee in the division lobby only added to the sense of confusion and lack of control at the heart of government. That the government won the vote is largely irrelevant, as in the process it lost what remaining credibility it had amongst its own MPs. The episode is a remarkable example of the importance of party management in the House of Commons and that opposition parties do not necessarily need to win a parliamentary vote in order to undermine the government.

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A hard act to follow: Charles III and the future of the monarchy

One of the prevailing themes in commentary following the death of Queen Elizabeth II was the continuity and constancy which her long reign embodied. This also reflected the long and almost unbroken continuity of the institution of the monarchy in Britain. The passing of a sovereign, however, naturally raises questions about the future of the institution of the monarchy. This post reflects on the challenges facing King Charles, and his successors, as they follow Britain’s longest reigning and arguably most popular monarch.

King Charles is 73 years old. He is ascending the throne at an age when most people have already retired. In contrast his workload is likely to increase considerably. The Queen was reputed to have worked with diligence and energy throughout her reign and she has perhaps, in this area as in many others, set a high bar for her son to reach. Although the Queen had stepped back from many of her public duties in recent years she continued to work until the end. In her final days she carried out one of her most important constitutional duties, meeting with the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and asking Liz Truss to form a government.

Yet even before Covid, the Queen had begun to reduce her public engagements, allowing the Prince of Wales to take on some of her more arduous duties such as the wreath laying at the Cenotaph and overseas visits such as attendance at the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. As King, Charles may also want to share the load with his son, the new Prince of Wales. Unlike the Queen he also has several siblings who he may be able to rely on to support him in his role. Although Prince Andrew seems likely to remain out of the public eye, Princess Anne and the Earl and Countess of Wessex already carry out a significant number of public duties and can, perhaps, be relied upon to step in if age and infirmity begin to challenge the King.

Charles will also need to behave differently as king. As Prince of Wales, he had relative freedom to speak out about the issues he was passionate about. As the monarch he may need to be more circumspect in his public statements, something which he acknowledged in his address to the nation on the evening after his mother’s death:

My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities. It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply.

Yet we should not, perhaps, expect the new king to behave quite like his mother. One of the consequences of coming to the throne late in life is that the King’s views on a range of issues are already fully formed and moreover, well known. At his stage in life, he may struggle to hide his concerns or displeasure, and we may well see a closer parallel with his outspoken father than with the cautious ingénue who ascended the throne in 1952.

The King may also be treated differently by those around him. He may not, for example, enjoy the same deference from the political class that his mother so clearly did. Reflecting on their weekly audiences with the Queen, Prime Ministers, particularly in recent years, frequently acknowledged the Queen’s wisdom drawn from long experience. Fifteen Prime Minsters served under the Queen; Charles is on his first, although he may not need to wait long for the second. To be sure there is a deference which is attached to the role rather than the individual, but it would be surprising if his advice was imbued with the same level of wisdom as that enjoyed by his mother. The first indication of a more cautious relationship between the government and the monarch may well be the Truss government’s decision not to allow the King to attend the Cop 27 summit, despite, or more likely because of, his well-known views on the environment.

King Charles also does not enjoy anywhere near the level of personal popularity of his mother. The extraordinary demonstrations of public grief which followed the Queen’s death were merely a reflection of the level of public support for the Queen in life. Polling by YouGov indicated that irrespective of people’s views on the monarchy, around three quarters of the public consistently agreed that the Queen did a good job during her time on the throne, while the proportion who felt she did a bad job was in single figures. Approval ratings for Charles, as Prince of Wales, were considerably lower. As recently as May 2022, only 32% of those polled by YouGov thought Charles would make a good king, while exactly the same proportion thought he would not. As a new King, Charles has enjoyed something of a poll bounce. In polling undertaken just days after the Queen’s death, YouGov reported that 63% now thought he would make a good king, while 53% thought that Camilla would do well in her new role as Queen Consort.

Public opinion may of course change. It is clear that the overwhelmingly personal popularity of the Queen, enhanced the popularity of the institution of the monarchy. In the case of Charles, the opposite appears to be true. His personal popularity appears to have been enhanced by becoming the monarch. He is also benefitting from the legacy of popularity for the institution bequeathed by his mother.

The death of a monarch does, however, naturally lead to questions about the future of monarchy. Britain will remain a monarchy for as long as the British public are happy to support it. Polling indicates that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the British public consistently think that Britain should remain a monarchy. At the same time around one in five consistently support the replacement of the monarch with an elected head of state. There are, however, some significant demographic differences in support for the monarchy, with young people in particular, considerably less supportive than older groups. In polling by YouGov shortly after the death of the Queen, while 75% of those aged 50-64, and 86% of over 65s, thought that Britain should remain a monarchy, only 47% of those aged 18-24 wanted to keep the monarchy, while a third of young people thought Britain should have an elected head of state. Similarly, only 31% of 18–24 year olds said the monarchy made them feel proud, compared to 73% of over 65s.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that there is some scepticism when people are asked if they think Britain will still be a monarchy a hundred years from now. There has been a steep decline in those who thought that Britain would still be a monarchy in a hundred years, from 66% a decade ago down to 39% earlier this year, when the majority (41%) thought it would no longer be a monarchy. Although as with other questions about the monarchy, there has been an increase in support in polling following the Queen’s death, with 52% now agreeing that Britain would still be a monarchy in hundred years, compared to 30% who think it would not.

Following the death of the Queen support for the monarchy remains high, and on assuming the role, the new King has also enjoyed an increase in personal support. But the future of the monarchy is not guaranteed. The Queen is a hard act to follow, and it may be some considerable time before Britain has another monarch who enjoys the long reign and personal popularity of Elizabeth II. One simple explanation for the Queen’s popularity is that she ascended the throne at a young age and remained on it for such a long time. Few people in Britain can remember a time when she was not Queen. In contrast throughout the reign of Charles III, most people will remember, in many cases with great affection, the reign of his predecessor. In coming to the throne late in life Charles cannot hope to emulate the constancy embodied in his mother’s long reign. Moreover, in this he is not alone. If Charles lives as long as his mother, Prince William will be 63 when he becomes king, and if he enjoys a similarly long life, Prince George will be 65 when he ascends the throne. Britain is at the end of an extraordinarily long reign, but the sad truth is that the UK is probably going have to get used to a succession of relatively short reigns by elderly men. The overwhelming support for the institution of the monarchy is perhaps Elizabeth II’s most significant legacy, but her heirs and successors can’t assume the same level of support, from politicians or the public, and will need to work hard to preserve that legacy.

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Choosing a politics textbook… again

Choosing 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 ten different politics textbooks 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.

Keeping up with events

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. 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 three general elections in five years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events has posed a particular challenge to publishers and those responsible for writing textbooks.

This year’s students have the benefit of a new edition of the of the popular Politics UK textbook by Bill Jones, Philip Norton and Isabelle Hertner, the 10th edition of which was published in the summer of 2021. Although this is a long-established franchise the latest edition has been substantially revised to reflect recent developments and is almost 100 pages longer than the previous edition. The 9th edition was substantially updated to encompass Brexit and also the impact of the Trump Presidency on the UK. The 10th edition benefits from new chapters on ‘Elites in the United Kingdom’ and ‘Gender and British Politics’ and on ‘UK immigration policy in a hostile environment’. These are very welcome additions and reflect a broader focus on British society and to some extent the inequalities which underpin it, rather than simply focusing on the political process.

Another valuable feature of recent editions of Politics UK is the inclusion of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ These provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 10th edition includes interesting pieces by Julie Smith on Parliament in light of Brexit, John Curtice on Conservative voters, and Philip Collins on the decline of civic discourse.  The only problem with these short commentaries is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published. While students embarking on a degree in 2021 will be well served  by the 10th edition of Politics UK, they would also be well-advised to seek out earlier editions in order to read the short end-pieces such as those by Simon Jenkins on the future of the UK and Bill Jones on fake news from the 9th edition, 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 from the 8th edition, 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.

It is also worth noting that even the most recent editions of textbooks rarely offer an entirely new perspective on events. 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 their best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, aside from three new chapters, 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 Haynes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates without considering 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 today, while the previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree.

Joint or single-authored?

Another worthwhile 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 have managed this with some success.

Moreover, while nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can make them more readable than those written by multiple authors. In this regard I have in the past recommended Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK. A notable addition to the field in this regard is Andrew Blick’s UK Politics published by Oxford University Press this summer. Blick is a well-respected expert on the UK constitution, amongst other things. His book is particularly good on the location of power in the British political system and the intersection between Government, Parliament and the civil service. In keeping with other recent textbooks on UK politics it also includes interesting material on British society with a valuable chapter on identity, equality and power, as well as a useful chapter on communications and public opinion.

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.

Study guides

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. The 2nd edition of Robert Leach and Simon Lightfoot’s excellent Politics and IR Companion, was published in 2018, and is probably the most useful volume to sit alongside Politics UK on the politics student’s bookshelf. This invaluable reference work combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more substantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and a truly excellent section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam. The inclusion of a chapter on employability encompassing advice on applying for jobs and internships is a significant addition to this edition.

Another recent example of a student focused guide is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, the sadly departed 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 politics, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

In defence of a dictionary

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 student’s bookshelf. It is important to remember that studying politics at degree 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 a good dictionary of politics rather than their mobile phone. The latest of edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics was published in 2018 and, in a welcome development, has been expanded to encompass international relations. There are other dictionaries on the market. Bill Jones’s, Dictionary of British Politics  is dated but still useful and distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit, while the Routledge Dictionary of Politics contains fewer but often more substantive definitions and is particularly strong on concepts and ideologies. While politics dictionaries are periodically updated, having the most recent edition is less important than with textbooks which deal with events, and older or previous editions can often be relatively inexpensive.

Nobody needs ten 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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