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Abstract only
Hannah White

The chapter opens with a vignette from a Commons debate in June 2020 on an independent bullying investigation process. The story illustrates a persistent problem which undermines the reputation of the House of Commons – the tendency of MPs to treat themselves as an exception to the rules which they dictate for the rest of the country.

The chapter explains the ways in which MPs do have an exceptional status – as elected office holders with certain privileges and powers. But it argues that MPs often misinterpret their status and inappropriately exempt themselves from the rules – using the examples of the Cash for Questions and MPs’ expenses scandals.

The chapter argues that self-regulation breeds misbehaviour and that the Palace of Westminster exacerbates MPs’ sense of their exceptional status. It concludes that MPs need to be honest with themselves about the actual purposes for which their powers, privileges and exemptions have been granted and recognise the proper boundaries that these place around their exceptional status.

in Held in contempt
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What’s wrong with the House of Commons?
Author: Hannah White

Held in Contempt argues that Brexit and Covid-19 have reinforced a vicious cycle of decline in Westminster – of executive disregard for parliament, which undermines public trust in its role, and in turn further emboldens ministers to side-line the legislature. This is damaging parliament’s ability to play its part in UK democracy.

The book shows how Brexit and Covid-19 have highlighted and exacerbated existing worrying trends – government’s increasing use of fast-track processes to make laws in ways which minimise the role of parliament and ministers’ disregard for scrutiny and their disinclination to update inadequate parliamentary processes. These trends in government behaviour are contributing to low public trust, which itself is damaged by the exceptionalism and unrepresentativeness of MPs and the arcane nature of parliamentary procedures.

MPs should recognise these problems and look for ways to reverse the cycle of decline into which their institution has fallen – nurturing greater public trust in and government respect for parliament’s role. But this is unlikely to happen because many of the shortcomings of the House of Commons operate in the government’s favour, so it has no incentive to allow reforms to take place.

Potentially only a disaster – such as a major fire in the crumbling Palace of Westminster – will be enough to jolt MPs and the government out of their complacency, compelling them to acknowledge the strength of public unhappiness with the way they are currently ‘doing’ politics and forcing them to identify and act to rectify the shortcomings of the House of Commons.

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Hannah White

The introduction uses the 2019 prorogation crisis to introduce the idea of government contempt for parliament and how this has been exacerbated by the twin crises of Brexit and Covid-19. It describes the role of the House of Commons and sets out current data on low levels of public trust in parliament before examining the factors that shape that trust. Finally it briefly describes the structure of the book and the key arguments of the five main chapters.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

Chapter 1 opens with a vignette of a House of Commons committee scrutinising a set of Covid-19 regulations that had already been superseded, illustrating inadequate scrutiny of new laws introduced to deal with the pandemic. This example introduces the argument that Covid-19 reinforced ministers’ existing tendency to treat parliament as an inconvenient hurdle.

The chapter goes on to examine the ways in which the House of Commons can influence government both ‘on stage’ in public and ‘off stage’ through private and pre-emptive influence. But governments often try to minimise opportunities for scrutiny, and in recent decades there have been worrying trends, including increased use of emergency legislation, skeleton bills lacking policy detail and growing use of secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised.

The chapter examines how Theresa May tried to side-line parliament during the Brexit process, and Boris Johnson deliberately pitted ‘parliament versus the people’ as a strategy to ‘get Brexit done’ and win a general election. It then looks in more detail at the inadequacies of the role that government allowed parliament to play in the Covid-19 pandemic. It argues that these expedient political strategies have done long-lasting harm to public perceptions of parliament.

The chapter concludes by arguing that government should change its approach to parliament, first, in the public interest, because when parliament is allowed to do its job properly it enhances the processes and practices of government, and second, out of self-interest, because strengthening parliament’s reputation will ultimately strengthen the credibility and trustworthiness of government.

in Held in contempt
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Hannah White

This chapter opens with a vignette of the House of Commons’ arguments over Brexit in September 2019, which illustrates the long-standing debate over whether MPs should act a representatives of, or delegates for their constituents. It makes the case that Brexit undermined the confidence of many members of the public that they were being properly represented in parliament.

The chapter goes on to set out the academic distinction between descriptive and substantive representation, and the data which show how unrepresentative MPs are of the British population. It lays out the arguments for why diversity is important in parliament and the work that has been done so far to increase the diversity of MPs, before considering why improvements in diversity have been so slow in Westminster.

The chapter argues that the Commons needs to become more diverse and also more inclusive for those who visit and work there – in terms of its physical environment, its culture and the way it operates: an unrepresentative House is only unjust in principle but impairs the effectiveness of the House of Commons and undermines its credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

in Held in contempt
Rockets, guns and kidney machines, 1970–83

Forty years before Covid-19, socialists in Britain campaigned so that workers could have the right to make ‘socially useful’ products, from hospital equipment to sustain the NHS to affordable heating systems for impoverished elderly people. This movement held one thing responsible above all else for the nation’s problems: the burden of defence spending. In the middle of the Cold War, the left put a direct challenge to the defence industry, Labour government and trade unions. The response it received revealed much about a military-industrial state that prioritised the making and exporting of arms for political favour and profit.

The British left and the defence economy takes a fine-grained look at peace activism between the early 1970s and Labour’s landslide general election defeat in 1983, incorporating activism, politics and the workplace to demonstrate the conflict over the economic cost of Britain’s commitment to the Cold War. Moving away from the perception that the peace movement was ‘post-materialist’ or above the crises of postwar deindustrialisation and unemployment, this book asserts that the wider left presented a comprehensive, detailed and implementable alternative to the stark choice of making weapons or joining the dole queue.

This book will be invaluable to lecturers and students studying the history and politics of postwar Britain. It challenges many widely accepted conclusions, including the ‘abandonment’ of social democracy and Britain’s inability to ‘find a role’ after the loss of its empire. This account provides a glimpse at an alternative future, one based on human-centred, environmentally friendly production with lessons for our own times.

Keith Mc Loughlin

"The influence of the left and its ability to unify behind a single candidate propelled the unlikely figure of Michael Foot to the party leadership. The left continued to occupy central positions on the National Executive Committee while the annual party conference expressed its influence by committing the party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and industrial conversion. International relations between the superpowers had entered a dangerous phase, sometimes referred to as the ‘second Cold War’. This vision for peaceful production also chimed with the lengthening dole queues that had been apparent since the late 1970s, but dramatically increased in length during Thatcher’s first few years in Downing Street as the Conservatives’ free-market ‘monetarism’ came at the cost of over three million people out of work by 1982. Despite the economic downturn during Thatcher’s first two years in government, there was evidence to suggest that a form of economic recovery was on the horizon. Then there was the so-called ‘Falklands factor’, where the Conservatives received a boost in the polls after victory in the war in the south Atlantic. Despite the attempts to make the case for a conventional defence, the left struggled to achieve a clear or persuasive narrative on national security, something that the Conservatives pounced on mercilessly. The landslide defeat in 1983 was an unedifying end to the campaign for socially useful production. With its origin traced back to the early 1950s, the 1983 general election is an appropriate point on which to conclude."

in The British left and the defence economy
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Keith Mc Loughlin

The epilogue demonstrates how the defence economy continued long after the Cold War and continues to exert an influence on contemporary affairs as the Conservatives, led by Boris Johnson, use military procurement as a way of stimulating the economy.

The epilogue concludes that the forces that cultivated the defence economy were led by an interpretation of social democracy. In the British postwar sense this social democracy saw in the defence economy a way to achieve full employment and upskill the working population while deterring the Russians and satisfying the Americans. The ‘bitterest enemies of communism’ on the right of the Labour movement were among the most supportive of the defence industry and they, combined with most of the Conservatives and the civil service, made for a powerful consensus. In his history of the British nation in the twentieth century David Edgerton asked, ‘what would it take to show that the UK could usefully be described as social democratic after 1945’ and did it follow ‘a social democratic foreign policy, or defence policy’? He concluded that ‘interestingly, it is highly unlikely anyone has ever made this claim’. Yet this is just the claim that The British left and the defence economy has made. Defence was never just a matter of military considerations; it was an economic and social imperative. If war was a tool of politics, then the defence economy was a function of British social democracy.

in The British left and the defence economy
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Labour’s defence review
Keith Mc Loughlin

In February 1974 the Labour party was elected on a manifesto to reduce defence spending by hundreds of millions of pounds. The left called for Britain’s defence spending to be set at a rate closer to a ‘European average’ and even an immediate reduction of £1 billion to alleviate the strain on the economy. The Labour government was even more divided than it was in the 1960s, with each minister guarding their own departmental budget. Defence became primarily a matter of political economy as ministers clashed over its scale and purpose. This was a point where the defence economy could have been significantly reduced – but only if the government desired to do so.

Shortly after his appointment as Labour’s defence secretary, Roy Mason commenced a review of military expenditure, just as Healey had done in the 1960s. Backed by the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Mason reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the Cold War and ensured that the defence economy emerged unscathed in a decisive victory over the left. This chapter shows how government ministers used employment to justify military expenditure during one of the worst economic crises in the postwar era. Although there was a compelling argument to reduce spending on expensive ‘prestige’ military projects and divert investment elsewhere, a combination of industry, politics and the military ensured that the defence economy survived.

in The British left and the defence economy
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Keith Mc Loughlin

This introductory chapter argues that, in Britain, the Cold War was an economic and social necessity. In contrast to the emphasis that historians place on cultural, diplomatic and military experiences, this book demonstrates that Britain’s Cold War was primarily an economic experience. During the era covered here, the 1960s through to the 1980s, Britain’s defence economy sustained thousands of workers and their communities in what was a period of seismic economic and industrial change.

But not everyone was convinced that employment should depend on military production. The peace movement has long occupied a place in studies of the period, but historians have also overlooked left-wing disarmament activists who diagnosed, opposed and offered an alternative to Britain’s military-industrial complex. The left saw defence and the failure of postwar economic management as part of the same problem and demanded a feasible and desirable solution by converting military industry into ‘socially useful’ production – swords into ploughshares, guns into butter, rockets and guns into kidney machines.

However, the vested interest of the political-industrial complex scuppered this attempt to reverse the trajectory of the Cold War defence economy. At the same time, a workers’ campaign to convert their production lines from guns to kidney machines was also halted, not only by company management but by the Labour government and the trade unions.`

in The British left and the defence economy