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Methodological reflections
in Dramas at Westminster

This chapter ties together how contrasting interpretations of scrutiny affect accountability relationships. The core argument of this chapter is that scrutiny is dependent on fragile, although also sometimes very dense and effective, webs of accountability in the House of Commons. The argument develops in three steps. First, it looks at individual relationships between MPs to show that informal practices and networks that are fundamental to making scrutiny happen. It then applies these insights in the second section, where the chapter turns to the development of norms and values of committees. This is critical to establish goodwill on committees as well as – and perhaps most importantly – the construction of consensus in reports. Almost all policy impact on government by committees depends on these reports, and a lot of this influence is derived from their unanimity. The final section looks at the implications of all this to understanding accountability in the House of Commons, arguing that it is ‘webs of scrutiny’ that matter most in conducting scrutiny, rather than the institutional powers that committees have (or, more accurately, do not have).

in Dramas at Westminster

Little detailed research has been published on committee chairs. So, in this empirically unique chapter, analysis begins by locating the role of chair in their institutional context, including important reforms that have taken place in the UK Parliament in 2010 that have renewed chairs’ sense of authority. The chapter discusses the leadership role that chairs have adopted and how this affects select committees. The chapter argues that chairs have adopted different styles, but that this falls along a spectrum: either committee-orientated catalysts or leadership-orientated chieftains. The choices that chairs make affect their ability to lead their committee, building consensus, and representing Parliament. The chapter opens wider debates about institutional roles and leadership within legislatures. Moreover, given the 2017 election result, chairs of these committees are likely to play an important brokerage role that means this chapter will be a timely contribution to understanding their influence for a wider audience.

in Dramas at Westminster

Chapter 1 examines the development of a Vietnamese national culture. This culture was a result of the advent of mass reproduction and print capitalism, which were introduced in the colonial era as instruments of surveillance, used by the French in order to monitor the political activity of their colonial subjects. In deploying modern print media as a means of surveillance, however, the state would also create the conditions for a new “imagined community” of the nation. During the 1920s and ’30s, the new media would be instrumental in spreading the modern mythology of a 2,000-year history of resistance to foreign invaders. This modern tradition was the result of an anti-colonial interpretation of the precolonial past, based on a European conception of sovereignty as the right of a “people” (dân tộc) possessing a distinct national culture. In the new national history, the Vietnamese people (who had previously appeared in the old imperial records only as subjects (dân) of the emperor) would become the foundation of a new “sovereignty of the people” (dân quyền). Projecting this modern conception of sovereignty into the precolonial past, writers working in the vernacular media produced a new national history of the Vietnamese people.

in The unimagined community
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The conclusion explores the broader implications of the book’s principal thesis in terms of rethinking the historiography on the Vietnam War, as well as the history of communism, capitalism, democracy and imperialism. If the war, in its early phase, was not a conflict between communism and democracy, but a contest between two different forms of anti-colonialist communism, then the South Vietnamese state was simply a failed experiment in liberal democracy, as it has often been characterized. Instead, the conclusion contends that the project of the First Republic could perhaps be better described as an aborted attempt to establish an alternative version of communism. If this project was ultimately compromised by its complicity with US imperialism, its Personalist ideology, nevertheless, was perhaps more radical than that of the Vietnamese Communist Party in its critique of capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Whereas the early Republic was undermined with the aid of US officials, who denounced its lack of democracy, the Party, after winning the war, would employ the power of the communist state to implement a program of capitalist modernization.

in The unimagined community

The book returns to the key themes and questions raised in the opening chapters, and posits the wider conclusions that we can draw from the empirical research. First, and drawing on empirical sections, the chapter reflects on scrutiny in the UK Parliament, and re-emphasises the general themes of the book about the importance of beliefs, practices and dilemmas to explain select committee scrutiny in the House of Commons. Second, the chapter brings out wider cross-cutting themes of the book, including the effect of the Wright reforms to improve the effectiveness of Parliament and what this book tells us about the lives of politicians more generally. Finally, the book closes with the wider relevance of this book’s findings on representative democracy in the UK and the continuing challenges that the UK Parliament faces.

in Dramas at Westminster
Select committees and the quest for accountability

Based on unprecedented access to the UK Parliament, this book challenges how we understand and think about accountability between government and Parliament. Using data from a three-month research placement, over 45 interviews and more, this book focuses on the everyday practices of MPs and officials to reveal how parliamentarians perform their scrutiny roles. Some MPs adopt the role of a specialist, while others the role of a lone wolf; some are there to try to defend their party while others want to learn about policy. Among these different styles, chairs of committees have to try to reconcile these interpretations and either act as committee-orientated catalysts or attempt to impose order as leadership-orientated chieftains. All of this pushes and pulls scrutiny in lots of competing directions, and tells us that accountability depends on individual beliefs, everyday practices, and the negotiation of dilemmas. In this way, MPs and officials create a drama or spectacle of accountability and use their performance on the parliamentary stage to hold government to account. This book offers the most up-to-date and detailed research on committee practices in the House of Commons, following a range of reforms since 2010. The findings add new dimensions to how we study and understand accountability through the book’s path-breaking empirical focus, theoretical lens, and methodological tools. It is an ideal book for anyone interested in how Parliament works.

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This chapter explores one of the most understudied actors across legislatures: their staff. Little research has been published on the roles and interpretations of staff on scrutiny in the House of Commons, despite their permanent and vital role to carrying out accountability functions. This chapter briefly places staff in their organisational context, which has undergone significant reforms since 2014–15. It then explores the ways in which staff interpret their role, which is characterised by three facets: first, being hidden, i.e., the belief that clerks should not have a public-facing role; second, unparalleled service, i.e., the belief that clerks are in the service of democracy and must support the institution of Parliament in every way possible; and third, passionate impartiality, the belief that all MPs must be served equally. These facets of their role throw up a number of tensions, which are explored in the final section of the chapter.

in Dramas at Westminster
Sovereignty, surveillance and spectacle in the Vietnam War

Turning to the American perspective, Chapter 7 examines the role of modern mass media and information technology in American foreign policy during the Vietnam War. The conflict was not only the first television war; it was also defined by the application of high-tech surveillance, used to detect and contain an unconventional enemy fighting an irregular style of warfare. These modern techniques of mass surveillance and spectacle defined both the reach and limits of American power. If policymakers could employ spectacular means to deceive the American people, their decisions were also subordinated to the power of public opinion, which was increasingly shaped by mass communications and culture. In such events as the Tết Offensive in 1968, a military defeat for the Communist forces that would become their greatest spectacular victory, the image of the war in the media would become more decisive than its reality in determining American policy. On the other hand, the deployment of high-tech surveillance in the war of attrition would result in a “quagmire of quantification.” Based upon the reduction of reality to statistical data, the figures compiled on the rates of attrition yielded a distorted representation of the war on the ground, misleading policymakers and analysts.

in The unimagined community
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As a background to the arguments in the book, the introduction provides an overview of Vietnamese history and a critical account of the representation of South Vietnam that has dominated much of the historiography on the Vietnam War. In this representation, the South is portrayed as a political puppet in a war between US imperialism and the Vietnamese people, who are identified with the communist forces. This representation has not only resulted in a lack of attention to the South Vietnamese side in the scholarship, but it has also served to conceal the radical character of the political project pursued by the early South Vietnamese state. Unlike their allies, South Vietnamese leaders did not conceive of the war as an anti-communist crusade, but as a struggle against Stalinism as well as capitalism and liberal democracy. The introduction, therefore, proposes a more careful examination of this political project as a point of departure for rethinking the representation of the South Vietnamese within the historiography of the Vietnam War.

in The unimagined community