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Masterful Inactivity – the Solution Everybody Runs Round in Circles to Find

Masterful inactivity can sometimes be the solution

Masterful inactivity can sometimes be the solution

Inactivity, masterful inactivity – time for a return to the concept? Published in 2013 on Suite 101, this is republished to complete the transfer across of material from that site. It is out of date with some details, but not the main thrust.

Less is more should perhaps become the mantra as governments run round like headless chickens trying to do something in a crisis.

Whenever anything goes wrong in the country, as it invariably does many times a week, it isn’t long before somebody somewhere starts the cry that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!

MPs, under pressure from constituents fed by 24/7 news, start clamouring for something, anything. We may then get an inquiry chaired by some bigwig, a task force, a major relaunch/revamp/rethink, a public consultation, a Government Tsar, a White Paper or a whole new law.
Currently we have panics about horse meat masked as beef, trust in public services (BBC, Parliament and Parliamentarians, hospitals), Olympic/Paralympic legacies or lack of them and global corporations not paying enough (moral) tax.

Unintended Consequences of Laws

Within the living memory of people over 30, we’ve had gun ownership restrictions which have not stopped criminals. Laws designed to curb defined dog breeds after some children were badly mauled led to the dogs becoming weapons of choice for many career criminals. Court-imposed Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) became badges of honour.

The Football Spectators Act (1989) was the consequence of the need to do something in the face of crowd violence and the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy. It was never fully thought through. Alleged salmonella in eggs led to 2 million chickens being slaughtered, a gift to European importers.

Mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease in the UK followed similar patterns of mass slaughter because something had to be seen being done. We are not alone in Britain – world flu pandemics from overseas – whatever it is, people worry. Dutiful Members of Commons and Lords on their feet demanding this or that piece of hobby-horse legislation makes for good headlines.

That is not to say that unintended consequences were allowed to create chaos or malicious perverse effects. In the main, new laws/actions/initiatives are from the best of motives. But still they have the same often negative effects that nobody saw coming. Or if they did see them in advance, nobody listened or took them seriously.

Making Things Worse

In 2010 I wrote on Suite 101 that good intentions in law-making are not only insufficient, but actually may make the situation worse. The unintended, unforeseen consequences of new laws is a given nowadays when bills are pushed through without full and rigorous scrutiny and somebody actually thinking: what does this do to that or to them?

I quoted the Abraham Lincoln definition of democracy as government of the people, by the people, for the people. I said that people expect laws to right wrongs. When they dont, the further solution is often more laws. Think of the ongoing Euro debate: when something from/in Europe is seen not to be working, some people advocate more Europe as the answer.

Writing in The Daily Telegraphy of 19 Feb 2013, former Chairman of the Conservative research Department, George Bridges, argued that in the face of clamour to regulate, control, restrict, change, sometimes the art of doing nothing in a purposeful way, demands a comeback.

Doing Nothing, But With Purpose

This is masterful inactivity, not burying heads in sand. Bridges dismissed the objections of those who think doing nothing is dithering, laziness, lack of courage or absence of vision.

He urged politicos to stick to their guns, not be deterred by those demanding immediate action and, in effect, stay calm and carry on. To solve problems quietly, in possession of the full facts, trusting the people, not the state reflects a sense that government works best when focussed on a few big things, not peppering the world with more initiatives and schemes.

Public Expectations

Ministers keep a few measures in their pockets, just in case there is a sudden crisis/need for a sparkling new idea or the PM needs a new pointer for a major speech. That’s how the system works. Occasionally, some half-baked schemes are leaked prematurely to choruses of disapproval, but people should be glad our elected governments are constantly working on solutions to our problems.

As an MP I used to sit in my surgeries in various venues around the constituency on Saturday mornings, and take on every kind of problem, crisis and cause, because it was expected of me. If I ever said, this is a council matter, they’d usually respond to the effect the councillor was useless, wrong party, not interested or the officials were corrupt.

A senior parliamentarian told me in my first few days as a Member in 1987, the MP is interested in everything and everyone. I took it to heart. From then on, government agency or quango, big business or the media, police or neighbours, Id find a way of enquiring, helping, smoothing, righting injustice where possible.

And why not? That was my job. Many would say by the same token, its the collective job of MPs to enquire, help, smooth, right injustice and if that means new laws, then lets have them, and plenty of them.

But not always right now, not knee-jerk and not rushed. We need more measured steps that balance fairness with freedom of choice.

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

The Art of Riding Roughshod Over the Views of Voters and Taxpayers

This article was first published on Suite 101, 5 January 2013. It is reprinted here as I transfer material from Suite 101.

As the argument continues about how elected representatives in a democracy balance special pleading and pushing through their own solutions, we pose some further questions. Is Democracy Always a Compromise Between Caving In to Special Interests or Riding Roughshod Over Them?

People opposed to onshore wind farms should not have their views ridden over roughshod. This pearl of masterful wisdom is reported by the Daily Telegraph (4 January 2012) as coming from planning minister Nick Boles to fellow MP John Hayes in a private letter.The report by Christopher Hope, Senior Political Correspondent confirms that Boles told Hayes, local people have genuine concerns.

Other Issues Equally Deserving

He shouldn’t stop there. There are dozens of issues that people have concerns about and perhaps their views should not be ridden over roughshod either.

  • What about gay marriage redefinitions?
  • What about the in/out EU referendum?
  • What about public spending?
  • What about the way taxes are spent?
  • What about defence?
  • What about the licence fees payers money in the BBC?
  • What about free schools, academies, exam reforms, teachers’ pensions?
  • What about care of the elderly and vulnerable?
  • What about health service inflation?

It goes on and on. Every issue that any government must address is going ride roughshod over the view of somebody. On many cases its a minority who have serious concerns which are effectively brushed aside.

On others, its the majority who are ignored, often in a belittling. dismissive and rude manner.

But Isn’t that Democracy?

Well, of course it is. And its all about compromise. In the blurb for the book The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, authors Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson say: If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the artistry of democracy. Unless one partisan ideology holds sway over all branches of government, compromise is necessary to govern for the benefit of all citizens. A rejection of compromise biases politics in favor of the status quo, even when the rejection risks crisis. Why then is compromise so difficult in American politics today?

Its just as applicable to British politics. Government here is a compromise, and ever since the 2010 general election led to the creation of the current Conservative/Lib-Dem Coalition, arguably compromise has been high on the political agenda.

The danger is always that plans are set aside by the vocal strength of special interests, whether they be welfare beneficiaries, residents near airports/motorways/rail line, the disabled, children, the sick, the elderly …. everybody is at least one special group.

Politics is not only the art of the possible, it is the art of getting people to perceive certain things. And what voters perceive at the moment is hastily rethought plans, half-hearted prodding of the debt pile hidden under a nest of wasps and changes midstream. Yes, they perceive a lot of cliches/mixed metaphors and often little else, from all the political parties.

Talk of not riding roughshod may be just more of the same ideal sound-bite, or could it be genuine concern? We live in hope.

It was Parliamentary authority Edmund Burke who laid down in 1774 the maxim: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

What’s your opinion in this era of e-democracy and instant social media?


The Daily Telegraph, Wind farm protestors backed by planning minister, Christopher Hope, 3 January 2013

The Spirit of Compromise, by Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, 2012, Princeton University Press

More detailed related information:

Reading Between the Lines of the Party Leaders New Year Messages, 31 December 2012

The Governing Compact Is Itself the Danger for UK Coalition, 8 March 2012

Recall of Parliament Is Action Being Seen to be Done, 11 August 2012

Parliamentary e-Petitions: Another Gimmick or Democratic Reform? 7 August 2011

Image: Al Jazeera English


Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

Reading Between the Lines of the Party Leaders’ New Year Messages

Originally published on Suite 101 for New Year 2013, it is republished here as I bring articles across from that site to this one. While details have often passed now, the point is still valid about reading between politician’s lines.

It’s always sensible to look for the hidden messages behind Party leaders’ annual New Year greetings to the electorate. This year is no exception.  

The end of one old tired year and the welcoming of a shiny new one is a golden publicity opportunity for politicos to put out best wishes to one and all and to say how brilliantly his or her party has done and how marvellously bright the future is under their auspices.

Or how badly the government has done and how much better it would have been/will be under them, depending on whether the leader is in power or opposition. Its a political game, and why not. A new calendar year does focus peoples minds on both the recent past and the immediate future.

Cameron’s On the Right Track Optimism

Prime Minister David Cameron straddled that past/future angle. He talked of debts and difficulties built up over many years. The phrase we inherited…. introduced the huge budget deficit, the out of shape welfare system and a mediocre education system.

He spoke of the progress on debt reduction, family incomes, reforms to welfare, half a million more in work than a year ago and more academies, more discipline and better results in more credible exams plus changes to tax, freezing some council tax and increasing pensions.

Trigger feel-good words were the Queens Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics and the global race against countries like China, India and Indonesia. What was missing was reference to tensions within the Coalition, the self-inflicted battle scars to redefine marriage and the spectre of Europe.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I still have time to get away with the things we have handled badly (the 2012 Budget, marriage, European referendum, mixed messages on economy, spending and clear direction) and win the next election, if Clegg holds his nerve. But if I can find a way to get the new boundary changes in, that will help a lot!’

Miliband’s One Nation

It was a clever stroke from Miliband to lay claim to the old Tory mantra, One Nation in his Party Conference speech in October 2012. He pressed that button again in this New Year address, which interestingly the BBC labelled as directed to activists, rather than the whole nation.

He promised to support young people, particularly those not going to university, small businesses and families struggling to make ends meet. He spoke of the people forced to do two jobs to survive.

He promised to use the year ahead to set out concrete steps on making his vision a reality. In other words, we can expect a release of policies on key areas over the coming year, which will form the basis of Labour’s election manifesto.

Trigger words included social responsibility and companies needing to pay their fair share of British taxes in a global economy. A quite effective piece of sloganising was that the coalition is a bad government that is letting down the good people of this country.

What was missing was much on state and personal pensions, council taxes and services, taxes on high-earners, health service inflation, schools/academies and an in/out Euro referendum.

BETWEEN THE LINES: ‘One of the few beauties of being in opposition is that I don’t have to dot every i and cross every t two years or so from the election. I can sit back and watch the Coalition bleeding support while they bite the bullets of unpopular measures. People seem to have forgotten the things that went so wrong when we were last in government.’

Clegg’s Easier and Fairer Life

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg must tread a difficult path between leading a party philosophically opposed to the Conservatives and being obliged to hold a Coalition with them in place by being mainly supportive.

Many would say he is caught between a rock and a hard place and opinion polls suggest the same, with many of his people transferring to Labour and disaffected Conservatives going to UKIP. His message reinforces how difficult it is.

He confirmed that dealing with the economy was the main priority and made his principle thrust that Liberal Democrat input into the Coalition had softened extreme Conservative policies in the interests of spreading fairness.

He enthused about taking low paid workers from income tax, support to schools and young children.

Trigger words included difficult decisions, pensioners, rebalancing the economy, green jobs and growth. There was no mention of Liberal-Democratic talisman issues that have fallen by the wayside, like European integration, Parliamentary reform and universal worship of wind farms.

BETWEEN THE LINES: ‘Have I been too supportive of the Government while simultaneously distancing us Lib-Dems from the Tories? Have I let Labour off the hook too easily but then might we need them for a different coalition in 2015? What we are doing is not easy but right, does that sound convincing?’

Farage’s Punchy Swagger

UKIP’s Nigel Farage, leader of a once very fringe party now enjoying opinion polls and actual election results of around 14%, ahead of the Lib-Dems, understandably blew that trumpet to start his message.

He then went on to lambast Miliband for finally admitting mistakes on immigration as some Labour voters defected to UKIP and then Cameron for his cast-iron guarantee on a Euro referendum which didn’t happen as some Conservative voters jump on Farage’s bandwagon.

He thought the 2013 big issue for UKIP will be the 2014 entry to the EU of Bulgaria and Romania, where millions live below the poverty line. That led into fairness of social services, benefits and jobs and implying a catastrophe as money simply dries up across Europe.

Trigger words included Europe, minimum wage, small businesses, excessive regulations, referendum, being part of the world. There was no mention of detailed policies about education, health, defence or fiscal policy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: ‘I’m punchy, in-yer-face, straight-as-it-is sort of man, and I’m unashamedly riding high so I’m making the most of it. The gloves are off, I’m not in statesman mode, I’m in battle readiness mode. And if you don’t like it, tough. Increasingly, millions do like it. So there!’


The Prime Minister’s Office, David CameronsNew Year Message

The Labour Party, Ed Milibands New Year Message

Liberal Democrat Voice, Nick Cleggs New Year Message

UKIP Hillingdon, Nigel Farages New Year Message

Related articles:

Time to Change the Script in EU-UK Comedy Before It Becomes a Full Scale Tragedy, David Porter, 31 December 2012

Thinking the Unthinkable: Britain and a New Europe, David Porter, 29 November 2011

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

The Principle Elements of Examining Secondary School Drama


The assessment criteria for examining secondary school drama is quite simple: give students a vocabulary and clear framework for what works and let them learn by experiment. This article was first published on Suite 101, January 2013.

In the 1960s and much of the following decade, where there was British school drama going on it was unstructured and delivered by a handful of inspired devotees who had seen the enormous potential of getting teenagers to roleplay, simulate and make-believe.Nobody thought it was possible to evaluate significantly drama work for examination purposes. When the National Curriculum arrived in the late 1980s drama was not included in the 10 core subjects, but curriculum drama began to come under pressure to come up with some examinable criteria.

The Arts Council report Drama in Schools (2003) began to define the drama process as making (exploring, devising, shaping and interpreting); performing (presenting and producing) and responding (evaluating and applying knowledge and understanding).

At post-16 performance exams, it’s carried forward into the devising-rehearsing-performing template, but it’s all linked to the evolutionary process of making drama which is now enshrined in examinations.

Drama Exam

Whatever happens with current shake-ups in subject specifications in the UK, the fact is that drama and other creative/expressive/performance arts will be a fundamental part of life for thousands of students, giving them confidence, experience in teamwork, trying ideas and problem solving.

To take one example, the Edexcel exam for GCSE (designed for 16 year olds) is sat every year by thousands of youngsters. What is especially good about this syllabus, though it is not the only one on offer to schools, is that it gives emphasis to theory and practice, with some written work and opportunities to open up creativity imaginatively and broadly.

The specification is described as ‘content free’, which simply means it is up to teachers/schools to decide and devise their own material from the guidelines and starting points that are given.

The Language of Drama

The key element is to to teach through a wide-ranging vocabulary, the language of drama.

They have identified explorative strategies (still image, thought-tracking, narrating, hot-seating, role play, cross-cutting, forum theatre and marking the moment) as a way of underpinning the devising work which may or may not lead to performance.

One can dispute whether the strategies are sufficient or too cumbersome but teachers are advised to focus on at least four of them. Equally, four of the drama medium/media are essential building blocks – the use of costume, masks and/or make-up, sound and/or music, lighting, space and/or levels, set and/or props, movement, mime and gesture, voice and spoken language.

Hard to argue with their basic but effective necessity in drama training. The actual elements of drama that are suggested are action/plot/content, drama forms, climax/anti-climax, rhythm/pace/tempo, contrasts, conventions and symbols.

Stimuli and Starting Points

Almost anything is grist to the drama mill. Poetry, artefacts, photos,film, props, costume, sculpture and art works, music, play scripts, live theatre performance, TV, DVDs, newspapers and magazines and extracts from fiction and non-fiction. There is no limit and it can be either professional or amateur or done by students themselves. Whatever it takes to get them going.

Mark scheme

Unit 1 is a programme of study which includes sharing with others and responding to feedback. They engage in a variety of drama activities, explore stimuli across different cultures and eras and compare and contrast between different stimuli.

Many centres take a theme for this unit, such as neighbours, going away, the gender wars, alcohol, the internet. Teachers lead six hours of workshops/lessons while students explore in varying sized groups.  A documentary response under controlled conditions is expected in diary form, evaluative comments and understanding and it can be written, bullet pointed, videoed, photographed, sketched.

The second unit follows the same pattern, with the same strategies, media and elements and also a range of stimuli but around Exploring Play Texts, something written specifically for performance and published professionally.

They must also watch and evaluate a live performance done by others as part of the audience. Even in more remote areas where there are fewer opportunities to see quality professional theatre, there are always local activities and groups who perform and can be used. Practical workshops are followed by documentary evidence of how students responded.

These two units are together worth 60% of the final exam mark.

The Practical

Unit 3 (40%) is a public performance in front of a visiting examiner, an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of practical drama skills through an application to a live performance. They must communicate to that audience, either as a performer or as technical support candidate in lighting, sound, setting/props, costume or make-up/masks.

The exam board present an assignment brief for the exam giving what amounts to the stimulus to set them off. It might be fame, prejudice, love is…. or a statement, Everybody has a story that must be told….

These allow interpretation through script extracts, totally devised work, poetry, song, soundscapes, newly written work all using the elements, strategies and medium of drama they should already have learned.

Marking It All

Clear grids are supplied to schools, there are no secrets. Marking is always positive, candidates start with blank sheets and pile up marks for good things rather than losing them for bad.

The criteria for the practical fall into – voice and movement; roles and characterisation; communication and content/style/form.

There are clear bands – outstanding, excellent, good, adequate, limited and no apparent. These are common for each unit and conform to the generally accepted divisions of marks for all exams in the arts now.

So, for instance, on Unit 3, roles and characterisation, 17-20 out of 20 reads, there is outstanding demonstration of the creation of role/character showing complete commitment and imagination.

At the bottom end, 1-4 marks out of 20, there is a limited demonstration of the creation of role/character showing little commitment and imagination.

If teachers know the specification and mark scheme, and examiners all perform to the standardisation training they are given, then school drama is examined with credibility and status giving schools, departments and students something very much worth having.

Check out also:

Drama in Schools (2003)

Edexcel GCSE Drama Student Book (2009), Mike Gould and Melissa Jones

Called Into Question: the School Examination System, 8 November 2011

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101, Drama Teaching

No Apology for Putting History at the Top of Today’s Agenda for Young People

This article was first published on Suite 101, November 2012. It is republished now as it is still timely.

Although computers never forget, the digital age creates a kind of permanent present. Society neglects its past roots at its peril. This is a hot Westminster topic. 

Discussion about history suggests clever quotations. We learn from history that we don’t learn from history (attributed to Oscar Wilde) and those who don’t learn from history are condemned to learn it over and over again (attributed to Mao Tse Tung), spring to mind.

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four (1948) created Big Brother with the chilling slogan: He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future. Today, in a watched society, its both true and relevant.

English writer LP Hartley (1895-1972) said, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. That one sums up our frequent puzzlement about why on earth our grandparents did and said particular things.

An Oxford University study has concluded that school children need to learn about Christianity in order to understand their history and culture. Leaving aside the impact of Christianity today, the fact is that much British history is interwoven with Christian values and teaching.

History Is Politics

The wider issue it highlights is just what should children be taught about the past? Does it always become a political issue?

The History Teachers Discussion Forum welcomes visitors to their website with the opening, Both students and teachers of history can meet here to discuss historical, political and other issues.

In 2010, the UK’s Historical Association, the voice for history, looked at history teaching in secondary schools. They discovered that many senior school managers assuming that the study of the past has no value in its own right subsume history into generic humanities.

Teenagers at the end of statutory schooling (16) are driven by exam result obsessions in their schools. This may be changing slightly with controversial new specifications and exam qualifications by the Government over the coming three years, but the central point that history is a discipline dealing with understanding change is still in danger of being lost. In a rapidly, exponentially changing world understanding change is ever more vital.

In August 2011, Tristram Hunt, writing in The Guardian put it that if we have no history, we have no future. He called the elimination of the past in schools as nothing short of a national tragedy. He said history provides competences like prioritising information, marshalling arguments, critiquing sources, but more than those, history is the material culture of the past; understanding lost communities; charting the rise and fall of civilisations.

He argued it provides collective memory, a connection to time, place and community. Hunt quoted Marxist philosopher Eric Hobsbawm about most young people at the end of the 20th century growing up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.

The Past Is Seen Through Today’s Perspective

The actual education syllabus is only one part of it. Its also the human habit of judging the past through the views and values of the now. Its an application of political correctness sometimes. Contemporary disapproval of actors smoking in films, shouldn’t remove from circulation all old films that show that.

To state the facts of slavery, racism, genderism, chauvinism, homophobia or corporal punishment, for example, is not to condone such attitudes. We cant undo the past we disapprove of. It helps to understand that past. Everything has a past which influences the present in some way.

Its understandable that in Germany, France and Austria holocaust denial is a criminal offence. The horrors of that era are still so enormous that it makes sense in order to respect the huge human losses that were inflicted on people.

However, it set a precedent. All countries have episodes which nowadays are seen as shameful. But events in the First World War between Turks and Armenians are still so hotly disputed that today it’s a crime in France to assert that Armenian genocide didnt occur, and in Turkey its a crime to say that it did!

It should also make us wonder how the future will judge us. One contemporary obsession is apologising for the past. For the atrocities of slavery, child labour, colonialism, religious conflicts, international war and whatever else we think of as bad, we now apologise.

We say sorry for what our ancestors did in their time and context to make us feel better about it. Not to teach young people about that is to do them a disservice. Not to discuss things which make us feel uncomfortable is to abnegate teaching responsibilities.

Historic Abuse

The news is now full of old cases of people who committed crimes many years, even decades, ago. New technology and a readiness to report historic abuse is leading to further cases. That is quite proper and long overdue.

It now reaches beyond the grave with cases like the late, once-feted celebrity Jimmy Savile. He may turn out to have been Britain’s worst sex offender, and the search is on to find who  was complicit with him, who turned a blind eye to what he was up to.

Abuse in the past applies to stealing that some MPs did from public funds through their expense accounts. Some have been jailed, but not all. Some have repaid and apologised; Margaret Moran has been ruled too ill to stand trial.

But the fact is that we as a nation need to come to terms with all that is done by us and in our name previously and currently, so we can make the future as peaceful, balanced, fair, equal and open as humanly possible.

At least, that’s a laudable aim. The realities of the human condition may change all that in the future, of course.


History Teachers Discussion Forum Web 27 November 2012

Oxford University Surveys Web 27 November 2012

The Guardian, Tristram Hunt, ‘If we have no history, we have no future’, 28 August 2011. Web 27 Nov 2012

The Historical Association Web 27 November 2012


Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

Revisiting ‘Time for Darwin Awards for MPs Who Contribute to People’s Amazement, Anger, Jollity and Disbelief?

No more relevant today than it was a year ago when I published it on Suite 101, but also no less relevant. I am gradually republishing all my material from Suite 101. So … the Darwin Awards for politicians:

Everybody contributes to life, the human gene pool and the entertainment of others. It may be that some politicos should be rewarded with an accolade for how they have affected voters and taxpayers.

The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek celebration that salute the improvement of the human genome by honouring those who accidentally remove themselves from it…

Its awarded to people who die through incredible, jaw-dropping acts of stupidity. Recent winners include the 22 year old, annoyed how slowly her boyfriend was driving, who declared itll be quicker to walk as she stepped from the moving vehicle to her death.

Latest nominations include a 32 year old man who died after winning a roach-eating contest and losing a worm eating contest at a reptile store in Florida. Apparently he scoffed a plate of super-worms, a handful of mealworms and half a bucket of roaches. However, he wasn’t awarded the Darwin, because ‘roaches and worms are edible’. An all-you-can-eat insect buffet is not normally deadly, just silly.

Its in that spirit of silly behaviour that observers of the UK political scene may wonder if an award isn’t overdue for Members of Parliament and former MPs who do the utmost stupid things that baffle and confuse the norms of common sense and defy logic and rational explanation. These are people who haven’t yet enriched the human gene pool by leaving it.

Criminal Acts

Since the story went public in 2009, a cross-section of MPs from across Parliament have been revealed to have fiddled expenses, applying their creative talents in flipping their main/secondary residences, organising repairs and even a floating duck house pond feature in one case, at taxpayers expense.

Legitimate costs in maintaining a London residence and one in the constituency were abused on a significant scale. It led to major loss of confidence in politics in general and Parliamentarians in particular. There were resignations, sackings, de-selections by political parties and anger among voters and taxpayers.

Some MPs and members of the House of Lords ended up behind bars. Others may yet follow them to jail. Former honourable gentlemen convicted of some incredible acts of folly include Labour’s David Chaytor, Elliot Morley. Eric Ilsley, Jim Devine and Conservative Lord Hanningfield.

There is a prevailing view that some others got off lightly. Lib-Dem MP David Laws seriously breached expense rules over a considerable period of time, resigned from the Cabinet in 2010 after just 17 days, and is now back in Government as an education minister.

Nowadays, expenses are more openly declared, yet still there remain loopholes to cheat the public purse. In the early autumn of this year it was reported that some 27 serving MPs are letting out their London homes while claiming rent for other properties in the capital.

In October 2012, Labour MP and one-time Minister for Europe Denis MacShane decided to resign ahead of suspension from the House for a year and possible prosecution into his fraudulent use of public funds, described by the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee as the gravest case to come before MPs.

Questionable Acts

Commons election is a privilege and an honour. The electorate have a right to expect that all being well, an MP will serve in the constituency and Westminster, keep jaunts to a reasonable level and address people’s concerns for the full term of the Parliament.

What made Louise Mensch walk away after a couple of years and cause a by-election in Corby? What critical thinking went on when she resigned, or even before she stood for Parliament?

How could Nadine Dorries MP leave her duties without permission and fly to Australia for a month to take part in the ITV game show Get Me Out of Here, I’m a Celebrity? Is it the alleged 40,000 appearance fee or is there something of the crazy, irresponsible, inexplicable about her behaviour? Would some call it flawed thinking?

Just Plain Unbelievable

Lord Patten of Barnes is Chair of the BBC Trust, charged with re-establishing public faith in the top-heavy, cumbersome BBC. He served as MP for Bath from 1979-1992. He’s had what many would describe as a distinguished career in a wide public/ministerial service in British and European politics culminating as the last Governor of Hong Kong before the lease ended in 1997 and the former colony was handed back to China.

During 2012 a massive scandal has emerged concerning historic abuse by one-time feted and honoured ‘Sir’ Jimmy Savile of under-age boys and girls in hospitals, children’s homes, prison and the BBC itself. People are still being implicated, some deceased like Savile, others alive.

The BBC response when caught out in sloppy journalism leading to accusing an innocent man and possible cover-ups of the circumstances of sustained abuse of minors over decades, was to run round in metaphorical circles, blaming others, shrugging shoulders and wondering where and when would it end.

Patten appointed BBC Director General, George Entwistle in September 2012. He was a BBC insider, self-styled as the right man for the job. Although described by David Dimbleby as clever and courteous, Entwistle was out of his depth. He was unaware of all the things that mattered as the crisis unfolded, and throughout exuded an air of incompetence that almost beggars belief.

Just 54 days later, hes resigned. And Patten has authorised 450,000 severance lump sum on top of his pension pot of 877,000. That 1.3 million package equates to over eight thousand pounds for each day he was in post. That’s not bad remuneration to be the fall-guy in this crisis.

Patten justifies it by explaining that Entwistle will help ongoing BBC enquiries into abuse and broadcasting judgements about Savile, false accusations and the discredited Newsnight programme.

Like many trapped in an untenable position, Patten enjoys the support of the Prime Minister for now. Leave aside the hapless George Entwistle. Whatever is Patten thinking of? Where is the political experience and judgement that made him a successful cabinet minster and for which hes paid 110,000 a year at the BBC?

Anybody can do anything stupid at any time and make everybody else laugh or cry. I write this as a former MP (1987-1997) to open the new 101 Channel about life in the Westminster Village.


The Darwin Awards, web 12 November 2012

The Daily Telegraph, Martin Beckford, MPs expenses, 10 December 2009, web 12 November 2012

The Daily Mail, Martin Robinson, New MPs expenses scandal, 19 October 2012, web 12 November 2012

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

Political ‘Silly’ Season Could Herald the End of the Coalition

Will Tensions Split the Coalition, Autumn 2012?Will Tensions Split the Coalition, Autumn 2012?

This article was first published on the old Suite 101 suite on 2 September 2012. Now, a year on, with the autumn season upon us it is timely to republish, bearing in mind that Parliament has been recalled and the rows about Syria and war, the internal squabbles of the Labour opposition and the strengthening economy render some of this out of date, the fact is that the Coalition is far from rock solid.

British politics’ ‘silly season’ falls between July and party conferences in September/October. It’s when news famine leads to exaggeration to make a story.

In July, as the summer recess begins, inhabitants of the Westminster village disperse to constituencies and sunny climes. The repairers move into the Palaces of Parliament and the media are normally left to scout around with increasing degrees of desperation for some tale, any tale, to fill their pages and airwaves.

There are usually a clutch of stories about crop circles/aliens, sightings of strange animals, soaring temperatures and/or torrential washouts. Some event will frequently drum up demands for Parliament to be recalled and the Government to do their job properly.

Last year, there were the summer riots in many English cities and plenty of on-going turmoil around the world that was both political and economic. In Libya, Gaddafi was yet to be ousted and the recession and difficulties abounded in the Eurozone.

So, many people felt that the quiet season of little news, beyond the perennial educational controversy over A-levels and GCSE results proving the exams are allegedly getting easier, was missing last year. This year genuine news has made for a busy summer.

A Triumph of Activity

2012 will be remembered for a glorious period of extremes. The drought of the spring gave way to the wettest August for a century. The economic woes of austerity vs spending-out-of-recession continued; confidence in banks and bankers plummeted new depths.

The well-being generated by the Queens Golden Jubilee celebrations, followed by an organisational and sports medals storm of success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games despite ticketing, security and spending disasters at the outset, led to national euphoria, nationalistic pride and hosts of inspiring individuals.

There were also arts and media successes related to these events, but no real evidence that either the Government or Prime Minister Cameron personally have been able to cash in on the glow.

That may seem a strange phenomenon, that the government of the day does not always benefit when things go well. However, history shows that that is the norm. War time success from 1939-45 did not guarantee electoral success for Winston Churchill in the 1945 General Election.

Last Autumn Before the Fall?

When politics resumes this autumn, its set to be the usual wars of attrition right across Westminster.

So, after a summer season that was way beyond normal, what can voters expect after the party shenanigans signal return to business? Will the last few months of the year mark the death throes of the Coalition?

The Guardian published a poll in August which indicated that a mere 16% of the electorate expect the Conservative/Lib-Dem Coalition to last for the remainder of the term, till 2015. The survey suggested that there was no gain from the summer events, but the fall-out from the rows about Budget and wealth taxes, Lords reform, constituency boundaries, social welfare reform, airport and rail policies continues to rain down.

In fact, this sample of opinion suggested that the coalition would collapse before two years, with as many as 11% expecting it to disintegrate within a year from now. The natural tensions within the uneasy alliance can only grow as individuals seek to drive their own agendas and despair at their own views failing to prevail.

It was Margaret Thatcher who famously loved the adage: expect the unexpected and in politics anything is possible. So a forced general election is a conceivable outcome of an alliance collapse. The poll findings were picked up and published by other papers, and a sense of self-fulfilling prophecies now fills the air.

As politics is all about perception, its also credible that enough whisperings and media speculation, opinion polling that can drive opinion as much as reflect it and wishful thinking could start the countdown to the next general election, regardless of the dreams of others and the amount of relaunches and make-overs the Coalition is given.

People have been predicting the downfall of the governing pact ever since it was formed in May 2010, naturally. Its just that this autumn, it feels more rather than less likely.

Only time will tell whether that would be beneficial to the nation as the Eurozone falls into fragments and chaos and the economic clouds darken still further without any real national agreement and commitment on cutting/expanding public expenditure.


The Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Tom Clark, Coalition government, 12 August 2012. Web 2 September 2012

Further reading:

British Election Circuses Set for Digital Revolution, 7 May 2012

Conference Season is Fun-and-Games Politics With a Serious Purpose, 9 September 2012


Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

British Election Circuses Set for Digital Revolution

Mayoral, Councillor, Police Commissioners, European and Parliamentary elections are entertaining shows, but will technology improve or ruin them?

This article first published on Suite 101, 7 May 2012.


In some ways like the USA, yet in so many others, very different, the British electoral system is an amalgam of how it has been for two hundred years, how it has been done for most political activists’ lifetimes and the odd experiment/concession in modernity, like postal votes virtually on demand.

People are interested/care passionately or are indifferent. But often it appears that the only people who get really excited about all the elections are the media. Yet, everybody who thinks about it appreciates how important democratic decisions are in the lives of every single citizen.

City/district and council, parish elections occur every year in some areas, in others every three or four years. The European Parliament goes to the polls every five years. And so it goes on.

However, the main show is always the Westminster Parliament itself, and polls to that can be called anytime within and up to five years. Coalition Government since 2010 has changed the face of politics for the time being, but it may not last if there is a return to the main parties alternating in the future.

Are We Suffering Poll Weariness?

Britain also has mayors up for elections too. Well, at least London does and Bristol has said it wants one. Other cities turned down the idea in this May’s referenda. And on top of all that, elected Police Commissioners are coming this autumn, provided the Government sorts out the details in time.

With the kind of turnouts that make the whole often ridiculous, the question is inevitable: are there just too many elections? However, people love to have their say on reality TV contests and tweets and social media, so they can’t be too weary to bother.

E-petitions tell us that what people want is to have a say in referenda, such as being asked if they want to leave the EU and want capital punishment back. So, it must be that people are fed up with the old electoral system itself, as it seems to be immune from the kind of fundamental change that affects the rest of the world.

London’s Mayoralty

The majority of commentators expected the official-but-not-blatantly Conservative Boris Johnson to trounce his Labour opponent, Ken Livingstone from months ago. In the event, it was a pretty close run thing and now the pundits are getting excited that Boris is just biding his time before taking over from David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

All very predictable, but one of the interesting contemporary aspects on the mayoral contest was that the internet ‘predicted’ it in advance. It seems that Google Analytics tracked web trends and found people searched for Johnson almost five times as much as for Livingstone.

Multiply that with the kind of digital campaigns they ran, how many Twitter followers they built up, counting positive/negative reactions, social networking presence and a pattern was established. It was down to search, discussions and sharing. That’s the modern way. The old fashioned voter finding is still important, door-stepping and street-corners, but the digital revolution is changing the mechanism.

New Electoral Systems

The Johnson-Livingstone analyses were carried out by two companies, iProspect and Lithium. Neilson Hall of iProspect told the Daily Telegraph that ‘search has been overlooked as a key indicator of success’.

Chief scientist at Lithium, Dr Timothy Wu, added that using social network data to predict elections ‘had been shown to be accurate in US elections’ provided it was carried out within two weeks of the election’.

In the era of people not opening doors much, more driven by what they see on TV, internet and other media, it is a matter of time before all electronic voting becomes the new norm. It may even be coupled with a financial compulsion to vote, whether people want to or not.

The only surprise, given the advantages of digital, is that it isn’t imminent. But of course, the record of mega technology projects in health, tax or education is not outstanding, so there is an understandable reluctance to throw out the well-tried traditions completely.

It’s just that the era of the algorithm has dawned, and like in personalised advertising, personalised electioneering is coming. Soonish.


Daily Telegraph, Christopher Williams, 2 May 2012.

Read On:

Advertising Gets Really Personal.

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

Ancient Parliamentary Privilege Still Vital in Modern Democracy

Periodically ‘Parliamentary privilege’ is a term thrown into the spotlight by events. Now it’s on the agenda again with a big consultation exercise. This article was first published on Suite 101, 27 April 2012. It is republished now, as the question is still outstanding.
In May 2011, Lib Dem MP John Hemming named aloud in Parliament Ryan Giggs as the footballing celebrity who had been granted a High Court ‘super injunction’ to gag anybody from speaking about or reporting his alleged affair with a former reality TV star. The order was so powerful that it could not even be acknowledged as existing.

Coming as part of a stream of big public names employing the same tactics to keep their lives private, the question of what the media should and could report was a sideshow compared to the outrage some expressed that Hemming had ‘abused Parliamentary privilege’.

The previous year, ‘privilege’ was questioned when three Labour MPs, David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley and Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield were imprisoned for false accounting over their expenses claims. When they were first charged, they invoked ancient rights that give force to British Parliamentary privilege preventing MPs and peers from being sued for defamation.

They argued they shouldn’t even be charged. They failed to prevent their trials, but the notion that somehow they were above the common laws ordinary citizens are subjected to, raised eyebrows in the media and public. Is there one law for MPs and one for other people? Should judges be able to question what elected representatives say and ask in the Chamber? Leader of the Commons Sir George Young has agreed: ‘privilege is unfortunate in its suggestion of special treatment’.

Historical Basis

However, the concept has been hard-fought for over centuries and is regarded as essential in the proper functioning of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Parliamentary website defines privilege as ‘certain legal immunities for Members of both Houses which allow them to perform their duties without interference from outside the House’

Those privileges are: freedom of speech, freedom from arrest (on civil matters), freedom of access to the Sovereign and that ‘the most favourable construction should be placed on both Houses’ proceedings’. Members are immune from legal action in terms of slander but must adhere to the principles of Parliamentary language

Privilege was enshrined into British law with the 1689 Bill of Rights as a means of preventing any sovereign from interfering in the workings of Parliament. It followed the long and bitter years of the English Civil War between Parliament and the Crown, the execution of Charles I, the interregnum and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. It is an ancient right guarded jealously by Parliament ever since.


BBC News reported in late April 2012 that ministers were considering changes to the system with the implications of expenses claims and super-injunctions being included. A consultation has been started on ‘how to prevent possible misuse’ of these rights.Government ministers are at pains to point out that freedom of speech in the House must be maintained. They ask if a ‘legislative definition of Parliamentary proceedings’ would clarify the situation.

The cardinal rule that an MP cannot be sued for remarks in Parliament that would be defamatory outside will stay, as will a Parliamentarian’s right to defy court injunctions guaranteeing anonymity.The Government is also consulting on whether to strengthen the powers of Select Committees to call witnesses and punish any who submit misleading evidence. The question of ‘contempt’ of Parliament is being revisited and so are the sanctions that should be imposed on transgressors.

The right to avoid appearing as a witness in a court is to be removed from Parliamentarians, and the issue of inciting racial/religious hatred or terrorism is also being examined.Finally, there is apparently some doubt about whether peers can be detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, while MPs can be. The Government acknowledges no such loophole, but some observers believe a specific law is needed for the ‘avoidance of doubt’.


Parliament UK, Web 27 April 2012.

BBC News, 26 April 2012.

Useful Links:

When Members of Parliament Fall Foul of the Laws They Make.

Mind Your (Parliamentary) Language.

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101

Personal Privacy: The Next Big Debate the UK Should Have?

Not since times of war and national crisis has personal privacy been such a live issue. In times of rapid technological development, the concept of personal privacy is being consigned to history. Is a debate worth having before it’s too late? Or is it too late already? This article was first published on Suite 101, 3 April 2012. It is republished with more recent links below.

Politically, it could be that Coalition Government problems about an ill-judged Budget, about handling a potential fuel crisis and about changing the definition of marriage will fade with time.

However, these difficulties will probably pale into insignificance when set alongside the head of steam building against proposals to increase ‘official snooping’ into almost every corner of every citizen’s life.

In a democracy it’s generally a given that people trade a certain amount of their individual liberty in exchange for freedom from acts of excessive aggression through terrorism or crime. That delicate but fundamental balance may be soon set aside in favour of new powers to authorities at the expense of individuals.

New Proposals

It is widely reported and confirmed by the Home Office that May’s Queen’s Speech outlining the Government’s legislative proposals for the next eighteen months will include a measure to increase drastically the data that police and intelligence agencies can access. Everybody’s communication is to be opened to inspection and interpretation.

Texts, websites visited, emails sent and received and games played online – all will be probed and stored by the internet service providers (ISPs) by legal compulsion and will be made available on demand to whichever arms of the state want them. It’s said that the exact content of emails and texts will not be read, but duration, destinations and frequencies will be noted.

What They Can Do Already

The Government’s monitoring facility at GCHQ already listens to internet chatter to identify key words that may indicate terrorist or paedophile conversations. People can be placed on no-fly lists if security thinks they present a danger or be deported on often little actual evidence. People’s financial assets can be frozen for something as small as a confused memory. There is almost endless CCTV monitoring in most public buildings, streets, shops, car parks, schools, offices and roads. The data bank is already huge.

The police national data base uses automatic number plate recognition technology, banks and financial organisations keep records for years, if not in perpetuity. ISPs store data for 12 months. Health and prescription records, flights and holidays, cars and big ticket retail sales all provide rich information streams now that can easily be linked to build a detailed profile of every person in the UK.

For and Against

The line goes that such a new big step is needed to help law and order’s ability to fight crime/terrorism in the face of technological advances, social networking and instant messaging. The Security Minister James Brokenshire said that emphasis would be on ‘solving crime’ not reading everybody’s emails.

Opponents point out that similar measures were proposed by the last Labour government in 2006, but were fiercely opposed by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems as too draconian. Some people are surprised that the Lib Dem part of the Coalition looks as if it accepts these proposals which are the sort of things Liberals have traditionally resisted.

Liberty campaigners generally and across the political divide are roundly condemning the ideas as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘mass surveillance by potentially over-zealous enforcers’ leading to ‘loss of freedom of expression and individual personal privacy’.

Supporters bring up the old argument that ‘law abiding citizens have nothing to fear’ and the nation cannot sit back and do nothing while technology enables its enemies to steal, deceive and invade possessions, people and assets.

Crime Prevention or Money Stream?

Tom Whitehead, Security Editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote on 3 April that it was expected the taxpayer would pick up the bill for the new monitoring, to the tune of £200 million a year, which would mean £380 a minute spent enforcing citizen snooping.

It seems likely that figure would be wide of the mark in the same way that the compulsory ID cards proposed by the last Government rose exponentially over time as doubts about their technological capabilities and loss of privacy took hold.

Whitehead also raised the possibility that local authorities, social security and health departments and anybody investigating any sort of fraud would also have access. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ‘warned that lives would be damaged by problems of mistaken identity’ and suggested that such profiling could be exploited for commercial reasons.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner was reported by Whitehead as saying that ‘the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated’.

The UK is already the most watched nation on earth and the harvesting of data is a one-way lock that seems to be impossible to release. The police retaining DNA of every person arrested, even of people either not charged or found not guilty, is evidence that officialdom regards it a right to take and store indefinitely data about every aspect of people’s lives.

It is surely the moment for a full and frank debate? Some observers of British politics believe these ideas have been allowed to circulate at this time for all the anti-bluster to be measured and factored in, so that when the real Bill is produced it will be less intrusive and Ministers will claim to have ‘listened to arguments’.

That is either a cynical view or wishful thinking. The fact is that permanent surveillance could be even more severe if not this year, then certainly a few years from now, because technology will only go on making it so.

Further Reading:


Image: GCHQ, the Government’s Information-Monitoring Centre

Filed under: Articles at Suite 101