This was first posted on Facebook on 5th February 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
I am not a fan of PMQs.
The format, which alternates grovelling questions from Tories inviting self-praise from the PM, with questions from Labour and from the SNP, isn’t really conductive to anything except letting the Tory PM self-praise and spout BS.
(I am not arguing that Blair or Brown’s PMQs were any better, but the last time I listened to a Labour PM at PMQs was at least a decade ago.)
I listened today because it’s the first PMQs after Brexit, and Boris Johnson was taking them himself instead of squirrelling off somewhere else and handing the job to one of his minions.
Nick Clegg’s New Year message leans heavily on things he had less than nothing to do with:
“The last twelve months have been lit up by moments that will stay with us forever. When Mo Farah approached the final stretch of the 10,000m final, who wasn’t up on their feet, screaming at the TV?
“When Nicola Adams beamed at the crowd after winning the first ever women’s Olympic boxing, who didn’t smile back? I was lucky enough to be there, and that’s one I’ll never forget.
“Was there anything more British than that drenched choir in the Jubilee River Pageant, singing Rule Britannia! in the pouring rain?
“Incredible images. Spectacular shows. Jaw-dropping personal triumphs.”
Sadly, none of them involved the Liberal Democratic party or its leader.
To be able to form a government the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons needs to be able to count on a minimum of 326 votes: otherwise, as soon as the government does something which the opposition cannot approve of, they can hold a vote of no confidence which the government will lose: Parliament is dissolved, a general election occurs.
The median age of the population of the UK is 40.2: the last time there was a general election called in those circumstances was October 1974. Over half the population are not old enough to remember this except as a historical report: no one under 56 is old enough to have voted in 1974, the year of two elections. Gordon Brown would have been 23 that year.
Ed Miliband wouldn’t yet have been 5: Nick Clegg was 7: David Cameron would have been 7 at the time of the first General Election in 1974, and the second happened the day after his 8th birthday.
“Fixed term, four year Parliaments: dissolution only if government cannot be formed or if Parliament votes for its own dissolution by a two-third majority.”
This is a part of the Constitution that would probably pass with least discussion. Fixed-term Parliaments are mandated in a devolved Scotland by the 1998 Act, and it is broadly agreed in constitutional democracies outside the UK that the power to dissolve Parliament and set the date for the next General Election is not something that should be under the control of the government of the day: it’s one of the powers of the Crown that accrues to the Prime Minister in the UK’s decidedly unwritten Constitution.
Margaret Thatcher used it in May 1983 to call a General Election two years early on the feelgood factor from the Falklands War: John Major used it to not call a General Election that he knew he wouldn’t win until literally the very last minute, April 1997 (and so did Gordon Brown in May 2010, despite Tony Blair’s having set the example of calling an election every four years). David Cameron will probably do the same, unless he starts a small war somewhere for electoral good value.
Looking back at the old Scottish Parliament, it was of course no more representative of the people then the old English Parliament: the Three Estates of the old Scottish Parliament (the lordis of counsall and sessioun) were the prelates (the bishops and abbots: the Catholics were removed in 1567, the Protestants removed in 1688); the lay tenants-in-chief or parliamentary peers (comprising three degrees of nobility: dukes, earls, and lairds – a laird or “lord of parliament” would have been the owner of a landed estate which was not part of a village or town or royal burgh); and the Burgh Commissioners elected by the royal burghs. From 1592 onwards there were also Shire Commissioners, selected by the lairds of the shire, and from 1603, royal office holders: I think the Universities also had parliamentary representation, but I don’t know how that worked. The three Representation of the People Acts in 1832 for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, were the first steps towards making Parliament democratically representative.
The Parliament of Scotland was always unicameral and the collective term used for the members was traditionally the Thrie Estaitis even when there seem to have been four or five. (Mostly from A Short History of the Scottish Parliament.) The representatives from the Royal Burghs were the largest estate within the Parliament, and the 1707 Act of Union specified: “That the Rights and Privileges of the Royal Boroughs in Scotland as they now are Do Remain entire after the Union and notwithstanding thereof”.
In December 1988, I was living in a single room in a two hundred year old block of flats in Edinburgh that looked every year of its age. I was a student: I didn’t own a TV: and my only access to the Internet was via the university’s mainframe and terminals, and on the night of 21st December, I was on my Christmas break. The Lockerbie bombing was headlines in the papers next day, and for some time after that, and the source of the question airline staff are required to ask: “Did you pack your luggage yourself? Did anyone give you anything to carry?”
Lockerbie is a small town in Dumfries and Galloway, 74 miles from Edinburgh by car: the fastest way to get there by train is via Manchester. The Lockerbie Creamery has been making cheese and butter for more than fifty years, but ever since 1988 whenever I see “Lockerbie”, even on the wrapping of a dairy product, I think bombing, plane crash, death.
Three years after the Lockerbie bombing, I heard two men had been indicted (by the then-Lord Advocate, Peter Fraser: Baron, QC, and briefly a Conservative MP) and over eleven years later, the Scottish court set up in the Netherlands. A special reminder has been added to Scottish jury duty notices ever since, warning potential jurors that in principle they can be asked to serve in Scots courts anywhere in the world. Just over twelve years and one month after the Lockerbie bombing, one of the men indicted was convicted, 31st January 2001, over 11 years ago: Megrahi went to jail in Inverclyde, sentenced for life.
But for most of that time, there has been an awful niggling doubt as to whether Megrahi was actually guilty. Continue reading