Robert Saunders Profile picture
Author of "Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum & Seventies Britain". "A jaw-dislocating page turner"(Andrew Marr). Co-director @MileEndInst, Reader @QMHistory
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3 Aug
It's often said that Britain relies on a "good chaps theory of government": that the British constitution only works if operated by "good chaps", who choose to obey the rules.

I think that's wrong. Here's why.

My latest for @prospect_uk [Excerpts follow]…
"Far from trusting politicians to be “good chaps,” British politics was once on a hair-trigger for bad or unconstitutional behaviour". As Lord Acton put it in 1887, “Great men are almost always bad men”. And the presumption of wrongdoing should “increase as the power increases”.
"The problem today is not that leaders have ceased to be “good chaps,” but that we no longer seem to care when they behave badly". We have lost our sense that "bad chaps" matter: and that it is our responsibility to police their conduct.
Read 6 tweets
2 Aug
This article, on the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, raises a question that needs more public discussion: who wields the historic powers of the Crown once the monarchy is no longer politically active? Should there be *any* limit on their use by a prime minister? THREAD
2. Some of the highest powers of the British state still technically belong to the Crown: from declaring war & making treaties to suspending Parliament. Those powers are now exercised "on the advice of the PM". But they do not *belong* to the PM, & might, in theory, be withheld.
3.For example: the 1950 "Lascelles Principles" set out three conditions under which a monarch might refuse to dissolve Parliament (a "Royal Prerogative" pre-2011). Others might include "when the Oppn is in the middle of a leadership contest" or "when electoral fraud is suspected"
Read 13 tweets
26 Jul
"The politics of support have trumped the politics of power to such an extent that the Conservative Party has broken with almost everything it might once have seemed to be its function to defend". Richard Vinen on "The Conservative Nation" since 1974.…
Lots to think about in this essay. How did the "politics of support" go from being a vehicle for "the politics of power" to subsuming it altogether? A leadership class drawn from PR/the media, with very short careers & little prior experience of govt, must be important here.
Or is it inevitable in democracies - in which "power" depends on the organisation of electoral "support" - that the boundary between them will eventually collapse: that parties will stop thinking of campaigning as a means to power & start regarding govt as a tool for campaigning?
Read 7 tweets
22 Jul
Lying to Parliament was once thought to be among the most serious offences any Member could commit. That's why the *allegation* of lying was treated with such severity.

Now that the sanction against lying has collapsed, punishing the allegation simply protects the offender.
A culture in which ministers can lie with impunity, while MPs are punished for calling them out, is manifestly absurd. If the House will not punish dishonesty - which would be the best solution - it must stop pretending it never happens.
Above all, our democracy needs to stop treating those who lie as roguish scamps, scrumping apples from the orchard. To quote @OborneTweets, "political lying is a form of theft. It means voters make democratic judgments on the basis of falsehoods. Their rights are stripped away".
Read 4 tweets
13 Jul
"No prime minister of modern times has been so deeply rooted in the Establishment. None has been so routinely tipped for greatness. And yet few retain such an enduring air of mystery".

My profile of David Cameron, who left office five years ago today.…
Comparisons between Blair and Cameron were always overblown. Unlike the Labour leader, Cameron was not temperamentally drawn to change.
"Cameron had secured for his party "the right to be heard". But having cleared its throat and stepped up to the microphone, it appeared to have nothing much to say". It was the financial crisis of 2008 that was to give Cameronism the purpose it had previously lacked.
Read 7 tweets
25 Jun
Can "everyday politics" breathe new life into the Left, in an age of populism & popularisation? Really interesting discussion on the @MileEndInst podcast, featuring @colm_m, @mds49 & @ea_robinson, inspired by Marc Stears' recent book: "Out of the Ordinary"…
As I argued here last month, "If there is one lesson that Labour desperately needs to relearn, it is its faith in ordinary people".… Image
As @mds49 noted, one challenge for the Left is that it rightly wants to talk about big ideas & heroic changes; but as soon as it does that, it risks becoming detached from the experience & language of normal life. I wondered whether there's a longer-term reason for that?[cont...]
Read 6 tweets
24 Jun
Fighting breaks out in the House of Commons in 1893. The newly-elected Labour MP, Keir Hardie, describes the scene for the papers.

"As for Mr Gladstone, he was pallid to the lips. To him it must have been as the desecration of the Ark of the Covenant to Moses of old."
Conservative MP Ernest Beckett: "‘I seized one of them [the Irish Members], at which three others threw themselves upon me and by sheer weight of numbers bore me to the floor … A general mêlée began, members striking out wildly at each other". Hardie takes up the tale...
The Unionist Edward Carson thought a Radical had started it, and blamed Gladstone. Conservatives accused the PM of failing to step in and stop the fighting. (Spoiler: he was 83 years old).
Read 6 tweets
24 Jun
No. The purpose of education is to give people the skills to live a fulfilling life.

Human beings are not just workers. We are citizens, neighbours, parents and friends - those who cannot work and those who can - and our lives are enriched by far more than our salaries.
Curiously, Conservatives used to criticise "socialists" for viewing humanity simply as workers. Keith Joseph, Thatcher's mentor, thought that the "economics first approach has aggravated unhappiness & social conflict". Angus Maude wrote this in a 1969 manifesto for Conservatism:
Even Margaret Thatcher thought that "man needs more than material things". The aim of government, she declared, was "to build a flourishing society – not an economic system".
Read 4 tweets
23 Jun
Reading the 1893 Irish Home Rule debates, when Gladstone - half blind, deaf, 83 years old - carried his Bill single-handed through the Commons, speaking more than 80 times (often at 1 or 2am) & delivering some of the greatest speeches of the C19th. And all I can think of is...
Like Christopher Lee, Arthur Balfour knew he was hopelessly outmatched. Image
Unfortunately, Lord Salisbury controlled the Upper House, and threw out the bill by one of the largest majorities in the history of the Lords: 419 votes to 41. Image
Read 4 tweets
22 Jun
One hundred years ago today, King George V opened the first session of the new Northern Ireland Parliament. "For all who love Ireland, as I do with all my heart, this is a profoundly moving occasion in Irish history."…
Speaking at the close of the Irish War of Independence, George hoped that the Northern Ireland Parliament might become a beacon of reconciliation to the Empire. "I appeal to all Irishmen to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget".
The King hoped that the opening of the Northern Irish Parliament "may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed" - and that one day he might return to open a similar Parliament in the South.
Read 4 tweets
19 Jun
The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, warned this week that "the rule of law" must not "be misused to weaponise the courts against political decision-making". This is an excellent response by @GeorgePeretzQC (read the replies by @DinahRoseQC, too). Some thoughts of my own follow.
Buckland frames the govt's reform agenda as part of a programme to “restore trust” in the constitution. That’s a noble goal, but in practice it means that one party is rewriting the rules of Britain’s democracy against the opposition of every other. That cannot be safe or healthy
As usual, criticism of the courts is framed as a defence of Parliament. It's an admirable sentiment, but if the executive is "the servant of Parlt", why was it shut down in 2019? Why is it not allowed to vote on cuts to the aid budget? Why was it sidelined in the Covid crisis?
Read 10 tweets
18 Jun
In the days before opinion polls, by-elections were the only tool parties had for testing public opinion in the middle of a Parliament. It's no wonder they were so often astonished by what happened at General Elections!
By-elections used to happen more often. Between 1832 & 1914 there were more than 2,600 by-elections - about thirty a year. In the 1852-57 Parliament, 1 in 3 constituencies had a by-election. So the balance of parties in the Commons could shift radically between general elections
Arguably, that made Parlt more sensitive to changes across the electoral cycle. The Conservative & Unionist Party saw its majority fall by c.60 seats over the 1900-05 Parlt, through defections & by-elections. A party elected with a landslide in 1900 could no longer govern by 1905
Read 4 tweets
16 Jun
Chart of the day from @EdConwaySky. A reminder that UK trade with Australia & NZ was falling vertiginously in the 20 years *before* the UK joined the EEC. European integration was more a *response* to the decline of imperial trade patterns than their cause…
The belief that Britain could rebuild its economy on the basis of Commonwealth trade was partly why it didn't join the EEC at the start. But that hope had withered long before Britain applied for entry, as Commonwealth markets diversified, sterling weakened &Eur economies revived
By 1975, Commonwealth govts were keener on using the UK as an entry point to the EEC market than on restoring old preferences. Australia's Gough Whitlam urged GB not to "lapse into the position of Spain", with "a mighty empire in the past & a peripheral influence for the future".
Read 4 tweets
15 Jun
Gladstone on the Irish Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell: "the most remarkable man I ever met".

Quite a compliment from a man whose acquaintance included the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Cavour, Garibaldi, Charles Darwin, Tennyson & JS Mill.
Gladstone's daughter, Mary Drew, was distraught when Parnell's relationship with a married woman was exposed in court. Home Rule had become a holy cause, unfit to be touched by "soiled hands".
Gladstone wanted Parnell to retire from public life altogether once the affair was exposed - so that he could return a few years later. "There ought to have been a death, but there would have been a resurrection". (An extraordinary comparison for a man of Gladstone's faith).
Read 4 tweets
14 Jun
Downing Street is spinning that it wanted to talk to "the people", not to "Parliament". But there is only one institution in the UK that "the people" actually elect. A government that locks Parliament out of decision-making is denying "the people" their democratic rights.
Under the UK system, a govt with a majority can expect to dominate the Commons. But this govt consistently goes further: on Covid, Brexit and international aid it has repeatedly tried to exclude Parliament from decision-making altogether. That has serious democratic implications.
At the 2019 Election 285 constituencies elected MPs from Opposition parties. Those MPs - and, indeed, rebel Tories - have democratic mandates too. They can legitimately be outvoted. But they can not legitimately be denied the chance to vote at all, or to hold ministers to account
Read 4 tweets
7 Jun
On this day in 1886, the House of Commons rejected Gladstone's first great Home Rule Bill, which would have restored an Irish Parliament and government in Dublin.

Years later George V told his prime minister, "What fools we were not to have accepted Gladstone's Home Rule Bill".
"We have arrived at a stage", Gladstone warned, "where two roads part, one from the other". One led to tyranny & war; the other to partnership & self-govt. That became a stock Home Rule image, with Gladstone offering the olive branch of peace & the Tories the manacles of coercion
Home Rule shattered the Liberal Party, creating a new "Liberal Unionist" movt. John Bright declared that "Home Rule means Rome Rule", while Joe Chamberlain warned of "a new foreign country less than 30 miles from our shores, animated with unfriendly intentions towards ourselves".
Read 6 tweets
23 May
Since it's currently open season on the BBC, it's worth contrasting Priti Patel's remarks with her own government's Integrated Review of Security & Foreign Policy - which has some rather different things to say about the BBC & other institutions under ministerial attack. [THREAD]
2. The Integrated Review describes the BBC (twice) as "the most trusted broadcaster in the world". Its global reach is cited, proudly, as evidence that Britain is a "soft-power superpower", with its "independent" journalism making the UK a champion of "press and media freedom".
3. All that sits a little uneasily with a govt that was boycotting the BBC's main news outlets when the pandemic began, that's cut funding for the World Service & repeatedly accuses the BBC of left-wing bias. But that's one of many paradoxes in the Review.…
Read 7 tweets
11 May
"In a democracy, the most fundamental of all rights is the right to vote. It is the foundation on which all our liberties depend. Yet for millions of people, compulsory voter ID will make that harder"

My take on Voter ID for @prospect_uk [extracts follow]…
More than 3 million UK voters have no official photographic ID. Nearly 11 million have neither a passport nor a driver's licence. Those voters now face new barriers to the ballot box, to tackle a problem for which there is precious little evidence.
In-person voter fraud is not just rare: it would be almost impossible to organise on a large scale. And we would know it was happening, from the number of voters arriving at the polling station to find that their vote had already been cast.
Read 6 tweets
6 May
The introduction of the penny post was a major step on the road to democracy, won from government "by the clamour of a nation". As a radical newspaper put it: "The landlords were caught napping when they allowed Rowland Hill to steal a march upon them". [1/5]
Within 10 years, the Royal Mail was carrying 347 million letters a year. Pamphlets & fliers could be sent out at a fraction of the previous cost, transforming the prospects of groups like the Anti-Corn Law League. "The penny postage will repeal the corn laws!", Cobden predicted.
Cheap postage could also be used for advertising, with adhesive "wafers" or stickers bearing political or religious slogans. Millions of envelopes carried slogans from the Anti-Corn Law League, the Peace Society and the anti-slavery movement.
Read 5 tweets
5 May
A key point that gets missed in some of the cruder takes on the "Red Wall". Tory success here may owe less to a new electoral phenomenon than an old one: the "property-owning democracy"; but one that's spread unevenly between generations & doesn't map neatly onto class lines. 1/5
2. The idea of a "property-owning democracy" was coined by a Conservative MP, Noel Skelton, in 1923. It recognised that home-ownership was likely to have a fundamental effect on voting behaviour & political values. The same idea inspired the sale of council houses in the 1980s.
3. Yet the spread of home-ownership has taken a peculiar shape. Today, more than half of all UK home-owners are over 55. Ownership rates are lower in affluent cities than in poorer towns. We shouldn't be surprised that this is bending party alignment into very new shapes.
Read 5 tweets
29 Apr
When Gladstone reformed the civil service in 1854, abolishing ministerial patronage, critics called it "an immense stride" towards democracy. They were right: which is why scandals like Greensill, and the return of patronage, are so dangerous. [THREAD]…
2. Before 1854, ministers routinely appointed their friends, business contacts & financial patrons to positions in govt, that came with salaries, access & influence on policy. The Head of the Civil Service, Trevelyan, warned of "a stream of corruption" gushing through public life
3. Gladstone abolished the patronage system, laying the basis for a career civil service recruited by exams. He called this a "parliamentary reform", not just an administrative change, because it weakened corrupt influences, opened govt to talent and made it harder to buy access.
Read 8 tweets