The Spectator's Notes

Charles Moore’s Notes: The government needs someone who knows how Parliament works

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

An enjoyable aspect of parliamentary rules and conventions is that almost no one understands them. This has become acutely true in an age when the media no longer regularly reports proceedings in Parliament. So when the House of Lords threatened to derail the government tax credit cuts this week, no one, that I spotted, foresaw what actually happened. Knowing that the measure came forward as a statutory instrument, not a Bill, and was therefore (in both Houses) unamendable, its opponents in the Lords voted not to reject it but to delay considering it. They set conditions which had to be met before they would do so. Thus they defied the government without flatly breaking the conventions, which was clever, and unpredicted. The saga shows what advantage accrues to those few, in either House, who bother to study the rules and exploit them. Before ‘family-friendly’ hours destroyed the proper scrutiny of legislation in the Commons, this mastery of procedural powers of delay was the main weapon of opposition. The Lords were wrong to go so far in this particular case, but it is good to see a revival of the old crafts. As part of its exciting commitment to diversity, the government should find a couple of people on its own side who know how Parliament works.

There is a row because the new edition of the ministerial code has removed explicit mention of the duty of ministers to conform to international law. Some will feel relief that the will of our own parliament is given greater prominence, and less deference is shown to those seeking to rule the world through universal and undemocratic legal doctrines, but one cannot blame ‘human rights’ lawyers for getting hot under their gowns. What did slightly shock me, however, was a letter in the Guardian from Sir Paul Jenkins, who was, until recently, the Treasury solicitor. ‘As the government’s most senior legal official,’ he wrote, ‘I saw at first hand …the intense irritation these words [about international law] caused the PM as he sought to avoid complying with international obligations, for example in relation to prisoner voting. Whether the new wording alters the legal obligations of ministers… there can be no doubt that they will regard the change as bolstering…their contempt for international law.’ Is there no code for government legal advisers, since we are talking about codes, which tells them that they should not reveal what ministers said to them when they held their posts, or make hostile public comment on what they believe they saw? I have met Sir Paul, an amusing man who is said to have been good at his job. Now he undermines his good work by revealing himself, as an adviser never should, as a political antagonist of the people he advised. His letter is another example of the extraordinary disdain now openly expressed by modern lawyers for elected governments. The rule of law is being usurped by the rule of lawyers.

In this column last week, I mistakenly attributed to Louis MacNeice lines which were written by William Empson. When your memory strongly tells you something is right, always check. I didn’t. I’m sorry.


In the same column, I also mentioned how boarding-school pupils put expensive items on their parents’ bill (and sometimes buy them their Christmas presents in this way). I hear of an extreme recent example, suffered by a friend. His son went to southern Africa on a school trip, and there shot an impala and a wildebeest. Without warning, the extras on the bill at the end of term included the cost of taxidermy and delivering the heads — in the region of £600.

My much-loved uncle, Norman Moore, died last week, aged 92. He was an extremely distinguished conservationist, a pioneer in discovering the effect the damage that DDT was doing to birds. He was also a classic example of how the child is father of the man. His mother kept notes of the early remarks of her children, and all strongly foreshadowed their interests in later life. Saying his prayers at night, the very young Norman, instead of ‘Make Norman a good boy’, said, ‘Make Norman a good anteater’. He also noted that the sky one day was ‘the colour of cygnets’. When he heard how Jesus had walked upon the water, he reassured himself with the thought that the ‘stinging fish’ would not sting him ‘because they knew him’.

One of the best of P.G. Wodehouse’s works is The Inimitable Jeeves, which I have recently re-read. In order to impress his friend Bingo Little’s rich uncle, Lord Bittlesham, Bertie Wooster has to pretend that he is the romantic novelist Rosie M. Banks, whose writing Bittlesham greatly admires. The trick succeeds. Eventually, when Bingo wishes to marry a waitress without being cut out of his uncle’s money, he begs Bertie to go and plead with Lord Bittlesham on his behalf. He advises him to ‘start off by sending the old boy an autographed copy of your latest effort with a flattering inscription’. ‘What is my latest?’ asks Bertie, who is unfamiliar with the oeuvre whose authorship he claims. ‘“The Woman Who Braved All”, said young Bingo, “…The shop windows are full of nothing but it. It looks to me from the picture on the jacket the sort of book any chappie would be proud to have written.”’ It is indeed an excellent title. I wish I had thought of it when I embarked on my authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps I could use it as the overarching name for all three volumes.

An opencast coal mine belonging to the great writer and climate sceptic Matt Ridley was shut down for most of Monday by protestors who chained themselves to a mechanical digger and proclaimed that, by allowing the extraction of ‘the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel’, Lord Ridley was ‘cooking the planet’. So it has come to this, that left-wing agitators who, if they had been alive in the 1980s, would all have worn ‘Coal not Dole’ badges, now attack a viscount for supporting the miners.

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  • rtj1211

    Mr Moore

    I’m afraid the Left Attack the Right and the Right Attack the Left no matter what they stand for, argue or have historically argued for. Except when they steal their arguments under the guise of opportunism.

    The Rt Hon Member for Tatton was, after all, shameless in pinching the lines of that arch right wing Conservative, Aneurin Bevan, when proclaiming that ‘we are the builders’. Two more diametrically opposed politicians it is hard to find…..

    Right now, Jeremy Corbyn is attacked for undoing his flies to relieve himself, as either his trousers don’t fit, he has become inappropriately sexually aroused by other Labour MPs etc etc. All of it is made up nonsense, bullying rubbish from the media.

    Your colleague Mr Delingpole has for years raged about the evils of the public sector and the glories of the private and is now whinging that the car insurance industry is a mafia-controlled racket. You don’t say…….

    The Left are even worse, if truth be told and as for the Libdems supporting the policies of Juncker, Verhofstadt et al, it makes them the apotheosis of Illiberal, Anti-Democratic authoritarianism.

    Most of the responsibility lies in the Press. There are never campaigns promoting holistic analysis, highlighting the tough choices which have to be made etc etc. Articles discussing how the inevitable transition from oil/coal to other sources might or might not happen, what timescale it should realistically take place over and what dangers emerge for new ‘technologists’ getting decades-long bungs from Governments to enrich them at the expense of the rest.

    Providing the infrastructure for electric cars comes to mind……Google profits and the country pays for the roads so they can profit. Why shouldn’t Google pay for the roads too? It is trillion pound subsidies for private enterprise – not consistent with your ‘free market philosophy’ is it? Are you a big enough man to challenge the economics of Google and assert your principles or are you really a ‘kiss the ass of the biggest dinosaurs in the jungle’ type of pragmatist at heart??

    So what we get are these farce-like junkets to Doha, Copenhagen, Cancun and now Paris, where parasites spend millions flying in from the world over to bullshit, not attend sessions and have a week long session of getting drunk, pulling blokes/women and blissfully trying to vote through the abolition of nation state democracy under the aegis of the United Nations.

    Renewable energy sources will be part of the mix, especially in hot sunny places. Solar has a significant place the world over. But it’s not suitable for Britain, Russia, Canada or Patagonia right now. Heat pumps have their place, especially in rural environments. Modern construction practices can make heating houses almost a thing of the past by 2100 in most parts of the world.

    The argument comes around how you generate the energy for places of work, high energy usage industries and all the energy needed for food processing/storage to occur successfully.

    What’s obvious is that the solutions for Saudi Arabia aren’t the solutions for the UK and we should never, ever, ever be buying solutions from people whose climates are radically different from ours. We shouldn’t and that’s the end of it. We should be in alliance with New Zealand, Japan, Washington State and other places with a maritime, temperate climate. We should not be told what to do by Southern Californians, Arabs living in deserts or Southern Europeans whose winters are mild and summers are hot. Nor by Indians and Africans living in the tropics or subtropics.

    But that’s too complicated for our experts in the Press, isn’t it??

    You don’t care about the British people, all you focus on is turning a buck tomorrow morning.

    Perhaps you should think about serving the british people before they desert you in droves??

  • WFB56

    “The rule of law is being usurped by the rule of lawyers.” An excellent turn of phrase and something that is sadly too true.
    It is appalling that someone like Jenkins was in a senior role in any organisation but that too, is sadly too common.

    • Terry Field

      Woy wos wodgered. Cwossy did it!
      Naughty Cwossy.
      More Clawet????

  • pobjoy

    You’ll never be a Decent British Chap, Charles, not while you pay allegiance to a foreign power.

    Your Blessed Margaret did more for the Japanese than she ever did for the British. Daughter of Iniquity greater than the sin of Sodom (though not fastidious about that, either, apparently), her aim was to sow, where there was faith, doubt; where there was hope, despair; where there was light, darkness; where there was joy, sadness. These are all still with us, largely through the efforts of a sucessor leader who also defected to the enemy.

    I’ve got a better title for your trilogy: ‘Ding-Dong!’

    • Mr Grumpy

      And if we hadn’t had her? Like Charles I grew up in a Britain that was more or less resigned to seeing its economy converge with Germany. East Germany, I mean. Were you there?

      • pobjoy

        Adults only.

        • Mr Grumpy

          I’ll need to see some ID, please.

    • pobjoy

      Adults comments only, please.

    • jeffersonian

      Time for your medicine….

  • Douglas Carter

    Much as I agree with the sentiment with regard to the rule of law and lawyers, the comments attributed to Jenkins are entirely fair comment, and I’d say he’s under no obligation to conceal (even under traditional professional ethics) Cameron’s long-term and fairly well-established lack of competent judgment and profound unreadiness for any form of responsible office.
    International law defers to conventions and Treaty signatory status. Removing (if you word it correctly) ‘explicit’ from the duties of Ministers makes no difference in Law in any respect. Any and every incorrect decision flowing from it which contravenes those laws can stand subject to judicial review or its overturn. Let alone turn into yet another diplomatic embarrassment.
    If that same ‘International Law’ is so inconvenient it needs to be altered, then the body responsible for conducting the necessary amendments is the House of Commons. If this Government lacks the guts or competence to make those necessary dispensations, it should stand aside and let more qualified leaders take their places.
    Unfortunately, the Conservatives have a very poor track-record of learning from those mistakes.

  • Douglas Carter

    Much as I agree with the sentiment with regard to the rule of law and lawyers, the comments attributed to Jenkins are entirely fair comment, and I’d say he’s under no obligation to conceal (even under traditional professional ethics) Cameron’s long-term and fairly well-established lack of competent judgment and profound unreadiness for any form of responsible office.
    International law defers to conventions and Treaty signatory status. Removing (if you word it correctly) ‘explicit’ from the duties of Ministers makes no difference in Law in any respect. Any and every incorrect decision flowing from it which contravenes those laws can stand subject to judicial review or its overturn. Let alone turn into yet another diplomatic embarrassment.
    If that same ‘International Law’ is so inconvenient it needs to be altered, then the body responsible for conducting the necessary amendments is the House of Commons. If this Government lacks the guts or competence to make those necessary dispensations, it should stand aside and let more qualified leaders take their places.
    Unfortunately, the Conservatives have a very poor track-record of learning from those mistakes.

  • SpinningHugo

    If interested in the ministerial code, I explain the change here

    https://spinninghugo.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/the-ministerial-code-re-write/

  • Alison Lunge

    Thank you for the correction re Empson, and for another enjoyable piece

  • mikewaller

    Two matters arising:
    Remarks concerning Sir Paul Jenkins reveal Moore for exactly what he is: a would-be autocrat of the old school. The first duty of a public servant is not to his erstwhile political masters but to the British public as a whole. From Crichel Down, through the super-gun affair to the current tax credits fiasco, politicians continually reveal themselves to be no more trustworthy than princes. The electorate therefore need institutions from whom they can seek protection from political excesses. The votes for prisoners affair is a classic case in point. First, it is a matter of very small consequence. As there are under 100,000 of them, they are are hardly likely to swing an election.Second, if rehabilitation is a desirable aspect of punishment, getting prisoners to take an interest in politics has to be a good idea. Third, all prisoners did not have to be included. However, our gutter press chose to make an issue of it because of the European aspect. A variety of poseurs in the H of C (e.g.Straw and Davis) then jumped on the band wagon and soon Joe Public was hopping up and down. Cameron, ever the crowed-pleaser,instead of standing up and saying how stupid it all was, got very frustrated by the international constraints that made it difficult for him to do as the mob wished. Hence his wish to change the code. Anybody having the good sense to see that they might be in the next minority getting the rough end of the political stick, should ignore Moore and say “Well done, Jenkins!”

    Second matter: it is amazing how selective Moore is in giving us the CV of “Viscount” Matt Ridley. Absolutely no reference to the Northern Rock fiasco over which Ridley presided. His work on evolutionary theory is certainly well written but even he would not claim it to be original. As for global warming, I would suggest that both he and Moore look in the Business section of yesterday’s DT. It would seem that even China and India are now on-board in rejecting coal as a fuel of the future. So, again on a mining theme, perhaps Moore and Ridley should join Arthur Scargill in the dustbin of history.

    • OJ Streets

      Wasn’t the bigger issue about not being able to deport some chap or other

      • mikewaller

        I have just checked and can find nothing about anybody being deported.

    • Goinlike Billio

      You are right not to believe in democracy. I suppose there are a few odd people around who believe that a vote once every five years is an essential part of prisoners rehabilitation and that the large expense of carrying out such a proposal is justified but of course you will never win a vote on it. Quite rightly you decide that it should not be a matter for an elected govenment.

      These same idiots think it might be a question of ECHR implementing human rights which they never knew existed but you quite rightly point out that it is just a question of little Englanders opposition to the EU.

      The lawyers are quite right to believe that this matter must be discussed further.

  • Terry Field

    Moore has become less in this piece.
    Wrong way round Mr Moore.
    Parliament needs someone who knows how government is required to function.

  • hdb

    I am not sure that the protesters who are against coalmining would describe themselves as leftwing. My understand is that environmentalists seem themselves are transcending left and right. Hence figures such as Zac Goldsmith.

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