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.