Reporting Westminster: reflections from 70 years of Today in Parliament

On Wednesday 25 June 2014, BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Mark D’Arcy delivered the final Open Lecture of the 2013-14 series.

With the impending 70th anniversary of the 'Today in Parliament' programme, he reflected on the reporting of Parliament over the 70 year period, and discussed what has changed at Parliament in that time.

About Mark D'Arcy

Mark has been a correspondent for 'Today in Parliament' since 2002, and also presents BBC Parliament’s political book review show, BOOKtalk.

His career has included stints at LWT’s Weekend World and the Leicester Mercury. He has also produced and occasionally presented Radio 4's The Westminster Hour.

Reporting Westminster: Open Lecture transcript

Mark D'Arcy, BBC Parliamentary Correspondent: Thank you Naomi. I'm proposing to talk at about this volume - I'll be droning on a bit for a while so can everybody hear me at this level? Excellent.

I have the great privilege of working for a great parliamentary institution: Today in Parliament is a radio programme that has gone out - barring the odd power cut here and there, I dare say - every parliamentary working day since 1945. It's almost part of the fixtures and fittings of the place now.

The first edition was broadcast on October 9 1945 - the day Parliament reassembled after the long summer recess that year. It was also when the great Labour Government that followed the Second World War – though it actually started just at the very end of the Second World War - was just getting going.

And there had been, through the Second World War, increasing pressure for systematic daily reporting of parliamentary events. Today in Parliament is the product of that. It is to this day the only programme the BBC broadcast that is more or less mandated by its charter, because believe it or not even in 1944 when the D Day landings were on and bombs were raining down on London - there was actually a Government committee that met to consider the BBC's charter renewal at some office in Whitehall and one of the things that came up was coverage of Parliament and that was duly written in by the then Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, as part of the BBC's mandate in the future, and thus Today in Parliament was born.

That first edition began with a simple statement - the script still exists, lovingly preserved in the BBC's archive (or at least on microfilm):

"The House of Commons reassembled in strength this afternoon to get down to the serious business of the session."

It described a rather unfamiliar scene: Churchill was sitting on the Opposition benches, facing the Prime Minister, Clem Attlee. It reported on Emmanuel Shinwell getting a rough ride over petrol supplies in a debate on price controls; questions about giving British nationality to Polish Citizens who were unwilling to return to their Russian controlled homeland. And it ended by describing the debut of a young Labour politician who was to dominate politics for much of the next 30 years.

The slightly unfortunate Mr J H Wilson, junior minister in the Ministry of Works plodded through a rather pedestrian answer to a debate on Members' facilities in Parliament, which were pretty poor.

There was a certain excuse for this: MPs at the time were sitting in the chamber of the House of Lords because the House of Commons chamber had been bombed out earlier in the Second World War and hadn't been repaired yet. But he took what I think is technically known in parliamentary jargon as 'one hell of a kicking'.

Parliament was in those days a very different beast. But one of the beguiling things about it is that the language is similar, the chambers are similar – a lot of the formalities and the sonorous formulas that are used in Parliament were very similar.

So if you look back to that day 70 years ago when Today in Parliament was getting going you'd be more struck by the similarities I think than the differences. I caught the other day a bit of The Palissers, which is being re-run on BBC4. The Palissers is a drama about Victorian politics - and actually you'd be quite struck by some of the familiarities there too.

So it is beguiling, because while a lot of the forms remain the same - or pretty similar - the underlying changes in Parliament in that 70 years since the radio programme I work on first started, are actually quite enormous when you come to go down the list and enumerate them.

And I thought that what I'd do today was just to go through some of the quite seismic changes in the way that we do politics in this country and the way we do parliamentary work in this country - that have occurred during those nearly seven decades.

Perhaps the most visible difference is that there are women in Parliament. There had been a few women in Parliament even before WW2; you can get into a dispute as to whether the first woman MP was Nancy Astor who was the first MP to take her seat, or whether it was the Sinn Fein candidate Countess Constance Markiewicz who was elected in 1918 but never actually took her seat.

But all the same there were only ever a handful of women in Parliament for quite a long time - the number gradually crept up but the real quantum leap has come recently: first the Blair and then the Cameron eras - when very large numbers of women have come into the chamber and very much changed the dynamic.

Remember that scene in the Meryl Streep film The Iron Lady, when Margaret Thatcher is the one dot of colour in a stream of grey suits and blue pin-stripes marching into the Chamber?

Well it's not like that anymore. Remember Penny Mordaunt's marvellous speech at the beginning of this parliamentary session when she described the first woman ever to second the Loyal Address - the vote of thanks to the Queen for giving the Queen’s Speech - in I think 1963, who had the living daylights patronised out of her by the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, who said he couldn't remember a thing that she had said because he had been so beguiled her wonderful feminine charms...

These days I think that you would find that ‘everyday sexism’ would be remarked upon and indeed heavily avenged. So we don't get that quite so much and indeed the agenda at Parliament is rather less inconvenienced by male intellectual blind spots - so that is one very major change right there.

There is also now more than a smattering of MPs from the various ethnic minorities in this country and that is undoubtedly a good thing. There had been a few Asian MPs in Parliament over the years before that but having a substantial presence is something that is relatively new to the House.

So my first point is that the diversity levels of the Commons have changed out of all recognition and that is a relatively recent phenomenon for much of the lifetime of Today in Parliament.

Another thing to watch out for is that the central event of the modern House of Commons - Prime Ministers Questions - wasn't there. Prime Ministers Questions didn't actually get started until 1961. There was an experimental period as recommended by the Commons Procedure Committee and after that, in October 1961, they went for a formal system with two regular slots a week - 15 minutes on Tuesday, 15 minutes on a Thursday - for the Prime Minister to take questions.

True, before that the Prime Minister had answered questions in the House but they tended to be on a much more ad hoc basis. Now you have a quite different set up. So cast your mind back - imagine what parliament was like without that central gladiatorial battle - almost the complete focus of emotional energy of the party battle in parliament. It just wasn't there: like having a House of Commons with a hole in it.

It was originally quite sedate - people became used to the idea of how this would work: Harold MacMillan squaring up to Hugh Gaitskell like two gladiators who'd known each other for a very long time - but it gradually became a lot nastier. By the time Edward Heath was facing Harold Wilson later on in the 1960s there was genuine level of personal venom in some of the exchanges. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd always thought that that was the moment that Prime Minister’s Questions turned nasty, simply because those two didn't like each other.

Something else that's changed is that when Today in Parliament went into business there were no Departmental Select Committees: there were no regular committees of MPs with a more or less fixed membership looking carefully at a particular bit of government on a daily, weekly, basis studying the activities of say the Department of Health, or studying the activities of the Ministry of Defence - and trying to make sure that they were keeping tabs across what those were doing.

Before those committees were introduced by the great Norman St John Stevas in 1979 committees were much more ad hoc affairs; they didn't really operate long enough to acquire any real expertise, still less any huge amount of clout, and their membership and crucially the occupant of the chair were still, for quite a long time after they were created, effectively gerrymandered. They were controlled by the executive: there was a thing called the Committee of Selection that would meet somewhere in the bowels of Westminster and choose their members.

Relatively recently - it only started in this parliament - we've got to the point of actually electing the committee chairs and electing committee members and that has been a quantum change in the work of select committees.

We've seen high drama - not to mention custard pies - in the Culture Committee over the whole ‘hacking’ affair which is of course very topical at the moment. We've seen some ferocious displays in the Public Accounts Committee including the almost unheard of sight of a civil servant being asked to swear an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to the Committee, to his considerable chagrin and to the genuine shock of Whitehall – an almost visible ripple ran through the Civil Service when that was done.

And that was all part of a huge argument about who civil servants were answerable to. Were they answerable to their ministers who then answered to Parliament or could they answer direct questions from Parliament and be directly accountable to Parliament and the committees of Parliament. And that's a constitutional battle of some importance that is still going on at the moment.

There's a rather obscure sounding document called the Osmotherly Rules that tries to codify this and at the moment the Osmotherly Rules are basically implying they may well be re-written and it will be quite interesting to see how that works out.

Perhaps one of the things that may determine the outcome is whether or not we have strong government with a sufficiently powerful majority at the next election to bounce such challenges away, because if we have another hung parliament I think all parties might develop a little bit of an interest in increasing parliamentary accountability.

So we've seen quite a golden age of select committees recently - perhaps we have the bankers to thank for that.

Those who remember the sight, just after the 'credit crunch' - the great financial crisis - of the most powerful bankers of the land, the masters of the universe - coming in to the Treasury Select Committee and either trying to apologise or issue non-apology-apologies for the financial disaster that was overtaking the country. That was one of the moments when the select committee system seemed to begin to matter to the outside world.

It wasn't so much that the reporters outside then scanned the detail of the reports that the Treasury Committee issued - but there was a mechanism of public accountability: really important people were dragged into that Committee and made to say sorry - or at least pretend to say sorry - and that was I think quite a useful exercise in demonstrating that ‘be you ever so important’ you can still have your chain jerked by the parliamentarians who work in this building.

And then later on in this parliament came a marvellous organisation called the Parliamentary Commission on Banking and this has been an amazingly successful legislative exercise.

It followed a second-wave banking scandal: remember the Libor scandal - interest rate-fixing allegations - that swept the City a couple of years ago? David Cameron was forced to react fairly rapidly to what could have become quite a toxic eruption of lack of confidence in the banking system by setting up a commission to investigate and make recommendations on how to improve the ethical practice of banking.

And he set up, after a few tremors here and there, an amazingly high-powered Commission under Andrew Tyrie, who also chairs the Commons Treasury Select Committee. And that Commission absolutely crucially consisted of both MPs and peers. It had some very high-powered peers: the former Chancellor, Lord Lawson; Lord Butler, the former top civil servant; The Archbishop of Canterbury - although he was the Archbishop of Durham when he started - he changed Sees half-way through.

A whole load of extremely high-powered peers sat on that committee and the effect of that was that they could change the law. People don't always register that the House of Lords has been for quite some time now a ‘hung’ chamber - there is no overall majority in the House of Lords - and that suitably persuasive peers can win an argument and get people to vote accordingly.

The end result of that was that this Banking Commission produced huge numbers of recommendations on all kinds of incredibly detailed issues about the conduct and running of banks, the powers and abilities of directors, the responsibilities of heads of division in banks - all sorts of stuff. All very detailed and very technical - but all very important.

And when the Banking Bill that George Osborne was trying to put through Parliament went through the Lords the peers who had been on that commission led a kind of long-running insurgency in which, again and again and again, they either forced the Government to change its mind or defeated it in an outright vote with the end result that I think it was ‘Andrew Tyrie: 19, George Osborne: 2’, as the kind of score line.

That Bill was virtually re-written as a result of this. It was a fantastically successful exercise of raw parliamentary power. Perhaps the most important exercise of raw parliamentary power, you might say, since the 1979 vote which threw out the Callaghan Government.

And that I suspect is one of the reasons why any Government would think extremely hard before permitting another such exercise ever again: they learnt the hard way that this is far more effective than perhaps they imagined it would be.

In general, and this is number four on my list of things that have really changed, MPs now have a vast amount more power than they used to have: they can get debates on the issues they want to talk about in the Commons and, amazingly - I still find this mildly astonishing - before this Parliament there weren’t easy ways for that to happen.

You could perhaps get an adjournment debate as an MP and that would be a half-hour at the ‘fag-end’ of the day, where in an empty chamber you and a minister could talk about an issue.

But the advent of the Backbench Business Committee - one of the package of reforms designed to pep-up the reputation of Parliament after the awful scandal over MPs’ expenses - that package of reforms produced a beast called the Backbench Business Committee which basically has a block of time including primetime debating time on the floor of the House of Commons that it can parcel out to what it deems to be worthy causes and where there can indeed be votes.

That has been a crucial innovation in this Parliament that has given MPs a huge voice that they didn't have before. Sometimes there are issues that neither the Government nor the Opposition really wants to talk about and in earlier parliaments that meant those issues never reached the floor of the Commons.

In this parliament we have for example had a series of votes about whether or not there should be military action in Syria which cornered the Government into promising that there would be a vote before military intervention in Syria. And when eventually they held that vote they lost it. But the only reason that vote was held was through the pressure of the Backbench Business Committee debate that forced the Government to do that.

There’s a similar story about the European Referendum motion: a huge amount of pressure, largely from Government backbenchers to make sure the issue of Europe was not sort of sidelined and kept off the table. That was not possible because the Backbench Business Committee allowed those debated to take place and they became very difficult for the Government to handle.

So that's issue one with MPs having more power. MPs also vote for a Speaker by secret ballot. They've always been able to vote for a Speaker but now that same power is applied to other posts within Parliament as well.

They vote for the people they want to be Chairs of Select Committees. And as a result those Chairs have become, in some cases at least, very important in their own right. If you look at the activities of Margaret Hodge chairing the Public Accounts Committee, the very powerful financial watchdog of Parliament, you see somebody who is able to pursue a very activist agenda: holding people to account, holding companies to account for not paying enough tax in this country for example; holding civil servants to account and forcing them to swear the oath. All sorts of other examples of causes being pursued, with enormous - and sometimes uncomfortable for Government – vigour, through the PAC.

Look at the performance of Keith Vaz and the Home Affairs Committee. Look at the way for example the Health Committee in a moment of crisis in a hung parliament - when a Government bill to reorganise the Health Service ran into deep, deep trouble - exploited the moment to virtually co-rewrite that bill along with the Government. That was a huge advance for the way the House of Commons has exercised its power.

This has stopped being quite the 'rubber-stamp' assembly that it’s sometimes seen to be.

I’ll talk in a minute about the amount of rebellion - the extent to which MPs over the generations have been prepared to defy the Government. But one thing that has happened is that the procedures, the rules of the House, have changed in a way that makes that an awful lot more possible now where MPs want to do it.

The simple fact of electing these people has created a new dynamic in the House of Commons.

The only real channel for advancement for most MPs before was the hope of becoming a minister. Now there is if you like a parallel, alternative form of career path where you can become an important figure in parliamentary scrutiny and hold Government to account.

Indeed it’s reached the point where a lot of MPs voting, in these occasional elections to chair select committees, now think that what they don't want is someone who nurses in their breast a hope of becoming a minister because that might make them a bit too tame. It might make them a little bit too unwilling to offend just in case that spoilt their career prospects later.

And that’s an interesting new vibration that’s only just started to happen.

Look at the ones that there have been just in the last few weeks: there have been two by-elections for Select Committee Chairs in the last month or so. First of all Rory Stewart won the Chair of the Defence Committee, then Dr Sarah Wollaston won the Health Committee Chair. And in both those cases very independent-minded people beat candidates who were often quite establishment and who would have been the kind of people the previous system would have selected.

Now there may be a down-side to this. I should explain that Select Committee chairs are supposed to be shared out between the parties as a result of the split in the Commons overall - there's a break down along party lines so that the Lib Dems get so many committee chairs, the Labour Party get so many and the Conservatives get so many committee chairs.

While a committee is allocated to a party you then have an election of the whole House to decide, for example, which Conservative will be chair of the Health Committee - which is what’s recently happened.

A lot of Conservatives are beginning to mutter: there is a suggestion doing the rounds at the moment that the Labour Party is making mischief and is quite openly going for the candidate who is going to cause the most trouble for the Government.

You go back and forth on that: the candidate the Opposition is going to like for any given select committee post is likely to be the one ideologically closest to them, or most independent-minded. So there's a very thin line between pursuing party advantage and simply choosing someone to your own liking; it doesn't necessarily betoken mischief-making.

But if the Conservatives are going to complain about that - and a lot of them are suggesting that maybe there needs to be some sort of party primary process where perhaps one candidate emerges from their party group and that’s the person they all vote for. If they are suggesting that, the small detail they ought to consider is that 80 Conservatives who were eligible to vote for the Chair of the Health Committee did not for whatever reason do so in the election last week. So those who are criticising the system should maybe try operating it first.

We shall see. What we've got now is people who feel they have demonstrated robust independence of mind - and feel they will win by demonstrating robust independence of mind - going for these select committee jobs and as a result of that you have people whose words will be taken I think a great deal more seriously than the genial compliant party hacks who in previous parliaments could have expected to be rewarded for a lifetime of loyalty by getting a Chair.

It can only strengthen the independence of the Commons in scrutinising Government and that strikes me as probably a good thing.

Number five on my list of many changes is that facilities for MPs are infinitely better.

First time I ever set foot in this building was a disturbingly long time ago in 1990 when I was the political correspondent for the Leicester Mercury - I was here on the invitation of Keith Vaz.

I still remember my astonishment: here was an up and coming Member of Parliament proudly showing me the desk that he had secured from which to write letters to his constituents and do all his parliamentary work - which was somewhere in the cellars almost directly beneath us - underneath a ventilation duct which was swathed in duct tape and had spiders crawling all over it.

The way he was proudly telling me that after a long and bitter struggle he had actually been able to secure a telephone as well, he was incredible pleased at what was doubtless a huge victory.

But when you look at the facilities MPs have got now - the offices in Portcullis House which are reasonably spacious (though they may not seem that to people who are working there now) - with telephones and wi-fi and it’s not a five mile hike to the nearest toilet - all these things make the current generation of MPs much better catered for than their predecessors which means they can conduct their business far more effectively.

I remember when it was considered media-savvy and almost devilish cunning for some MPs like Dr David Owen to choose an office positioned near the tele-printer - which used to disgorge the headlines on a regular basis - so they could rush to the nearest studio if they had a good story to tell and get on the news. That was considered devilish cunning.

Then they invented CEEFAX and then came the internet and suddenly people had access to information on a far greater scale than their predecessors had and were able therefore to do all sorts of things that would been plain logistically impossible before. It sounds like you’re almost entering a sort of lost world - you could almost expect to see Dinosaurs roaming across the scene - when you recall how primitive this place used to be, and in living memory.

And while we're talking about facilities - what about Portcullis House? Has anyone been over there? A vast new building - it's been in operation now about 10 years I think – some people remember the horrible building that used to be there before. But I have a theory that Portcullis House has of itself made a substantial difference to the working of Parliament. I think there's almost a thesis to be written about this.

What you have in this building - the old Victorian building - is an hierarchical space. There are places where only MPs can go; there are places only peers may go; there are places where visitors may go if accompanied by an MP but which they must not enter if not accompanied by an MP or an officer of the House, etc, etc.

If you go into Portcullis House and that great big atrium there - to be sure at one end there are restaurant tables reserved for MPs, peers and officers of the House - but most of it anyone can go anywhere. I always thought that this was a kind of omission, that the powers-that-be had just sort of forgotten to set the usual restrictive rules, but to their eternal credit quite consciously the House of Commons Commission - the sort of ruling body - actually thought it was quite a good idea to have a place where people could just mix, and they weren't being policed by ushers because they've stepped into the wrong bit. That has made an enormous difference to the social dynamic.

Portcullis House is probably now more important than most other spaces other than the chambers in terms of people being able to meet, interact, exchange ideas, have arguments, have a cup of coffee, greet constituents - all the rest of it - and just mix in one great big swirl and not be rigidly segregated out into cunning social gradations in the way that the old Victorian palace just naturally fell into doing.

What the effects of this are I’m not quite sure but it does mean that people like me find life an awful lot easier when we want to talk to someone. I can just become someone who buys lattes for a living and sits by the coffee bar in Portcullis House, pouncing on random passers-by and extracting stories from them. It's not a bad journalistic technique.

It's a very good way to discover things that you didn't know before.

I would put Portcullis House down almost as a parliamentary reform in its own right.

Number six: constituency work. I was rather struck - being the sad person I am I read a lot of parliamentary memoirs. More than a century ago HH Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister-to-be, was on a visit to his Scottish constituency - a rather rare event - and he went on a hike with his close political ally and parliamentary neighbour Richard Burdon Haldane, a future Lord Chancellor.

They climbed to the top of some hill, sat down and enjoyed the view which encompassed both of their constituencies and Asquith remarked upon how wonderful it was that two English lawyers could have a berth in Parliament courtesy of a couple Scottish seats that they hardly ever had to visit.

Fast-forward a few decades and read Roy Jenkins' memoirs about his monthly visits to his Birmingham constituency which were very formal affairs where he would go to some sort of church hall and meet a few constituents and then retire to have dinner at the best hotel he could find to recover from the experience.
Few MPs in the 21st century could afford to do that. Constituency engagement has become almost an absolute requirement, certainly for the new generation of mps most of whom it must be said do not feel completely secure in their seats; most of whom can feel the hot breath of UKIP on them to a certain extent; most of whom regard the next election as being a rather unpredictable beast and most of whom are determined to work as hard as they possibly can to make sure that they are still Members of Parliament after the 2015 general election.

Constituents now expect engagement and demand engagement in ways that they just didn’t before.

The good old days when the great Enoch Powell could sit in the Commons Library and do all his constituency correspondence on his own, without the aid of secretaries and research assistants - has just gone now. Even Enoch Powell would struggle to deal with the sort of roaming inbox full of thousands of emails that every MP gets every day of the week.

So constituency engagement has reached a new quantum level: it takes place in person - you have to go zooming around your constituency attending the opening of a plastic bag if you can possibly get an invitation to it.

You have to deal with your written correspondence; you have to deal with your email correspondence; you're probable engaged in tweeting furiously at your constituents - although one day - just once in my life – I would love to read an MP tweeting something about his constituency that wasn't wonderful. I'd love to read them tweet: 'Just been to a really bad school - awful kids, terrible teachers, morale dreadful'.

But no one ever does that because everything is lovely in every garden as we all know.

But on social media, on the internet, wherever you go MPs are having to interact at a level they didn't before, because if they don't their opponents may come and get them and that has changed the way parliament works again.

Now I've mostly talked so far about Commons issues but it’s also worth saying that the House of Lords has morphed considerably from its 1945 form. When Today in Parliament started, the House of Lords was in the process of having its delaying powers to legislation further watered down by the incoming Labour Government but it was to a certain extent already a semi-moribund chamber.

It had a very small active membership and it was also ludicrously unrepresentative of the political balance of the country. When Labour came in, in 1945, there was therefore a Labour Leader of the House of Lords called Lord Addison of the Salisbury-Addison convention fame -  that's a piece of constitutional arcana.

This was a massively experienced politician who'd served in the cabinet under Lloyd George, he'd been around forever and was famous for kicking the calves of his fellow Labour peers if they were speaking and making some sort of mistake; suddenly they’d get a kick and they would look down and they would be handed a little note and they would realise whatever was the mistake they'd made.

But he had just 16 supporters in a House that had a very nominal voting membership of 831 at the time. And of course the gender balance was even less representative than that because there wouldn't have been any women at all.

1958 was when the first Life Peers arrived and that was partly to inject new life into the House, simply people to make sure its debates were a little bit more informed and a little bit more effective. And the first tranche of life peers included 4 women which was a social revolution in itself.

Surviving Harold Wilson's attempts at further reforms in the 60s, the Lords beavered on as a quiet and increasingly effective revising chamber for several decades until the Blair Government excluded most of the hereditary peers who up until that point  had dominated its membership. Many never actually appeared in the first place but there was a large and quite dedicated band of hereditaries who took their parliamentary duties extremely seriously and worked extremely hard and were perhaps not best pleased to be summarily removed.

There was rather an exotic compromise that exists still to this day where there are 92 hereditaries still sitting in the House - just to make sure the whole thing isn't dominated by Government appointees. How long that arrangement persists, I don’t know. I'm not sure any rational politician at the moment is going to send their fingers waggling back to the fire on Lords reform but you never know - it could at some stage happen.

But the effect of getting rid of the hereditaries was - I think possibly to the surprise of the Blair Government - actually to make the House a bit more assertive. It was far less defensive after that about its legitimacy and it was more prepared to amend bills it didn't like.

There’s a marvellous site maintained by a fabulous organisation called the Constitution Unit and if you delve into it you come across a kind of chronicle of Government defeats in the House of Lords which demonstrates that increasingly the Lords has been willing to change the legislation the Government puts before it and to force the Government either to compromise or to insist on the changes it’s made. And that has given the House of Lords a great deal more authority and leverage than it had before.

The late Denis Carter who was Chief Whip in the Lords under Tony Blair got to the point where he was sick of his Government colleagues complaining that he didn't deliver the majorities they expected for their legislation in the House of Lords and he actually started printing a form that he would give to ministers who were going to bring legislation before the Lords which they had to fill out, setting out their strategy for getting their stuff through the House of Lords.

The principle process of this was not that he expected their strategy to be very good; it was just to rub their noses in the fact that it's not a done deal that you get what you want in the House of Lords just because you've got the majority in the House of Commons.

The Blair Government was so used to having that crushing majority in the House of Commons where it could steamroller through anything in wanted, that it would tend to be quite surprised when its legislation came to a juddering halt when it reached the upper House, even if it was brought to a halt for the soundest of reasons, which it very often was.

I doubt the producers of Today in Parliament in 1945 bothered all that much frankly with the House of Lords because there didn't tend to be any excitement there. These days there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of very serious legislative business goes on and there’s always the possibility of a Government defeat from time to time.

In the Coalition years there were 48 Government defeats in the long session of 2010-2012; there were 14 in the session that's just ended and some of those were extremely significant issues, about immigration, for example.
So the House of Lords today has morphed from a being a semi-moribund chamber back in 1945 to a very significant constitutional player now.

Number eight on my list of changes is Europe.

Ever since Enoch Powell, very anguished, found himself shouting: 'It won't do! It won't do!" when the Government finally signed up in 1972 to take Britain into the EEC as it then was, Parliament has rather struggled to find a really satisfactory way to deal with all the legislation that streams out of various parts of the EU. And I don't think they've found the answer yet. There's an awful lot of scrutiny effort that goes on but no one ever seems particularly satisfied that this Parliament has found an effective way of processing EU legislation.

The European Scrutiny Committee did a very interesting inquiry, in effect, into itself and how European business could be better scrutinised and how the work might be spread amongst other committees and specialist committees developed to look at particular policy areas.

But the Government haven't I think yet agreed an answer to that that would satisfy the concerns of people who feel that far too much in the way of EU directives and EU law is effectively waived through Westminster because once it’s agreed at European level it’s almost impossible for national parliaments to change it.

But what we have there is actually a generic problem. There are other international bodies we're involved in; there are other international trade bodies, international conventions on this, that and the other and international courts to which we're potentially subject which Westminster doesn't have much traction on either.

And it will be very interesting to see if we do find some kind of formula for making sure that this national parliament has some way of addressing the decisions that come from these different sources outside of its area of influence.

I don't offer any solution to this - cleverer brains than mine have struggled with this issue for a very long time - but it is one the real issues - and is an issue for most national parliaments inside the EU and outside - about how they cope with an increasingly globalised world in which individual nations however important really struggle to exert influence against collective decisions in all these other organisations. We shall see.

Another big difference is us - the broadcasters.

Before World War Two the BBC had no reporter working at the Palace of Westminster - indeed attempts to install one had been resisted both by the politicians and by the newspaper correspondents. When the BBC wanted to send an observer to the Commons during World War Two the Director General actually had to send a written request to the Speaker on each occasion. And those requests were by no means always granted.

The war changed attitudes slowly and by 1940 two seats were set aside in the press gallery for BBC reporters but again the Serjeant at Arms had to be informed in writing each day whether those seats would be taken up.

It was stressed that this wasn't a permanent arrangement: it was just that there was a war on and you might want to report on what was going on at Parliament about that. And that was just the reporters of course.

The actual sound broadcasting of Parliament was at that stage decades away.

So when Today in Parliament started it was a straight read by a news reader of a 15 minute report on Parliament which can't have been the most exciting listen that you could ever possibly imagine. There were attempts early on though - Winston Churchill was an early protagonist of the idea of broadcasting the sound of the Commons.

He wanted permission on one occasion for a statement on the war situation which he proposed to give after returning from a flight to America where he'd been talking to President Roosevelt shortly after Pearl Harbour when America entered the war.

I think part of the aim there was to reduce the strain on the great man of having to make a statement to the House and then to have to repeat it into a microphone to be broadcast afterwards - after a very long trans-Atlantic flight for a man who wasn't exactly in the first bloom of his youth. This was considered by the war cabinet under Clem Attlee and there was a palpable fastidious shudder. The broadcast of Parliament ‘generally was to be deprecated’ the cabinet minute concludes.

Today in Parliament was born as I say in 1945 and this 15 minute summary of parliamentary proceedings was then the fixture in BBC Radio's schedules right up until 1978 when Parliament finally agreed to sound broadcasting, allowing extracts form speeches - what broadcasters call 'actuality' - to be used to illustrate both Today in Parliament and its sister programme Yesterday in Parliament and of course in news programmes as well.

You may remember - I'm sadly old enough to remember this - you would frequently on the TV news get a picture of the Prime Minister and a still picture, just a sort of stock photograph, and the voice being played underneath it of what they'd just said in Parliament.

That was a slightly uncomfortable compromise which I think possibly speeded the moment when TV broadcasting of Parliament came as well.

There were limitations of course to broadcasting; they were extremely cautious about the menace of ‘editorialising journalists’. There were very strict rules for the handling of sound from the House of Commons. You couldn't internally edit a piece.

I think the fear was the word 'not' would be taken out of a sentence therefore utterly reversing it or something. But you started at one bit and you played it through and then played the next bit. You couldn't for example edit out a coughing fit in the middle.

I've been doing this for a very long time and in ordinary radio recording if you get someone saying: "I think it's very important that in the fullness of time, taking this and that into account, we could do something" - you can edit out all the meaningless, ‘um’s and ‘er’s while the person thinks of what to say and compress it into a coherent sentence.

But you are not allowed to do that with parliamentary material so if there are ‘um’s, ‘er’s coughs and wheezes, asthma attacks or whatever else it might be, in the middle of what someone is saying you can't take them out just to make it easier for the listener - you have to make sure that you faithfully stick to what Parliament has offered.

That’s to this day one of the safeguards that MPs insist on. Even so, for those of you who listen to some of those tapes you can buy in various places, the sheer drama of some of the Commons debates that were held after sound broadcasting still makes for a fantastic listen.

I think it’s still available actually, you can still get a Great Parliamentary Speeches tape which I used to possess - it got chewed up unfortunately - which included the No Confidence debate of 1979 which sacked the Callaghan Government, where there is so much passion, so much good oratory, so much drama in the course of a few hours in the chamber. It is a fantastic listen.

And then there’s the Falklands debate - the successful Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands in 1982 - the debate that followed that was one of the most astonishing parliamentary debates you could ever hope to hear - full of emotion, full of drama - an astonishing listen.

And so even with all the restrictions I've talked about parliament can provide fantastic moments of drama. And of course the arrival of TV heightened all that and I think possibly made the chamber more gladiatorial.

You see Prime Minister’s Questions, once it was visual it became a huge twice-weekly event in which the great leaders of the country were pitted against each other often with finger-jabbing anger and it was a fascinating occasion. But another thing happened: as well as dramatising Parliament, it showed other things that were going on in Parliament; it showed rowdy MPs shaking fists, waving order papers, heckling, all that kind of thing.

But it only showed them if they were directly behind the person who was speaking in the picture as you weren't allowed to pan the picture elsewhere - there were some quite restricted views on what you could broadcast.

But it did show sides of Parliament that wasn't obvious just from the sound. I think it changed the image of Parliament. In particular, when you start to get news pictures of important things a minister has said and there's a wide shot that shows the chamber more or less empty at the time, people began to wonder what the MPs were doing and perhaps that's unfair.

We all know perfectly well there are many things that an MP has to do that don't involve sitting in the chamber. They can be in committee rooms discussing legislation, they do all sorts of stuff - maybe just boning up on some vital subjects that they plan to speak on later in another debate. There are all sorts of reasons why MPs may not be in the chamber but it tends to be a thought that it's their job to be there so why aren't they?

I think that possibly hurt the reputation of the House a bit as well. It changed perceptions and it changed awareness of the conduct of MPs in ways that perhaps MPs didn't appreciate would occur.

A final factor I want to mention that kind of relates to that is the behaviour patterns of parliamentarians are changing and they're changing in several important ways as the great Prof Philip Cowley of Nottingham University has chronicled.

There were two sessions back in the 1950s when not one single Government MP defied the Government whip on any vote even once, which is quite remarkable. How the current generation of whips must hark back to that happy era.

Backbench rebellion gradually ratcheted up in the 1970s - amongst other things because of the initial vote on joining the EEC - fell back a little bit in the Margaret Thatcher/John Major era - although never quite to the levels that were seen in the ‘50s - and then really picked up in the New Labour years.

A rebellion rate of just 8 percent of divisions in Tony Blair's first Parliament, culminating in 28 percent in the 2005-2010 Parliament and 39 percent - nearly 40 percent - in the first sessions of the Coalition Government.

This parliament is now on course to be being the most rebellious parliament of the modern era. Even if there is not another single rebellion during this final session of parliament, even then the rebellion rate would be 31 percent which is enough to make it the most rebellious parliament of the modern era overall. That's quite an astonishing figure.

There were rebellions for example over the Iraq war. The original vote back in 2003 is seared into my mind as I was doing the commentary for BBC TV for the first part of that debate. 139 Labour MPs - a majority of Labour backbenchers - voted against their party whip that day in March 2003.

More recently of course we’ve seen the Syria vote and the astonishing, utterly unprecedented, hasn't-happened-in-a-century spectacle of a Prime Minister going to the House of Commons to ask for authorisation, tentative authorisation to move toward the use of armed force in Syria and being told 'No'.

And you have to say it’s really very hard to find any remote precedent in parliamentary history for that.

Almost as astonishing as that event is the way the Government picked itself up, dusted itself down and carried on as if nothing had happened. A quite remarkable event. There’s an argument that it might have happened to Lord Palmerstone, and possibly Lord Aberdeen and possibly Lord North but you genuinely are looking back the best part of 150-200 years to find anything that remotely resembles a precedent for that.

And so you are seeing people not just rebelling on the ‘clause 87 of the Widget and Grommet Standardisation Bill’ - you're seeing MPs rebelling on decisions about war and peace.

So this is not trivial stuff. And this Parliament has seen a pattern of behaviour become established which has been developing for decades now which is now undoubtedly very well entrenched, which is going to make it very difficult for future Governments to try and govern with the disciplined heavy whipping that perhaps ministers grew up with and perhaps subconsciously they want to return to.

It's just not there anymore. I suspect that for the next Parliament, for the next Government the choice of who's going to be the Chief Whip is going to be one of the most important single choices an incoming Prime Minister will make: who is the person who is going to ringmaster this? Who’s going to get our business through? Who's going to keep the show on the road?

I suspect it’s going to be someone who has diplomatic skills as well as a set of thumbscrews kept somewhere in a safe. They're going to need someone whose persuasive abilities are at least as great as their ability to intimidate - possibly even greater. We shall see.

Of course much of this is possible now because it's a hung parliament. And perhaps if in the next parliament we have a Government with a strong, comfortable majority the whole place will kind of default back to its factory settings and the Westminster Spring that we've seen over recent years may come to an abrupt end.

I don't know- it's unknowable. But taken together I agree with Sir Robert Rogers' farewell statement to the House that: 'Parliament is now a more effective scrutineer of Government and a more effective legislative body than it’s been in my lifetime.’

The problem is that whilst it is a real achievement and while it is a real improvement and lots of people have fought very hard to bring us to this situation it’s actually, when it comes down to it, quite faint praise.

Thank you very much.


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