In February this year, Oxford University Press published Exploring Parliament, which aims to provide an accessible introduction to the workings of the UK parliament. In this post, the book’s editors, Louise Thompson and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, explain why the book is necessary and what it hopes to achieve.
If you travelled to Parliament Square today you’d see hundreds of tourists gathered in and around the Palace of Westminster. Over 1 million people visited parliament in 2017 to take part in organised tours, watch debates in the Lords and Commons chambers, attend committee hearings and visit its unique gift shops. Many more will have watched parliamentary proceedings on television; most likely snapshots of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). Recognition of the iconic building, with its gothic architecture, distinctive furnishings and vast corridors is high. However, the public’s understanding of what actually goes on within the Palace of Westminster is much lower.
As we write this blog it is another typically busy day in parliament. Among the many other things happening in the Commons today, Labour MP Diana Johnson is asking an Urgent Question on the contaminated blood scandal, there is a backbench debate on autism and an adjournment debate on air quality. Over in the Lords, peers will be scrutinising the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill and debating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Those of us who teach, research or work in parliament will know what each of these activities is. We’ll know why the Commons chamber will be far quieter during adjournment debates than at question times and we’ll be able to follow with relative ease the discussion in the Lords as peers scrutinise the various clauses, schedules, and amendments being made to government legislation. But to the wider public the institution can seem somewhat opaque. The language may seem impenetrable, the procedures archaic and the customs of debate unfamiliar. One may say there is therefore an important role, and perhaps duty, for those of us who teach and research parliament to inform and educate the wider public about the diverse range of roles being performed each day by the institution and its members.
This is in great part why we have put our collective energies over the past four years to edit Exploring Parliament, recently published by Oxford University Press. The book aims to provide for an accessible introduction to the UK parliament, covering the formal and informal workings of the institution through 32 short chapters and case studies. In conceptualising it, we wanted to cover a wide range of areas and do it in an accessible way, which would support teaching about parliament, but also serve as a platform to then explore further resources and writings about the institution. To that end, we developed the book around three key features:
1. It goes beyond the formal workings of parliament: A book on parliament has to cover the formal functions of the institution such as the legislative process, select committees, parliamentary questions, and divisions. These are the very visible aspects of parliament and the sorts of things which members of the public observe and wish to find out more about. Exploring Parliament complements this with a focus on the less visible aspects of the institution. Chapters on governance, the significance of rituals, and support for MPs and peers provide information about areas of parliament which often go unnoticed or unremarked upon. They also highlight some of the dilemmas which flow through parliament, including the difficulties of collective action in an institution of largely separate and competing individuals and parties, the need to ensure fairness and impartiality in the support or resources provided for parliamentarians, and the challenge of modernising the institution while retaining its very rich and varied history. The book additionally covers formal parliamentary roles which are under-studied, particularly public engagement, the petitions system and constituency work.
2. It combines academic and practitioner perspectives: Academics devote many hours to the study of parliament. They do so as informed observers, collecting data on parliamentary activity and performance and applying theories of political science to day to day behaviour. We have made sure that Exploring Parliament contains contributions from some of the most active academics researching parliament. But academic contributions constitute only one perspective of the institution and we were keen to also include the contributions of those who work in and with parliament on a daily basis. So the book also contains the contributions of key parliamentary practitioners – the officials who work within the Palace of Westminster, but also external ones such as parliamentary reporters. Some of these practitioners have devoted their entire careers to the institution and its work. Where possible the book’s chapters bring these academic and practitioner perspectives together, ensuring that scholarly contributions are grounded in expert technical understanding and professional practice.
3. Topical case studies bring key issues to life: Understanding parliament requires the examination of key themes like representation or accountability. However, it’s not always immediately clear how some of these concepts are expressed in the everyday workings of the institution. It is for this reason that each chapter of Exploring Parliament is illustrated by a short case study. The case studies explore recent and well known events including The Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill proposed by Labour MP Rob Marris MP in the 2015-16 session, the creation of parliament’s new Education Centre, the August 2015 petition which called for more funding for Brain Tumour Research and Prime Minister Theresa May’s inaugural session of Prime Minister’s Questions in July 2016.
Besides the above, each chapter also lists further resources for readers to explore each of the themes, making sure that regardless of the topic or depth sought, the book works as a useful platform to find out more about the UK parliament. It is fair to say that editing this book, which brings together over 50 contributors from different professional backgrounds to write short and accessible chapters, was one of the biggest work challenges we have faced to date. However, in equal measure it was also a privilege and pleasure to bring together such an array and impressive group of authors. We are incredibly proud of the end result and very much hope that it will genuinely contribute towards an enhancement of public understanding of parliament, as well as being a useful teaching tool.
You can buy a discounted copy of Exploring Parliament on the OUP website with the code WEBXSTU20.
About the authors