On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.
Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.
For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.
On 11 February 2015, Nicola Sturgeon spoke at an event co-hosted by the Constitution Unit and the UCL Department of Political Science. Sam Sharp reports on the event.
Recent predictions suggest the Scottish National Party (SNP) could win as many as 54 seats in May. A poll surge of this kind is not what most would have expected to follow a lost referendum on the party’s cornerstone issue. It is in this context, however, that an emboldened Nicola Sturgeon addressed UCL and the Constitution Unit in her first London speech since becoming First Minister of Scotland. She delivered a robust rejection of austerity, setting out a vision of an alternative Scottish economic approach and an enhanced role for the (potentially many) SNP MPs.
It was evident from the off that speaking in London would not tone down Sturgeon’s anti-Westminster message. On austerity she was at pains to make her point especially clear: these are ‘Westminster proposals’ made by the ‘Westminster parties’ in a stale ‘Westminster debate’. The SNP, she argued, are not tainted by this brush. A contrast was drawn between the ‘wide-ranging, passionate and fundamental’ referendum debate and the ‘bizarrely and depressingly narrow’ Westminster discourse (although this supposed contrast in debate quality should probably be taken with some scepticism given the criticisms of scaremongering and intimidation that surrounded the referendum).