A handful of votes

Baroness Deech

At the General Election, Oxford West and Abingdon’s MP of 13 years, Dr Evan Harris, lost by 176 votes.  I hasten to emphasise that this is not a political blog – I am an independent without a vote! But his narrow loss set me thinking about the place of expertise in Parliament.  Evan Harris was a GP and is an expert on science, medical ethics, and how they relate to everyday life.  We have so few scientists in the Commons (rather more in the Lords) that the loss of any one of them is to be regretted.  On the need to engage science and public policy, one should listen to this year’s Reith Lectures, given by a member of the Lords,  Lord (Martin) Rees, Astronomer Royal. Dr Harris was also, by all accounts,  an excellent constituency MP for the city and the university.  It has been suggested that there was vigorous campaigning against Dr Harris personally by the local pro-life and animal rights factions.  That is their right, and it is noteworthy that the Animal Protection Party scored 143 votes in Oxford, more or less the number that lost it for Dr Harris. 

In the Lords, a scientist or a medical ethicist would not only be valued for their contributions, but would feel perfectly free to express their views without fear of rejection by the voters.  How can one secure much needed scientific contributions in the Commons, when views about controversial scientific issues may be so disliked by constituents that the MP risks losing his or her seat?  This is another argument for retaining appointed Lords, like Lord Rees, so that outspoken and expert advice can remain on offer. Dr Harris is just the sort of person we need there.

15 comments for “A handful of votes

  1. Troika21
    06/06/2010 at 10:57 pm

    The loss of Dr Harris is a blow for reason in the Commons, a place where such a rare thing is getting ever rarer.

    I don’t like how the Commons is being taken over buy think-tank assembled drones.

    I wonder if the good Dr would be on the list of proposed peers?

    • 07/06/2010 at 11:15 pm

      I was deeply sorry when Evan Harris lost his seat. I had followed his work on parts of the Policing and Crime Bill in the Commons committee stage and he had an excellent mastery of the subject. We went to the same old school (at different times) and I’m since delighted to number him among my Facebook friends.

      I followed his opposition to the last administration’s clauses on prostitution. I have to say that events to date since their passage are not indicative of instant success.

      Yes, Evan would make an excellent member of the Lords. I must post him a link to this blog in case his ears are burning!

  2. 07/06/2010 at 3:42 am

    As a People, as Governance bodies, as ‘Experts'(footnote), and as ‘Also-Rans’, I think we need to become much clearer about our levels of Needs, How-each-such-might-best-be-met, what Rights we have, to go about satisfying those needs, and what Duties we must perform.

    I would agree that UK governance needs to husband such academics (and majorly life-experienced individuals or valuably knowledged and skilled professionals) as the noble lady mentions or suggests.

    First, however, two implicate issues need to be recognised and either constructively deliberated or kept dust-free on a side-table nearby:
    (1) If you want to go on claiming that Britain is a Democracy then you have to start a much more mature enablement of every level of the People than has yet appeared in any of your manifestos and expert-advices.
    (2) Your academic (‘expert’) can only become seated, in either House, as a result of Politics. Once there the duty is primarily to be an advocate and representative of the People parliamentarily; i.e. through fact, figure and factor ordering, through clarificational discussion, through impartial deliberation; and finally to “politically-choose under the worst possible circumstances” (footnote) what is best for all of the People and all individuals therein; and also how that ‘best’ may best be achieved and egalitarianly delivered, to all of the People all of the time.
    (3) Such an ‘expert’ is thus valued and empowered for her/his tangible knowledge and democratic-governance ability, and neither primarily nor focally employed to be expressing his or her ‘views’.

    Regardless of the composition of Parliament, or of any other national institution with the possible exception of the Adult Education Movement, democracy needs to be not continually ’empowering’ The People but continuously Enabling every level thereof.

    (If you don’t have sober thinking, scrutiny and deliberation abilities it would be useless, even dangerous, to empower you, don’t you think ?).

    So the major issue is the continuing Enablement of The People’s Minds, rather than the comfortable Seating of the Knowledgable, Wealthy and Powerful elites.

    The latter, as well as the former, could then be much better win-win-win re-organised and re-constituted into the Resilient Democracy we at present only kid ourselves we are working towards.

    [One hesitates at the word ‘expert’ because it only means ‘experienced’; but that applies most properly to those who have lived-the-life, dug-the-coal, fought-in-battle; and certainly not exclusively to those with PhD level memories built within the four walls of a university library 9-5 five days a week (with several human-livings and perks and holidays thrown in as well)].

    [Barber 2003 “Strong Democracy” page 121].

  3. Maude Elwes
    07/06/2010 at 1:54 pm

    What we need for the sake of open debate and democracy is a ‘fully elected’ House of Lords.

    Presently this chamber is a sham and totally unrepresentative of the wishes of the public. Until we are rid of this ‘old pals’ brigade which imposes on the people grossly ineffective and inefficient stooges, who try to claim knowledge or substance that is obviously missing from their intellect, we will remain without a true democratic voice in our country.

    National elections for those wishing to sit in the House of Lords must be considered paramount to the present government. We do not need to waste so valuable a seat on the likes of the crew referred recently. Or, many of the others come to that. Clearly the level of intellect will get progressively worse if something drastic is not undertaken forthwith.

    We must also have a recall of a Peer who is no longer representative of the will of the people. No person should find themselves with a lifetime right to any government position paid for by the state revenue, even when they are quite obviously, non compus mentis.

    • 07/06/2010 at 7:27 pm

      I don’t sense any sourgrapes here, and I welcome your outspoken-ness, but:

      Would you not think that it is we the people who need to much more deeply and wisely to be enabling, educating, ourselves ? and to be demanding maximum possible enablements by our Nation-State quite distinctly from and necessarily before we can become more effectively and constructively empowered ?

      We are not yet finished there, either: for if you can find a copy of “Creative Visualisation” by Ronald Shone, you will see researched evidence that human Imagination is much more powerful than human Will.

      Yes, the Houses of Parliament and many other levels of the British constitution, Workforce, and People need Improvement, deeply radical reform, even a major peaceful-revolution;
      and Yes, “We are all in this Together” and are about to “Ask not what our Country can do for us, but what we can do for our Country”;

      and NO, we are not winning-the-peace, nor able and willing to agree on how to “pull together”.

    • Nicholas
      08/06/2010 at 9:27 am

      I disagree. If we accept that the role of the House of Lords is to provide expert scrutiny and discussion of legislation proposed by democratically-elected representatives, then direct election is a stunningly bad way of achieving that.

      People like Lord Rees (who as president of the Royal Society, as well as an eminent astrophysicist in his own right, can speak with authority on scientific matters and science policy) simply wouldn’t have time to spend years fighting their way through the party political system, get selected as a candidate, campaign for election, and persuade a jaded electorate to return them to Westminster.

      Surely the case of Dr Harris demonstrates the utter unsuitability of direct election as a mechanism for ensuring expert involvement in Parliament: despite his hard work and obvious suitability, he was unseated by a combination of boundary changes and concerted effort by small but vocal numbers of single-issue pressure groups and tabloid journalists.

      I appreciate the importance of the democratic process: at every election (general, local and European) I do my best to find out about the policies and intentions of the candidates who propose to represent me – although many of them seem to make it deliberately difficult. The “will of the people” must always be represented in the legislative process. But it must always be tempered by evidence, and expert advice from those who know what they’re talking about.

    • Carl.H
      08/06/2010 at 10:35 am

      Ok before I start mentioning “Ad nauseum” let`s go through Maudes points.

      “What we need for the sake of open debate and democracy is a ‘fully elected’ House of Lords.”

      How much open debate and actual democracy takes place in the fully elected House of Commons ? Very little is the answer, the Leader of the Government says to his party vote this way and they do. The Bills are then passed to the Lords where debate and scrutiny does take place, although with too much party politic entering it in recent years this is being dumbed down.

      “Presently this chamber is a sham and totally unrepresentative of the wishes of the public.”

      The wishes of the public ? The whole of the public ? Those that vote Labour ? Those that vote Green ? The ones who wish smoking back in pubs ? The ones who want out of the EU ? The ones who would hang most criminals ? The ones who would shoot most politicians ? Be careful what you are wishing for.

      “Until we are rid of this ‘old pals’ brigade which imposes on the people grossly ineffective and inefficient stooges,”

      You mean the ones who foist their members, through “safe seats” upon us and threaten and relegate open minded individuals to the backbenches ? Again your remarks are more pertinent to the commons.

      “Clearly the level of intellect will get progressively worse if something drastic is not undertaken forthwith. ”

      So in your mind the public voting for someone popular over someone the Appointments Committee has interviewed, delved into their background etc., will bring more intellect to the House of Lords ? How strange !

      “No person should find themselves with a lifetime right to any government position paid for by the state revenue.”

      The Lords at present are not salaried and only recieve expenses, this would I have no doubt change if the people wanting elected Lords have their way and fill the House with the Arthur Skargills of this World. Unions do not run Companies, the Union Leaders may have been voted for and may well appear democratic but it doesn`t make them right or indeed viable in terms of keeping the Company running.

      “Even when they are quite obviously, non compus mentis.”

      I think you meant “non compos mentis ” which I dare say most of HoL would have picked up on.

  4. Senex
    07/06/2010 at 3:37 pm

    I think the concern here is one of perceived justice. One has to be careful in suggesting that being a GP is sufficient enough reason to become an MP because this smacks of privilege. Universal Suffrage is notoriously unreliable in seemingly doing the right thing.

    This is why it should not apply to the HoL because its membership’ falls within very specific categories that one could argue are in fact its constituencies. This presupposes the notion of a ‘working peer’ in a working house. However, in 3.3 of the note below Lord Wakeham contradicts this:

    “I do not believe that the House or our constitution recognises the term ‘working Peer’ as a separate category. Certain categories of Peer, however, have been created with the purpose of strengthening the political parties in this House.
    (HL Hansard, 7th July 1992, col. 1057)”

    So is he suggesting that universal suffrage is the only basis for an elected house? If he does then the house should expect to exercise real power even though the Commons has no appetite for it.

    Note 3.8 Professional Background, defines 19 categories of ‘expertise’ that was not fully subscribed to under the hereditary system. There is a mood in the house for evolution not revolution. The evolution perhaps is to move toward suffrage based upon ‘expert’ constituencies as the revolution took place in 1958 under the Life Peerages Act.

    Ref: HoL Library Note. Peerage Creations 1958-2008

    • 07/06/2010 at 7:47 pm

      Senex, thank you for some sober and intellectual depth.

      Nonetheless we have virus-like problems with words, terms, senses, and meanings.

      In my day at school and later university, this word meant tangibly-sensed, rationally-seen.
      More recently the word has been hijacked especially by legal and policing professions and completely re-defined as meaning “imagined”, “not the main truth”, even “hallucinated”, “illuded” or “deluded”.

      A much bigger problem, that you have perhaps touched on, would be “how to get everybody concerned much more enabled, before giving them more power” ?

  5. Gareth Howell
    07/06/2010 at 6:10 pm

    I had a similar discussion with Tam Dalyell about 15 years ago, but he contradicted my opinion with a fairly long list of scientists
    especially based around the Science and Technology committee of the HofC.

    A knowledge of science is surely not a prerequisite for making Law, or representing constituents in parliament.

    In deed the voting public may not be particularly enamoured of GPs or nuclear scientists, and much keener on those who are convinced of the rightness of a green party
    or ecology party or even animal rights cause.

    I may say Baroness Deech that criminality apart some of the animal rights campaigns are very valuable in reminding the public that

    The disappearance of the Friesian cow from the English countryside is a campaign waiting to happen, ie their return to it, from the dark dungeons of BATTERY COW FARMING, a disaster we went through with chickens from the 1950s onwards.

    I doubt whether there are many scientists interested in that!

    The look of amazement and sheer incredulity
    on the beaks of battery hens given their freedom from the battery farm, when they perceive the skies, (£1 ea)is a joy and wonder to behold, but I don’t suppose that the Baroness is interested in getting her hands dirty with cow dung or Chicken… sh*t to find that out!

    I would venture to say that the proportion of Scientists in parliament now, is proper to the purpose of the place, and there may not be that many.

    • 09/06/2010 at 3:16 am

      GH: your paragraphs one by one, if I may:

      1 Govt-stacked committees may be the main culprits of imbalance, bias, spin and ultimate ineffectiveness of Parliament’s science-communities that are hinted at here. Also the titling of Scrutiny committees more foggily as ‘Select’ committees.

      2 Agreed that a scientific degree should not be a mandatory prerequisite for either law-making or parliamentary advocacy and representation, but at least a sound GCSE pass in Science should be.
      Unbiased reasoning, morality, and life-experience should surely be preeminent prerequisites for making law, and for advocating our needs in parliament; and we the People evidently do suspect that to be the Case.

      3 Scope is a big factor: not even when relaxedly tipsy in the local should any level of British person mistake a low-level tactical issue for a high-level strategic one.
      Voting publics need first to be enabled to be fact-listing, discussion-capable, and submission-inclusive between elections, as cooperative citizens rather than as competitively politicised voting puppets.

      Although millions of us lag in ‘education’, we are advancing in awareness and in wanting to see every facet of an issue or policy before deliberating and lastly voting about it.

      So let Parliament legislate such Preparatory Enablements for the citizenry, and thus become able and respected by every level of The People for the empowerment those enablements will produce, instead of both politicians and media rabbiting-on with obvious lies about ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Parliamentarians must listen to the Will of The People’. No! parliamentarians and media alike, need to take and make full note of the serious life-experience and constructive-submissions of the citizen(ry).

      4 Shouldn’t this wording be “Animal Rights campaigns are firstly about the recognition and conservation of Animals collectively as a major Lifesupport;
      secondly about the Need for human civilisation to re-constitute itself (i.e. “us humans”) thus:
      Whilst every day we must break the body and shed the blood of the Earth’s Lifesupports in order to keep ourselves alive, when we do this skilfully it is becomes a Sacrament; but when we do it clumsily or unskilfully it is a Blasphemy (Oliver Wendell Holmes); and
      thirdly about each animal having a divine-nature (innate by Creation & Evolution) and a divine-creature-soul; just as every human may have (by definition rather than by religious-formulation)a seven-sacramental-energy-centres divine-nature (Boadella; and Myss) and a divine-human-soul or spirit (CG Jung).

      5 The Friesian cow became a mainstay of dairy farming because of the largest quantity of milk it provides: therefore grassland hectarage and other carrying-capacity factors may be at work here.

      I agree that battery-farming is bad, both for the batteried animal and for the ‘buttered-up’ human.
      It needs to be taught, that ‘batterying’ is as bad for the mind, heart, soul and strength of the human-race as it is for the animals upon which humans inflict it. (Compare with Himmler’s ‘Final Solution’, and its corrupting effect not only on its perpetrators but on wider communities and not least upon later generations of innocent and unprepared minds and hearts).

      6 Better be careful: major movements of scientists still stand on platforms declaring “There is no scientific evidence that (such-and-such disaster) may be the Case”. (Compare BSc PM Thatcher’s continuous denial of Environmental-Degradation & Global-Warming, until practically every other head-of-state in the World had publicly admitted to its reality).

      7 Two comments: (a) That a healthier and more humane Part-time batterying may become supportable, for both Animals and Humans.

      {In the 1960s I was well-blessed enough to be given training in Intensive Calf Rearing.
      Newborn calves are early-separated into modern solidly walled and roofed concrete-floored pens (similar to pig-pens) 24/7. The only daylight they see is from a few tiny windows, and sunlight Nil. The only exercise they get is round and round the few square feet of pen space jostling against the four other calves therein. Weather experience and stimulation is also Nil.
      They are hand-fed and carefully watched and weighed.

      I was given (I did not say ‘I found’)
      a position on a large farm under modernisation by an enlightened and ambitious sort of Seale-Hayne qualified farmer, who soon listened to my proposal for a walkway between the Calf-house and a little-used nearby grass paddock, for the above reasons of open-air natural daylight exercise and natural conditioning.
      It was an immediate and ongoing success, the only negative being that since their Handler most of the time had to be doing other work perhaps half a mile away, hedging or harrowing the arishes, or dunging a field, and a downpour of ain could happen, the now spritely young creatures sometimes came home mud-besmattered. (No real problem: steady job under cover, in the warm, hosing off each hoof of each little dear).

      (b) I would opine that Baronesses would not (“)get their hands dirty with chicken s**t (“), Gareth.
      A reliable source says that only the employed and protectively-gloved farm worker risks such unhealthy, untoward, and wasteful conduct. And even then not legally so.
      [One has to be wearing the gloves, you see; it’s all part of that early schooling “Keep Plucking Chickens Or Face Getting Sacked”, I believe; Gareth].

      8 You finish with the phrasing “there may not be that many…” but I feel befogged, that many what: proper-proportions, purposes, scientists, parliamentary-places ?

      Nontheless, thank you for the range of possible discussion material you indicate; I mean, points that we the people may cogently get to grips with before we next get escalated into political-debating and voting.

      Still there remains a darkly lurking sense, that more than one big factor is being kept from public scrutiny, between our human needs and those of our Lifesupports; not least of which may be our husbanded farmstocks as well as our scientific and parliamentary advisers ?

      • Gareth Howell
        11/06/2010 at 8:13 pm

        John Miles,
        Thank yo very much for that most interesting reply which I had missed. I hope you get this.

        I m glad that somebody understands the philosophical implications as I hope I do too!
        A very useful post; thank you.

  6. Gareth Howell
    08/06/2010 at 12:49 pm

    Medical ethics is certainly completely chaotic in the UK, but it may not be Doctors of medicine, of the State monopoly, who are the best ones to research it, from the legal point of view.

    You may laugh, but an animal rights activist is probably the best one to do that kind of research, going on my own and many others recent experiences of the Nhs, working on homo sapiens, the human animal!

    If only they would think things through even further!

  7. Bedd Gelert
    08/06/2010 at 9:33 pm

    The downside of your ‘cunning plan’ is that as someone who looks like a cross between a young Gordon Brown and the missing Miliband brother [and I mean that in a good way!] Evan could yet find his way to be a future Prime Minister of this country. Okay, slightly long odds at the moment, but you can’t keep a good man down…

  8. Gareth Howell
    11/06/2010 at 8:07 pm

    You probably can keep a good man down, but that is another matter.

    I did listen to Ewan Harris in a debate on the subject earlier in the year, and found it wanting, as though any medical ethics are not.

    I metnioned the State “monopoly” of medicine
    but really the only way to make proper value judgements on the system of medicine in one state is to compare it with that in another.

    The US president initiative will certainly take views of a number of health systems in EU states, and even South American ones and we will do very well indeed to follow carefully some of the decisions that are made in the USA context.

    It is the balance between the needs of the state in its provision, and that of the individual which have to be most carefully monitored.

    Otherwise we will end up with scheduled dying
    at a set age and set diseases for set people in set occupations and set ways of life.

    Ivan Illich’s arguments can only reach a certain limit and go no further, but then they were economic arguments, we have moved on from the 1980s when he made his most outrageous assertions, which were so obviously true!

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