The SNP, UK Space Policy and the Politics of Parliamentary Debate

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra here.

This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures blog.

On 14 January 2016, a debate was held on UK space policy in the House of Commons, timed to coincide with a spacewalk undertaken by British astronaut Major Tim Peake as part of his mission to the International Space Station (ISS). UK participation in ISS activities marked the culmination of a significant reorientation of government space policy in recent years, and so it is unsurprising that MPs might have something to say about it, and want to take the opportunity to applaud a significant ‘national moment’. The debate attracted media attention, partly due to its coinciding with the Peake spacewalk, and also because of the message of goodwill sent to MPs by William Shatner, who expressed the hope that MPs would, in debating space, ‘take the tenets of Star Trek’s prime directive to universally and peacefully share in the exploration of it’. An MP performing a Vulcan salute during her contribution also helped on the publicity front. It was clearly a novel policy issue for MPs, and one that the Commons hadn’t properly debated in a decade or so. What was most surprising, however, and which drew me to research this issue, was that the debate was moved by an MP from the Scottish National Party (SNP). What, I wondered, were the SNP doing using up their precious parliamentary time for a debate on a topic as unlikely as UK space policy? In my recent paper in the journal Space Policy, I analyse the parliamentary debate in order to solve this puzzle. The paper identifies a number of themes underpinning the debate, but here I focus only on the question that sparked my interest in the first place: why were the SNP getting involved in this incredibly narrow policy issue, which seemed like an unlikely vehicle through which to advance their political objectives?

The parliamentary motion was tabled by the SNP MP Philippa Whitford, and was the result of time made available through an application to the Backbench Business Committee. Although the tabled motion concerned UK space policy generally, much of the discussion was dominated by what turned out to be highly strategic contributions from the SNP, whose MPs used much of their time to delineate the merits of locating the UK’s first ever spaceport in Prestwick, on the west coast of Scotland. Some research soon helped illuminate their motivations. The Space Growth Action Plan 2014-2030 specified the need for a UK commercial spaceport, operational by 2018, in order to grow existing and new space businesses in the UK, particularly the highly successful satellite industry. Access to space is a key commercial barrier in the space industry, as UK companies face increasing costs in accessing overseas launch sites, and the speedy creation of UK commercial space flight capability was deemed crucial to implementing the growth strategy. The shortlist of possible spaceport locations was published in spring 2015, with Prestwick viewed as particularly competitive, given how closely it met the criteria laid out by the Department of Transport, in terms of a clear flight path north over the sea and a coastal location with low population density.

It is in this context that the SNP contributions can be understood, for two reasons. First, the SNP represent the vast majority of Scottish Westminster seats (56 out of 59), and their 2015 UK general election campaign strategy had its heart the argument that, so long as Scotland remained a part of the UK, the SNP was the best party to represent Scottish interests at Westminster. Second, the regulation of activities in outer space, as defined by the Outer Space Act 1986, is reserved to the UK Parliament, and the SNP’s decision to allocate precious backbench time at Westminster to the issue of UK space policy therefore makes sense in terms of the SNP demonstrating its ability to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard’ in the UK on UK matters. Consequently, debate analysis illustrates the concerted effort of SNP MPs to advocate for locating the spaceport in Prestwick, and, more generally, to emphasise the value of the space industry to Scotland. Prestwick is located in the constituency of the debate mover, Philippa Whitford MP, who spoke at length about its spaceport suitability, as well its proximity to the technology catapults at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. Many central Scotland MPs spoke effusively about the benefits that would accrue should the spaceport be located in Prestwick, and there was much name-dropping of affected interests in the area: the Scottish Centre for Excellence in Satellite Applications at the Strathclyde University Space Institute, the University of Glasgow’s laser interferometer developments which contributed to the European Space Agency’s Pathfinder spacecraft, and the commercially successful Glasgow-based company Clyde Space were all commended.

Thus, while the ostensible subject of the motion was ‘UK space policy’, it in fact served the purpose of enabling the SNP to champion the Scottish commercial space industry, and argue that the interests of that industry would be advanced if the UK government opted for a spaceport in Prestwick. While the MPs from the other shortlisted locations also contributed to the debate, they were largely drowned out by the SNP’s concerted action and strategic advocacy. In short, the SNP cleverly utilised parliamentary deliberation in order to align Scotland explicitly with the broader goals of UK space policy. They ensured that the responsible government minister ‘heard Scotland’s voice’ (as he was there for the debate and responded to it), while also championing a Scottish commercial sector that arguably has a competitive advantage in the UK.

What does this tell us? For one thing, it provides an illustration of how the SNP are functioning at Westminster in terms of their promise to ‘make Scotland’s voice heard loud and clear’. The dominant position of the SNP inside the UK Parliament, in terms of Scottish seat share, offers a rich opportunity to study how they use that position inside the House of Commons to demonstrate their advocacy of Scotland and their commitment to protecting its interests. What at first appeared to be little more than a backbench debate on an esoteric policy issue turned out to be richly imbued with opportunities for advancing our understanding of how the SNP are operating inside Westminster, and thus also for analysing how Parliament is used by political actors.

Why Should We Care If Westminster Is Falling Down?

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.

In these austere times, no one likes the idea of spending £3.5bn on refurbishing the Houses of Parliament, yet, according to an independent report, that is exactly what it would cost to save that grand old building from disintegrating into the River Thames – and even then the figure assumes that MPs and peers would move out of the place altogether for six years while the work takes place. The Grade-I listed building is not only sinking into the soft clay on which the city of London stands, it is also plagued with asbestos, riddled with antiquated cabling, and subject to regular water ingress. It is in such an advanced state of decrepitude that its repair cannot easily be avoided for much longer. When this news was announced in June 2015, the immediate attention related to the staggering costs of refurbishment. While the repair costs are obviously no small matter, there are also broader issues underpinning this controversy, one of which concerns the democratic importance of the site itself.

The Westminster parliament is an iconic building, symbolic of our national political life, and its image is indelibly associated with breaking news stories about politics. While we may debate the merits of refurbishing a building for its historical value, the Palace of Westminster is the central focus of the UK’s democratic political life, and this necessarily changes the terms of the discussion. The gothic magnificence of Westminster serves to elevate politics as a special sort of public activity, while also imbuing parliamentary politics with a degree of ritual mystification which distinguishes between insiders and outsiders in a way that may not always be democratically healthy. The place is called Hogwarts-on-Thames for good reason.

Parliament is a key public space through which public claims are made and signals are sent about who has the right to make political decisions, and it is also the space in which political performances are enacted (Parkinson 2012, 93). The parliamentary setting is a powerful cue for the legitimation of those political decisions, which is why it matters a great deal if the building from which those cues emanate is literally crumbling around the actors who inhabit it. Yet, as a site of fundamentally important democratic activity, parliament must not only be symbolically relevant for the public, but also practically accessible to them too. On this point, the Westminster parliament does not score highly, precisely because it is viewed as emblematic of an elite approach to politics which has long been resistant to public participation. For this reason, there have been calls to radically rethink the site by turning the Palace of Westminster into a museum and designing an entirely new parliament building that is fit for twenty-first century democratic politics.

Such a proposal is clearly radical, and those embedded in the rituals and myths of Westminster are unlikely to endorse it, even if the cost of refurbishing parliament presents an excellent opportunity to consider alternative options. But there is a significant risk in not thinking ambitiously and courageously about this. The 2009 MPs expenses scandal did serious and lasting damage to our political class, and the public are unlikely to respond warmly to the idea of billions being spent to preserve politicians’ archaic way of doing business, particularly at a time when public spending continues to be slashed in the wake of the Great Recession. We should therefore care very much that Westminster is falling down, not just because the costs of propping it back up again will be substantial, but because it also presents a unique opportunity to reimagine the physical space in which we conduct our parliamentary politics and through which we express our political dreams and aspirations. Politics should be about such lofty ambitions as these. This is a chance for us to think big and test the boundaries of our democratic possibilities. While this issue remains live, we ought to at least open up a debate about what we want from our parliament building and the extent to which patching up Westminster is sufficient to fulfil our democratic desires.

Parkinson, J.R. (2012) Democracy and Public Space (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

New PAIR Research Funding: Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament

Image: Parliamentary copyright

Dr Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of Politics, has recently won Nuffield Foundation funding for a one-year research project examining ‘Prime Ministerial Accountability to Parliament’. The project, which will begin in June 2015, is in collaboration with Dr Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church University) and Dr Phil Larkin (University of Canberra), and will examine the evidence sessions held by the House of Commons Liaison Committee with the Prime Minister, in order to analyse the scrutiny and accountability potential of these sessions. While Prime Minister’s Question Time gets a lot of media attention – and a lot of criticism – few are aware of these more low-profile accountability occasions through which the Prime Minister is asked very detailed questions about the government’s policies and decisions. The research will seek to illuminate this little understood area of parliamentary work.

The team will work closely with the parliamentary clerks and MPs involved with these evidence sessions, in order analyse their accountability contribution, and to provide recommendations for how this form of scrutiny might be improved. The project also involves national and international comparative work, to find similar examples of prime ministerial accountability in other political systems and to learn from them.

This is an exciting piece of research, which is positioned to make significant contributions to our understanding of both the limits and the possibilities of democratic accountability mechanisms. The Nuffield Foundation Open Door programme funds projects which scrutinise constitutional and legislative processes in order to identify opportunities for reform. For more details, see:

Scandal Scrutiny and the Political Theatre of Parliament

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.

At a time when each week seems to bring fresh revelations about some new scandal – be it from the world of politics, finance, business, entertainment, or whatever – we hear a lot about how it has never been more important to ‘uncover the truth’ and ‘get to the bottom of things’, so that ‘it can never happen again.’ House of Commons select committees have found themselves to be uniquely positioned in this growth industry of scandal scrutiny, and by exploiting this positioning they’ve succeeded in raising the profile of parliament as an important arena for political action. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has long been at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny, and has recently assumed even greater political saliency as a result of the strategic leadership of its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. PAC’s recent investigations into tax avoidance and evasion, and in particular Hodge’s grilling of senior HSBC figures, has drawn the criticism that Hodge is ‘abusive and bullying’ and presiding over ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation.’ These comments are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the notion that committee scrutiny is a ‘theatrical exercise’ is in fact hugely revealing of the institutional setting. Parliament is the nation’s pre-eminent ‘theatre of action’[i]. It’s the stage on which political actors enact a range of vital performances, from which they take cues from off-stage participants, and through which they signal important political messages to watching audiences. Describing parliamentary politics as ‘theatrical’ isn’t therefore particularly contemptuous, and the metaphor is incredibly useful in helping us to understand the behaviour and activity of MPs inside parliament.

This leads directly to the second point, which is that in pursuing this burgeoning market in scandal scrutiny, select committees would be negligent if they didn’t use all the resources at their disposal, including the ability to embarrass witnesses. For the most part, the only public scrutiny many of these witnesses will ever be exposed to is that visited upon them by parliamentary committees. Irrespective of what happens to those individuals or their institutions thereafter, it is fundamental to the operation of democracy that significant figures are at least seen to be challenged and questioned. Whether such challenging and questioning is the same as holding them to account is of course another matter. But the very public and highly visible process of scrutiny that is possible through parliamentary committees is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for ensuring the democratic health of our political system. The oxygen of publicity is, after all, a highly effective disinfectant. Parliamentary committees may not be in a position to resolve any of the scandals they investigate, but they are increasingly crucial agenda-setting actors, and their scrutiny actions can and do help determine how long an issue will remain on the media’s radar. What’s more, when committee members ask hard questions, and appear incredulous when witnesses answer those questions, they are merely channelling the behaviours expected of them by their similarly incredulous constituents.

Which leads to the final point: the role of the committee chair is of fundamental importance in understanding what action a committee will take on any given issue, which is why Margaret Hodge at PAC has drawn both criticism and applause. Leadership matters in select committees, and the chair is crucial in setting the tone of investigations and determining the vigour with which summoned witnesses are questioned. Hodge’s behaviour in the PAC chair has been described as ‘grandstanding’, but labelling an active and relentless chair in this way entirely misconceives the emerging strategic role of chairs and their increased willingness to exploit the parliamentary resources at their disposal, resources which would not otherwise be available to them as backbench MPs. The whole point of shifting in 2010 to a system of elected select committee chairs was to beef up the scrutiny capacity of the Commons and imbue chairs with greater authority and legitimacy to act. To then describe chairs as ‘grandstanding’ when they put those institutional resources to use is disingenuous.

So long as scandals continue to be uncovered, parliamentary committees will continue to position themselves on the political stage as wily inquisitors working on behalf of the exploited and the victimised, and active chairs will vigorously pursue witnesses so long as there is a political market for doing so. Ultimately, the very best actors will always learn how to maximise their use of the stage on which they perform so as to throw their voices to the darkest corners of the theatre. This truth is what makes the study of parliament and its committees so compelling.

The author acknowledges the support of ESRC research funding (RES-061-25-0391).

[i] Uhr, J. and J. Wanna, 2000, ‘The future roles of parliament’ in M. Keating, J. Wanna, and P. Weller (eds.) Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


Prime Minister and Parliament: Constitutional Implications of a Hung Parliament in 2015

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.

The start of the New Year has sparked fevered debate about the forthcoming May 2015 UK general election, and what the likely outcome of that election will be. The polls still indicate that another hung parliament will be the result, and although experts were confidently predicting a hung parliament well before the 2010 election, this time around there’s a sense that we’re all more mentally prepared for a result that was until recently viewed as exceptional in British electoral politics. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 8 January 2015, the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell reflected on the coalition negotiations that followed in 2010, arguing that things ‘could be even messier’ this May, and that ‘it could take quite a lot longer next time to actually form a government.’ We should take this as the friendly warning that it was designed to be.

In 2010, it took four days for the parties to determine that there could be a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. During that time, when negotiations between these two seemed to be flagging, Labour began discussions to see whether it might form a so-called ‘rainbow coalition’ with the Liberal Democrats and assorted nationalists. Gordon Brown attracted some criticism for remaining in office as Prime Minister for as long as he did, even although this was the constitutionally correct thing to do, to avoid a scenario which embroiled the Queen entirely inappropriately in political matters. Only when it was clear that Brown could no long command the confidence of the House of Commons (the key precept on which Westminster parliamentary government is based), and that Cameron would have to be summoned to form a government in his place (either a coalition or a minority), did Brown meet with the Queen and offer his resignation.

During those four days of negotiation between the political parties, supported and aided by the civil service staff at the Cabinet Office, what we saw on television news was the very turning of the cogs of the British constitution. Previously, the visual cues following a UK general election in which the incumbent party had been defeated involved the outgoing Prime Minister being driven to Buckingham Palace in the ministerial Jaguar while the removal vans lined up around the back of No.10 Downing Street, followed by the triumphant winner following immediately in his or her wake to be invited by the Queen to form a government. The transfer of power, and the investing of governing authority in a Prime Minister, was swift, often brutally so. But in 2010 we were deprived of that speedy transfer of power, and as Gus O’Donnell indicated on the Today programme, the possible permutations that might emerge this coming May could preclude quick coalition negotiations. Depending on how the Conservatives fare, this could prompt debate about whether Cameron ought to remain as Prime Minister and for how long, particularly if the eventual government formed does not look likely to include his party in it.

For a long time, we assumed that there were no meaningful questions regarding what happens following general elections in this country. That is no longer the case. This summer will see the publication of an edited collection called Parliaments and Government Formation: Unpacking Investiture Rules (Oxford University Press), to which I’ve contributed a chapter on the UK, where I map out what it means to invest power in a Prime Minister in the UK political system, and how this process has the potential for considerable complexity in an environment of hung parliaments. If, as Gus O’Donnell has predicted, there are coalition negotiations this May, and they take even longer than they did in 2010, this may prompt broader reflection on the constitutional position of an incumbent Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of a general election. And, as has been the case so often in the recent history of UK constitutional politics, it may be the very process of constitutional change itself which prompts attention to what the rules should, in fact, be.

Constitutional Wrangling after the Independence Referendum

By Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton. You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.

(Cross-posted at The Conversation. This post first appeared with minor errors, which have been corrected. – Ed.)

The vote, in the end, was decisive, with the Better Together campaign winning with 55% of ballots cast. As a Glaswegian living in Southampton, I’ve watched from afar, saddened not to be in my home nation at this crucial juncture, while amazed at the remarkable political awakening that has taken place these last months. As the politicians have said repeatedly, the No outcome doesn’t mean a return to business as usual, and there are some key things we can take away from all this in terms of constitutional politics in the UK.

First, although the result was decisive, it was not an overwhelming majority. Consider that when this process began, the average support for Scottish independence typically ran at around 30-35% or thereabouts. The Yes campaign succeeded in drawing a significant number of people to their cause, and that is a massive achievement in such a short space of time, given the magnitude of the issue. In particular, the Yes campaign won the vote in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and Dundee City, the first two of which in particular are Labour Party heartlands that have borne the brunt of deindustrialization. Scottish Labour strategists looking ahead to the 2015 UK general election will already be wondering about the work they will have to do to maintain these strongholds, and whether those Labour voters who voted Yes will now be more willing to consider opting for the SNP next year. This is important, given how hard it is for any party to gain a Westminster majority.

Second, the Prime Minister has already committed to begin the process of devolving more power to Holyrood, and to exploring the structure of governance throughout the rest of the country, and has said that devolution across the UK will follow the same quick timetable, with a white paper due early next year. That will be a massive undertaking. If it happens, it will demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of the UK constitution, and its pragmatic malleability in the light of popular pressure for change. However, the unanswered question at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the English Question, and it has remained unanswered ever since devolution was rolled out in 1999 and the then Labour government’s plans for English regional devolution failed. The Conservative Party’s McKay Commission has interesting solutions to this question, but it’s far from clear that David Cameron will be able to convince his party to pursue change, because so much depends on the details of those changes, none of which have thus far been spelled out.

Third, this was an astonishing exercise in democratic participation. Turnout stands at a staggering 85%, and it’s clear that people have been engaged in this process who have not been involved in politics for a very long time, if ever. At a time when politicians are maligned, and traditional forms of political participation are in decline, what this referendum result shows is that people take part when they believe that the process will end in a meaningful outcome for their lives, and they are in control of that outcome. It remains to be seen whether the public will stay engaged throughout the months of political negotiation that lie ahead, now that the decision is back in the hands of the ‘political elite’. Crucially, the participation of 16-17 year olds in this referendum may now fuel demands for their inclusion in elections at other levels.

The months ahead will feature much constitutional wrangling and bargaining. Decisions about our constitutional future now lie, once more, in the hands of the professional political class. Those on both sides of the independence referendum debate must now wait to find out how their collective voices will be interpreted

Where are all the women? Reflections on International Women’s Day

Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Saturday 8th March is International Women’s Day, and routinely an occasion for reflection on how much remains to be done in the fight for women’s equality. And while it’s true that the battle is, sadly, far from over, it’s helpful also to think of the achievements that have been made, if only to keep our spirits high. Which is why some recent polling on Hillary Clinton’s prospects should she choose to run for the US Presidency in 2016 offers a ray of light.

The USA Today/Pew Research Centre Poll indicates that Clinton is better liked and more respected than when she ran in 2008. This is good news on two fronts, irrespective of whether you support her as a candidate. First, that she is more respected can be attributed in large part to her time as Secretary of State, and is a notable indicator of how important it is for us to see women in strong leadership roles: the more women we see in leadership roles, the more we will acknowledge them for performing well, and the less unusual it will become to see women in those roles – a virtuous circle. Second, the news that Clinton is better liked is the real break through. Research consistently shows that women face a significant ‘likeability’ factor in the workplace and that men do not: in studies, people (both men and women) report liking women less when they are as strong leaders, but report no such negativity for men under the same conditions. This was regrettably exploited by Obama during the 2008 presidential elections when he declared Clinton to be ‘likeable enough,’ a barbed comment that simply would not have had the same resonance if applied to a male candidate.

This new polling indicates that respondents judge gender as a less important factor for Clinton than it was in 2008, and that the ‘likeability’ factor is far more muted. This may be good for Clinton, and for those who would like to see her elected president. But beyond this specific example, these numbers provide encouragement on the journey to increase female representation across all leadership positions in society. Perhaps one day, we will celebrate International Women’s Day, not by lamenting the absence of women from the key positions of decision-making, but by celebrating because there are so many.

The ‘Squabble’ Over Sterling and the Scottish Independence Referendum

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

Yesterday, I appeared on the BBC Radio Solent Drivetime show (at around 5.35pm for those who’d like to listen to the replay) to comment on the debate which occurred over the weekend concerning whether Scotland would retain the pound in a sterling zone in the event of becoming independent. This is just the most recent example of how the imminence of the independence referendum is now fuelling highly specific discussions about the nuts-and-bolts of how things would actually work in practice should Scotland become independent. The SNP are being increasingly tested on their ideas and proposals, and are now forced to go far beyond appeals to some sense of Scottish nationhood, and to deal instead with the greasy mechanics of governance and what a post-independence political and institutional landscape would look like.

However, it was only later when I reflected on the interview that I considered the way in which the debate had been introduced by the interviewer, who described it in terms of ‘squabbling’. In the interview, I attempted to recast the issue as less about ‘squabbling’ and more about the inherent difficulties associated with drilling down to the complexities of detail and addressing opposing viewpoints. What strikes me is how this genuine disagreement amongst competing actors in the referendum debate was casually described as ‘squabbling’, as if to suggest a playground spat, when what is actually at stake are fundamental questions about the future of the UK state. It is only natural that such questions will prompt passionate, as well as pragmatic, disagreement. When the media belittle such debates by referring to them as mere ‘squabbling’, even if it is simply for provocative effect, they contribute to our collective disappointment in democracy and its functioning. We may be cynical about our politicians, and often for good reason, but when they stand up and debate the issues surrounding something as important and complex as the future of sterling in an independent Scotland, we disempower both them and us when we chalk it up to silly  ‘squabbling’.