Daily Archives: 5 June 2011

The Steel Convention has no place in modern politics

I’ve had enough articles published in newspapers now to know that you can’t blame the author for the often shockingly misleading titles that appear above their articles, so I will give Lord Steel the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not so disingenuous as to actually baldly state that “The Lords needs reforming now, not in 2025“. The article beneath the headline is a bit better. But only a bit.

Where does one start? Well first of all, if he is serious about his package of interim reforms, then the simple answer is to put them into the Lords reform bill and ensure it gets passed without delay. Yet for some bizarre reason he points this as an either or option: either we make some incredibly minor changes in the short term or we focus on reform for the long term. This is an entirely false distinction. What’s more, the Lords only started talking about these piecemeal reforms once they had realised that the electoral reformers weren’t going anywhere.

To offer dire warnings of the cost of an elected second chamber while demanding pensions and increased remuneration for unelected peers is a particularly audacious claim, but not the only one. Of equal status is the demand for an “independent” appointments commission. This commission would indeed be independent – of everyone – except for the House of Lords itself which would then exist in a state of permanent self-perpetuity. One of the main reasons for having elected members of the second chamber is to get away from the idea that the only people suitable are the usual clubbable suspects: here Steel is claiming we should take the status quo a step further.

It is remarkable to read a former member of the Scottish Parliament (which uses the Additional Member System) issuing non-specific yet dire warnings about what might happen if we have “elected senators (with a 15-year tenure as proposed), possibly of different political parties, wandering about their constituencies claiming, correctly, that they too have a mandate.” Strangely, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland somehow manage to struggle on in such circumstances – as indeed do parish, county and district councillors (not to mention MEPs).

The old canard about the House of Lords challenging the “primacy” of the House of Commons should also be put to rest. What on earth is wrong with a bit of competition? Is Steel really suggesting that it would be a bad thing if the Lords were seen to be doing a better job at representing people than the Commons? That we should stick with mediocrity because it might force MPs to raise their game? Linked to this is his deliberate obfuscation between the concepts of “powers” and “conventions”. The debate over what powers the second chamber should have has been settled: essentially it should have the same powers it has at the moment. And yes, the Cunningham Report did indeed say that a change in the Lords’ composition would mean that the conventions too would need to be rewritten, but those are two entirely different things.

The Parliament Acts limit what powers the Lords have in terms of delaying and rejecting legislation, but the Salisbury Convention has – until recently at any rate – held the Lords back from using those powers in full under normal circumstances. Will we need a new set of conventions if the second chamber were to be elected? Of course. But then, as I pointed out last week, with governments elected with 36% of the vote and now a coalition government, we urgently need to tear up the existing ones and start again in any case. This isn’t a problem that magically disappears if Lord Steel has his way and gets to kick elected second chamber proposals into the long grass.

To make things worse, Steel himself admits that the current Lords is pretty much a law unto itself. In the final paragraph, he makes the oblique threat that “the risk the coalition now faces is that its plans will get bogged down in endless argument in both houses, clogging up valuable parliamentary time.” Or, to put it another way: “nice legislative programme you’ve got there; it would be a shame if something was to happen to it…”

Perhaps he could tell us: what is the name of this “convention” that dictates that the Lords gets to derail a government’s legislative programme whenever its future is open to question? In what way is this form of blackmail in any way defensible? Perhaps we should name it the Steel Convention?

I could go on but really: why waste my time? This isn’t an intellectual argument being offered, but a threat. It will be a test of the coalition – and of the leader of the opposition – to see how they respond.

Not a review of Anno Dracula

I read Anno Dracula when it first came out. It has since apparently acquired legendary status – something which slightly surprises me as I had assumed that the reason it had been out of print for so long was simply because it had been forgotten.

Anyway, if you don’t know, Anno Dracula is a counterfictional novel that explores what would have happened if, instead of being chased around Eastern Europe and eventually killed in Bram Stoker’s original novel, Count Dracula had actually won? Newman posits that Dracula’s intention was really to take over the British Empire – and the only way he could do that was to marry Queen Victoria. The book explores the consequences of this and how Dracula would have influenced late Victorian society – particularly when the vampires come out of the shadows and into mainstream society. And in telling his story, Newman features cameos from pretty much every fictional vampire and figure from Victorian literature you care to mention. It sounds a lot more cheesy than it is, due to Newman’s superb writing and sense of plot.

The reason I came across it was due to being around in the right time and the right place. You can draw a pretty straight line between me getting the Warlock of Firetop Mountain back in 1982, getting into roleplaying and Games Workshop hobbygames, buying Drachenfels (the Warhammer world-based novel from which Genevieve Dieudonne, one of Anno Dracula‘s main protagonists, originated) and getting Anno Dracula as soon as it came out. I suppose you could add the other following factors: I’d got into Vampire: the Masquerade; Copolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula had made Dracula particularly fashionable again; Sandman was starting grow exponentially in popularity – and I was aware that Newman and Gaiman were past collaborators. Essentially, I was the prime audience for this book.

This isn’t a review for the simple reason that I haven’t read it in 20 years. It is a testament to its quality however that I have repeatedly sought it out, only to be repelled by the huge prices it commands on the second hand market (I leant my original copy to a friend and never saw it again). It is also notable that Newman’s work was of sufficient quality that when I first read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the latter seemed a little old hat (to give Alan Moore his due, he’s since taken League off in an entirely different direction).

What I can tell you is that from last summer through to the new year, I ploughed through Kim Newman’s short story collections. I don’t really understand why I bought so many of these yet failed to read them until 12 months ago; I think I had a slightly irrational snootiness, believing that somehow Newman’s Derek Leech “world” was somehow inferior to his Anno Dracula “world” [1]. Suffice to say that it turns out I was utterly wrong. Not only did I read through all the books that I had but I scooped up his entire back catalogue and read all of them too. The main thing stopping myself from rereading Anno Dracula is that my next task is to read his other novels I haven’t read. Thus far, I’ve read two: Jago and Life’s Lottery, a truly awe-inspiring novel written in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook (which takes me all the way back to the Warlock of Firetop Mountain).

Anyway, despite having no intention of reading it again any time soon, I picked up the latest edition of Anno Dracula as soon as it came out, and it is a fantastic edition. As well as sporting an excellent cover, it has over 100 pages of “extras” including a list of annotations, an afterword, an alternate ending, extracts from Newman’s own adapted screenplay and the short story The Dead Travel Fast which serves as a prequel. According to the blurb at the back, the republication of the existing sequels, The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha Cha Cha, will be receiving a similar treatment (the promised bonus “novellas” sound exciting). And of course, we will finally be seeing the publication of the fourth book in the series, Johnny Alucard, which takes the story right up to the present day.

Of course, that depends on this republication not being a crashing disaster. Somehow I doubt it – the buzz online has been very positive and Titan have even invested in an advertising programme on the tube – but just in case, please do yourself and me a favour by picking up a copy.

[1] A short explanation for the terminally lost: not only does Newman have fun with the shared universe concept in Anno Dracula, but he has interlinked pretty much all of his own output over the past 20 years (and some before that). The Anno Dracula cycle of books constitute one “world” while world depicted in The Man from the Diogenes Club, Secret Files of the Diogenes Club and Mysteries of the Diogenes Club (along with most of his other short stories and novels) constitutes another. I’ve called this the “Derek Leech” world because, taken together, he is the main recurring villain in the cycle of stories.

Just to add to the confusion, the Diogenes Club – borrowed from the Sherlock Holmes books – is a major player in the Anno Dracula series. On top of that, Genevieve “exists” in both Anno Dracula and in Newman’s Warhammer stories (written as Jack Yeovil). With Eugene Byrne, Newman has written series of stories around a third world, in which the communist revolution happened in the US instead of Russia, the bulk of which can be found in Back in the USSR. For completeness’ sake I should also mention “Pitbull Brittan” – a short story about a rather idiosyncratic British superhero, which features at least one of Newman’s other recurring characters (not Pitbull himself, thankfully).

This promiscuity even extends to Newman’s Doctor Who novella, the main antagonist of which appears in Secret Files. And finally, the aforementioned Life’s Lottery takes the whole thing much further by telling a story across several different counterfactual worlds.

The result is a series of books which don’t only read well but provide plenty of grist for the geeky male brain and its tendency to want to catalogue everything. Perfect fodder, in other words, for me!