The Study of Parliament Group: The First Twenty-one Years (4)

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Chapter 4: Conclusion

How successful has the SPG been? In personal terms it would seem to have been very successful. Most members are regular attenders at the two main annual functions, the weekend at Exeter College, Oxford and (normally) the Summer Dinner in London. Judging by this support these arrangements are well devised. For the Executive Committee there are generally a further two or three meetings a year normally at the Houses of Parliament and these too are well attended. At any one time there are four or five Study Groups at work and these, for the most part, have been well supported. The system of volunteering to support subjects in which individuals are interested seems to provide these study groups with roughly the right size and balance of membership. In personal terms too, friendships made through the SPG have resulted in better quality study and published work which, except under the stimulus of the Group’s existence, might never have been started or completed. It has always been one of the Group’s aims and achievements to mix academics and practitioners at Westminster to help educate the former concerning how Parliament really works and thus help to make the world of politics more real. Likewise, the SPG has provided Parliament’s own staff with the opportunity regularly to consider, with informed ‘strangers’, the problems of the place where they work, an institution which is the subject of unique public interest and comment and which is so strongly absorbing when one is working there. This chance then for Parliamentary officers sometimes to step back and to reflect on the changing environment and purpose of their work has been very useful especially during years at Westminster which have seen such considerable changes. To do this the Group has worked out a method whereby officers of both Houses of Parliament, whose loyalty is obviously to Parliament and its Members, have been able to cooperate with academics in a policy which might be labelled ‘Open Parliament’, yet without disturbing the inevitably confidential working relationship of Member and official. The list of writings on Parliament by members of the Group both academic and non-academic, quite outside the SPG bibliography at Appendix 5, is quite impressive.

From the viewpoint of Parliament as a whole, the SPG must also be counted a success from two quite different viewpoints. First, for the last twenty years when it wishes to consider its Procedures, services etc. Parliament has had a body to call on to prepare thoughtful yet detached evidence, but a body which as set down when it was founded, is sympathetic to Parliament’s importance as an institution. The 1964 catalogue of SPG concerns listed at the beginning of this pamphlet, suggests that the membership was quite penetrating about Parliament’s coming needs and the direction of its development. Secondly the SPG has had an impact on the many Members of both Houses who have spoken to its gatherings (see Appendix 4) and who have been questioned, sometimes relentlessly, on their views. The learning process has been two-way. To this can be added the occasional tete-a-tete dinner with a reform-minded Minister. Other Members have made use of the SPG publications which together form the important core of a small library on the contemporary House of Commons, how it is organised, how it works and what it does or does not achieve. At a more everyday level the SPG’s method of working seems to have been effective, namely through Study Groups which have either been successful or have withdrawn from a subject area if they saw no future in it and then sometimes helped an individual to pursue the subject, a method which has been commendably balanced yet at times generous. And after modest initial funding it has financed itself, except in cases of major projects, through its own writings.

It can fairly be argued that the consistent advocacy by the SPG of the use of Select Committees to enhance the scrutiny of the policy, expenditure and administration of Government and the need to expand the services and facilities for Members has provided, at least in part, the reasoned justification for the changes that the House of Commons has chosen to make over the past twenty years.

But there have been gaps in its studies. It has not yet conducted a satisfactory examination of the work of the House of Lords. It has never studied the changing membership of the House of Commons over, say, its own existence. The 1964 election which coincides with its founding is sometimes regarded as a watershed in this connection and therefore possibly a good point of departure. Nor indeed has it considered the impact on the membership of the House of Lords of the arrival of life peers. At different times, the Group considered undertaking studies on some of these subjects but has decided that their study might lead the group into areas of political controversy. It has yet, and these are early days, to consider the importance that the advent of the computer will make on the way Members at Westminster will work, both within the Houses of Parliament and vis-a-vis their constituents. Each member of the Group could add to this catalogue of subjects which may yet be considered. We can expect that such topics may be among those on the SPG’s agenda during the next twenty-one years.

But if we return to Friday 2nd October 1964, when at 2.30 pm Sir Edward Fellowes took the Chair of the Group’s first meeting in the London School of Economics and we consider their longer term aim noted at that meeting: ‘that it would be mutually useful, both for practical and academic reasons, for people in the universities and in the Palace of Westminster interested in the study of the modern Parliament to have the chance to meet each other on some known and regular basis however informal, to study and stimulate studies of Parliament’, then twenty-one years later the SPG can feel it has met these aspirations of its founders by working in a practical, effective manner while keeping the warmth of ‘an informal learned society’.

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Prepared by Simon Patrick, 10 February 2001. © 1985, Study of Parliament Group.