Thursday, 27 May 2010

Power and titles

In the last government Peter Mandelson developed a reputation for collecting governmental titles and honours. By the end, his full title was The Right Honourable, the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. William Hague once joked that "it would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop".

One title never bestowed on the Lord Mandelson however, was that of Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, the office of Deputy Prime Minister was vacant throughout Gordon Brown's premiership. The history of that office is a peculiar one, mainly due to the fact that it is relatively new.

Offices of State in the UK normally have ancient histories. There has been a Chancellor of the Exchequer, for example, since the early 14th century. The office of Deputy Prime Minister however, was only created in 1940 following the formation of a coalition government - that sounds familiar.

Back then the political parties had united together to better fight the Second World War, and Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to give the leader of the Labour party, Clement Attlee, a title of high authority. So he created the office of Deputy Prime Minister.

Since the Second World War the title has been used sporadically. Prime Ministers have been reluctant to give it away for fear that it would create a possible rival. This meant that in recent years, when the title was used, the Deputy Prime Minister was normally someone who the PM didn't feel was a threat to his or her leadership. John Prescott for example had no desire to remove the word 'Deputy' from his title.

A problem for any Deputy Prime Minister is that the title doesn't have a defined role or job in government other than filling in for the PM when he or she is off at international summits or on holiday. American politician John Garner, who served as Vice President during Franklin D. Roosevelt's first two terms in the White House, once infamously described the Vice Presidency of the United States as "not worth a bucket of warm piss." Some British politicians have felt a similar sentiment could apply to the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

So when David Cameron appointed Nick Clegg as his Deputy, the Prime Minister wanted to make clear that this was not just an empty title given to make the Liberal Democrats feel a false sense of prestige. As a result, Mr. Clegg was also given special responsibility for political and constitutional reform.

Most people get sudden onset narcolepsy when politicians start to discuss constitutional reform, but Liberal Democrats have been talking about it for years and now their leader is in a position to actually do something about it.

The coalition document, which sets out a plan for the government's next five years in office, talks of a new voting system for the House of Commons and an elected House of Lords. Fixed-term parliaments are already planned.

Nick Clegg also holds on to one of Peter Mandelson's old titles, Lord President of the Council. Normally, the Lord President has a propionate role in the State Opening of Parliament, but last Tuesday Nick Clegg chose to remove himself from the ceremony. Perhaps this was a sign that he plans to be a reformer. In the end though, he may have some impressive titles, but it's the Prime Minister who has the power and the last word on policy.

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