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Erskine May for Dummies

Book Review: Inside the House of Commons - Behind the Scenes at Westminster, by John Biffen
Biffen announces in the introduction that he does not intend to write political memoirs, and although this volume has a little personal anecdotage here and there, he satisfies his criterion that this book is about the procedures and conventions of the House rather than about its transient politics and personalities.

Written in an informal style that nevertheless carries respect and authority, Biffen briefly describes the history of the Palace of Westminster, including the fire of 1834 that destroyed much of it and led to today's construction by Barry and Pugin. (The fire, incidentally, was caused by the Inland Revenue burning old tally sticks. Government waste apparently is not a new phenomenon). He goes on to describe the role of the Speaker, and then takes us through various procedures typical of the House - questions, debates, standing orders, bills, committees, whips, and so on. None of this is in great depth but it seems to cover the basics quite well. Later sections feature major occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament, the Queen's Speech and Budget Day, as well as less grandiose but important occasions such as the making of a maiden speech or personal statement. The history of resources such as Hansard and the Commons Library is also mentioned, as well as sections on lobbying, MPs' pay, and the 'other place'.

I always recall Biffen as one of the Tory wets - notoriously described as "semi-detached" in the late days of the Thatcher regime - but having read this volume I am reminded that he is economically quite dry, and only socially more liberal. He is also firmly Eurosceptic, and his presentation of the imposition of EU legislation and the problem this provides for the sovereign parliament is well argued. There is the occasional reference to "Tory" and "Labour" where "Government" and "Opposition" would have been better, and some details, such as the timing of Prime Minister's Questions, have changed, but the vast bulk of the information presented in this 1989 volume - for me a chance buy from Reading's Oxfam bookshop - is still accurate and this represents a valuable baseline reference book.
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