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MONTHLY BLOG 72, REMEMBERING CONRAD RUSSELL, HISTORIAN of STUART BRITAIN AND ‘LAST OF THE WHIGS’

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

After contributing to a panel discussion on 22 September 2016 at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, I’ve expanded my notes as follows:

When remembering my colleague Conrad Russell (1937-2004),1 the first thing that comes to mind is his utterly distinctive presence. He was an English eccentric, in full and unselfconscious bloom. In person, Conrad was tall, latterly with something of a scholar’s stoop, and always with bright, sharp eyes. But the especially memorable thing about him was his low, grave voice (‘Conrad here’, he would intone, sepulchrally, on the phone) and his slow, very precise articulation. This stately diction, combining courtesy and erudition, gave him a tremendous impact, for those who could wait to hear him out.

He once told me that his speaking manner was something that he had consciously developed, following advice given to him in his youth by his father. In fact, given his life-long wish not to be overshadowed by his famous parent, Conrad spoke very rarely about the mathematician and public intellectual Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Conrad, the only child of Russell’s third marriage, was brought up by his mother, who lived in isolation from the rest of the family. But the eminent father had once advised his young son to formulate each sentence fully in his mind, before giving voice to each thought.2 (Not an easy thing to do). The suggestion evidently appealed to something deep within Conrad, for he embraced the slow, stately style from his youth and maintained it throughout his lifetime.

One result was that a proportion of his students, initially at London University’s Bedford College (as it then was),3 were terrified by him, although another percentage found him brilliant and immensely stimulating. Only very few disliked him. Conrad was manifestly a kindly person. He didn’t seek to score points or consciously to attract attention as an eccentric. Yet his emphatic speaking style, laced with erudite references to English politics in the 1620s, and witticisms with punch-lines in Latin, could come as a shock to undergraduates. Especially as Conrad did not just speak ‘at’ people. He wanted replies to his questions, and hoped for laughter following his jests.

Because he thought carefully before speaking, he was also wont to preface his remarks with a little exclamation, ‘Em …’, to establish his intention of contributing to the conversation, always followed by a Pinteresque pause. That technique worked well enough in some contexts. However, when Conrad took up a prestigious academic post at Yale University (1979-84), a number of his American students protested that they could not understand him. And in a society with a cultural horror of silence, Conrad’s deliberative pauses were often filled by instant chatter from others, unintentionally ousting him from the discussion. A very English figure, he admitted ruefully that he was not psychologically at ease in the USA, much as he admired his colleagues and students at Yale. Hence his relief was no secret, when he returned to the University of London, holding successive chairs at University College London (1984-90) and King’s College (1990-2003). By this time, his lecturing powers were at their full height – lucid, precise, and argumentative, all at once.

And, of course, when in 1987 he inherited his peerage as 5th Earl Russell, following the death of his half-brother, Conrad found in the House of Lords his ideal audience. They absolutely loved him. He seemed to be a voice from a bygone era, adding gravitas to every debate in which he participated. Recently, I wondered how far Conrad was reproducing his father’s spoken style, as a scion of the intellectual aristocracy in the later nineteenth century. But a check via YouTube dispelled that thought.4 There were some similarities, in that both spoke clearly and with authority. Yet Bertrand Russell’s voice was more high-pitched and his style more insouciant than that of his youngest child.

The second unmistakable feature of Conrad’s personality and intellect was his literal-mindedness. He treated every passing comment with complete seriousness. As a result, he had no small talk. His lifeline to the social world was his wife Elizabeth (née Sanders), a former student and fellow historian whom he married in 1962. She shared Conrad’s intellectual interests but was also a fluent conversationalist. At parties, Elizabeth would appear in the heart of a crowd, wielding a cigarette and speaking vivaciously. Conrad meanwhile would stand close behind her, his head slightly inclined and nodding benignly. They were well matched, remaining devoted to one another.

2016-12-no1-conrad-and-elizabeth-russell

Fig.1 Conrad and Elizabeth Russell on the stump for Labour in Paddington South (March 1966).

My own experience of Conrad’s literal-mindedness came from an occasion when we jointly interviewed a potential candidate for an undergraduate place in the History Department at Bedford College. (That was in the 1970s, before individual interviews were replaced by generic Open Days). A flustered candidate came in late, apologising that the trains were delayed. Within moments, Conrad was engaging her in an intense discussion about the running of a nationalised rail service (as British Rail then was) and the right amounts of subsidy that it should get as a proportion of GDP. The candidate gamely rallied, and did her best. But her stricken visage silently screamed: ‘all I did was mention that the train was late’.

After a while, I asked if she’d like to talk about the historical period that she was studying for A-level. Often, interview candidates became shifty at that point. On this occasion, however, my suggestion was eagerly accepted, and the candidate discoursed at some length about the financial problems of the late Tudor monarchy. Conrad was delighted with both elements of her performance; and, as we offered her a place, commented that the young were not as uninterested in complex matters of state as they were said to be. The candidate subsequently did very well – although, alas for symmetry, she did not go on to save British Rail – but I was amused at how her apparent expertise was sparked into life purely through the intensity of Conrad’s cross-questioning.

His own interest in such topical issues was part and parcel of his life-long political commitment. At that time, he was still a member of the Labour Party, having stood (unsuccessfully) as the Labour candidate for Paddington South in 1966. But Conrad was moving across the political spectrum during the 1970s. He eventually announced his shift of allegiance to the Liberals, characteristically by writing to The Times; and later, in the Lords, he took the Liberal Democrat whip. He wanted to record his change of heart, to avoid any ambiguity; and, as a Russell, he assumed that the world would want to know.

Conrad’s literalness and love of precision were qualities that made him a paradoxical historian when interrogating written documents. On the one hand, he brought a formidable focus upon the sources, shedding prior assumptions and remaining ready to challenge old interpretations. He recast seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, as one of the intellectual leaders of what became known as ‘revisionist’ history.5 He argued that there was no evidence for an inevitable clash between crown and parliament. The breakdown in their relationship, which split the MPs into divided camps, was an outcome of chance and contingency. Those were, for him, the ruling forces of history.

On the other hand, Conrad’s super-literalism led him sometimes to overlook complexities. He did not accept that people might not mean what they said – or that they might not say what they really meant at all. If the MPs declared: ‘We fear God and honour the king’, Conrad would conclude: ‘Well, there it is. They feared God and honoured the king’. Whereas one might reply, ‘Well, perhaps they were buttering up the monarch while trying to curtail his powers? And perhaps they thought it prudent not to mention that they were prepared, if need be, to fight him – especially if they thought that was God’s will’. There are often gaps within and between both words and deeds. And long-term trends are not always expressed in people’s daily language.

In case stressing his literalism and lack of small talk makes Conrad sound unduly solemn, it’s pleasant also to record a third great quality: his good humour. He was not the sort of person who had a repertoire of rollicking jokes. And his stately demeanour meant that he was not an easy man to tease. Yet, like many people who had lonely childhoods, he enjoyed the experience of being joshed by friends, chuckling agreeably when his leg was being pulled. Common jokes among the Bedford historians were directed at Conrad’s unconventional self-catered lunches (spicy sausages with jam?) or his habit of carrying everywhere a carafe of stale, green-tinged water (soluble algae, anyone?). He was delighted, even if sometimes rather bemused, by our ribbing.

Moreover, on one celebrated occasion, Conrad turned a jest against himself into a triumph. The Head of Bedford History, Professor Mike (F.M.L.) Thompson, was at some date in the mid-1970s required to appoint a Departmental Fire & Safety Officer. It marked the start of the contemporary world of regulations for everything. Mike Thompson, with his own quixotic humour, appointed Conrad Russell to the role, amidst much laughter. Not only was he the caricature of an untidy professor, living in a chaos of books and papers, but he was, like his wife Elizabeth, an inveterate chain-smoker. In fact, there were good reasons for taking proper precautions at St John’s Lodge, the handsome Regency villa where the History Department resided, since the building lacked alternative staircases for evacuation in case of emergency. Accordingly, a fire-sling was installed in Conrad’s study, high on the top floor. Then, some months later, he instituted a rare emergency drill. At the given moment, both staff and students left the building and rushed round to the back. There we witnessed Conrad, with some athleticism,6 leap into the fire-sling. He was then winched slowly to the ground, discoursing gravely, as he descended, on his favourite topic (parliamentary politics in the 1620s) – and smoking a cigarette.

2016-12-no2-st-johns-lodge-regents-pk

Fig.2 Frontage of St John’s Lodge, the Regency villa in Regent’s Park,
where the Bedford College historians taught in the 1960s and 1970s.
Conrad Russell’s room was on the top floor, at the back.

Later, Conrad referred to his years in Bedford’s History Department with great affection. Our shared accommodation in St John’s Lodge, five minutes away from the rest of the College, created a special camaraderie. The 1970s in particular were an exciting and challenging period for him, when he was refining and changing not only his politics but also his interpretation of seventeenth-century history. The revisionists attracted much attention and controversy, especially among political historians. (Economic, demographic, social and urban historians tended to stick to their own separate agendas). Collectively, the revisionists rejected the stereotypes of both ‘Whig’7 and Marxist8 explanations of long-term change. Neither the ‘march of progress’ nor the inevitable class struggle would suffice to explain the intricacies of British history. But what was the alternative big picture? Chance and contingency played a significant role in the short-term twists and turns of events. Yet the outcomes did not just emerge completely at random. In the very long run, Parliament as an institution did become politically more powerful than the monarch, even though the powers of the crown did not disappear.

By the 1990s, the next generation of political historians were beginning to revise the revisionists in turn. There were also new challenges to the discipline as a whole from postmodernist theory. In private conversation, Conrad at times worried that the revisionists’ critique of their fellow historians might be taken (wrongly) as endorsing a sceptical view that history lacks any independent meaning or validity.

Meanwhile, new research fashions were also emerging. Political history was being eclipsed by an updated social history; gender history; ethnic history; cultural history; the history of sexuality; disability history; world history; and studies of the historical meanings of identity.

Within that changing context, Conrad began to give enhanced attention to his role in the Lords. His colleagues among the Liberal Democrats appreciated the lustre he brought to their cause. In 1999 he topped the poll by his fellow peers to remain in the House, when the number of hereditary peers was drastically cut by the process of constitutional reform. And, at his funeral, Conrad Russell was mourned, with sincere regret, as the ‘last of the Whigs’.

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Fig.3 Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, speaking in the House of Lords in the early twenty-first century.

There is, however, deep irony in that accolade. In political terms, it has some truth. He was proud to come from a long line of aristocrats, of impeccable social connections and Whig/Liberal views. Listening to Conrad, one could imagine hearing the voice of his great-grandfather, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), one of the Whig architects of the 1832 Reform Act. Moreover, this important strand of aristocratic liberalism was indeed coming to an end, both sociologically and politically. On the other hand, as already noted, Conrad the historian was a scourge of both Whigs and Marxists. Somehow his view of history as lacking grand trends (say, before 1689) was hard to tally with his belief in the unfolding of parliamentary liberalism thereafter.9 At very least, the interpretative differences were challenging.

Does the ultimate contrast between Conrad Russell’s Whig/Liberal politics and his polemical anti-Whig history mean that he was a deeply troubled person? Not at all. Conrad loved his life of scholarship and politics. And he loved following arguments through to their logical outcomes, even if they left him with paradoxes. Overall, he viewed his own trajectory as centrist: as a historian, opposing the Left in the 1970s when it got too radical for him, and, as a politician, opposing the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, when they became dogmatic free-marketeers, challenging the very concept of ‘society’.

If there is such a thing as ‘nature’s lord’ to match with ‘nature’s gentleman’, then Conrad Russell was, unselfconsciously, one among their ranks. He was grand in manner yet simple in lifestyle and chivalric towards others. One of his most endearing traits was his capacity to find a ‘trace of alpha’ in even the most unpromising student. Equally, if there is such a thing as an intellectual’s intellectual, then Conrad Russell was another exemplar, although these days a chain-smoker would not be cast in the role. He was erudite and, for some critics, too much a precisian, preoccupied with minutiae. Yet he was demonstrably ready to take on big issues.

Putting all these qualities together gives us Conrad Russell, the historian and politician who was often controversial, especially in the former role, but always sincere, always intent. One of his favourite phrases, when confronted with a new fact or idea, was: ‘It gives one furiously to think’.10 And that’s what he, courteously but firmly, always did.

Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937-2004), 5th Earl Russell (1987-2004), married Elizabeth Sanders (d.2003) in 1962. Their sons, Nicholas Lyulph (d.2014) and John Francis, have in turn inherited the Russell earldom but, post Britain’s 1999 constitutional reforms, not a seat in the House of Lords.

Conrad volunteered this information, in the context of a discussion between the two of us, in the early 1970s, on the subject of parental influence upon their offspring.

Merged in 1985 to become part of Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, these days known simply as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), located at Egham, Surrey.

Compare the BBC Interview Face-to-Face with Bertrand Russell (1959; reissued 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY with Conrad Russell’s contribution to The Lords’ Tale, Part 18 (2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ_u1WM7CYA.

The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).

Talking of Conrad Russell’s athleticism, some of his former students drew attention to his love of cricket. He could not only carry his bat but he also bowled parabolic googlies which rose high into the sky, spinning wildly, before dropping down vertically onto the wicket behind the flailing batsman, often taking the wicket through sheer surprise.

The term ‘Whig’, first coined in 1678/9, referred to a political stance which had considerable but never universal support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in support of parliamentary constraints upon the unfettered powers of monarchy, a degree of religious toleration, moderate social and political reforms, and opposition to the more pro-monarchical Tories. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, which again was never universally supported, tended to view the unfolding of British history as the gradual and inexorable march of liberal constitutionalism, toleration, technological innovation, and socio-political reforms, together termed ‘progress’.

On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).

This point was perceptively developed by fellow-panellist, Nicholas Tyacke (University College London).

10  Conrad showed no sign of being aware (and probably would have laughed to discover) that this phrase originated with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), ch.6.

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MONTHLY BLOG 53, ELECTION SPECIAL: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE OLD PRACTICE OF OPEN VOTING, STANDING UP TO BE COUNTED? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Vote early! Generations of democratic activists have campaigned over centuries to give the franchise to all adult citizens. (Yes, and that right should extend to all citizens who are in prison too).2  Vote early and be proud to vote!

So, if we are full of civic pride or even just wearily acquiescent, why don’t we vote openly? Stand up to be counted? That is, after all, how the voting process was first done. In most parliamentary elections in pre-democratic England (remembering that not all seats were regularly contested), the returning officer would simply call for a show of hands. If there was a clear winner, the result would be declared instantly. But in cases of doubt or disagreement a head-by-head count was ordered. It was known as a ‘poll’. Each elector in turn approached the polling booth, identified his qualifications for voting, and called his vote aloud.3
2015-5 No1 Detail from Hogarth Election 1754

William Hogarth’s Oxfordshire Election (1754) satirised the votes of the halt, the sick and the lame. Nonetheless, he shows the process of open voting in action, with officials checking the voters’ credentials, lawyers arguing, and candidates (at the back of the booth) whiling away the time, as voters declare their qualifications and call out their votes.

Open voting was the ‘manly’ thing to do, both literally and morally. Not only was the franchise, for many centuries, restricted to men;4  but polling was properly viewed as an exercise of constitutional virility. The electoral franchise was something special. It was a trust, which should be exercised accountably. Hence an Englishman should be proud to cast his vote openly, argued the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1861. He should cast his vote for the general good, rather than his personal interest. In other words, the elector was acting as a public citizen, before the eyes of the world – and, upon important occasions, his neighbours did come to hear the verdict being delivered. Furthermore, in many cases the Poll Books were published afterwards, so generating a historical record not only for contemporaries to peruse, and for canvassers to use at the following election, but also for later historians to study individual level voting (something impossible under today’s secret ballot).

Especially in the populous urban constituencies, some of the most protracted elections became carnival-like events.6  Crowds of voters and non-voters gathered at the open polling booths to cheer, heckle or boo the rival candidates. They sported election ribbons or cockades; and drank at the nearby hostelries. Since polling was sometimes extended over several days, running tallies of the state of the poll were posted daily, thus encouraging further efforts from the canvassers and the rival crowds of supporters. Sometimes, indeed, the partisanship got out of hand. There were election scuffles, affrays and even (rarely) riots. But generally, the crowds were good-humoured, peaceable and even playful. In a City of Westminster parliamentary by-election in 1819, for example, the hustings oratory from the candidate George Lamb was rendered inaudible by incessant Baaing from the onlookers. It was amusing for everyone but the candidate, though he did at least win.7

Performing one’s electoral duty openly was a practice that was widely known in constitutionalist systems around the world. Open voting continued in Britain until 1872; in some American states until 1898; in Denmark until 1900; in Prussia until 1918; and, remarkably, in Hungary until 1938.

Not only did the voter declare his stance publicly but the onlookers were simultaneously entitled to query his right to participate. Then the polling clerks, who sat at the hustings to record each vote, would check in the parish rate books (or appropriate records depending each variant local franchise) before the vote was cast.8  In the event of a subsequent challenge, moreover, the process was subject to vote-by-vote scrutiny. One elector at a parliamentary by-election in Westminster in 1734 was accused by several witnesses of being a foreigner. He was said to have a Dutch accent, a Dutch coat, and to smoke his pipe ‘like a Dutchman’. Hence ‘it is the common repute of the neighbourhood that he is a Dutchman’. In fact, the suspect, named Peter Harris, was a chandler living in Wardour Street and he outfaced his critics. The neighbours’ suspicions were not upheld and the vote remained valid. Nonetheless, public opinion had had a chance to intervene. Scrutiny of the electoral process remains crucial, now as then.
2015-5 No2 Mynheer Van Funk - Dutch Skipper 1730

Illustration/2: British satirical cartoon of Mynheer Van Funk, a Dutch Skipper (1730)
Was this what Peter Harris, of Wardour Street, Westminster, looked like?

Well then, why has open voting in parliamentary elections disappeared everywhere? There are good reasons. But there is also some loss as well as gain in the change. Now people can make a parade of their commitment (say) to some fashionable cause and yet, sneakily, vote against it in the polling booth. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it. That two-ways-facing factor explains why sometimes prior opinion polls or even immediate exit polls can give erroneous predictions of the actual result.

Overwhelmingly, however, the secret ballot was introduced to allow individual voters to withstand external pressures, which might otherwise encourage them to vote publicly against their true inner convictions. In agricultural constituencies, tenants might be unduly influenced by the great local landlord. In single-industry towns, industrial workers might be unduly influenced by the big local employer. In service and retail towns, shopkeepers and professionals might be unduly influenced by the desire not to offend rich clients and customers. And everywhere, voters might be unduly influenced by the power of majority opinion, especially if loudly expressed by crowds pressing around the polling booth.

For those reasons, the right to privacy in voting was one of the six core demands made in the 1830s by Britain’s mass democratic movement known as Chartism.10 In fact, it was the first plank of their programme to be implemented. The Ballot Act was enacted in 1872, long before all adult males – let alone all adult females – had the vote. It was passed just before the death in 1873 of John Stuart Mill, who had tried to convince his fellow reformers to retain the system of open voting. (By the way, five points of the six-point Chartist programme have today been achieved, although the Chartist demand for annual parliaments remains unmet and is not much called for these days).

Does the actual voting process really matter? Secrecy allows people to get away with things that they might not wish to acknowledge publicly. They can vote frivolously and disclaim responsibility. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party get as many votes as it does (admittedly, not many) under a system of open voting? But I suppose that such votes are really the equivalent of spoilt ballot papers.

In general, then, there are good arguments, on John Stuart Millian grounds, for favouring public accountability wherever possible. MPs in Parliament have their votes recorded publicly – and rightly so. Indeed, in that context, it was good to learn recently that a last-minute bid by the outgoing Coalition Government of 2010-15 to switch the electoral rules for choosing the next Speaker from open voting to secret ballot was defeated, by a majority of votes from Labour plus 23 Conservative rebels and 10 Liberal Democrats. One unintentionally droll moment came when the MP moving the motion for change, the departing Conservative MP William Hague, defended the innovation as something ‘which the public wanted’.11

Electoral processes, however, are rarely matters of concern to electors – indeed, not as much as they should be. Overall, there is a good case for using the secret ballot in all mass elections, to avoid external pressures upon the voters. There is also a reasonable case for secrecy when individuals are voting, in small groups, clubs, or societies, to elect named individuals to specific offices. Otherwise, it might be hard (say) not to vote for a friend who is not really up to the job. (But MPs choosing the Speaker are voting as representatives of their constituencies, to whom their votes should be accountable). In addition, the long-term secrecy of jury deliberations and votes is another example that is amply justified in order to free jurors from intimidation or subsequent retribution.

But, in all circumstances, conscientious electors should always cast their votes in a manner that they would be prepared to defend, were their decision known publicly. And, in all circumstances, the precise totals of votes cast in secret ballots should be revealed. The custom in some small societies or groups, to announce merely that X or Y is elected but to refrain from reporting the number of votes cast, is open to serious abuse. Proper scrutiny of the voting process and the outcome is the democratic essence, along with fair electoral rules.

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is still scope for further improvements to the workings of the system. The lack of thoroughness in getting entitled citizens onto the voting register is the first scandal, which should be tackled even before the related question of electoral redistricting to produce much greater equality in the size of constituencies. It’s also essential to trust the Boundaries Commission which regularly redraws constituency boundaries (one of the six demands of the Chartists) to do so without political interference and gerrymandering. There are also continuing arguments about the rights and wrongs of the first-past-the-post system as compared with various forms of Alternative Voting.

Yet we are on a democratic pathway …. Hence, even if parliamentary elections are no longer occasions for carnival crowds to attend as collective witnesses at the hustings, let’s value our roles individually. The days of open voting showed that there’s enjoyment to be found in civic participation.
2015-5 No3 Rowlandson Westminster 1808

Thomas Rowlandson’s Westminster Election (published 1808), showing the polling booths in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden – and the carnivalesque crowds, coming either to vote or to witness.

1 With warm thanks to Edmund Green for sharing his research, and to Tony Belton, Helen Berry, Arthur Burns, Amanda Goodrich, Charles Harvey, Tim Hitchcock, Joanna Innes, and all participants at research seminars at London and Newcastle Universities for good debates.

2 On this, see A. Belton, BLOG entitled ‘Prisoners and the Right to Vote’, (2012), tonybelton.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/prisoners-and-the-right-to-vote/.

3 See J. Elklit, ‘Open Voting’, in R. Rose (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Elections (2000), pp. 191-3; and outcomes of open voting in metropolitan London, 1700-1850, in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, incl. esp. section 2.1.1.

4 In Britain, adult women aged over 30 first got the vote for parliamentary elections in 1918; but women aged between 21 and 30 (the so-called ‘flappers’) not until 1928.

5 J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-71.

6> See F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989).

7 British Library, Broughton Papers, Add. MS 56,540, fo. 55. Lamb then lost the seat at the next general election in 1820.

8 Before the 1832 Reform Act, there was no standardised electoral register; and many variant franchises, especially in the parliamentary boroughs.

9 Report of 1734 Westminster Scrutiny in British Library, Lansdowne MS 509a, fos. 286-7.

10 For a good overview, consult M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007).

11 BBC News, 26 March 2015: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32061097.

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