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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will allow me to protest in the politest possible terms. I shall not enumerate the number of life Peers who make such an extraordinary contribution to the Government Front Bench. I hope that she will agree with me that she has just indulged in a gross exaggeration.
Baroness Flather: My Lords, I stand corrected. Perhaps I may change that to the majority. I personally subscribe to the Scottish model of representative Peers because I believe that that would tighten up the work of the House and encourage the hereditary Peers to take more interest in the work of the House. That would only be for the life of each Parliament so that others would have the opportunity of standing again for the next Parliament.
I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, about the likelihood of excluding some special categories of Peers from speaking. I would meet that problem differently. I would suggest that, with the leave of the House, any Member should be able to speak in the Chamber. I too wondered how we could avoid excluding some of those hereditary Peers with the finest minds who might not be elected. I first read about that solution in the House Magazine in an article by my noble friend Lord Whitelaw. I was delighted to hear today that the grandfather of my noble friend the Leader of the House made that suggestion in the year of my birth. I am sure that that is significant. That solution would also deal with the criticism that too many people use this place as a club. I do not think that present hereditary Members of the House should be excluded from using it as a club
Change will come one way or another. I just hope that change will not mean the complete disappearance of the most wonderful place that I have ever had the privilege of joining. I hope that the change will be gradual and gentle and will allow us to keep this unique and wonderful House.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, with her direct and refreshing common sense. Perhaps I may say to console her that I had been a Member of this House for a full year before I realised that the noble Baroness who is just leaving the Government Front Bench was not at least the 15th holder of the proud title of "Trumpington"--
Everything that has been said about the House of Lords in the past few hours of debate leaves me feeling inadequate about being able to contribute anything further to the discussion on the composition, role and structure of your Lordships' House. It has got to a point rather like that which Senator Mo Udall once identified at an American Democratic Convention after two days when he said, "Everything that can be said has been said", and then he paused and said, "But not everybody has yet said it".
I thought that I would talk about something completely different--the basis on which we might think about these difficult matters of constitutional reform. The issue is not really constitutional conservatism versus constitutional reform, which was the great defining issue of Victorian politics. Paradoxically, there was one notion which united both Victorian reformers and Victorian constitutionalists and that was the central idea of the fundamental importance of the constitution. I refer to the debate which the noble Viscount's ancestry recalls. It gripped Victorian politics. It took place between people who felt intensely about the intrinsic importance of the constitution, whether they were for change or for maintenance. Once again, and in my view rather belatedly, there is a new debate on constitutional reform which will clearly figure largely in the coming general election. Superficially, some of the arguments advanced against change are traditionally those of conservatism (with a small "c")--and very ancestral voices sound again in the land.
The analogy with the Victorian constitutional reform debate is in some senses rather misleading. The real argument now is not between tradition and reform, between continuity and change, but between those who find themselves willy-nilly constitutional iconoclasts, indifferent to constitutional values but actually changing the constitution, and those who are in favour of rational
The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in his most interesting speech, referred to the Government's decimation of local government. He could have mentioned the abolition of London's government; he could have mentioned the Single European Act; he could have mentioned the fundamental restructuring of the Civil Service. He did mention the failed experiment of the poll tax. The point of these references is not to get into a familiar political debate on their merits or their demerits, but to say that they all are or were constitutionally significant. Let us make no mistake: constitutional change is not something that is unfamiliar to this Government. They have been changing our arrangements in what I have referred to as a piecemeal way. In a fast changing world, I suppose that institutional change is necessary and inevitable.
The question is what principles underlie it and what values it represents. In other words, what is the whole, of which any particular institutional change is only an expression? The noble Viscount, in his very spirited introduction, advanced two propositions with which he said we would all agree. The first was that Parliament is the fount of all authority; the second was that Parliament crucially depended on the consent of the electorate. Although I do not want to be too provocative this late in the evening, let me say that I am not sure that I agree with him.
I would like to advance an alternative proposition. My assumption is a different one. It is a democratic assumption, and it is that it is the people of this country who are the fount of all authority. It is the citizens of this country who are the basic source of legitimacy in our constitutional arrangements. Sovereignty--that much abused and overused word--actually lies in the people of Britain, who choose to delegate their power upwards to various levels of government, including crucially Parliament.
Interestingly, in recent years there has begun to be discussion of this point. If one reads Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with which the noble Viscount is very familiar, for the first time in British constitutional arrangements it makes it quite explicit that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future. In other words, we have begun to change the terms of the debate. This is also the case with Scotland. There are many Scots; and this was reflected in the constitutional convention that came out a year ago. The Claim of Right that preceded it was on the assumption that Scotland's future lies in the hands of the people of Scotland. These are deep waters in a constitution as old as ours which, as the Government would say, has evolved over the years.
However, I believe that the principle of the democratic primacy of the people of this country begins to make sense of several of the apparently disparate proposals for constitutional reform to which, on the whole, the Government are opposed. For instance, a Bill of Rights is not so much important because Parliament does or does not will it, but because, in the words of
On the same assumption, freedom of information is important because the information of government belongs not to the state but to the citizen. It is the right of every citizen to own the information on which governments conduct policy on matters such as devolution and stronger local government, because the more frequently decisions are made closer to the citizen, the better.
There was then a further reference, if I may just come back to it, that the noble Viscount made to the consent of the electorate and to voters choosing the government. It is interesting to reflect that the majority of voters in Britain get neither the Member of Parliament nor the Government that they personally want, so there is some dislocation there in terms of people feeling that they own their system.
Your Lordships will have remarked that yesterday in Russia--and I for one am very glad about it--the Communist Party was very heavily defeated and humiliated. Some of the newspapers today are saying that it is a broken force. People have their own views on that. I believe that it is a very happy thing for the Russian people. But it is interesting to reflect on what proportion of the vote this "broken force", humiliated at the polls, achieved in Russia. It was 42 or 43 per cent.--about the same percentage on the basis of which this Government exercise what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, described as elected dictatorship, the total powers of the state.
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