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The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, I apologise. That sounds much better than my translation. I tried to find an example of "scripted abuse" and I did so. I was reminded of the words of Kipling in 1914 when he was describing the Liberal government of that time. He said:
At a time of unparalleled parliamentary reform, which the Government are intent on taking at a gallop, one has to ask oneself: why are they in such a tremendous hurry? I do not believe it is because they want to throw a bone to the Labour Left. Nor do I believe that it is because they cannot abide the perceived, and to some extent illusory, political imbalance of your Lordships' House. Might it not have more to do with the fact that we are soon to be asked to make one of the most important decisions that this country will ever have to make; namely, whether or not to join the euro, with all the constitutional issues that will follow?
We have recently been told that Mr. Blair and his colleagues have changed gear in their approach to this vital issue. During the next two years, many millions of pounds will be spent on a programme to prepare us for the possibility of joining. I recognise that this is not the moment to debate the rights or wrongs of that policy. But it is absolutely vital that no one should be under any illusion that if this Bill were to be passed, the Government would have succeeded in getting rid of the only parliamentary brake which currently exists. Mr. Blair will not then only be able to change into top gear; he will also be able to place his foot firmly on the accelerator.
It is no good the Government repeating that there will be a referendum. What form will it take, and when will it be offered? Probably not before the next general election. And is it not within the bounds of possibility that the Labour Government, if re-elected, might say that there was a paragraph somewhere in their manifesto giving them the mandate for joining, thus rendering a referendum unnecessary? Alice in Wonderland stuff? I think not. Only time will tell. We should not forget that the present Labour Government, with their massive majority in the other place of 178, got there with just over 30 per cent. of the nation's votes.
In moving on to my next point, I pray in aid another statistic that has been referred to in previous debates and again today. In a recently conducted poll, under 3 per cent. of those questioned remembered that the Labour Party manifesto contained something about getting rid of hereditary Peers.
There may be an argument for reform of this House, although there are many both within and outside who subscribe to the view, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". We shall have to wait and see what is contained in the Royal Commission report, chaired by my noble friend
I now turn to what has become known as the Weatherill amendment. The argument runs that keeping 91 hereditary Peers in this House is our best chance of making sure that the Government see through the reform of this House, whatever that reform may be. I say, with respect and deference, that that is nonsense. I believe that it may have exactly the opposite effect. Having effectively neutered this House in its traditional role of being the conscience of the people and viewing the political landscape conservatively--with a small "c"--they will, by judicious appointment, achieve a House which is Labour, with a big "L", and the most diligent efforts of the Royal Commission, and even of the all-party Select Committee which will follow, will be kicked summarily into the long grass, which is where many a past Royal Commission report now languishes. That was a point well made by my noble friend Lord Waddington.
Even if some form of Weatherill amendment is passed in this House, there is no guarantee that it can be delivered in another place, and I shall therefore take a great deal of persuading that this is the right way to proceed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Sudeley; it has the hallmark of a gigantic Pooh trap, set by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister. We should beware, particularly as the clear and present danger exists, that, having neutered this House, there will be nothing to stop an overbearing and mighty Government, led by a Prime Minister with presidential tendencies, deciding to bypass the electorate and vote themselves another term in office.
The right way to proceed is comprehensively, by which I mean "no stage one without stage two". This is not some mindless mantra spoken in an attempt to retain the status quo. Many of my noble friends accept that times move on and that some kind of reform may be desirable, but it should be carefully thought out in the round and should not take place in this piecemeal way. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, agree with that point. The Government proudly proclaim that they have invented what they call joined-up government. This, of all times, is the moment when we need to see evidence of its existence.
While preparing for the debate, I recalled that my great-great-great-uncle had lived in some fairly interesting times and so I thought I should seek some illumination by reading a biographical account of my ancestor's administration, written by Dr. J. E. Cookson. I did not have far to look. On the jacket cover I found an
Finally, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on his excellent speech and on arguing so convincingly and concisely for his reasoned amendment. I assure him that I shall certainly support him in the Division Lobby should he choose to press it.
Lord Cochrane of Cults: My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak to your Lordships at twenty-past one in the morning, having risen at half-past five in order to attend your Lordships' House. I do not say that the Bill before us is the worst Bill I have ever seen, but it is certainly a bad Bill. I shall come to my reasons for saying that in due course.
The sole purpose of this Bill is to end hereditary membership of your Lordships' House. I am a hereditary Member of your Lordships' House and feel none the worse for that; it has been a duty of my family for many years. It has been alleged that one of my ancestors was bribed to agree to the Act of Union, but that is still undecided. I speak in this debate because I believe that it is my duty to do so. I do not do so because of whim, self-seeking or anything else, but as a duty to ensure the stability of the government of this great country of which we are all citizens. I consider that to be important.
The Bill seeks to remove hereditary Peers from your Lordships' House, which is a perfectly reasonable thought to which I have no objection. My reservation is about whether the plans put forward by the party opposite--I hope that the Front Bench is paying attention--will make things better, leave matters as they are or, as is possible, make things worse. That may be thought a rather severe stricture, but we are dealing with an important matter, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said today and on an earlier occasion. I fully support his remarks about the necessity to get things right. There is no point in change if it is not for
This Bill proposes to abolish people like me. I have no complaint to make about that. My family has done its duty as we understand it for hundreds of years to keep the government of our great country on an even, steady and progressive course. Now the party opposite proposes that by abolishing a large proportion of the membership of your Lordships' House everything will become much better. I venture to disagree for the following reason. I understand that the Bill, which has been drafted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor quite deliberately to minimise the chance of being amended in a helpful way, proposes a vacuum. As everybody knows, nature abhors a vacuum. If one has a vacuum with nothing to look forward to and no further stage, how can one be sure that it is worth while to vote for such a state of affairs? That would be folly.
I venture to repeat the very unpopular remarks of my very good friend the late Lord Beloff, whose intellect, industry, knowledge and many other virtues were mentioned by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Strathclyde. I have had the happy occasion to share a room with Max Beloff, if I may refer to him in those terms, for quite a number of years. I have never known anybody whose knowledge, experience or wisdom were greater. I draw attention again to the remarks which he made towards the end of his life on the subject of the dangers facing a post-imperial nation such as ours, brought about through apathy, and to the nasty analogies he drew with the progress of the National Socialists in swallowing up the political machinery of Germany. I hope that he is not right. He was a distinguished member of your Lordships' House and a man of the greatest intellect, and his words should be thought about. I fear that the party opposite has not considered these possibilities. It is a gloomy prospect that I offer. I hope that I am wrong and that the late Lord Beloff too was wrong, but the omens are not good.
I got up yesterday; it is now tomorrow, and it will not be long until it is the morning. Some noble Lords may recall that Winston Churchill gave a stinging rebuke to Bessie Braddock on the subject of what happened in the morning.
Unhappily, everything that I have thought about on this subject points to a single set of targets by the party opposite to neuter this House, to fill it with place-men, ruled because they are paid by whipping. That would not be a good state of affairs.
As to the preparatory work for this Bill, I acknowledge the great intellectual input of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who I am happy to see in his place. It nonetheless puts me in mind of the problem faced by Mr. Attlee's Government when they wanted to draft a Bill. I have drafted a Bill, of extreme obscurity but it nonetheless became an Act. Mr. Attlee's Government wanted a Bill to nationalise the coal-mines. The mine
I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. I pray that the Royal Commission's report will precede rather than follow enactment of this spiteful Bill.
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