I was looking forward to writing this column – the first of 2011 – with an inside view of Westminster, for the first time since I left the Commons. The reality, I fear, is rather different. As Robert Burns, told us ‘the best laid plans of mice and men…’
In late November I received official notice that I was to be given a peerage, and I duly took my seat in the House of Lords on 22 December. It was one of the high points in my life, as I have always had a passion for Parliament and the thought of spending several years in the Lords, after 40 in the Commons, was an enticing prospect. By the time I went home early on the evening of 23 December, I was already feeling thoroughly at home.
My first full week in the Lords was due to begin on Monday 10 January. I won’t bore you with clinical details, as there is nothing more boring than a literal answer to the question ‘How are you?’. Suffice to say that when I should have been taking my seat, I was instead entering a hospital, having my first experience of an intensive care unit. As I write I am beginning to feel better, but I fear there is no chance of giving you an internal view of the House of Lords until I send in my March column in the middle of February.
Everything has its compensations and being ill does help to put things in perspective: it makes one conscious of, and grateful for, the little things in life that we so easily take for granted – like being able to walk up a flight of stairs and have a shave in the morning without almost collapsing from exhaustion. Health has a habit of enabling us to see things in a new perspective and that includes politics. Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had more than a touch of weary cynicism about him, but over these last few days I have often thought of his famous remark that ‘nothing matters very much and few things matter at all’.
Of course, this is not to say that cataclysmic events, whether flooding in Queensland or the revolution in Tunisia, are no longer cataclysmic events, whatever the health or state of the observer. But the reactions of even the best and most high minded in politics rarely match the occasion.
I have been thinking of this as I’ve reflected on my new responsibilities in the House of Lords. I accepted a peerage because I believe in the system and in the place of the House of Lords within it. By various accidents of history, there is no confusion about responsibility in our parliamentary democracy. The House of Commons – the elected House – is where the ultimate decisions are, quite rightly, always taken and I believe that any constitutional change that deliberately, or even inadvertently, challenges the supremacy of the Commons is fraught with potentially dire consequences.
We have in the House of Lords not a perfect assembly, not one that does not merit further reform, but a House that certainly does not deserve abolition. Until 1911, the House of Lords, composed as it was entirely of hereditary peers – plus the bishops – had the ultimate say in the British parliamentary system. Since 1911, its powers of veto have been even further reduced and all it can do now is delay the passage of legislation by a single year – no more. In 1999 almost all the hereditary peers were expelled and the House is now overwhelmingly composed of men and women given life peerages for their contributions in various walks of life, professions and occupations. What it means is that the House of Lords is a bit like the old Witan – an assembly of the experienced and wise who can make comment without the power to pass ultimate judgement. In a way, the House of Lords is the House of ‘Buts’. When it comes to legislation, it is almost invariably saying ‘yes – but have you considered the unintended consequences?’.
We are told that the present government wishes to abolish the Lords and replace it with a wholly or largely elected assembly. Have they really thought about the unintended consequences of that?
While I have been having my enforced rest, I have been reading Supermac, Dr D R Thorpe’s magisterial and engaging new biography of Macmillan – in many ways the most complex and interesting of twentieth century Prime Ministers. Assessing Macmillan’s role in the late 1930s, Thorpe quotes the poet W H Auden as saying ‘All good drama has two movements – first the making of the mistake, then the discovery that it was a mistake’. I can only hope that Mr Clegg’s apparent impetuous desire for a constitutional drama does not take us all in the wrong direction. That really would be a mistake.