JULY 99: ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW
In the second of two
profiles of the workings of the Palace of Westminster,
Robbie Low looks at the House of Lords
“He blew his mind out in a car.
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.
A crowd of people stood and stared.
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”
Some words, as Alan Bennett would say, from the canon of Lennon and Macartney, which we might do very much worse than consider here today.
I begin with this bizarre text, from the drug culture of 1967, because it is a not atypical piece from the artistic flowering of thirty years ago which coincided with the formative years of many of those now in power. It was an age, educationally, when the rules of grammar were exiled by the school of empathy in literature; when history was liberated from dreary fact and given over to emotional creativity - “Imagine you are a Russian peasant in 1916 and describe how you would feel!”; when the moral and social order seemed about to implode and the modest post-war hopes and common decencies of the 1950s were beginning to look as remote as archaeology.
Change, not to say revolution, was in the air. Thirty years on, the West has survived its moral disorder and massive social costs by economic prosperity. Many of those who hated “the system”?, attacked “the established order”, raged against “elitism”, have spent the intervening period ensuring that they and their protégés have become the major beneficiaries but, of course, their “commitment to change” remains undiminished.
The Beatles lyrics (above) use the House of Lords as a metaphor of all that cannot change, is irrelevant, absurd, unacceptable and must, therefore, die. Such intellectual furniture is in high fashion amongst the political arrivistes of recent years.
Of course reform of the House of Lords has been on the cards for years; it is just that no-one has really known how to go about it. It seems absurd to simple rationalists that the present institution could be defended. Some 1000 + members, some qualified from the Conquest, others heirs of great warriors or successful entrepreneurs, some whose commissions were directly purchased (their father knew Lloyd George) and others purchased by a lifetime of public service or service in “the other place”?. Only about 200 of those eligible are regularly active yet any one of them may come in and speak and vote on areas of special interest. Between them there is a wealth of personal and historical experience which profoundly overshadows the Commons. They have power to revise and review legislation but they cannot, in the end, prevent it - the 1911 Parliament Act saw to that.
Those who want it abolished are largely either the logical republican one chamber advocates or the new Hampstead “avec culottes”.
The reformers are now ranged between the advocates of a fully elected second chamber - much more powerful and disturbing to the Commons - and those who wish to remove the friends of privilege to make way for those who have the privilege of being their friends.
It seemed to me a good idea to visit the doomed chamber on the eve of its extinction in its present form and see what, if anything, we may be losing.
I chose the day when the Lords were debating the Sexual Offences Bill - not because the readers or writers of New Directions are obsessed with sex but because it would provide a direct comparison with the Commons report on the same issue and it is a free vote i.e. no party whipping. (not one of the offences under consideration!).
After a slight and entirely courteous delay at security - where a man is separated from his metal and a polite officer wanted to know what my oil stock was - I made it to the chamber with seconds to spare. As I wished to write notes I was moved from the capacious public gallery to the bum numbing crampy corner, above the throne, where the lobbyists sit and found myself, for most the debate, literally cheek to cheek with Sir Ian McKellen.
The Lords has a wholly different atmosphere. The courtesy between opponents is genuine rather than required. The debate tends to be measured rather than sound-bitten, there is no career to build, no leadership to ingratiate. The age profile is, understandably, much older but that is only a failing to a society of neophiliacs and youth cultists. The idea that wisdom might be a handmaiden of age and experience is an alien one in this age. (The church, to her loss, disenfranchises even the best priests on the day of their retirement while according the voting rights to a deacon of one day’s standing.)
The age profile will, inevitably in a debate on sex, produce a number of witticisms on the subject of memory and nostalgia.
Lord Williams of Mostyn is first into bat and rehearses, gently, much of the Commons line. We are not “revolutionists” or “subversives of the moral order”; “equality before the criminal law”; “we are not opening the floodgates of social change”. The various medical and children's organisations are called in support. William Hague is praised for his “act of political and moral courage” in supporting the Bill. He concludes with the unarguable line, “Things are not as they were when we were young.”
Baroness Young, the great opponent of the measure who sent it to defeat during Lambeth, is on her feet. She reminds the House that this measure was never in the manifesto. This means that it claims no mandate and is not subject to the Salisbury-Addison convention which obliges the Lords, in the end, to give way to government legislation. She cites religious support for her opposition (Winchester, Lord Jakobovits, Cardinal Hume, the Muslim community etc.,). This solidarity is later undermined by speeches from the Bishops of Birmingham and Bath and Wells. Her speech denies moral equivalence between homo and heterosexual acts,. All law, she argues, influences behaviour and this Bill will send a clear signal.
My eyes float down to the government benches. Doug Hoyle - a left wing firebrand during my time at the Commons - could be mistaken for a dapper recently retired bank manager. Just along from him is the irrepressible Barbara Castle, so tiny that she rests her feet on a handbag for she cannot touch the floor.
Earl Russell is next on his feet,. Russell, more than most of the modern Lords, gives off an air of effortless indefinable quality marked “born to rule”. It is a good speech, cleverly framed, utterly committed to equalisation. These are witty moments - “Sending a male homosexual to prison is like sending an alcoholic to work in a brewery” - and moments of deep seriousness - “It is those whose behaviour we dislike most whose human rights we must champion most strongly”?. He is one of those who pronounces the word “sexual” as “seckssual” giving it a little more air time than it really needs.
He believes the case for the status quo fails because expert opinion is against it and young people, when asked, have said they do not want that protection.
I am reminded how insistent the liberal case is that this is not about protecting children, it is about equality. Such emphasis would have seemed utterly hostile to 19th liberal reformers.
The intervention of David Steel further underlines the careful use of human rights argumentation and “consultation”. Steel, after all, registers, as his sole political achievement, the removal of the human rights of the unborn.
Enter the Bishop of Bath & Wells. He refers to Lambeth “when we learned how difficult it was to have a world-wide view of something so dominated by culture”. he speaks of his pastoral encounters with “the parents of gay children”. He worries about “the ghettoised behaviour” of gay people and pleads for a proper homosexual ethic and lifestyle to aspire to. He is “opposed to anal intercourse on moral and health grounds for heterosexual as well as homosexual people” but “that is not what this Bill is about”.
He cites the church as needing to behave responsibly “knowing what we now know”?. He appears to suggest that Leviticus and St. Paul were condemning “heterosexual people perverting their nature........ because they enjoy cruelty or want to dominate another male of use another male as a substitute for a woman”. This is a very modern and particular reading of scripture.
Say what you like about Jim Thompson and, as someone who worked under him in Stepney, I shall be saving that particular treat for my autobiography, he has been a determined and passionate spokesman for all aspects of liberalism during his twenty odd years on the bench.
What is alarming is when you try to answer this question. Can you imagine the Church of England appointing a doctrinal and moral conservative of equal conviction and passion to twenty five years on the Episcopal bench? The answer is already before us. Even those who might qualify under the heading “conviction” seem, all too often, to have taken a vow of silence or, as it is now called, collegiality.
Lord Annan almost alone amongst the speakers, managed to reduce the debate to the mocking, trivialising and unpleasant both in tone and content. After an exhibition of what, I assume, he thought was sparkling wit over an extended period, he announced he wouldn’t be around for the vote and got the nearest the polite Lords gets to verbal rotten fruit. When he announced that, at 16, sex drive was at its height, an audible voice from the gallery hissed, “You speak for yourself”
Earl Ferrers, a benevolent and avuncular former occupant of a junior Home Office post, gave a “Middle England common sense” speech for keeping consent at 18. This was slightly undermined later by a mischievous colleague who confided that Ferrers had once told him that the proper age of consent for homosexuality was 86!.
Lord Bath, he of the many “wifelets”, wandered in and slumped on the benches for this exciting moral debate. The TV peers, Bragg and Alli chatted over the end of the bench - a man with a terrible cold sat on the throne steps endlessly blowing his nose.
A particularly tedious speech was in progress. Mark Santer (Bp. of Birmingham) looked up and caught my eye, waved, performed a massive stage yawn pointed at the culprit and tapped his watch.
Baroness Jay swept in robed in purple as befits the Leader of the House. Jay is a walking irony. Appointed to abolish the hereditary peerage it is difficult to think of any reason why she is there herself except that she is Jim Callaghan’s daughter.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill is in full swing. He is a lawyer. His brief is to persuade the Lords that, vote how they will, this legislation will be required by Europe and it is both utterly foolish and a profound waste of time to delay it.
This is the same drumbeat we have heard in the Commons. The British Parliament is impotent and must do as it is told Whether any particular item of legislation is right or wrong this chorus is the death knell of parliamentary democracy in this country,.
There are two other inhibiting factors in this debate. One is the age of speakers- Baroness Mallalieu tells us that her children can’t even begin to understand why there is a debate on this issue. This may have more to do with growing up in her household (“hormones speak louder than words”) than being young. The other is the impending doom of the House. The place is tinged with sadness and uncertainty. They are to be abolished but no real plans are laid for an effective second chamber. Whatever you think of the Lords, whatever party you belong to, this is a constitutional scandal. The only winners so far in this gerrymandering of parliament are the bishops of the Church of England. The speed with which their case has been conceded suggest the government regards them as a largely sympathetic body and, as they are effectively a self appointing oligarchy, this is likely to continue.
There is a gentle speech from old Lord Longford, a speech which might have been given by an Anglican bishop forty years ago. It is followed by an amusing pro-bill outing from Viscount Bledisloe who encourages pro fox hunters to vote for the Bill as they too are asking a majority “not to be prescriptive about things beyond decent limits”. He goes on to remind old Etonian members that if early homosexual experiences were determinative there would be rather fewer heirs to the peerage.
There is a powerful speech from Lord Quirk in which he addresses the moral medical issues which everyone else has assiduously avoided. He is listened to on government benches, I reflect, in much the same way as doctrinal and moral conservatives are listened to in the church’s synods. There is much gazing at floor or ceiling, rearranging papers and general embarrassment that anyone could still be so blind to the new self evident truths of our society.
An ennobled senior woman police officer and psychologist add their weight to the evidence of a former social worker justifying the reform.
There follows a typically careful and thoughtful speech from the Bishop of Winchester and a powerful and direct quarter of an hour from Lord Davies of Quoity from the government benches, both hostile to the liberalising proposals.
It is about this point that a hush descends on the House as the lady in black makes her way to the opposition benches. Even out of power and not intending to speak, Baroness Thatcher still manages to provoke that mixture of fear and love on conservative benches which scripture reserves for the Almighty.
The debate rolls on finishing, after nearly eight hours, just before midnight. The House is divided, the bishops are divided. The opponents of the reform are victorious. It is a narrower triumph than last time and even the most relieved know that it is short lived. The House is on borrowed time from the executive - many, indeed most, will not be back for the new term. The parliament is on borrowed time - Europe is sovereign, the balkanisation of Britain proceeds apace. Legislation that will sweep away the constitutional safeguards that have evolved over centuries is passed and passing.
The second chamber, presently constituted, is to the logical mind absurd. Its justification is that it contains a depth of wisdom, history and expertise across the range of professions, at the highest level, that the Commons can seldom, and now less than most times, challenge. Quite simply the Lords works - it does its job, thoroughly and well. That is no justification in the new order. The new Jacobins have set the tumbrils rolling and the execution date is set. It is by no means certain that what replaces the Lords in year zero will be as careful of the liberties of the people or as vigilant for the sovereignty of the realm.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's.
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