The threat of Scottish independence. Is it business as usual? First, pre-election panic. Then the vote. And finally…back to complacency.

30 Jun

Once of the most nerve-wracking battles of last month’s elections was in Scotland, where Douglas Ross and the Conservatives fought a high-stakes rearguard against Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for a second overall majority for the SNP.

The unionists prevailed, by a single seat, to sighs of relief in London, and since then the momentum seems to have gone out of the First Minister’s drive for a second referendum.

However, pro-Union Tories are also concerned that rather than using this window of opportunity to make an aggressive push on the Union, the Government has instead relegated it to a lower priority.

“They’re squandering the opportunity of the Holyrood result”, said one familiar with the development of the Union policy. Instead of a structured and ambitious programme, the Government is simply offering a series of announcements “of varying quality” and with no obvious theme.

This is not to say that all the announcements are unpopular. There is wide support for Michael Gove’s proposal to scrap English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), described as “a sh*t Cameron policy to solve a political problem which did not exist”. One MP even conceded to having “some sympathy” with the late Donald Dewar, the Labour MP and architect of devolution, who famously said that the best answer to the West Lothian Question was to “stop asking it”.

However, there was generally some acceptance that the ‘WLQ’ – the problem of Scottish and Welsh MPs voting on issues that affect English constituencies when those issues are devolved in their own seats – needed some kind of answer, even if EVEL wasn’t it. Several I spoke to explicitly linked the repeal of EVEL with the passage of the UK Internal Market Act (UKIMA), which grants ministers extensive powers to authorise UK-wide public spending in devolved policy areas.

As one person I spoke to put it, EVEL serves to further entrench devolution and “undermines Westminster’s universal mandate”, just as UKIMA seeks to reassert it. An MP suggested that the House of Commons should also overhaul its rules so that MPs from Scotland and Wales could table questions about devolved issues, and that devolution should not be “a one-way street”.

The problem with this is that whilst such an approach might in theory offset the real dangers involved in scrapping EVEL without replacing it, the move is not being sold as part of such a balancing act and there is no sign yet of a blitz of UKIMA policies – although there was a hope that a broader strategy will come together over the next few months.

Suggestions for what such a programme should involve include expanding the franchise for a future referendum to include Scots in the rest of the UK (“although make sure you poll them first”), building on the Union Connectivity Review, spending on cultural programmes and trying to set up a UK-wide amateur football league, promoting the Inter-Governmental Review, and a specific focus from the Department for Education on UK-wide projects (one MP suggested schools in Scotland and Wales should look at joining up to ‘One Britain, One Nation’).

Meanwhile ministers were urged to avoid “any dilution of parliamentary sovereignty” and “Gordon Brown-style constitutional guff”.

Boris Johnson was also advised to overhaul the implementation architecture behind Union policy, with even critics of Michael Gove’s approach saying that if he is in post then he should be “properly empowered” to do the job.

The past few months have seen the launch of both the parliamentary Conservative Union Resources Unit, which brings together around 80 unionist backbenchers, and Conservative Friends of the Union, which aims to train and organise the grassroots. We must hope the Prime Minister and Cabinet take the Union as seriously as the MPs and activists do.

Row over Hancock’s emails highlights the trade-offs involved in ‘Freedom of Information’

28 Jun

As the Matt Hancock story develops, one angle which may get more attention as the initial outrage over the adultery and rule-breaking dies down a little is the broader question of whether or not people close to him or Gina Coladangelo received improper favour from the Department of Health.

One thing fuelling speculation about this is the fact that the former Health Secretary reportedly kept using his private email for official business. This morning’s Guardian reports:

“Matt Hancock’s use of private emails that bypassed disclosure rules when doing government business came under scrutiny this weekend, as exchanges emerged showing the former health secretary had personally referred an old neighbour wanting an NHS contract on to an official.”

Any credible suggestion of impropriety should be properly investigated. But it is worth recalling that there are several less nefarious reasons why a member of the Government might have continued to use their personal email address.

Two are utterly mundane. The first is personal habit – anyone who has got used to conducting work via their personal phone or email before having to switch to an official one can attest to how difficult it can be to break the habit, especially if those whom you have worked with before continue to reach you on them. Getting an email via your private account and replying via the official one can feel a laborious process.

Second, ministers are also political figures and there are restrictions on using government accounts for party business. No excuse for failing to use them for official communications, of course, but another factor making it harder to make a change in habits stick.

But the third, and most serious, is that ministers and their advisers have an understandable desire to speak frankly when developing policy and responding to crises. And in the era of Freedom of Information, this is very difficult. (Not that personal communications are exempt from the legislation, mind you.)

This is not an original observation. Charles Moore wrote almost ten years ago about how “the pursuit of transparency is leading to dishonesty” and intrigue:

“Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.”

Nor is this observation confined to historians and reactionaries. Tony Blair, the architect of the Freedom of Information Act, is scathing about it in his autobiography:

“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.  There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it all.”

His argument is twofold. First that for all the warm rhetoric around ‘transparency’, FoI requests are filed only extremely rarely by members of the public. They are instead almost exclusively a tool for journalists and campaigners. One may feel this is entirely legitimate whilst recognising that it is not how the legislation was originally conceived.

But he also shares Moore’s view that it has both occluded and even degraded the conduct of government :

“Without the confidentiality, people are inhibited and consideration of options is limited in a way that isn’t conductive to good decision-making. In every system that goes down this path, what happens is that people watch what they put in writing and talk without committing to paper. It is a thoroughly bad way of analysing complex issues.”

It isn’t difficult to see how this tendency might have been especially pronounced in a pandemic, when ministers were under intense pressure to find quick solutions to unanticipated problems but knew their choices would be picked over at leisure by commentators and campaigners at a later date.

Of course if it turns out that Hancock or anyone else in government was doling out public contracts improperly, that will highlight the downside of ‘opaque government’.

But even if there are arguments on both sides, we should recognise that there is very often a trade-off between efficacy and accountability. And that the media tends to ignore this when it champions any policy, be it putting cameras the House of Commons or televised leaders’ debates, that give them more material and enhances their role in our democratic system.

Did Brexit cause the dysfunction of the past five years – or merely expose deeper weaknesses?

23 Jun

It is strange to think that five years – the distance between today and 23 June 2016, the day we voted to leave the European Union – is only as long as the lifespan of the Coalition Government.

Sitting up in a borrowed office with the rest of the ConHome team, watching Birmingham go for Leave, feels like a life-age ago, whilst the events of David Cameron’s government (AV referendum, pasty tax, Ed Stone…) all blend into one another.

Perhaps its the sheer pace of events. Cameron oversaw a relatively conventional five-year term in office between 2010 and 2015, whereas since 2016 we’ve had two general elections and two new prime ministers, as well as the excruciating chaos of the 2017-19 Parliament.

Yet for all that the outcome of Brexit can sometimes feel – unless you’re in Northern Ireland – a little anti-climactic. It surely helps that it was so thoroughly overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, but given the wilder promises and threats of the campaigns and the high-octane brinkmanship that preceded the last election, there don’t seem to have been any huge dividends or catastrophic costs as yet.

This fits the thesis advanced by Tom McTague, who has suggested that it will take decades to tell whether or not Brexit was a good move or not because the measure will be the cumulative impact of lots of relatively small decisions made possible by de-alignment. Boris Johnson understandably focuses on the vaccine rollout, a stand-out success. His critics point to the Irish Protocol, which is threatening British trade with our own territory, undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and plunging the Province into crisis.

Another question it may only be possible to answer over the long term is the extent to which Brexit caused the divisions wracking the country, as opposed to merely exposing them.

For example, the pressure of trying to steer a controversial Withdrawal Bill through a divided Parliament proved more than the rules and traditions of the House were able to contain, with dire constitutional consequences. But whilst John Bercow may not have had the opportunity to abuse his office so spectacularly in different circumstances, his elevation to the Speakership preceded them – and as Chris Mullin recorded in his diaries. Bercow was enthroned by Labour MPs deliberately subverting the traditions which governed the post in order to make trouble for an incoming Conservative government.

Likewise it is fashionable to blame Brexit for driving the breakup of the UK, but outwith Northern Ireland (which I have covered extensively elsewhere) it is far from obvious this is the case. Nicola Sturgeon signally failed to capitalise on the referendum result, and it took the pandemic to revive the fortunes of the nationalists in Edinburgh and Cardiff – another issue where what was really exposed was the deep and long-standing division built into the devolution settlement.

And even on the thorny question of Ulster, the attitudes which saw Theresa May stumble into the backstop trap – ignorance of the proper extent of Britain’s obligations under the Belfast Agreement, a Northern Irish Office which understood its role as treading water until we ceded the Province – predate Brexit and were slowly eroding Northern Ireland’s position in the UK years before the referendum. It is easy to imagine that without it we would not have ended up confronting the problem, as David Frost and Brandon Lewis are trying to do.

There is no denying that the crises of the past five years have brutally exposed the shortcomings of the British state and much of its governing class. But we should not flatter those who left our country in that state by allowing them to shift the blame entirely onto those who put their handiwork to the test, and found it wanting.

Henry Hill: If Wales is last to unlock, will Welsh business pay the price for our disjointed approach to Covid-19?

17 Jun

One of the more interesting subplots of the pandemic, for the sort of people who enjoy this column, has been the way it has exposed the extent to which the British Government has abdicated power under devolution and the difficulties this creates when trying to rise to common challenges.

That is not to say that one part of the country has covered itself in glory at the expense of the others. Drakeford indulged devocrat instincts at the start of the pandemic, delaying things like volunteer coordination and emergency food deliveries for the sake of not opting in to English systems, but then delivered a gold-star vaccine rollout. Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis was praised but her ministers oversaw a scandalous release of Covid patients into care homes full of vulnerable people.

For his part, the Prime Minister has repeatedly been too slow to impose lockdowns or shut the borders, but delegated responsibility for vaccine procurement to the hyper-competent Kate Bingham and thus helped secure a world-class rollout for Britain.

But despite haphazard attempts to stay on the same page, the four governments have repeatedly fallen out of alignment on Covid restrictions, creating tangible legal barriers inside the UK and giving some nationalists in Wales and Scotland an opportunity to indulge in ugly anti-English prejudice.

On unlocking, however, there might be some coincidental unity. Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that the Scottish Government will delay its own easing of coronavirus restrictions, which the Guardian reports means that “the next significant easing could coincide with England”. Or it could be much later: the First Minister has had to deny suggestions the rules could remain in place until September after Scotland’s national clinical director warned of a delay of up to ten weeks.

In Wales, meanwhile, Mark Drakeford has shown no such reticence in taking an extremely cautious approach. According to Wales Online: “the refusal of the Welsh Government to set out any kind of final target date for all restrictions being lifted has caused a different kind of frustration” – namely the danger of falling out of sync with the Treasury’s timetable for winding down economic support.

Furlough is due to start paying out a smaller share of employees’ wages in July, and then to fall again in August and September. This presents a serious worry to nightclubs and other businesses in Wales, which don’t know if they’ll be able to reopen. (If Scotland’s unlocking date does end up tracking England’s, this might explain why.)

This danger really highlights the real-world consequences of the disjointed state of the constitution. Having lockdown regimes set independently of the financial support which makes them viable risks punishing businesses and individuals, especially sectors such as the night economy which have few champions in Westminster or Cardiff Bay. But it would equally be ridiculous to allow the Welsh Government to simply vote itself as much British cash as it wanted without having to answer to the British Government, and thus the British taxpayer.

Michael Gove’s move to scrap English Votes for English Laws is reportedly about making “the House of Commons and Westminster institutions work for every part of the UK”. But part and parcel of that is making sure that Parliament can work in every part of the UK. If meeting a crisis requires the might of the British Treasury, our response should be coordinated by the British state.

The Australian trade deal – and others. Ministers should be very wary of letting the legislature usurp the Government’s prerogatives.

16 Jun

There are many contenders for the title of ‘Nadir of the 2017-19 Parliament’, but a strong one must surely be the events leading up to the eventual passage of the ‘Benn Act’ – the legislation that saw the House of Commons take improper control of the Government’s agenda.

Making the case for it, Oliver Letwin said that the legislature would effectively become the Cabinet. I pointed out the many, many problems with this idea at the time.

Whilst nothing so noxious is likely to reoccur any time soon, not least because Sir Lindsay Hoyle now sits the Speaker’s chair, it was the culmination of a longer-running trend towards the Commons starting to exercise powers traditionally reserved to the Government.

On one level, this does increase accountability. But it does this at the cost of making government less effective.

This is most obvious in the case of deploying the Armed Forces. Tony Blair’s innovation of seeking Commons approval for military action, alas not yet completely shaken off, rendered the United Kingdom a less reliable partner to our allies. David Cameron lacked the authority his predecessors had to commit British forces – and Ed Miliband had an opportunity to pull the rug out from beneath the Government for short-term political gain.

All this provides some important context to demands, reported in yesterday’s Financial Times, for MPs to be given a greater say over the negotiation of trade deals.

At present, the Commons may vote down deals negotiated by the Government. But apparently there needs to be more scope for ‘holding the Government to account’. This presumably means finding some role for the Commons whilst deals are being negotiated (although surely not, deo volente, in their negotiation).

More accountability always sounds attractive. But the trade-offs are real. There is a risk to freighting the conduct of government with too many ‘checks and balances’. The duties and mandates of individual MPs are not, after all, the same as those of the Government. Their ultimate obligations are to their constituencies, and not the nation as a whole. Few but the most diligent will likely be across the full sweep of a detailed treaty negotiation.

As was pointed out during the row over the Benn Act, the proper means for Parliament to oversee executive functions is to delegate them to a body it has chosen – the Cabinet – and then hold it to account for how it wields them. Accountability does not require the legislature to start more directly involving itself in executive functions, especially not on a piecemeal basis.

Blair farmed out responsibility for committing troops in order to share the blame around and make it harder for MPs, who had to vote without access to all the information, to subsequently hold him to account. Ministers should be very wary of building on that legacy.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 3) The dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill

13 Jun

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

2) The dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill

What it is

This is the Bill to scrap the Fixed Terms Parliament Act and restore the Royal Prerogative arrangement that preceded it.  It has a brief six clauses in all – four of which concern the matters above.  (The two remaining clauses are relatively minor.)

Essentially, Clauses One and Four cover the fixed terms aspects, repealing the Act and confirming that no Parliament can last longer than five years.  Clauses Two and Three deal with restoring the Prerogative “as if the…Act had never been enacted”, as Clause 2 puts it.  Clause Three seeks to place this revived Prerogative beyond the reach of the courts.  This is a so-called “Ouster Clause“.

Responsible department

The Cabinet Office – and the dissolution and calling of Parliament Bill has already received its First Reading in the Commons.  This took place on May 12.

Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is thus the lead Minister. Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, who also sits in the Cabinet Office, would be expected to take Bill through committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

A new Bill – but it has already had pre-legislative scrutiny through a joint committee which reported in March.

Expected back when?

Sooner rather than later.

Arguments for

The basic case for the Bill is that fixed terms are inflexible – and that they’ve not been observed in any event, with general elections coming early in 2017 and 2019.

This being so, the most practicable alternative is to fall back on the status quo ante under which, as a Government command paper on the Bill has put it, “Parliament will be dissolved by the Sovereign, on the advice of the Prime Minister”.  Which means, given the Supreme Court’s judgement on prorogation, putting the matter beyond reach of the courts.

Arguments against

These fall into two parts, mirroring the Bill’s case and stucture.  First, that it’s a good thing in principle for Parliaments to work on the assumption that they will last for a fixed term.

And that fixed term can indeed be shortened if necessary, as it has twice been, then what’s the problem?  Second, that the status quo ante can’t be restored, since a prerogative is a non-statutory executive power and common law is created by courts and not legislatures, as Anne Twomey, a constitutional law professor, argued in evidence to the joint committee (and shouldn’t be anyway).

Politics

The Liberal Democrats were the co-creators of the Fixed Terms Act, along with their Conservative co-partners in the Coalition Government, and can be expected to oppose the Bill.  One might presume Labour unwilling to allow Boris Johnson greater flexibility over a general election’s calling, especially with talk of a poll in 2023.  However, one Tory source says that current feedback from the party is “supportive”.

Brenda Hale, who presided over the Supreme Court’s prorogation judgement, disagreed with Professor Twomey – telling the joint committee that in her view the prorogative can be restored.  But if one takes such a view, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one also believes the prerogative should be placed beyond the reach of the courts.  So what Labour says and how it votes will be worth watching

Controversy rating: 5/10

It’s hard see a Conservative backbench revolt that either supports the Act or opposes a restored prerogative.  But Opposition MPs, enthusiasts for judicial power, and supporters of the prorogation judgement will portray the Bill as an executive power grab.  So opponents of the Bill are more likely to stress opposing ouster clauses, not supporting fixed parliaments.

Alistair Lexden: We should have listened to “the great Lord Salisbury” on reform of the upper house

22 May

Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

2021 has not only brought the 140th anniversary of Disraeli’s death in April 1881 (about which I have written elsewhere): in the following month, his successor, Lord Salisbury, then aged 51, began his 21-year stint as Tory leader, sharing power uneasily during the first four of them with Sir Stafford Northcote in the Commons, a man he had little difficulty in displacing to become Prime Minister for the first time in 1885-6. The longest-serving Tory leader, Lord Derby, who held the post for 22 years (1846-68) only narrowly surpassed him, though unlike Salisbury he was in sole command throughout.

The third holder of the Salisbury Marquessate (often given to using the French version, Marquis), he achieved lasting fame as “the great Lord Salisbury” and deservedly so: the most formidable intellectual ever to occupy the Tory leadership, he devoted his powerful mind chiefly to preserving Britain’s Union with the whole of Ireland, maintaining its pre-eminence in world affairs and enlarging its Empire, most notably in southern Africa (where his name was long recalled), during a total of thirteen and a half years in power (1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902), frequently combining the Foreign Office with the premiership.

Assisted by the Liberal split over Irish Home Rule in 1886, he secured large majorities at three general elections while losing two by small margins( after which Irish Nationalist MPs held the balance of power), a record of Tory success unknown since Lord Liverpool’s uninterrupted premiership of fifteen years in the early nineteenth century. He never thought his governments’ social reforms, important though they were, contributed much to his long political ascendancy, and was puzzled that some people, like his Liberal Unionist colleague Joe Chamberlain, should have thought that they did. For his part, he was rather more interested in strengthening the constitutional role of the House of Lords.

Nowhere, during this glorious Tory era, was Salisbury’s ascendancy more evident than in the Lords, whose steadily increasing membership  reached nearly 600 by the end of his premiership. The last Prime Minister to speak from the red benches rarely failed to impress. Lady Monkswell, married to a junior Liberal minister, thought him infinitely superior to anyone on her own side—or elsewhere. In 1894 she recorded in her diary that he spoke “with a charm, finish and grace that no one else possesses.” The following year she heard him make “a most brilliant and amusing speech; he is certainly the best speaker in the Lords.”

Salisbury also won unstinting praise from Sir Henry Lucy, the leading parliamentary reporter of the day, for his command of the House. In 1889, Lucy listened to him “explain the details of the arrangement concluded with Portugal for the settlement of contending claims with Africa. It was an exceedingly intricate affair…precisely the case in which the most practised speaker would gratefully have taken refuge in a sheaf of notes. The Premier had not a scrap of paper in his hand as he unwove the tangled skein, and when he sat down, after talking for 12 minutes, he had made the whole case clear to the perception of the dullest lord in the assembly.”

Throughout, Lucy added, Salisbury spoke in an easy, conversational style, but “with what command of his subject, what vigorous and well-ordered sentences, what irresistible argument, and now and then with what delicate, refreshing rain of cynicism.” Salisbury knew how to avoid making great affairs of state sound unduly solemn or wearisome to their lordships –or to the country at large.

He gave much thought to the role of the House which he dominated  until his retirement in 1902, the year before his death. The nineteenth century produced no stronger champion of the constitutional rights of the Lords. Salisbury completely rejected Walter Bagehot’s influential contention that since 1832 the Lords had become “a revising and suspending House” with no more than “a veto of delay”. He exercised no restraining influence when the Lords found itself  in serious and sustained conflict with the  Commons – as it did in 1884-5 over the Third Reform Bill, and in 1893 over the Second Home Rule Bill for Ireland; on both occasions Salisbury carried the day, overwhelmingly so in 1893 with a majority of 378, the largest in the history of the Lords (a great crowd outside sang Rule Britannia).

From the moment  he entered the Lords in April 1868, Salisbury argued that it should be prepared to use its powers in defence of the  nation’s interests, which it should never leave to the sole judgement of the Commons. Speaking in the Lords in July 1868, he said:

“I am quite sure…you will never consent to act except as a free, independent House of the Legislature, and that you will consider any more timid or subservient course as at once unworthy of your traditions, unworthy of your honour, and, most of all, unworthy of the nation you serve.”

Though unelected, it had a direct responsibility to the nation fully equal to that of the Commons. In discharging it, the Lords had a right to demand that the people’s will should be tested in a General Election to settle disputes between the two Houses on great national issues.

Salisbury readily accepted the Lords’ “subordination to the nation”, but not to the Commons. This view of the constitution came to be known as Salisbury’s “referendal theory” and it attracted widespread interest (along with widespread opposition among Liberals). It was put to the test most notably in 1868. Salisbury and the Conservatives in the Lords withdrew their fierce opposition to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland when Gladstone won an overwhelming election victory on the issue.

This tireless advocate of the rights of the upper house was, however,  far from complimentary about most of its members, even though they provided him  with an impregnable majority throughout his long years as its Tory leader. During his earlier  career writing brilliant articles packed with pungent phrases for leading periodicals (he needed the money), he had described it as “the paradise of bores”, though in fairness he did not think that the Commons where he  had sat for fifteen years was much better. Participation in the affairs of the upper house did not rouse any greater enthusiasm. “A Quaker jollification, a French horse-race, a Presbyterian psalm, all are lively and exciting compared to an ordinary debate in the House of Lords”, he wrote unkindly, adding that little more could be expected from it than from “a debate in one of Madame Tussaud’s showrooms.”

He deplored the House’s “scanty attendance and microscopic division-lists and perfunctory sittings.”For far too many of its members,” he complained, the Lords was merely “a place for passing an idle hour or two before dinner.” In 1891, he told Queen Victoria’s Private Secretary that “the circumstance which most threatens [the Lords’] continued influence is the paucity and insignificance of its debates, an evil which is growing every year.. It is difficult to find men who can speak, and who will go into the House of Lords.” He feared that the House would fall badly in public esteem if its real character and shortcomings should begin to attract wide attention. Fortunately, in the late nineteenth century only extreme radicals scrutinised its work closely, searching for material in order to rail against it.

Salisbury did not exaggerate in his criticisms of the Lords’ deficiencies. During his long period as leader, the House usually met at 5pm and did not often sit later than 7pm (when it did, peers were expected to express regret for speaking “at this late hour “). There were one or two occasions in the early 1890s, recorded by Henry Lucy, when proceedings began at 4.15pm for private business which was dispatched in a few minutes, after which silence fell until 4.30pm when, in the absence of any public business, the House adjourned for the day.

“Absenteeism is the first great recognised blot of the Upper Chamber”, wrote George Curzon, a future Marquess and Lords leader, in 1888. No more than 15 to 20 per cent of members put in an appearance on average per session. Just 18 members spoke in debate in 1897.  The party whips thought they had done remarkably well if they persuaded as many of 40 peers in total to turn up for major legislation that was not unduly contentious. It was sometimes hard to ensure that even Tory Bills got through the House. What redeemed its reputation was the eloquence displayed in impassioned debates on controversial issues, like Irish Home Rule, when virtually all  its most talented speakers participated, and peers turned up in large numbers to vote. Salisbury’s daughter and authorised biographer, Lady Gwendolen Cecil, wrote:

“On field-days in the Lords … the galleries, the Bar, and the steps of the Throne, would be thronged with  Commons’ members taking refuge from the dreary loquacity of mediocrities or the interminable interludes of Parnellite [Irish] obstruction. The superiority of the Lords’ debates became a commonplace of newspaper criticism.”

Salisbury was clear that the answer to the Lords’ problems of torpor and poor attendance was a change in its composition. In 1869, the year after his introduction, the former Liberal Prime Minister, Earl Russell, brought forward a Bill providing for the creation of life peerages, with an upper limit of 28. Salisbury gave the measure vigorous support through all its stages;  it had an uncontested passage up until its final stage, third reading, when it was defeated. He said:

“We belong too much to one class, and the consequence is that with respect to a large number of questions we are all too much of one mind.”

Life peers from industrial, commercial and professional backgrounds  would provide the different attitudes that were needed – and, though he did not say so publicly, help redress the dismal attendance records of most hereditary peers. Why then limit the proposed life peers to so small a number, he was asked? Salisbury replied that “all change to be wholesome must be gradual.” It would, in good Tory fashion, develop further over time.

Gwendolen Cecil, who knew her father’s mind extremely well, insisted that “he anticipated fundamental change” – in other words, ultimately a significant contingent of life peers alongside the hereditaries. “The vital need for a strong and independent Second Chamber obscured all lesser issues in his eyes.” Salisbury made another attempt to get the process of reform under way when he was Prime Minister: in 1888 he introduced a Bill to create 50 life peerages. Unexpected  opposition in the Commons from his own side put paid to it. He was forced to accept that “life peerages are likely to be the creations of the imagination for some time to come.” Gwendolen Cecil stressed, however, that “his attitude towards it [reform] never changed.”

70 years would pass before a Tory government finally altered the composition of the Lords in the way Salisbury believed to be essential for its survival; his grandson, the 5th Marquess, leader of the Lords in1957-8, overcame its continuing opponents among hereditary peers.

No limit was placed on the number of life peers that could be created, as “the great Lord Salisbury” had proposed; if it had been, the Lords might today be considerably smaller than it is, sparing it the constant criticism it now attracts for being so bloated (though it was even larger in the past before all but 92 of the hereditaries were removed by Tony Blair). Since the start of Blair’s government in 1997, peerages have been created on an astonishing scale that is historically without precedent: 775 in under twenty-five years.

“The great Lord Salisbury” would not have approved.

BIBLIOGRAPHY –Lady Gwendolen Cecil, Life of Robert Marquis of Salisbury, Vol. II 1868-1880 & Vol. IV 1887-1892 ( Hodder and Stoughton, 1921, 1932).  Hon.E.C.F. Collier(ed.), A Victorian Diarist: Extracts from the Journals of Mary, Lady Monkswell 1873-1895 ( John Murray,1944).  A.B.Cooke[Alistair Lexden], ‘ The Great Lord Salisbury’ in The Salisbury Review, Vol. I (1982). Joseph Donner, ‘The Newcomers: Victorian Peers of First Creation in the House of Lords’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Columbia, 1985).  Henry W. Lucy, A Diary of the Salisbury Parliament 1886-1892 ( Cassell,1892). Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).  E.A. Smith, The House of Lords in British Politics & Society 1815-1911 ( Longman,1992).  Corinne Comstock Weston, ‘ Salisbury and the Lords,1868-1895’ in Clyve Jones and David Lewis Jones (eds.), Peers, Politics and Power: The House of Lords 1603-1911 ( The Hambleton Press,1986).

The Department of Health should deliver some NHS services directly in the devolved territories

24 Apr

There are few issues in British politics as potent as the National Health Service. That’s why Labour start trying to persuade voters the Conservatives are going to sell it when they’re completely out of other ideas, and why Vote Leave chose a health spending pledge for the side of their famous bus.

But it might also be one of the main things, below the level of raw constitutional power politics, holding the United Kingdom together. This is what polling by Hanbury found for State of the Union, the latest report on the subject from Onward:

“The only benefit or feature of the United Kingdom that a majority of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would miss in the event of reunification is funding for public services like the NHS. This further underscores the salience of the NHS and the association with subsidy through the Barnett Formula to devolved nations.” 

This finding is bleak on two different levels. First, and most obviously, it should deeply concern anyone who wants the UK to endure that the social bonds of British nationhood have atrophied to the extent suggested by these findings. The ’emotional case’ for the Union has to rest on building up appreciation for British institutions.

Second, there is something starkly mercenary about it. It isn’t “the NHS” voters will miss, it’s just “funding for public services like the NHS”.

Voters can’t be blamed for this. It is a feature of the current ‘devolve and forget’ constitutional settlement that whole areas of policy, including health, are simply devolved wholesale. The Tories might campaign against Welsh Labour’s awful mismanagement of the NHS west of Offa’s Dyke – which David Cameron branded ‘the line between life and death’ – but there is no question of the Government stepping in to help.

The upshot of this is that being part of the United Kingdom increasingly doesn’t and can’t deliver tangible benefits for those public services which matter most to voters – and such aid as is rendered must pass through the hands of the devocrats in Edinburgh and Cardiff, who then take the credit.

The Government has already demonstrated, by passing the UK Internal Market Act, that it is prepared to challenge devolutionary nostrums. Some ministers are already debating ‘UKIM 2’, an as-yet hypothetical bill which could expand the Government’s capacity to act to other areas beyond the maintenance of the British common market.

Onward’s findings should therefore be a call to arms. The national contribution to the ‘National’ Health Service needs to amount to more than cash. The Department of Health should work with the Union Directorate to look at how the British state could directly support NHS delivery in the devolved territories, whether through setting national minimum service safeguards, making it easier for patients to access cross-border treatment, or more besides.

This will inevitably anger the devolutionary purists. Some might even claim, as they have to me, that having ultimate Westminster oversight over the delivery of essential services means its ‘not actually devolution’. But that’s all to the good. They have misruled the unionist movement long enough.

Guy Black and Alistair Lexden: Why Alderdice is the outstanding candidate to be the next Lord Speaker

12 Apr

Lord Black is a Conservative peer and Deputy Chairman of Telegraph Media Group. Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.

Next week, the House of Lords will elect a new Lord Speaker. It is a crucial appointment. The Lord Speaker has a vital role to play in the management of Parliament and the people who serve it, in protecting and enhancing the reputation of the Lords, and protecting the rights of backbenchers as we go about our most important task of all: scrutinising legislation in detail, for which the Commons lacks sufficient time.

Norman Fowler, elected last time from our Conservative benches, is no easy act to follow. He has been an exemplary Lord Speaker, driving change in many important areas and acting as our ambassador. His understanding of the importance of the House of Lords in our constitutional arrangements is visceral. We will be incredibly sorry to see him go – even though the causes of LGBT+ equality and the evisceration of HIV/AIDS by 2030, to which he will now commit himself, will be huge beneficiaries of his wisdom and energy.

The House of Lords is in some ways very lucky in that we have three excellent candidates – two from the Labour benches and one independent – from whom to choose. They would all make admirable Lord Speakers.

But for us – one the Conservative Party’s official historian, the other a former Director of Communications for CCHQ, with between us more than seventy years of service to the Party, twenty or more of them in the Lords – the towering candidate is the independent candidate, John Alderdice.

Lord Alderdice has the perfect blend of talents we need in the Lords as we move forward, following an outside review of our management and working practices, to create a more effective House.

He is above all bipartisan, which is, as Norman Fowler showed (and indeed our first two Lord Speakers, Helene Heyman and Frances D’ Souza, before him) absolutely vital in the role, but he also knows how to lead from the front when he needs to.

He has the experience from his time as the first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly (established under the historic 1998 Belfast Agreement, to which he made a major contribution), and of building consensus among competing interests – and personalities – which is crucial in maintaining successfully our long tradition of self-regulation and our authority in the face of much outside criticism.

He is a first-class ambassador who understands the importance of communications – especially in the world of digital media – and will not be afraid to put his head over the parapet to state our case, something he will need to do frequently. He represents the nations and regions of our country at a time when the Union itself is in peril – and his appointment would send a powerful signal that our House is one for the whole of the United Kingdom.

From his experience as an energetic and effective backbencher in the Lords for a quarter of a century, he understands to his core the needs of its members and will respect and champion them, irrespective of party or position.

He supports change, which we all know is essential, but is no revolutionary. He will push forward the agenda for change to ensure that everyone who works in our House is valued and respected; he will safeguard and champion our interests where it comes to the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster which has been delayed for far too long  and above all he will commit himself to rebuilding the reputation of the House, which has suffered considerable damage in recent years.

As a House – and as a vital part of the UK’s constitutional arrangements – we face many challenges ahead.

We need to push forward with change, while respecting the customs and mores of our House, and our tradition of self -regulation. We need to give full scope to the talents of our members, who make us the most extraordinarily experienced second chamber in the world.

We need to deal with the size of the Lords – but doing so in a way which can achieve consensus and recognises that an absolute prerequisite is restraint on the part of the Prime Minister in creating new peerages. We need to renew and restore our reputation as much as we need to renew and restore our buildings.

Those challenges are immense. Alderdice – a man of dignity, authority and experience – is the man to unite us all in dealing with them.