House of Lords reform is like a bad dose of the clap: it may feel good at the time, but the result is an unending pain in the proverbials. I can’t, er, speak from personal experience, but even the briefest glance at the Government’s plans to elect the Lords makes the point. The new bill comes to the Commons next week, for what promises to be a stormy debate. It’s a disastrous hotchpotch of measures, which will create a free-floating class of electorally empowered senators on fifteen-year terms, with no constituencies and no possibility of re-election to discipline them. Even Lord Strathclyde,
Even the Lib Dems could learn something about constitutional mischief-making from the great 18th century radical, John Wilkes, who had a positive genius for it. Wilkes was no Adonis, with a vicious squint and a prognathous jaw. But he nevertheless acquired a formidable reputation as a philanderer, boasting that it “took him only half an hour to talk away his face” with a woman. The government of the day was not perturbed when he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of buggery, and called the Bishop of Gloucester’s wife a professional prostitute. It even ignored his allegation that George III’s mother was the Prime Minister’s mistress. But, then as now, leaking the King’s Speech was another matter: Wilkes was arrested, his house ransacked and property seized. He then counter-sued, and was elected and re-elected to Parliament until the authorities rolled over. The final results included a prohibition on warrants which did not name specific individuals, a stronger judiciary and freedom for the press to report on Parliament. Now that’s the way to do it.
As an MP I sit on the Treasury Select Committee, which has suddenly been thrown into the spotlight over the Barclays LIBOR scandal, with a guest appearance this week from Bob Diamond, the now ex-CEO. When Mr Diamond appeared before us last year he was defiant, saying “There was a period of remorse and apology; that period needs to be over.” Since then we have had the Pension Protection Insurance scam, the swaps scam and the little-noticed news that in 2009 Barclays moved nearly £7.5bn of dodgy subprime assets into an off balance sheet company owned by 45 of its own staff and located in the Cayman Islands (conflicts of interest, anyone?). Now it’s the LIBOR scam. Perhaps the period of remorse and apology had better re-start.
I myself worked at Barclays de Zoete Wedd for six years until 1997, before going off to University College London to study and teach philosophy. In retrospect what’s so striking is how different the culture of Barclays was then: slow-moving, rather paternalistic, with a definite whiff of the bank’s austere and plain-dealing Quaker roots. The Chairman was Andrew Buxton, a 34-year veteran of the bank and scion of the Buxtons and Gurneys, two of the founding families. The commercial bankers were in charge, and leery about letting the investment bankers anywhere near their capital. Yes, it was stodgy. That was part of the point.
July 19th is the fortieth anniversary of a battle you’ve never heard of in a war that is not officially supposed to exist. The place was southern Oman, where the British government in 1972 was quietly assisting the Sultan of Muscat and Oman to defeat a communist insurgency. At Mirbat nine men from the SAS and a handful of government troops held 300 guerrillas at bay for six hours in the baking heat of the Dhofar valley, one of them operating a 25-pounder normally designed for six men, another improvising with a mortar to shell the advancing troops at close quarters. At a time when heroism and teamwork are in short supply, I’ll be raising a glass to these men and their extraordinary Hereford brethren on the 19th.
In politics as elsewhere, timing is everything. That applies in particular to a decision to vote against your own government for the first time: you don’t want to waste it on a small measure. Luckily the elected Lords Bill makes it easy. There is a fundamental issue of constitutional principle at stake; the Bill is a mess; it is in no sense a piece of conservative legislation; it lacks any genuine manifesto commitment; it proposes a new upper chamber that will be less expert, less diverse and more expensive than the present one (let alone one after sensible reforms); and the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the overriding need to put out the fire in the economic engine room. I shall be voting against it. Indeed, I would venture to suggest the Bill is such that all MPs, Conservative or no, have a constitutional obligation to do so.
[This article originally appeared in The Spectator]