David Steel: Scotland and the Lords after 2014 – Full speech

Yesterday evening, Lord Steel delivered a lecture on Lords reform and the forthcoming Scottish referendum. Here is the speech in full.

Stone Memorial lecture, Strathclyde University 31 October 2013

Scotland and the Lords after 2014

My intention in this lecture is to look forward and discuss what fundamental changes and improvements could be made to our parliaments at Westminster and Holyrood once we get past the Scottish referendum this time next year. But before I do that, considering that this Sir Alexander Stone memorial lecture is decreed to be broadly on the subject of rhetoric I want as a prelude to remark on the deterioration of rhetoric which has occurred in both institutions. I am not one of those grumpy old men who regard the present generation of parliamentarians as inferior to those that have gone before – a familiar cry down through the ages – but I do believe that recent developments have diminished both our parliaments.

I refer in particular to Prime Minister’s Question Time. David Cameron in a refreshingly frank interview as leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition just before the last election was asked what regrets he had, and he singled out his own failure to elevate Prime Minister’s Question Time. I welcomed that admission but he has failed to improve it as Prime Minister. It is no longer Prime Minister’s Question Time – it has become Prime Minister’s Insult Time with the two protagonists exchanging well-rehearsed sound bites.

I can recall days when the Leader of the Opposition did not necessarily ask a question at all – it was a chance for all MP’s to query the head of government on public policy.

The rot set in when the chamber became televised and Prime Minister’s Questions became the subject of weekly electoral entertainment rather than genuine scrutiny of government. Nor can the press escape responsibility – proceedings in parliament are no longer reported except as entertaining sketches which we all enjoy but are not a substitute. At least one serious newspaper took to awarding points to the PM and opposition leader after each weekly bout as though they were a pair of boxers.

Fortunately that loss of proper scrutiny of government has been offset by the growth in power and influence of the departmental select committees who haul ministers and public officials before them for interrogation.

But sadly the same adverse trend in the Chamber itself has set in at Holyrood, though at the start we decided on a semi-circular chamber rather than one where opposing parties sat two carefully measured swords’ lengths apart, and under the benign leadership of Donald Dewar that seemed to work for the first few years, but no longer – belligerence and stridency are the order of the day.

This is partly because one party now has an over-all majority which was never the intention of the original legislation introducing proportional representation. I fully understand the SNP’s view that their greatest asset in the last election was their leader Alex Salmond, and for them to campaign accordingly.

I first saw him as an angelic choir boy in my father’s church in Linlithgow (not a description many would apply to him today) and despite our political differences we have always been on good terms and I pay tribute to his exceptional skills. The decision on independence will be made by those who live and work in Scotland, and David Cameron is not one of them, which makes Alex’s repeated attempts to hold a televised debate with him look just like grandstanding. It was a serious misjudgement of the Electoral Commission to allow in Scottish parliament elections on the regional list ballot papers instead of the party name the five words “Alex Salmond for First Minister”.

Slogans should not be permitted on ballot papers, and this one was open to two further objections:

  • first, it was supposed to be a parliamentary not a presidential election;
  • and second by starting with the letter “A” it ensured that their list was top of every paper.

The Electoral Reform Society in elections which they supervise always ensure that there is no alphabetical bias.

This unfortunate result was compounded when unwisely the SNP used the only parliamentary secret ballot to grab the post of Presiding Officer when on any fair basis it was the Labour Party’s turn to hold that post, the previous three having come from the Liberal, SNP and Conservative parties. I want to be absolutely clear that I make no criticism whatever of the present incumbent, but it put a wholly unfair burden on her from the beginning.

Turning back to the House of Commons, I am struck by how much it has changed drastically since I appeared in 1965 as baby of the House. By a series of good lucks I went straight into parliament exceptionally without any serious long-term employment elsewhere. Sadly that has become a familiar pattern. When I arrived there were captains of industry, major trade union leaders, chairmen of banks, miners, service chiefs, steel workers and people in senior positions in a range of professions. That has all changed.

The common route into parliament has become the same in all parties – you work as researcher to an MP, or at party headquarters or serve your party on your local council.

Selection committees no longer ask “who would be our best MP?” but “who deserves our party’s nomination as candidate?” I applauded David Cameron’s initiative in suggesting open primaries – and these have thrown up a few interesting people out of the standard mould, but they are rare exceptions.

In fairness I should note two improvements in the composition of the Commons – the advent of many more women (a rise from about a dozen to 143) and the reduction in numbers of the very elderly thanks to the introduction of parliamentary pensions.

The increasing role of spin doctors is to be deplored. They hand out questions for MP’s to ask, and they daily bombard party activists by email with “lines to take”. Even I as a humble member of the Upper House receive daily doses of laundry lists of the alleged achievements of the Lib Dems in the coalition government, and a selection of press coverage – all favourable of course – nothing critical such as the universally hostile editorial coverage of the last peerage list. The latest addition to these daily outpourings are suggested tweets to circulate. Fortunately I am not a tweeter, so I swiftly delete all these unread. All of this contributes to the diminution of individual expression or even thought in politics. Little wonder that the paid-up membership of political parties is in decline.

Changes in the roles and composition of our parliaments are quite possible but it does of course require a greater public interest and involvement in the processes of politics. I am sure the late Sir Alexander Stone would have approved of an effort being made.

So much for the prelude – let me now turn to my main theme. Having co-chaired the Scottish Constitutional Convention for almost a decade I pay tribute to the patient and concrete work which was done in that body, especially its Executive in which I played no part, which led to quick and positive action by the incoming Blair government in holding the devolution referendum in 1997.

I am not sure whether a carbon copy would work at UK level involving as it did almost all the local authorities in Scotland, as well as political parties, churches, trades unions and voluntary bodies, but a more compact constitutional convention or large commission is probably the best way forward. After a “no” vote I would hope that the SNP would respect the democratic decision and this time participate fully and positively in any such body.

Alan Riley, the professor of law at City University, has advanced an intriguing additional argument for us to head in the direction of a written constitution, namely protection against mission creep from Brussels which so exercises politicians and press alike. He writes:

A British version would, like the German law, set out the major institutions of the state, set out principles and enumerate fundamental rights. The British Supreme Court would then be able to police the borders of the EU’s jurisdiction in a similar fashion to the German courts.

But my main concern in promoting the same idea is to bring some cohesion and principle to the developing governance of the United Kingdom. For the truth is that all of our recent institutions including the Scottish and European Parliaments have just grown up higgledy-piggledy along with other legislation dealing with the rights of our citizens, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedom of Information. Whilst I can understand how this happened we need to question whether constitutional reform should always be done on such an ad hoc basis.

We need a clear understanding of why and where powers lie. Federal countries have the benefit of written and codified arrangements. We have written arrangements but they are of varying standards and clarity. They are not all in one place, and they invariably are written arrangements to suit the centre. They are not about the constitutional protection of the nations or indeed their peoples and their rights. Obviously, full federalism is not available to the UK with one component being larger than the other three put together, but the principles of a federal approach could still be applied.

This brings me to next year’s Scottish independence referendum. The debate will have dragged on for three years to the stupefying boredom of most people. It is impossible to open any daily Scottish newspaper without reading yet more columns of public argument, many on questions which have been repeatedly asked but not answered.

I am also disappointed by the level of debate on both sides, including most recently David Cameron’s absurd suggestion that Scotland would be more susceptible to terrorist attacks if we were independent, and Nicola Sturgeon’s pseudo bribery offer of reduced energy bills if we are.

Having just returned last month from a ten-day speaking tour in the USA I am shocked at the number of times I was asked “are you guys going to be independent?” It has all been too long dragged out and unsettling. The debate has also distracted the Scottish government from giving priority to deep-rooted problems in Scotland such as the pervading poverty and unemployment disfiguring so many of our public housing estates.

Even more distressing is the lack of debate on what kind of country we want to be. A few brave souls have tried to enter that territory. One strongly pro-independence thinker and a friend of mine even argued that one case for independence was to let clapped-out England float off to sink in its own mess. What a miserably selfish argument – I would argue that one reason for staying with the UK is precisely to give it the benefit of Scottish experience.

We are the home of the enlightenment. We had four universities for our small population when England had only two; in the fifteenth century King James IV gave us an Education Act, and we have John Knox and the Church of Scotland to thank for the establishment of a school in every parish. Even today we leave the private sector to a small minority and the same is true of our national health service, unlike that of England. The Scottish contribution to the building of empire and commonwealth was out of all proportion to our size.

Sir Walter Scott in the preface to his Minstrelsy of the Borders referred to “the history of my native country, the peculiar feature of whose names and character are daily melting and dissolving into those of her sister and ally”. We must not avoid what the late JK Galbraith called “the pain of thought” in considering what kind of Scotland we want.

In France recently I came across a radical example of public expenditure saving with intelligent social purpose: students are offered payments to spend some hours with elderly people living alone, thus benefitting both young and old sections of the community together at minimal cost. Scotland should be leading in such innovation.

We can and should learn from each other within a common framework – but that framework requires urgent reform – it is not good enough for the “no” campaign in the referendum to argue for the status quo. Fortunately there are some signs that this is being recognized.

Alistair Darling with all the authority of a former Chancellor has floated the idea of giving the Scottish Parliament full tax-raising powers, and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has spoken of the need for greater powers, though neither has yet carried their own political parties down that road. We need to go back to basics and grasp the difference between devolution and home rule.

That was best explained by my own political mentor, the then Liberal leader Jo Grimond:

I do not like the word devolution as it has come to be called. It implies that power rests at Westminster, from which centre some may be graciously devolved. I would rather begin by assuming that power should rest with the people who entrust it to their representatives to discharge the essential tasks of government. Once we accept that the Scots and the Welsh are nations, we must accord them parliaments which have all the normal powers of government, except for those that they delegate to the UK government or the EEC.

I believe that that sentiment is closer to what most people in Scotland would like to aim for rather than the over-blown vague rhetoric of independence. The so-called Steel Commission which I chaired a few years ago for my party sought to establish the principles for sharing taxes across the UK. It outlined in clear terms that for most taxes that are levied in Scotland the case is strong that they should be wholly Scottish taxes, but for reasons of efficiency should share thresholds and allowances.

There would be some other taxes such as VAT that need to comply with EU rules – but that would be true even if we became wholly independent. Social security policy should remain standard throughout the UK. All this would mean that the Scottish Parliament would for the first time become responsible for raising the bulk of the money that it spends.

We should be aiming in the constitutional overhaul to improve greatly Scottish domestic responsibility and control whilst retaining the best aspects of the Union. I was once accused in the House of Lords by an anti-home rule peer during the passage of the original Scotland Act of wanting to have my cake and eat it. I did not quibble. With proposals to further strengthen the financial responsibility and accountability of the Parliament we plan to make the cake more rewarding to eat but for the first time have to count the calories.

It is in that context that I believe we need a UK constitutional convention. One of its key tasks could be how to organize a more genuinely federal-type style of government throughout the United Kingdom. Here is where the reform of the House of Lords to create a more useful and democratic institution comes into play.

Unfortunately the authors of last year’s attempt at Lords reform by the coalition government either ignored – or possibly were ignorant of – the history of the subject. Their bill predictably foundered in the House of Commons on the arguments of MP’s against creating a second elected Chamber which could threaten the supremacy of the House of Commons. Some MP’s were also rightly concerned at the thought of regional senators (elected for fifteen years) wandering around and meddling in their constituencies.

Prime Minister Asquith in his preface to the Parliament Act of 1911 was careful not to use the word “elected” when promising future reforms. What he actually said was:

It is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis.

He appointed a high powered commission under Viscount Bryce to take this forward. In 1918 it recommended a second chamber largely elected by MP’s on a regional basis, and their report stated: “it was forcibly argued that a Chamber elected on the same franchise as the House of Commons would inevitably become a rival”.

The post-war Labour government of Mr Atlee initiated all-party talks which at least reached tentative agreement that a reformed Upper House “should be complementary to and not a rival to” the lower House.

The coalition government blithely swept aside all these long-standing conclusions and expressed indignation when their inadequate bill, as was wholly foreseeable, hit the buffers.

In my first general election manifesto as Liberal Party leader in 1979, I called for fundamental reform but with carefully chosen wording:

The House of Lords should be replaced by a new, democratically chosen, second chamber which includes representatives of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and UK members of the European Parliament.

In my last election as party leader in 1987 jointly with David Owen we said in our manifesto:

There can be no justification for basing the membership of the second chamber so largely on heredity and on the whim of Prime Ministers. The Alliance will work towards a reform of the second chamber linked with our devolution proposals so that it will include members elected from the nations and regions of Britain and will phase out the right of hereditary peers to vote in the Lords.

All three parties are now considering what to put into their next manifesto on the subject of Lords reform. I just hope they have learned from last year’s fiasco, and in the spirit of helpfulness I offer my own suggestions tonight consistent with that traditional stance.

I recall that when I was a student of constitutional law at Edinburgh University, Professor JDB Mitchell enjoyed posing as one of his exam questions the following:

The Parliament Act of 1911 was merely slapping a bucket of whitewash over a structure riddled with dry rot. Discuss.

Lots of other quite significant buckets have been successfully slapped over it in the century since 1911.

But what could a new Upper Chamber look like and what could it do? Let us assume for ease of arithmetic that it might consist of 500 members – significantly fewer than the 650 Members of the Commons, and well below our current 830 peers. The potential electorate today is much wider than that available to Viscount Bryce and his 1918 commission.

It would include not just Members of the Commons, but Members of the European Parliament and of the three devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 400 out of the 500 could be chosen by them on the usual party political basis.

336 would be elected for England by MP’s and MEP’s regionally, possibly using the existing Euro-constituencies as the building blocks. (Though that number could possibly be reduced by 40 in line with the accepted practice of giving the distant parts of the UK rather greater proportionate say in the Commons, thus bringing the English down to 296 and the total down to 460).

32 would be elected by the MSP’s, MEP’s and MP’s in Scotland, 20 similarly by the Welsh and 12 from Northern Ireland – all by proportional representation.

A further 100 could be chosen by the same electorate (giving the Scots 40) but excluding anyone who was or had recently been a member of or involved with any political party. These would replace the existing valuable wide range of independent expertise we have at present on the cross benches in the Lords.

The fact that the cross-benchers as they are called are a 25% bloc in our Chamber prevents any government from having a built-in majority in the Lords, and having such a second election would continue to bring in distinguished non-politicians from outside life. I would also like to add to the federal flavour of a new Upper House by giving one seat to each of the Crown Dependencies – Jersey, Guernsey & the Isle of Man.

When I talk of a “federal flavour” I am thinking of the comparison with the Bundesrat, the upper house in the Federal Republic of Germany and I am reminded of what their then foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher once said to me about the post-war constitution foisted on them largely by the allies led by the British:

You gave us three things successfully to underpin our new democracy after our disaster – decentralized government, proportional representation, and co-determination in industry, and you were so generous you British that you took none of them for yourselves!

A convention could develop where in the Upper House each section did not vote on matters which did not apply to their own territory, thus partially answering the unanswerable West Lothian question. The powers of a reformed Upper House would remain as at present – in other words no veto, only delay, and the right to ask the Commons to think again, and no power over finance.

The Scottish Parliament might like to consider whether the Scottish forty in such a reformed House could not also act as a long-stop for them. Post-legislative scrutiny does not exist at Holyrood and here could be a useful and inexpensive way of providing it.

It would be important to change its name to the widely accepted “senate” and abolish peerages except as honours having no connection with parliament. The notion of “Lords” as part of our legislature is simply ridiculous in the 21st century. I have always found the title an awkward encumbrance which is why I never used it on election to the new democratic Scottish Parliament.

Indeed when I was a brand new peer I found myself at Buenos Aires airport with a long wait for the over-night connection back to London. I went to the British Airways desk to ask if they had a lounge where I could wait.

The man behind the desk looked at my ticket and exclaimed: “Are you a Lord?”

Embarrassed, I explained that I was not a real Lord just an appointed member of our Upper House of Parliament.

“But you are a Lord – it says so on your ticket – can I shake your hand? I’ve never met a Lord before – and now I’ll upgrade you to first class”. So it has its uses! That I suppose is why so many people are prepared to pay for it.

And therein lies a real scandal. Pending fundamental reform I have been trying for the past four years to have passed a bill with four pressing interim reforms:

1) A retirement provision – we are there for life in ever increasing numbers and age.

2) Statutory power to expel wrongdoers – which they have in the Commons but which we lack.

3) The creation of an independent Appointments Commission – to end the “cash for peerages” outrage, and

4) An end to the hereditary by-elections.

The first two of these successfully passed through the House of Lords unanimously last session, and the same bill has now had its second reading in the Commons earlier this month in the hands of Dan Byles MP (one of those selected in open primary as I mentioned earlier). So I am hopeful we shall get these two modest reforms – retirement and expulsion – on to the statute book this year.

But the government would not support the other two items.

They solemnly stand by the existing process of appointments (apart from a few cross-benchers) by the patronage of the Prime Minister and the other party leaders.

That means that not surprisingly each party leader finds that those doing nothing for the party except writing large cheques somehow manage to catch their eye.

I spent a week this summer helping to train new MP’s in Kenya. How on earth are we supposed to hold our heads high as the “mother of Parliaments” when we allow to continue the practice of almost openly buying a seat in parliament?

The by-elections held whenever one of the 100 hereditary peers dies were introduced in 1999 when most of the hereditary peers were removed. These elections were supposed to last a couple of years pending full reform, but they have now lasted fifteen years, and are wholly indefensible. That is especially so in the Labour and Lib Dem parties where the hereditary electorate is only some three or four Members, and where people have entered our parliament duly and solemnly declared elected by just these few. It makes the previous rotten boroughs such as Old Sarum with seven electors seem ultra-democratic in comparison. How the government can support their continuation is beyond my comprehension.

I have tried in this memorial lecture to look to a reinvigoration of both our parliaments after next year’s referendum.

One of my political heroes is William Beveridge whose work laid the foundations for our post-war welfare state. In his youth he spoke at Oxford asking why political philosophy had been obscured in public debate by classical economics.

Our political arguments today tend to be mainly about money with very little reference to collective purpose, taste or culture. Beveridge in his day just took for granted a high level of public moral agreement and civic awareness. He assumed that social cohesion was not just desirable but essential.

Solidarity with our fellow citizens was the underlying motivation for his famous report, and he believed politicians should search for agreement rather than conflict.

He was before my time, but one other hero I once had the pleasure of meeting over a small lunch in Durban was the great South African author and campaigner Alan Paton who wrote:

By Liberalism I do not mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.

It is in that spirit that I have produced these suggestions for a constructive way forward in the governance of our disparate, attractive and I hope continuing United Kingdom.

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  • Richard Church 1st Nov '13 - 11:08am

    So members of the senate would be chosen by other parliamentarians, most of whom are MP’s. Your chance of getting elected to this body will depend on your popularity amongst this tiny select band either before you lost your seat or retired from their number, or how much money you donated to their constituency parties. It will hardly make for a second house respected for its independence, nor will it stop allegations of cash for peerages, cronyism and a comfortable retirement home for failed politicians.

    If David Steel wants to go down the directly elected German model, at least he should include representatives of local government, who might give this body a little more independence and insight from outside the Westminster/Brussels/Holyrood/Cardiff Bay bubbles.

    It’s not rocket science though to devise a decent directly elected second chamber that has legitimacy and authority while avoiding gridlock. The USA can’t do it at the moment, but most other democracies can.

  • Robin Bennett 2nd Nov '13 - 9:30pm

    David Steel quotes from Jo Grimond:

    “Once we accept that the Scots and the Welsh are nations, we must accord them parliaments which have all the normal powers of government, except for those that they delegate to the UK government or the EEC.”

    That’s independence, and I cannot understand why David Steel and other Lib Dem leaders are in denial on this. Once we have it, we in the Lib Dems can push for close collaboration with Westminster on such matters as defence, currency and fiscal discipline. If the SNP government is shackled to “overblown rhetoric”, we can still look forward to some success in the first Scottish General Election, when the SNP will begin to fade into irrevelance.

  • Margaret Brogan 17th Nov '13 - 7:07pm

    I don’t see any democracy in this suggestion of David Steel’s at all, far too similar to what we have already. We would once more have an unelected body scrutinising and commenting on decisions made in a democratically elected body. The Scottish Government is currently more representative if the wishes of the Scottish people than the government at Westminster, let’s keep it that way. Any second chamber should be similarly democratically elected. Surely we’re past this out moded stuff of the Lords. But then this is a lord speaking! Such hypocrisy hidden in a longwinded and ultimately very boring speech.
    Thank you Denis Canavan for drawing it to our attention!

    My understanding of the quote from Jo Grimond is the same as that stated in the previous post, he was talking of independence, plain as the nose on your face.

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