Leader article: Peer Pressure

A dozen years ago, when I first took my seat in the House of Lords, there were a number of self-deprecating jokes which summed up how the country saw the House of Lords and how it saw itself:

There was the Peer who dreamt he was speaking in the Lords, and when he woke up he was.

There was the Peer who read the Times Obituary column each morning to make sure his name was not there. If it wasn’t he went in.

Thus was this anachronistic, quaintly amusing arm of our governance seen by friend and foe alike. It survived, in part, because its massive built-in Conservative hereditary majority rarely dared show its teeth.

In 1998 all that changed with the passing of the first stage of the long awaited reform of the House of Lords which had been promised by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in a joint statement of policy on constitutional reform (the Cook/Maclennan report) published prior to the 1997 General Election. It was the first stage in redeeming a pledge to further reform made in the preamble to the Liberal Government’s 1911 Lords Reform Act.

In truth the 1998 Act reflected a loss of nerve by the new Labour Government. Democracy was deferred to a yet further stage, and a hundred hereditary peers were left in post as kind of hostage guarantors of further reform.

Yet even this half-measure brought radical changes in the way the Lords behaved and how it saw itself in relation to the executive and to the Commons. The change of mood was perhaps best summed up by a writer in the Guardian who recently wrote that it was one of the paradoxes of our age that, whereas in the 20th century the House of Lords had resisted the reforms of the radical Liberal Government of 1906 and Labour Government of 1945, in the 21st century it was the House of Lords which was the defender of civil liberties and individual freedoms against an increasingly authoritarian government.

That change of mood came about for two reasons. First of all, by removing 600 hereditary peers and boosting the number of Labour and Liberal Democrat peers the House immediately became ‘balanced’. No Party has an overall majority, and on issues of party political conflict where the Crossbenchers are reluctant to intervene, it is often the Liberal Democrats who tip the balance one way or the other. Indeed a recent study by the Consitutional Unit at University College London found the Liberal Democrats to be the best disciplined and most effective grouping in the Lords.

The second reason why the Lords have been more assertive is that their powers rest not on some rights and privileges granted long ago but in the responsibilities given it by the 1998 Act. That Act recognized the supermacy of the elected House in matters of selecting a Prime Minister and Government and in having full control of matter of finance and taxation. But the advisory and revisory role of the Lords was underpinned by a right to say no. That right to say no has been rarely used. But it provides the leverage which allows the Lords to amend and improve legislation as it passes through the Chamber.

As a result peers on the Liberal Democrat benches such as Martin Thomas, Willie Goodhart and Anthony Lester have been to the forefront in protecting human rights and civil liberties. Navnit Dholakia, Sue Miller and Veronika Linklater and Alex Carlile have probed and prodded on prison reform and alternative strategies in response to crime.

In education it is often Margaret Sharp who flies the flag on university fees and student debt, whilst Joan Walmsley champions the rights of the child and school reform. On pensions Matthew Oakeshott keeps up a forensic bombardment of Government failures in the sector. Whilst in foreign affairs, issues such a missile defence, the Middle East and the Sudan show the experience and commitment of William Wallace, Shirley Williams, Paddy Ashdown and others.

Even as I write I know that I am going to leave someone out: the terrific job Sue Miller has done in taking on the Home Office can of worms, the impact that Robin Teverson has had on the climate change debate, Liz Barker and Jenny Tonge on health, Ros Scott, Sally Hamwee and Tony Greaves on local government, Kishwer Falconer on communities and justice, Hugh Dykes keeping the European flag flying along with the Party’s 50 year commitment to Europe.

Sorry for those I have missed out. But whatever the subject I can point to members of the Lords team who are working closely with Commons colleagues; but seeking to use our pivotal position in the Lords to further Liberal Democrat policies and Liberal Democrat values.

When people ask what we would do with the balance of power should it ever come our way, let them look to the Lords, where the Liberal Democrats judge issues on their merits and play a constructive role in promoting greater accountability and better governance.

* Lord Tom McNally is Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords.

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3 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Dec '07 - 6:26pm

    Good to see Tom McNully working well with Tony Greaves. Now Tony Greaves is supporting Chris Huhne as well it seems as though former SDP members and the liberal left (which includes me) are finding common cause…
    Its a funny old world, who would have thought it in 1988 at the time of merger?

  • Tony Greaves 17th Dec '07 - 10:16pm

    The remarkable things about the leadership election are (1) that hardly anyone has paid any attention to which predecessor party the candidates were in and (2) they have each tried to out-Liberal the other one.

    The argument now is not whether we are a Libeal party but what that means in 2008 and beyond.

    Tony Greaves

    PS It’s McNally not McNully.

  • Hywel Morgan 17th Dec '07 - 10:40pm

    Was Nick even in a predecessor party? I sort of assumed he wasn’t from the various biogs I read.

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