HL Deb 24 April 1968 vol 291 cc629-52

2.48 p.m.

LORD GLADWYN rose to call attention to the present system and structure of government and its relationship with Parliament: and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the subject before us to-day is vast and complicated, and I know very well that if in the short time at my disposal I make any proposals for reforms, still less for far-reaching reforms, I am likely to be accused of being simpliste, and unaware of the real difficulties. To this accusation I must, I am afraid, plead guilty to some extent. But it still seemed to us on these Benches a good thing that we should from time to time try to survey the whole of our system of government and concentrate, as it were, on the wood rather than on the trees.

I assume, in any case, that noble Lords taking part in this debate will be familiar with the classic works on the subject—indeed, much more familiar, I regret to say, than I am—and that they are no doubt also aware of the present controversies involving such well-known figures as Professors Crick, Beloff and Chapman, and Messrs. Mackenzie, Mackintosh, Butt, Grimond and Humphry Berkeley, all of whom have expressed their views in the Press at considerable length. Some of these experts feel that criticisms of our present régime are probably provoked only by what might be called the present "winter of our discontent" and that, on the whole, there is little or nothing the matter with our institutions. But, rightly or wrongly, most of them seem to think that there is something radically wrong with our present system of government which ought to be rectified. Therefore, we on these Benches felt that there was reason to stage another debate following that which was inaugurated so well some four years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton; and we are most gratified that the noble Lord will now be able to give us his views after three years in office and be able to say whether they have indeed changed at all.

We are also gratified that so many other highly-qualified noble Lords will intervene as well. After all, Members of Parliament form their views on this subject largely, and rightly, on the basis of their own individual experience. Consequently, what we on these Benches should like all those Members of the House with experience in the whole field of government frankly to say is whether they are happy about the present state of affairs, and, if not, why not.

May I say at the outset that I hope we can all agree not to touch on the reform of this House itself which, after all, is presumably sub judice. I imagine it might also be thought wise, on the eve of the publication of the Fulton Report, not to examine in any depth the possible reform of the Civil Service. The merits of regionalism and of some marked devolution of the powers of the machine in Westminster have for long been advocated by my own Party, and they are becoming increasingly appreciated. So beyond saying that we on these Benches regard some sort of Home Rule for Scotland and Wales, and the establishment in England of directly elected provincial assemblies—which were recently proposed in the Liberal document called Power to the Provinces—as absolutely essential, I do not intend to focus the debate on this particular aspect of governmental reform, either.

Nor do I even myself propose to raise the question of the desirability of a reform of the electoral system which, in any case, will be dealt with later in the debate by my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley. Also, I doubt whether at this point in time it would be desirable to embark on a discussion of the merits or demerits of televising Parliament. Finally, I shall not touch on the difficult question of the role of the Ombudsman. All those matters are very relevant to the issue before us to-day, but I suggest they might with advantage be considered in relation to what I would call the major theme.

So I hope that your Lordships will express yourselves chiefly on the following issue: is it believed that the present power of the Prime Minister, at the head of an enormous and rapidly increasing Civil Service, is exorbitant and should be subjected to a greater measure of democratic control? If so, is it thought that the right answer is somehow to increase the power of Parliament, in which context I naturally mean, of course, the power of the House of Commons? I know that some might say that it is wrong to raise this great matter in such a general way, or even to raise it at all. But if the House of Commons can consider the present state of the House of Lords, then I do not see why the reverse process should not be acceptable. Incidentally, we have the advantage of having in this House some very powerful ex-Members of the House of Commons.

It is our habit, of course, to let our institutions develop as they will and to patch them up only when it is obviously necessary, and bit by bit. We are rightly proud of them, just as we are proud of our excellent and irreproachable Monarchy. We must surely improve what we have, rather than abolish and start anew: and that, I think, is common ground. Equally, some may feel that the present power of the Executive has certain very real advantages. The Government can, of course, act instantly in a crisis. They can devalue the pound. They can change our whole defence policy at short notice. They can manufacture the atom bomb in secret. They can spend many millions on some special project or other. They can commit the country, as in 1956, to war. They can decide to apply sanctions against Rhodesia. And—yes, my Lords—they can even impose a statutory limit on wages, with little or no real trouble with the House of Commons.

Their actions may be wrong, but there is no doubt that when our incoming Prime Minister comes into No. 10 he can, with the aid of the powerful Cabinet Office and a Parliamentary Party that is, through his power of patronage and his right to precipitate another Election, almost completely under his control, at least act if he wants to. And if he is a strong and determined man who can dominate his advisers, such as Sir Winston Churchill, we therefore, whether we like it or not, do get strong government.

In principle, it is a good thing that we should have strong government, and until recently, at any rate, our method of achieving strong government without recourse to dictatorship was the admiration of all foreigners. The British are an easily governed people, we were always led to suppose, and I think that is true. I think it is also true that they like a firm hand on the tiller. Far be it from me to suggest anything which would alter the basic principle—and I think it is the basic principle—that Parliament should throw up a Leader who can clearly be expected and enabled to lead.

And yet, as I have said, there seems to be an increasing feeling that something is wrong somewhere with the machine, and that it may even to some extent have seized up. It is not only some Members of the House of Commons who, we are told, feel frustrated; it is the whole people who are coming to think that Government has little or nothing to do with them. There is thus no sense of participation in the legislative process. This applies to the various interests, too. It applies to the C.B.I.—I heard them talk on the subject; to the unions, I think; to the farmers, certainly; to the doctors, to the teachers and so on. Moreover, there is some reason to suppose that our rulers, who are necessarily Parliamentarians, are perhaps losing their old authority and their stock is steadily falling. In particular, they are accused of never carrying out their election pledges, which are consequently increasingly disbelieved. Perhaps that feeling is more noticeable among some young people who, I am afraid, are tending to be somewhat anarchic, if not apolitical. If it deepens the effects might well be serious. All this is not seriously disputed.

More specifically, perhaps, there is a feeling that the present system, which, after all, is less Parliamentary than plebiscital, is gradually being taken over by a vast and, however efficient, largely uncontrollable and perhaps even unanswerable bureaucracy; that the Parties—or, at any rate, the two major Parties—are merely rival groups who, when they come into power, pursue largely identical policies that (if I may have the attention of the Conservative Front Bench) are, in fact, prepared by the bureaucracy itself; and that the alleged ideological conflict between them is not really more important than that which provoked the great fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I do not say that this feeling is entirely justified, but I do suggest that it is becoming increasingly widespread. Cynicism about politics is often the precursor of some dictatorship. We must certainly pray that nothing of the sort ever happens here, but of course it might. The British have no special immunity against the dictatorial disease.

Your Lordships may say, nevertheless, that all this is exaggerated and even alarmist. Your Lordships may think that the House of Commons can to some extent, by occasionally raising awkward issues and through the Question Hour, keep the Government on their toes, as it were. The useful role of the rebellious Back-Bencher has been duly noted, though I would have thought rather over-emphasised, by Mr. Ronald Butt. In any case, nobody who has looked through the 1965–67 Reports of the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure organised by Mr. Crossman, or who has followed the debates to which they gave rise, can have anything but admiration for the ingenuity and devotion with which the House revises its own customs and for its determination to make the existing system work within the limits of the possible. But it is surely possible to believe that three new "specialised" (as they are called) Committees, organised on Party lines, and rather more time made available for topical and urgent debates, go only a small way towards solving our problem of what might be called governmental "credibility"; and, so far as I can make out, this is the feeling of the author of these salutary reforms himself. Are these small reforms indeed a pinnacle, or only just the foothills leading towards some further reform? We just do not know.

Your Lordships may point to Crichel Down and to the stay of execution on Stansted Airport; but these are really exceptions. Save in 1940, when we were almost at death's door, the House of Commons as such has for many years had little or no effect on the course of events in the sense of inducing the Government to modify a decision which they had already, in secret, arrived at. If this were the objective, there might as well not have been any debates or any Divisions at all. The fact is that the Executive is not really at the moment controlled by Parliament. If it is controlled at all, it is only ultimately controlled by the electorate. Indeed, it really is not cynical to suggest—and I certainly am not the first to suggest it—that Commons debates often seem to be held for the principal purpose of persuading the electorate to throw out, or alternatively to retain, the group in power at the quinquennial Election, although both sides really know that, whatever they may say, they will do much the same thing if they are favoured by the people.

This judgment seems to be borne out to some extent by the opinion polls, which record the apparently increasing fury of the electors at the actions of the present Government coupled with the increasing unpopularity of the Leader of the Opposition. I certainly do not say that the voice of the people as recorded in these polls is the voice of God. For instance, I personally believe that the Government, whatever their responsibility for the present mess, are right to adopt a strong policy, and I only hope and trust that they will stick to it. But the fact is that indignation at the present plight of the country may, unless we are careful, vent itself against our whole present system of government. It is possible; and it is just no good our living in a sort of splendid Parliamentary ivory tower and congratulating ourselves on how clever and civilised we are and on the excellence of our secular traditions. We should at least be conscious of a gathering storm.

What should we do? Tinkering with the existing Committees and procedures of the House of Commons, though of course good in itself, is not going to change anything very much. Nor is any "streamlining" of the Cabinet, though the idea of a small group, a sort of Politburo, that would assist the Prime Minister to take the major decisions is, as I think Mr. Lloyd George himself suggested way back in 1935, surely right, and if adopted, it would fit very well into the system that I shall shortly be outlining. Not even a considerable reform of the Civil Service is likely to affect the present system materially, though I still believe myself, as I suggested in the previous debate four years ago, that it might be a good thing if the Cabinet Secretariat and its attendant committees were run by an outsider who would change with the Government. And though I do not want to go into the reform of the Civil Service now, perhaps I might just say this: there seems to be little of what might be called "management" in the Service, and no real encouragement for initiative and risk-taking. It may be said that this is impossible, but it is not so. Certainly there is little attempt at what might be called "management accounting"; and, over and above this, except in some top appointments I believe that the hand of Buggins is heavy on the whole machine.

Now if things get really rough and the policy of the Prime Minister has obviously failed, he may, it is true, be in danger of being turned out by some Cabal within his own Cabinet, or even by Parliament itself. But the chances of this happening before an Election are remote—very remote, I think—and probably only conceivable in the event of grave illness or, as in 1940 and 1956, of a national disaster. In other words, only a radical change in the structure of government is likely to produce an appreciable change for the better in our political life—that is, on the assumption that any change is held to be desirable. But, on this assumption, how could we arrive at a new and, as I should think, healthier form of democracy—always within the framework of our ancient institutions, of course? How could we retain strong government—because that we must have—but at the same time temper it and make it more acceptable by people in difficult days? I will attempt to outline a way, if only to give your Lordships something to fasten on in this debate and to denounce if you will.

This is my plan. Let us assume that we continue to have quinquennial elections, or more frequently if the Government no longer enjoy a working majority. Let us assume, too, that there will continue to be Parties, for short of a one-Party State, which nobody wants, there will always be tendencies which will crystallise round one set of proposals or one personality rather than another. When Parliament meets, after the election of a Speaker, why should it not be agreed that the new Parliament should, by a majority vote, designate one of their number, who would then automatically be sent for by the Queen and appointed her First Minister? This man might be—indeed, in the early stages of this new system he almost undoubtedly would be—the head of the Party commanding a majority. But if, as might happen, no Party commanded a majority, no matter. He would have to be designated by a majority vote just the same, if not on a first then on a subsequent ballot. Incidentally, this would not occasionally place the Monarch in the embarrassing position of having to choose between two rival candidates, as has happened in the past.

The Member selected, as I think, should then form his Government, preferably much smaller than it now is, but—and here is the essence of my proposed reform—he would form it from outside Parliament, he alone remaining the physical link between the Executive and the Legislature. Naturally he could, and doubtless would, select certain Members of Parliament for posts in the new Administration, but if he did they would, if Members of the House of Commons, have by law to resign, and, if Members of your Lordships' House, cease for the time being to receive a Writ of Summons from this House. This may strike your Lordships as a revolutionary idea, but it is adopted in some admirable democracies, such as Norway, Denmark and Holland. Incidentally, we might recall that up to as late as 1922, I think, it was still necessary for a Member of Parliament here who was appointed a Minister of the Crown to resign and fight a by-election. That was a relic of an ancient practice. There is surely, therefore, no inherent reason why the principle should not be accepted in this country, provided always we believe that our present system is not working satisfactorily.

A variant could be—and this is obviously a possible variant—to say that the top five places in the Cabinet should be reserved for elected Members of Parliament, who would then not have to resign their seats. These might then form that inner Cabinet, that sort of Politburo, to which I have been referring, which would supervise all the various Departments of State.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for a moment? Is he now advocating that it would be possible under his proposals for Ministers not to be Members of Parliament?


Of course, my Lords. If the noble Lord will follow my argument, he will see that that is precisely what I am suggesting.


My Lords, I could hardly believe it.


I think there is a lot to be said for it; as there is in Norway, Denmark, Holland and other democracies. It may be that the noble Lord thinks those are not democracies; but it is possible to adopt this system. I have said that a variant would be for a limited number of M.P.s to be in Government—but only a limited number. These might form a sort of inner circle. The Government would consist of men chosen by the Prime Minister from among those he thought best qualified to carry out the policy with which he had won the General Election. No one would have any particular security of tenure. At this stage I can hear a number of noble Lords, and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, saying that this would be intolerable; that we should not want to be governed by mere experts, however efficient; that it is much better sometimes to have inefficient Parliamentarians, who would nevertheless be conscious of the desires and feelings of their constituents.

But, my Lords, wait a moment. Confronting a Government of all the talents, as it were, there would be a vastly different House of Commons, preferably reduced substantially in numbers to about 400 or so, which could form itself into committees covering all the major spheres of our national life; foreign affairs, defence, finance, social policy, labour relations and so on. In particular, Parliament should attempt to revise the whole present system of governmental accounting so as to exert some control over expenditure at an earlier stage. More use, in addition, might be made of Select Committees on matters which the Government now tend to remit to Royal Commissions and to departmental committees. If all Members of Parliament were available for committee work and were no longer in great part either in the Government or in some way working for the Government, there should be no question of ability to staff such committees or any question of lack of Parliamentary time—certainly not if the Liberal proposals for devolution of a great deal of present legislation were adopted as well.

These committees, I think, should have the power of calling on Ministers and civil servants to give evidence in support of policies which they proposed to pursue. Ministers would thus have to be capable of defending themselves against criticism; and it might be that junior Ministers with some past Parliamentary experience would often be considered the best persons to assume this particular role. The committees should be provided with adequate staff, accommodation (no doubt across the street) and information, and should be allowed to see at any rate some categories of restricted papers. Legislation would normally be referred to them unless for any reason was considered best to set up a special committee for a particular Bill. Their officers should be suitably remunerated and invested with dignity, and it seems likely—although I do not know wherher the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, would agree to this—that the ambitions of many Parliamentarians would consequently lean towards becoming one of the officers of these great committees rather than becoming a Minister of the Crown.

The sittings of the committees would normally be public. In the initial stages they might be composed with reference to the strength of the various Parties in the House of Commons; but gradually the simple habit of electing them might prevail. Indeed, the whole purpose of the reform would be to reduce the power of the Whips and to revert to something much more like Burke's view of the House of Commons; namely, a reflection of some general interest rather than a machine for enforcing the alleged will of a simple section of the population. And let it not be said that, for instance, a foreign affairs committee would be just an intolerable nuisance to the Foreign Secretary and to the so-called Foreign Office "mandarins". Anyone who saw the recent interrogation of Mr. Rusk on Vietnam by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate, as I did, conducted as it was by able and informed politicians, can only have come to the conclusion that here was a democratic system which really worked in that it provided a check on a great machine and on the enormous vested interests behind it. If I were Foreign Secretary I should welcome an exchange of views at such a level and with such men—and there would be no need for it always to be held in public.

In this way the decisions of the Government would no longer be taken only after long discussions inside the bureaucratic machine of Cabinet and inter-Ministerial committees and then, after rather perfunctory discussion in a large and overworked Cabinet, flung at Parliament for endorsement, usually after one or, at the most, two days' debate. They would rather be arrived at after genuine consultation with the representatives of the people, and the force of public opinion consequently brought to bear on them at a far earlier stage. Naturally, the Government would not have to accept a majority view in any committee of the House of Commons. If there were a real clash they would bring up the matter in full debate and, if necessary, put the question of confidence. In any case, no doubt the House would insist on major issues being finally debated on the Floor of the House rather than upstairs in Committee. Were the Government then defeated when the question of confidence was put, the Prime Minister would resign and the House of Commons would either nominate a new Prime Minister or, in the event of there being no majority for this purpose, there would have to be new elections.

Needless to say, Members of the Government would attend the House of Commons as required in major debates and at Question Time; although they would not vote. Only the Prime Minister himself or perhaps, under my variant scheme, four or five colleagues, would be Members both of the Government and of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister would himself represent the whole Executive and be vested by Parliament with the responsibility of governing. Members of the Government would also attend, as necessary, debates in this House also, although equally without the right to vote. The business of both Houses would continue to be settled by the Leader of the House, who really would be a Leader of the House, in consultation with the Prime Minister and the Opposition. Existing Standing Committees and the Committee on Nationalised Industries might well continue. The whole system would indeed represent a new and healthy dialogue between a reformed Executive and a reformed Legislature.

My Lords, it is not as if I propose the abolition of our Party system. All I suggest is that we should attempt to extricate ourselves from what I believe to be the present tyranny of the Party system whereby, I am afraid, the Party often comes first and the nation second. Imagine for a moment a Prime Minister whose tenure of office did not depend almost entirely on a quinquennial plebiscite, but rather on a House of Commons which did not consist largely of place-men. He would still have his Party supporters in the House but he might, as now, sometimes offend them. Would he then necessarily be thrown out? No, I do not think so; because he might well receive the support of the Opposition, or of some of them. Besides, as a result of discussion in the committees of such a reformed House, and in the House itself, it might well be that the policy of the Government would be modified in some respects, with the result that the Prime Minister would not have to put the question of confidence at all.

You may say: "Is not the proposal one substantially to adopt the American system?" There would be features in it which would not be dissimilar to some features of the American set-up, but essentially it would be quite different, in that we should not be accepting in any way the principle of the division of powers and the fate of the Executive, the fate of the Government, would really be in the hands of the Legislature, which is not the case in the United States.

The great Bagehot, in his classic work, said this of the House of Commons: The House of Commons is an electoral Chamber; it is the Assembly which chooses our President". Later on in the same paragraph he said: The House only goes where it thinks in the end the nation will follow: but it takes its chance of the nation following or not following; it assumes the initiative and acts upon its discretion or its caprice. We have come a long way since these words were written over 100 years ago; but we might I think with advantage now come back to Bagehot's fundamental thought. It is true that the Cabinet is no longer, as he envisaged, a mere committee of Parliament. We can draw the logical conclusion from this and at the same time provide that the Prime Minister is Parliament's instrument. In any case, it is right, I feel, that we should now at least contemplate some far-reaching reform in the structure of government. We live in dangerous times, and we ought to provide for the possibility that, to quote Mr. Roy Jenkins, Hell rather than Heaven may be round the corner.

It would have been different if by this time we had been members of the Common Market; indeed, if we had been we should not, I think, have been witnessing the distressing events of the last few days which are basically the result of a feeling of national humiliation coupled with a real fear for the economic future of these islands. But for the time being we must just put up with things as they are, and in so doing I think that we must attempt, if we can, to clear the decks for action. On this, my Lords, if you will give me another two minutes, I would say one word, in conclusion.

Professor Max Beloff, if I may be allowed to refer to my very distinguished fellow Liberal, has recently given eloquent expression in The Times to the pretty widespread feeling—widespread, that is, outside the Palace of Westminster—that our present system of government is outdated and incapable, by its very nature, of functioning properly. His remedy is a Coalition which would put in hand the necessary reforms. My Lords, I should not myself be opposed to that in all circumstances, but on one condition. Before it is formed, it seems to me, the Coalition should be agreed on the broad lines of the governmental reform which it would propose to initiate.

In theory this should be easy. You have only to find a political leader who would have a coherent plan of his own and who would then get at least 316 M.P.s from among all the Parties to support it. The House of Commons could then adopt this plan by way of a Resolution, and the reform would go through. It is as simple as that. Under our system we do not need to have any formal change in the Constitution which, as we all know, is unwritten. If, as we are always told by the lawyers, the House of Commons can, legally, change a man into a woman if it wants to, there is no doubt that it could, if it wanted to, change its whole relationship with the Executive by a simple act of will. For instance, a reform on the general lines of the one I have outlined could be enforced without any appeal to the electorate, though I suppose that an Election would be necessary before it was put into effect. It would not even be necessary to break up the present Parties. Provided that there were enough adventurous spirits in all of them, they could carry on, as Parties, under the new dispensation, even if they came together to some extent to see it through. What there would be would be an end to the stranglehold of Party on our Parliamentary apparatus; an end to the virtual dictatorship between Elections of an embattled Administration; an end to Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

My Lords, where is the parliamentarian who will advance from the shadows and give the necessary lead? Shall we have to await the arrival of some British de Gaulle, a kind of new Cromwell? God forbid! But what I do say, my Lords, is that unless our Parliament can discover a new working relationship with what the French call "le Pouvoir" and unless "le Pouvoir" can emerge as an acknowledged authority which is nevertheless seen to be controlled by and representative of the people, our democracy will be in increasing danger. Your Lordships may think that my own solution is impracticable. Very well. But in that case let us be told what the workable alternative is. That is, my Lords, if you are at all persuaded that something should be done over and above what is now being attempted. I beg to move for Papers.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, the structure of government seems to be an ideal subject for discussion in your Lordships' House because there are a number of your Lordships who have unrivalled experience in administration and politics; and not least among them is the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, who was a distinguished Chief Whip in another place and a distinguished Minister. In advance of his maiden speech I should like to say how much I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

My Lords, the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, as well as the speech to which we have just listened, leaves us greatly in his debt. He chided me at one point for not listening, but in point of fact I was discussing with my noble friend one of the points that he made, so I was not as guilty as he thought. It is a subject which needs airing and I have no doubt that the speeches to which we shall listen this afternoon will contain many constructive suggestions about how Parliament and Government may be made more effective. Yet I wonder whether in some quarters there is not an excessive concern about the present state of affairs. I am not altogether persuaded that things are as bad as they are said to be, in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has said. I do not know of any system of government more suited to the British people than the one we have. I do not think that the American system of democracy is better for us than our own. Nor do I think that in that Constitution the divorce between the Legislature and the Executive is satisfactory.


My Lords, I did not say that I thought that the American system of democracy was superior to ours in any way. Also I said that it was based on fundamentally different principles.


My Lords, I am not going to devote my entire speech to criticising the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. I was discussing generally whether or not there were better Constitutions for this country. I was casting no aspersions on the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, but since he has raised the subject, it seems to me, though I shall study what he said with great care, that his proposals for reform did precisely separate the Legislature from the Executive and copy all the worst features of the American Constitution. Nevertheless, I will have another look at it, though it seems to me a very unsatisfactory way of doing things. To take one example, in the United States at the present time almost every economist and every informed person, including the President himself who has proposed it, feels that an increase in taxation is essential, but Congress has refused to sanction it, and that is that. An Executive incapable of action is, I should have thought, something that we should not hurry to copy.

Nor do I wish, as I have seen mentioned in some rather lighthearted quarters, for a strong man, such as General de Gaulle, to govern this country. I do not like dictators or dictatorships, even if they are euphemistically called "strong men". Nor am I persuaded that a businessman's Government would be the answer to our problems. Being a successful businessman is not at all the same thing as being a successful Minister, and vice versa, as many successful Ministers have discovered, and a number of successful business men may perhaps admit. In any case, I do not understand on what basis this businessman's Government is to be appointed, or by whom. On balance, it seems to me that the system which we have in this country suits us very well. With the years we have adapted it, and it has kept up to date with modern developments and has served us well.

The question is, I think, whether or not at the present time we have fallen behind in this process of adaptation, and it may be that in some respects we have. I hope I may be forgiven for making what may seem to be a Party point—I suppose that in a way it is a Party point. It is that when Governments are successful one does not hear very much about whether the system is good or bad; it is only when things go wrong that people call into question the machinery as well as the people who operate it. In the first year of the Labour Government we did not hear much criticism of the structure of government, and it has really been only in the last two years that this criticism has become so widespread. I am afraid the truth of the matter is that a very large number of people in this country have become thoroughly disillusioned with politics and politicians because, as they see it, of their failure to solve our problems; and the disillusion embraces not only personalities but institutions. After all, that was the basic reason for Hitler's rise to power, and also Mussolini's and indeed General de Gaulle's; and though we have not yet, I trust, reached that stage, I am convinced that much of the discussion and questioning about our Parliamentary system is directly attributable to the lack of success the Government have had in overcoming the problems of the day. If the Government should regain its popularity and be successful in reversing the economic failures, then your Lordships will undoubtedly find that most of this questioning will disappear.

Nor—and I am sorry to be so negative—am I convinced of the argument advanced in a good many quarters at the present time about the excessive power of the Prime Minister. I have read Mr. Humphry Berkeley's interesting book, and though there is much in it with which I agree, I cannot agree with him in his fundamental argument that the power of the Prime Minister has in recent years grown out of all recognition. I just do not think it is true. I do not think that things have changed all that much. In any event, it depends upon the Prime Minister. Some Prime Ministers are dominant and others are not. It depends on whether the Prime Minister is successful. When everything is going well, the strong Prime Minister has all the power he wants. But if he fails, his colleagues will very soon see that his wings are clipped. Of course Prime Ministers are powerful. Of course Prime Ministers are the most important people in their Governments. Of course Prime Ministers can override individual Ministers. But they always have to take account of the collective view of their Cabinets and their support in the House of Commons.

Prime Ministers always were powerful—none more so, for example, than Disraeli, who was certainly outstandingly so in the days of his premiership. The other day I was reading Trollope's novel, The Prime Minister. Much of it could have been written to-day. There were the same pressures, the same problems, the same groups and almost the same people. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose—with perhaps two exceptions. First, the Prime Minister at that time was much less certain of his majority in the House of Commons. The system of whipping had not grown up and there was much more independence of thought and action. Nobody was beholden to a Party machine for the seat—though I suppose he might have been beholden to a Duke. We cannot go back to that, even if we wanted to. But there is no doubt that the House of Commons is a poorer place because of the strictness—perhaps the inevitable strictness—of Party discipline.

I wonder whether it would not be possible for a greater amount of freedom to be allowed on issues which are not of prime importance. For example, I wonder whether it was really necessary for the Whips to be on in either House on the Decimal Currency Bill. Anybody who has been a Leader of the Conservative Party in this House—I am sure that my noble friend Lord Salisbury will agree with this—will know that he will almost never get the whole Party in the Lobby with him unless it is on a matter of very great importance. And I think that is good for the House, good for the Party and probably good for the Leader of the Party in this House. We do not get very excited about it, though my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn sometimes gets a little peeved. I should like to see more leniency of that kind in another place.

The other difference between to-day and the day of Trollope's Prime Minister was that the Prime Minister of that day had a good deal more time at his disposal. Your Lordships will remember that the Duke of Omnium even found time to complain that he did not have enough to do and that he could no longer pursue his hobby of converting the currency to decimals, since it was now the Chancellor's job. I doubt if Mr. Wilson would echo those sentiments. And Disraeli wrote two of his novels while he was Prime Minister. There was a good deal less going on, and as a result the Prime Minister could sit bask and make his decisions without the pressures now inevitable in an age in which the tempo of affairs has so increased. Well, we cannot change that. That is beyond our power. But the fact is that the Prime Minister was, has been, is and I think should be a very powerful man indeed. I do not see how the Government could operate otherwise. I think that Government by Committee without a powerful chairman would be a truly terrible prospect.

But, having said all that, I think there are a number of ways in which things could be improved. I do not in end to go into them all and I shall not be very long. First of all, there is the Parliamentary side. Here, if I may, in common with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, I should like to pay tribute to Mr. Crossman, because though it may well be that some of the things he did were unworkable and even perhaps undesirable, the fact remains that he has been one of the very few in the two decades who have actually tried to reform the procedure of Parliament, to bring it up to date and to enlarge and modernise its functions. I pay my tribute to him because I think that he was right to try, and I think that some of the things he has done will probably be of benefit.

One of the reforms most usually canvassed is the desirability of setting up Select Committees, and already we have one in regard to agriculture. They may have an important part to play in the reform of our Parliamentary procedure, but I do not think they are so complete an answer to all our difficulties as some would suggest. Certainly they would enable Members of Parliament—I hope of both Houses—to question much more closely both Ministers and officials, and that would be very important. It was very noticeable to me, when I was the head of a Service Department, how badly informed Members of both Houses were on matters of defence. This was in no sense their own fault, for it is impossible when you are not in office and without the day-to-day knowledge which goes with working in a Service Department, and without the help and advice of all those who work in it, to know and to keep up with the rapidly changing factors which govern strategy and weapons.

I suppose that on a good many occasions I was grateful that much of the criticism which I endured was not very formidable, for at times inevitably one is vulnerable. But it was, and is, wrong that a Minister should get away with things because of lack of knowledge on the part of his critics—knowledge which they cannot possibly possess. In this case a Select Committee can play a useful part. But I hope that whenever we get round to setting up these Select Committtees we shall not be told that foreign affairs and defence are unacceptable subjects because of security risks, for I simply do not believe it.

These Committees will be helpful, but they have their disadvantages. They are comparable to the Senate and Congressional Committees in the United States. I do not think that anybody who has looked at American experiences in recent years will say that all these committees have been very useful or have elicited much information, or have prevented some of the more wasteful extravagances of bureaucracy from which they, as well as we, have suffered.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me for one moment for interrupting his most interesting speech, may I say that I have heard the Senate and Banking Committee examining the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Mr. William MacChesney Martin, who has recently been in the news, and I could not help thinking at the time that if we had a Financial Committee of Parliament which was capable of summoning the Governor of the Bank of England, for example, in front of it to examine him, it might be a very useful thing.


My Lords, I think it would; but I hope the day will never come when I shall be examined by the noble Lord, Lord Boothby.

I have a suspicion, too, that a really competent defensive player in the Civil Service team could withhold a great deal of information from the Select Committee which would, to a certain extent, make its work less valuable than it otherwise would be. But I think that the Select Committees have a part to play and I am sure that we should pursue the matter.

One of the other criticisms which has been levelled and with which I agree is that in recent years there has been a diminution in the importance of Parliament in the public mind. In recent years there has been a tendency increasingly for important controversies to be pursued on television rather than in Parliament. I see why there is a temptation to do this: one is speaking to countless millions of people on television and only to a few hundreds in either House of Parliament. But government by television is a very bad thing. Some of the more notable performers in that medium are not necessarily those with whom I would entrust my personal and public affairs. The House of Commons, I would say, should think very carefully about their decision not to allow themselves to be televised, because whatever the difficulties and dangers of doing so, and I see them all, there may be even more danger to our Parliamentary system if they do not do so.

I think that there are far too many Government Departments and far too many Ministers. I wonder whether they are all necessary. I do not wish to be Party political and I do not say this in a Party spirit, but I should have thought that we could have got rid of the Department of Economic Affairs. And is this not also true of some of the more established Departments? Do we really need a Ministry of Overseas Development? Is there a full-time job for a highly paid Minister in that Department? Could it not go as one of the functions of the Board of Trade? I am glad that the Prime Minister has decided to amalgamate the Social Security and Health Departments. I am sure that this is right. I am equally certain that it is right to merge the Foreign Office with the Commonwealth Office. But could we not go further than that? Are there not some activities which could be removed from Government Departments altogether and be made public corporations? For example, could not one make a public corporation for building roads? I do not see any reason why road building should be part of the Ministry of Transport. There is nothing political about it. This would be, in a sense, in the same way that the Post Office has been transformed into a public corporation. I suspect that there are other fields of activities in other Departments to which the same principle could be applied. Fewer Ministries would mean fewer Ministers, and that would be a good thing. I am sorry to say this just when the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, has been made a Minister, and I should like to congratulate her on her elevation. Perhaps she is the exception.

It should be possible, I think—though I realise the difficulties—to have a smaller Cabinet. Twenty-one or 22 people sitting round a table is really far too many to undertake discussions of great importance. I think one must be fairly ruthless if one is to change the present system. After all, there are many vested interests. For example, as my noble friend beside me will know, if the agriculture Minister were left out of the Cabinet there would be considerable dismay in agriculture. But those of us who have sat in large Cabinets and have watched this unwieldy body discussing matters of importance, or even worse, trying to draft Statements, must realise the advantages of a small Cabinet, though not, I think, one consisting of people entirely without departmental responsibility. That, I think, would be a mistake.

Your Lordships will know that there is at the present time a Royal Commission on the Civil Service under the chairmanship of Lord Fulton, which is to recommend on its recruitment, management and organisation—and so this is obviously not the best time to discuss that matter. But with the admiration for the Civil Service which all of us have, it is open to doubt whether the organisation in some departments is right, and whether the calibre of training of some civil servants equips them to do jobs—for example, in the Service Departments—which would in industry be performed by people with a very different training and background. It is relevant that in some countries which have now gained their independence, but which were formerly administered by Britain, the Civil Service which we bequeathed them has almost become an instrument for not taking decisions. It has been geared to careful, sensible inquiry into administration and finance of whatever its masters decide to do. But it can quite easily get out of hand, and become the master rather than the servant, preventing decisions being taken rather than making it easy to implement the decisions. I do not for one moment say that this has happened here in this country, but the increasing complexity of the role and functions of Government tends to underline the need for quick decisions and skilled professional advice.

There is, my Lords, another field in which I am quite sure that some reform is necessary, and that is devolution from the Central Government. It is obvious to anybody who goes outside London—and not all that far outside London—how very irritated the average citizen is by the dominance of Whitehall. The Nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales are obvious examples. But it goes much further than this, and I have met it much more widely. In Yorksshire, Cornwall and the North-East, and even in the Midlands, there is a sense of being an impotent fly in the vast web of Whitehall. Devolution must be the answer to this.

I am not sure that we ought to make up our minds at this moment whether they should be big regions or small regions, big city regions or much bigger units, because the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, is the Chairman of a Committee discussing local government, and it seems to me that we should wait to see what he has to say before we make up our minds exactly what size each region should be. But responsibility must be given for local affairs in a much wider degree than it is now. Of course, finance is going to be the whole key to this. If the Government retain control of all financial aspects, then no devolution can possibly work. Yet it is going to be very difficult to persuade any Government to give up the ultimate control over finance: there is a most difficult problem indeed to be solved here.

My Lords, it seems to me that these are the lines upon which we should go: a moderate reform of Parliamentary procedure; a reduction in the size of the Cabinet and of the Ministries in Whitehall; a hiving off of some of their functions to corporations; devolution to the regions; and, when we have seen the Reports of the Fulton Commission and the Redcliffe-Maud Committee, the reorganisation of local government and the Civil Service.

But there is one other matter which I have not mentioned. It seems to me that one of the troubles and causes of our troubles is that we have far too much government. I have never believed that the hallmark of a good Government is intensive activity in every sphere of human activity. Of course, in our complicated society intervention by the State is more necessary than it was 50 or 100 years ago. But I do not think it is the job of a Government to interfere too much in the daily lives of the people of this country, or that by doing so they will necessarily improve things or make people more contented. It is the job of Governments to create the conditions in which people can prosper and live a happy life, and then, as far as possible, let them get on with it in their own way. It leaves me cold—I think it really frightens me—when a Government seek to demonstrate their success by quoting the numbers of Bills which have been passed in a particular Session, or the hours and days that Parliament has sat. That is not the criterion of good government.

More and more legislation inevitably brings with it bureaucracy and overloading of the machine, as we have seen in some departments already, and the employment by private firms of large numbers of people to interpret that legislation. Some of our best trained and most useful people are spending their whole time trying to unravel the mysteries and countless complications of our taxation system. The essence of good legislating and good government is simplicity. And so, my Lords, though there are many ways in which we can and should adapt ourselves to changing circumstances, I hope that perhaps we may in the end reflect that the most important of them all is to have good government, and not too much of it.