HL Deb 22 May 1974 vol 351 cc1439-51

3.8 p.m.

VISCOUNT HANWORTH rose to call attention to the desirability of considering what changes could usefully be made to our Party and Parliamentary system to bring it into line with present day needs and improve the functioning of our democracy; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before starting my speech I should like to make one or two general remarks. Some of your Lordships may have noticed that I had down on the Order Paper for some time a somewhat provocative Motion. This, I must confess, was done deliberately because I wanted to get some idea of what the reactions to it would be. My speech to-day is almost wholly unprovocative in the sense of anybody wishing directly to oppose it; but I hope that in another sense it still is provocative, because I believe that what is wanted is for people to think about these problems. That is the reason why I am afraid that I will read almost the whole of my speech.

I have tried in my speech to avoid referring more than once or twice to another place; it would be wrong of me to do so. I have therefore referred to Parliament as a whole. The most that I can say about that is that I hope your Lordships will not jump to an immediate conclusion that anything I am saying is in my opinion directly relevant to your Lordships' Chamber. Where the cap fits, so be it. I should also like to mention that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, told me before this debate that he was very sorry that he could not speak; but he wishes me to say that nearly all the points I am going to make are points with which he agrees.

We have already had two debates on different aspects of this subject, and I believe that it is useful to look at the whole matter thoughtfully and from a wider angle. Our democratic system, and the way it functions, has in the past been greatly admired; but it is never safe to stand still and rest on one's laurels, which is what Britain has done in many other fields and allowed leadership to slip from its grasp. It is a truism to say that in success are always the seeds of failure, and perhaps this is even more true with political institutions than it is with industry. There is a constant and inevitable tendency for a group of people to try to shape the system to their own advantages. There is perhaps an analogy with tax laws, but a far more pertinent example is the method of election of the American President. What more perfect system could there have been at the time it was devised?

I conclude that for these reasons periodic change is essential and it is almost axiomatic that anything that has remained static for many years needs a searching review. An example of where I think we are far more badly placed than in the past is in the recruitment of Members of Parliament in another place. The nation needs men of the highest calibre for politics. At senior ministerial level the politician has to have three attributes which are combined only in men of quite exceptional ability. He must be a good head of department; he must be a politician in the broadest and best sense of the word, and all this is useless unless there is the ability to speak convincingly. The catchment area from which such men are drawn is much narrower than it used to be. It is now difficult to combine politics with the Bar, and part-time directorships are much less common. But most important of all, there is less interchange with industry. The major reason for the last state of affairs is almost certainly that politics no longer command the respect which they used to. Seldom indeed will a firm now keep a place open for an employee who enters politics, even for a fairly brief period; so it is difficult for a businessman, or indeed any responsible head of family, to risk his family's security. Politicians once committed to the profession, if they are to succeed, have to toe the Party line regardless of their private views, and there is a financial motive to keep their seats quite apart from advancement. There is therefore an inherent danger of their becoming "Yes" men.

What should be done? There is perhaps no single answer, but I think the problems need studying urgently. And, my Lords, I foresee that we may well even to-day have a problem in our own House so far as the Opposition is concerned. Many of us have to earn our living, and Opposition is a full-time job. Opposition does not always have the information which it would like to have; it can only obtain it by hard work. I wonder whether it is not now time to consider making it somewhat easier to recruit Front Benchers of the Opposition by making a payment of some sort. I think this is a point that we really ought to consider now. To summarise this introduction to what I will say later, I believe most strongly that if we are to preserve the best of the past we must be willing to make gradual alterations to our system of democracy whenever they seem desirable. Failure to do so could result in undesirably drastic measures at a later date and the sweeping away of much that is really good and should be retained. There is even the possibility of complete failure of the system and the adoption of Communism or Fascism.

My Lords, I should now like to try to look at some of the areas in which our Parliamentary and Party system is open to criticism, and then to consider the changes which might possibly be made. Before I do so may I make it absolutely clear that I do not regard every imperfection in the system as being capable of improvement. Human nature being what it is, any system must be imperfect, and one has to some extent to take the rough with the smooth. In the office when dealing with consumer matters I frequently say that one should not make changes, even if there is an evil, unless one is reasonably certain that the changes are going to result in something better and the side effects are not worse than the evil that one is trying to cure. I do not, however, subscribe to the view that given time everything will gradually change for the better—a philosophy which I think some noble Lords may possibly hold. Maybe in the days when England was at her peak it could be a valid argument that matters should be left to take their course—a theory of laissez-faire—but even then at a price to human happiness which to-day would be wholly unacceptable. No, we have fallen behind other nations by pursuing that dogma far too far. If our nation is to retain anything of its leadership this can only be done by preserving an initiative, in other words by keeping steerage way on the ship of State and not drifting with the current.

Some facts about the present situation must be accepted by everybody, but the deductions from them are much more a matter for debate. In the first place, as I said, it is clear that Parliament and Parliamentarians do not command the respect that they used to from the general public. Moreover, the last Election clearly showed that the nation has at the present time no great respect or confidence in the policies and government of either of the two major Parties. The conclusions I draw—and in this part of my speech I shall not mince my words—are: first, that the behaviour and speeches in Parliament are often of a level wholly inappropriate to the importance and the gravity of the matters under discussion. Secondly, Party politics have reached a point where all Parties make promises which cannot be fulfilled at any acceptable cost. At Election times, and not only then, the truth of any issue is distorted or obscured to an extent which even the average man cannot accept. Thirdly, the game of opposing the Government of the day on a Party issue with an argument however invalid, regardless of national interests, is surely no longer ethical. To do so in a court of law with a jury which must listen all the time and with a judge to sum up would be one matter; to do so to the nation as a whole with an imperfect media reporting indirectly is quite another.

I do not believe that we can produce a sudden revolution, but some improvement could be made if we were to accept that the doctrine of Party conflict, however undesirable the terms may be, should no longer be hallowed by tradition; and frequently, my Lords, I believe that that is in fact the case. Fourthly, it is becoming clear to the public that they do not really have a free choice in the selection of candidates to represent them. Moreover, many issues selected for Party mandates would never be countenanced by the majority of the electorate no matter what their political adherence. How far, by any standards, is this true democracy?

I admit that it is difficult to see exactly what should be done. I personally am doubtful about the universal merits of referenda, but we ought to consider the proposition that some suitable issues could be put to the public in that way. I dislike the policy being dictated by emotional, unrepresentative sections of the community, or by the supposedly democratic system of block votes. I believe that many issues could usefully be taken out of Party politics altogether. Where matters are more controversial, a useful purpose could nevertheless be served by having an informal committee, possibly of Privy Counsellors as the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, recently proposed. It is important that as a nation we should pursue a reasonably straight course, and experience shows that steadfastness of purpose is more important that the search for illusory perfection or philosophic commitments.

A rather radical proposal, which I think should nevertheless be seriously considered in the context of our whole political system, is that this House might at all times have a completely free vote. Surely this could only lead to a much more balanced decision-making, and because of more clearly expressed views lessen what some people believe to be an increasingly excessive use of power by the Civil Service. The disadvantages of not having a concerted Party policy on any one Bill would not matter in the Lords as the decision could be Whipped in the Commons.

The dangers of having a multi-Party system without clear majorities are apparent, but yet it could well be that with modifications the system might at this moment work to this country's advantage. Again, this ought to be studied in the light of other nations' experience, if only to see what might happen if Britain finds herself permanently in such a situation.

Unless we accept the desirability of power being shared between more than one Party, proportional representation in entirety is unacceptable. But need it be all or nothing? Need we adhere to the shibboleth that all Members of Parliament must be duly elected representatives of the people? A realistic view of what in practice this means to-day is—almost nothing at all! Moreover, it is questionable whether senior Ministers can possibly represent constituencies and, at the same time, perform their other duties efficiently. They try to do so, but is the result that we are often governed by tired men who have no time to think? Might it be possible for a specified number of senior Ministers, who have had previous experience as Members of Parliament, to be appointed without election, and a number of seats given to minority Parties on the basis of the total vote? Some sort of solution along these lines need not destroy one-Party dominance.

I should interject here, my Lords, that these are only ideas, and I certainly would not form an opinion of what should be done without a very great deal of research, which is just what I shall recommend at the end of my speech. But I do not think there is any harm in indicating possible areas where this research might be directed. We have already had a debate on providing funds for the political Parties to free them from the influence of outside interests. I think most noble Lords were of the opinion that this was, at least, a matter worthy of further thought. With the utmost candour, let me say that I do not believe that the present dependence of the Labour Party on trade union funding is a good thing. I hold the same view of the dependence of the Conservative Party on the City. In this age, either could well lead to situations wholly opposed to a reasonable democratic system of society.

I suppose that I must, but with reluctance, consider the role of the Lords and Commons. I should have thought two Chambers desirable in any system. Maybe as a Member of this House I am prejudiced, but I believe that in practice the House of Lords works very well. However, the taunt that it is proof of life after death has some validity, and one would like to see more younger Members; at my age, younger Members would of course qualify even if over 40. Seriously, however, we must always be ready to accept the fact that the hereditary principle is indefensible when challenged, and if necessary act accordingly.

I cannot help wondering whether in another place there may be too great a preoccupation with trying to prevent any abuse of power. It is a necessary and useful role, but is it over-emphasised? I am absolutely sure that our concern with keeping our freedoms is right. But if we lose our freedom and democracy it will not be because of the matters with which Parliament is concerned, but because of the excessive abuse of the freedom we now enjoy. Perhaps Parliament should have greater power in relation to the Government and the Civil Service, but unless we can think more in terms of what is good for the country and less in sectarian terms, Government by the Civil Service may be the lesser of two evils.

There are a few other points which I think should be considered in any review of our Parliamentary and political system. I am sure that television broadcasts of Parliament at work would be desirable if only we could be sure that it did not lead to Members "speaking to the media" and using it to advance narrow personal or Party aims. At the present time, I should think that the responsibility both on the speakers and on the media, who must be selective, is too great for me to be a wholehearted advocate of this change. Another idea that has been put to me is that we ought to give greater opportunities for people, who wish to attract attention to a cause on which they feel deeply, to do so by accepted channels. Hopefully, this might reduce the tendency to stage demonstrations, which are both silly and take up a lot of valuable police time. Could we arrange for people who feel sufficiently strongly about some topic to "buy time" to ventilate their view to some designated Committee of Parliament, perhaps at some financial cost?

Another suggestion concerns Parliamentary staff. In a small way, we have already begun a process of appointing representatives who can interview and investigate on behalf of Parliamentary Committees. Ought this process to be carried further? Ought a corps of Ombudsmen to be appointed to replace the Members' "surgeries"? Would the job be better done by the appointment of intermediary officials between the Member and the person who needed help? At the very least, is there not a case for further experiment along these lines? Finally, my Lords, I would recommend that an all-Party commission or committee should look in depth into these and other matters and report within six months. Some action should then be taken on at least some points. I do not think that time is on our side. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, at a time when there is a good deal of questioning of our political institutions, it is appropriate to have a debate of this sort in your Lordships' House. I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for his initiative in putting down the Motion to-day and for the interesting and thoughtful speech which he has made in moving the Motion. The first point I should like to make is to warn against the mistake of thinking that there is anything very new about disenchantment with the political system. For a long time now it has been a characteristic of the British to tend to undervalue the advantages and the inherent strengths of our form of representative Government. Partly because we do not have any written Constitution—there is no single document to which one can turn—the political system in this country is not easy to understand. It is a great deal more subtle than often appears to be the case, and it is hard to explain. It is necessary to acquire a feel for it in order to be able to identify its virtues, its stability and its fairness, as well as its far more conspicuous defects which are so much easier to see, and some of which have been itemised by the noble Viscount in his speech just now.

Because it has grown up in such a piecemeal way, our kind of Parliamentary democracy is untidy, is often rather inefficient, and invariably is the despair of reformers. Yet constantly it is evolving. We have only to look at the changed composition and role of your Lordships' House since the introduction of Life Peerages, for an example with which we are all familiar. Outsiders sometimes see this more clearly than we do. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, wrote this: Democracy is wrongly conceived when treated merely as a body of doctrine or simply a form of government. It is a stage of development. It is built up by slow habit. The English alone have approached popular institutions through habit. All other nations have rushed prematurely into them: through mere impatience with habit, they have adopted democracy instead of cultivating it. Criticism of Parliament and of Party politics has tended to be cyclical. Although I must admit that I have not seen any evidence to support such a theory. I wonder whether there may not be some correlation between public attitudes towards political institutions and the performance of the economy. When people feel that inflation, for example, is getting out of hand and threatening their whole way of life, frustration builds up which quickly spills over to Government and Parliament. Some critics argue that the present system is too inefficient; that Parliamentary democracy is slow; that it is negative; that there is too much talk and not enough action; that the checking of abuses, referred to by the noble Viscount in his own speech, is all very well but that what is urgently needed is the decisiveness and authority which are to be found in big business.

At the opposite pole stands another group of critics. They argue that the problem is not too much democracy, but too little. They urge greater public participation in decision-making and an end to a system which they believe excludes the people themselves, leaving them impotent, their opinions ignored and their demands flouted. It is interesting that almost exactly the same pattern occurred in the early 1930s. The financial crisis led to a strong current of social and political discontent which for a time seemed to threaten the institutions of the State. This is what Baldwin said in a public lecture in 1930, titled "The Authentic Note of Democracy": Disappointment with the working of representative government is no new thing in our midst. It recurs periodically and we are in one of the fermenting periods now. It may be uncomfortable but it is not surprising. The country in the last twenty years has been plunged into tremendous experiences. Our social ideals and our administrative methods have been challenged as never before. There is bound to be unrest when more questions are being put than statesmen can answer. If the problems do not change very much, nor do the proposed remedies. The attraction of what is known as "taking things out of politics" is always present. Even Winston Churchill, impressed with the contrast between the political problems and the economic problems of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and with the need for handling each by different techniques, toyed for a time with a scheme of what he described as "functional democracy". Party Government, he argued, was not a suitable apparatus for solving industrial difficulties. He suggested a new deliberative body, an economic sub-Parliament, debating day after day, with a fearless detachment from public opinion, all the most disputed questions of finance and trade without having to concern itself all the time with who won the next General Election. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, has not been as bold as that to-day, although he said that many issues could usefully be taken out of Party politics altogether, possibly by way of referring them to an informal committee of Privy Counsellors. I shall be interested to see whether any other noble Lords will follow that line of argument in the debate to-day.

It seems to me that what we need to do in our present situation is to distinguish between failures of machinery and failures of will. Of course it is true that Parliament can be slow-moving and obstructive. Of course debates can be tedious and trivial. Of course Members of Parliament can get out of touch with their constituents and out of step with public opinion. Of course Ministers tend to get over-burdened with the details of departmental administration and to lose sight of where their policies are leading them. All these things have happened before, and they will happen again whatever the changes made in the working of our political institutions. But are we sure that it really is the machinery which is at fault; and if it is, why is it, then, that the criticism of Parliament and of Government has been so cyclical? Why has pretty much the same system of Parliamentary government seemed adequate in one set of circumstances and quite inappropriate in another? Important though the institutional arangements are we should be deluding ourselves if we concentrated too much on the machinery at the cost of overlooking the importance of political will.

This takes us on to fresh ground and it is not territory that I can traverse very far this afternoon. It raises questions of spiritual values as well as of political ideals. It leads us on to consider what motivates men in public life, how they react and respond to events and, most important of all, what they learn from them. Then, there is the elusive relationship between governors and governed, how it is perceived by each and what each expects of the other. Political will, my Lords, grows out of political beliefs shaped by experience and judgment. Is it too much to say that the politician emerges from the chrysalis as a statesman when he can identify the real interests of the people, selecting and weighing up between the immediate and the long term, seeking ways to resolve conflicts of interests, and all the time testing the desires of the moment against an appreciation of the conditions in which popular desires can be adjusted to reality? This is the soil in which political leadership is rooted, and it is upon considerations of this kind that political policies should depend.

If it is argued that this is rather an élitist view which I have been expounding, I would reply with a reference to the Party system. It is not easy, I know, for those who sit on the Cross-Benches to recognise the fundamental importance of the Party system. Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that in its essentials the modern political Party is a device for democratising the political system. It represents a way, and on the whole I believe a successful way, of bringing the people, in the sense of the mass electorate, into the political community. Parties differ in their organisation and in the manner in which the parliamentary Party is linked to its supporters at the grass roots. The tradition of the Labour Party, for example, is different in this respect from the traditions of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. But each of the main Parties can claim that its policies depend on the support and on the acceptance of millions of people, and that these policies do not exist in a vacuum.

I must apologise to the House for going back to these first principles. But it seems to me necessary to have some of the basic considerations in our minds as we review the present condition of the political and Party system. As I said when we debated the state of the nation in the course of the debate on the Address in reply to the gracious Speech in March, a measure of competition between organised Party groupings is crucial to the working of a democratic political system. I repeat what I said on that occasion because it is so relevant to our present debate. In any society the people are powerless if the political system is not competitive, and one has only to look around the world to see examples of that. It is, after all, the competition between rival political organisations which provides the people with the opportunity to exercise a choice. Without this opportunity popular sovereignty can only be greatly diminished.… Contemporary politics in Britain are contained within a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organisations define the alternatives of public policy. They do so, moreover, in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process by deciding which set of policies and which set of political leaders they wish to support."—[OFFICAL REPORT, 13/3/74, col. 40.] My Lords, the result of the recent General Election has been to shake the dominant hold of the two main Parties on the House of Commons. Perhaps from the point of view of the health and vitality of Parliament that may not prove to be such a terrible thing in the end. Of course it is true that minority Government raises a new set of problems for Government, and a new set of problems for Opposition as well for that matter. But I have no doubt, as the Economist said in a perceptive article on May 11, that the art and practice of British politics will adapt to it. The article concluded with a remark which I believe to be very true; namely, that … it will take more than another General Election to convince British politicians that the adversary principle on which they have all been brought up has been played out. My Lords, whatever else can be said of the present Party balance in another place, it has not yet reached the situation recorded in the Treasury List of Election Returns following an Election held in 1830, just before the Reform Bill. One of the curious things about this Election was that nobody was actually sure which side had won and which side had lost as a result. The Government spokesmen claimed gains of 22 seats, but according to the Opposition's calculations they had lost more than 50. This situation was hardly surprising, though, when we see that the list compiled finally by the Treasury for the Government was drawn up under the following heads: Friends 311; Moderate ultras 37; Doubtful favourable 37; Very doubtful 24; Foes 188; Violent ultras 25; Doubtful unfavourable 23; The Huskisson Party 11. Perhaps the introduction of the modern Party system has brought some advantages with it after all.

My Lords, I should like to conclude by saying that I hope it will not seem that in this short speech I have been too defensive in what I have said. None of us can afford to be in any way complacent about our political institutions. If they are to survive and to flourish, they need constant attention. Their performance needs to be critically appraised and they must show themselves to be open to change. But, my Lords, since I have had the privilege of serving in the Government and being connected in various ways with one of the great Parties in the State, I thought that your Lordships would not find it out of place to hear something in the nature of a defence of politics at the outset of this debate.