§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Birdwood rose to call attention to the impact of single issue groups on decision making and policy formulation; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have the chance to hear the voice of the House this evening on the subject of single issue groups. Perhaps I may spell out my own position on the matter. My interest springs from my observations in one particular area; namely, how power is drifting away from historic, political sources in this and in all democracies.
§ I do not think that there is any dispute that events on a world scale take power away from our national political institutions. We have had plenty of examples of the global capital markets making the running for our economy, and the federalisation of Europe has its own consequences for sovereignty. I am not saying that they are good or bad—they just are! The ordinary machinery of democratic government has to be reactive to world events, and it is futile to pretend otherwise.
§ However, power imperceptibly is also trickling down and away from conventional politics into thousands of tiny streams of local and individual influence. What we can see is a pattern of change made up of many little differences in our lives. For instance, we can see that diversity is now the expectation of every reader of magazines. There has never been a time when more people's interests were served by so many specialist 596 publications. A new profusion of television media promises still more. The Internet and World Wide Web reinforce a general, cultural diversity which already adds hugely to richness and choice in people's lives. So, there is all that diversity, all that access to shared interests, yet the audience for a single TV programme is in the tens of millions. It seems that the big movements in terms of people participation have deserted party politics, and the little niche movements have done so as well.
§ The point that I am making is that politics—that is, the politics of Burke, Disraeli and Attlee—are being squeezed by interests which at best find politics irrelevant and at worst a negotiable obstacle to highly-focused objectives.
§ If politics was a choir, we have all been handed out mismatched pieces of music, a lot of us are making up our own, there are competing choirmasters and none of us can remember the tune. But, on to the contemporary scene has come a new, significant alliance: the single issue group, appearing as a formidable double act with the national media. Typically, the process announces itself by an item on the television evening news. The priority of news items on the TV evening transmissions sends a strong signal to the press the following day about areas where the readership awareness will be high. This market can be tested and the validity of a campaign assessed. In particular, the "legs" —that is, the natural life cycle of a campaign—can be judged. The language of a campaign is familiar enough. "Outrage", "Fury" "The public demands that…", and so forth.
§ Nothing new, and nothing in itself reprehensible. Competition, plus freedom of speech, will always make for a spirited, irrepressible press. As I said here a fortnight ago, one might quarrel with the dignity of language, but the motives behind it reinforce good, basic virtues. And in passing, the notion of a privacy law is an affront to press freedom.
§ What is different is that the media and single-issue groups have, so to speak, found each other. Their eyes have met across a crowded room. This changes things. For a start, the new ingredient is the power of the TV news report. Action, movement, offensive words and challenging acts all make excellent television. No matter that the numbers are tiny numerically, their exposure is enormous. A moment ago I outlined the sequence of TV news priorities setting an agenda for press comment. Obviously for a while the press is self-perpetuating with each feeding on the other, the beneficiary being the direct action demonstration which was the tripwire for that first report.
§ So here we have a fertile territory of people feeling individually better informed than ever before, but frustrated at what seems to be the glacial pace of change from political means; a dangerous combination of personal powerlessness and personal empowerment.
§ Perhaps it is time to rethink the constitutional basis of parliamentary representation before the rethinking is done for us. I think it is no longer generally understood that honourable Members are representatives of their constituents and not delegates. But perhaps because they are already perceived as delegates, the change should be allowed to proceed under its own momentum and the pressure of public opinion. Perhaps Parliament should 597 evolve in this way. However, my personal conviction is that the representative character is appropriate and should be treasured.
§ Yet it is a critical responsibility of any government to be the broker in competing claims. This duty of broking should be one of the tests of a government's credibility. Direct action by contrast is a rejection of parliamentary democracy, a rejection of the broker role. Those taking direct action are showing that they cannot wait and will not wait for the time needed for the usual processes of electoral decision-making.
§ Eight days ago I listened to the programme "Call Nick Ross" on Radio 4. The subject was whether direct action was the best way of getting one's point of view noticed, and achieving change. I was listening in the car and could not keep notes but from memory every caller but one affirmed that direct action worked—not just that it worked, but that it was morally essential. Of course one 'phone-in is hardly a representative sample of the population, but the unity of opinion was more than a straw in the wind.
While I was marshalling my thoughts for today I read a number of pieces which have surfaced in recent weeks around our subject. It would stretch the indulgence of the House to quote as much and as directly as I would have liked; but there was something of a collective voice. The Spectator on 29th April led with the following:
The pleasures of anger, especially when combined with self righteousness, are considerable. How generous one feels when one is angry on behalf of others! And righteous anger permits and excuses the impermissible and the inexcusable. A rioter, after all, is only a vandal with a cause".
It makes the point, as do I, that the number of people who concern themselves with public affairs has risen greatly, both because of the spread of education and because of the ubiquity of the means of mass communication.
I quote further,
The impression is given by newspapers, radio and television that life is little more than a register of crimes, follies and misfortunes. Since most people's knowledge of other times and other places is outside their direct experience, they rapidly come to the conclusion that they are living in a situation of great and unprecedented injustice".
At the time, the Spectator coined the phrase,
an age of emotional incontinence
which was grabbed by the Telegraph in a hard-hitting leader headed "Restraining the zealots". This focused on motorway demonstrations and used these to make the key points that anger flourished from the attention of the media but that nobody was entitled to place themselves above the law. The writer came down hard on law-breaking and was not alone in making anarchy the potential alternative.
At the beginning of the year I noticed The Times leading with the assertion
Direct action is an arrogant rejection of democracy",
and made points which echoed my own feelings. It emphasised that Britain's political system allows the representation of all points of view. Those who go outside do not deserve concessions, even if they do win airtime on national television by the nature of their actions. The ability to muster thousands of people to run riot on the streets of London may impress the cameras; but it is no
mandate within an electorate of millions. Peaceful protest plays a respectable part in our political culture. But the forms of direct action increasingly endorsed by some of the most established campaign groups deserve no such respect. Claims of desperation lose their political force when they become routine as they have in this age of obsessive single-issue lobbying.
These ideas paraphrased from the broadsheet leaders highlight one of the reasons why governments and causes will always collide. It is obvious but needs saying, that single-issue groups have the luxury of single-mindedness, a government must have a complex, subtle response. When it does not the result is, well, legislation about dangerous breeds of dog. John Casey made a very telling point a few days ago when he wrote in the Telegraph of his reflections on listening to the radio,
The broadcasters are simply following a fashion in which national institutions take on the role of pressure-groups".
He remarked that there are now plenty of examples of government themselves behaving like a pressure-group. If one has watched the changes in power over the past 30 years, Casey's point has some real warnings for any administration hoping to charm the electorate.
I am under no illusions that my role this afternoon is anything other than that of warm-up man. If I had wanted to kick-off the debate by offering a survival handbook for political institutions in a democracy, the speakers following are far better qualified to write it. I had suggested the subject of single-issue groups and their impact on decision-making. Behind this was my own interest in who has the power in a democracy. From where we are sitting, the system looks stable enough. Governments may come, Governments may go, but the electoral system—with a bit of fine tuning—limps on. Elections elect, and the system is built-in to our sense of nation and built to last. But is the system any longer delivering the goods in terms of actual power, or of thoughtful, measured reform? I suggest that by looking hard at how single issue groups manage to exert the influence they do—often quite out of proportion to their numerical strength—the system can learn. With the convergence of interests of the media and the single cause we have the town crier and the town bigot in the same person. But I will end with a quote from Martin Jacques of Demos and the Independent:
If the characteristics of the old society were hierarchy, certainty, bureaucracy, homogeneity, class, centralisation, and the State, the equivalent metaphors now…are market egalitarianism, uncertainty, diversity, heterogeneity, multi-identity, decentralisation … and confusion".
From what I have said, I might have left the impression that I am against protest. Heaven forbid! What I am for are the rule of law, the recognition of complexity; facts rather than feelings. In the light of what we are going to hear today, I am sure I have the support of all parts of this House when I say I recognise the immense difficulties of the modern, serious politician. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.39 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I feel privileged but somewhat embarrassed to be called so early in the debate. I pondered for a long time over the title for this short debate wondering what the noble Lord would 599 talk about. I have been a participant in single issue groups all my life. I have a very high opinion of their value in a democracy. I give grateful thanks to many of the people who have co-operated to bring about significant social changes as a result of single issue activities.
After the flesh-creeping speech of the noble Lord, which was of such wide dimensions, I feel inadequate to continue the debate on his level. He raised many issues of a disturbing character, and I agree with much of what he had to say, but those are more than a short debate can accommodate. Speeches limited to 11 minutes do not always suit my frame of mind, but in this discipline I must observe the timetable strictly.
I shall confine myself to saying that single issue groups, in terms of pressure groups as they used to be called, are an essential part of our democratic system. After all, we are all free to think as we like and, within strict limits, we are free to speak as we like. That means that we are free to associate with others of like opinion and form ourselves into a stronger force of opinion formers. I am prepared to discuss that matter at any level, but that does not seem to have been the direction of the debate so far.
In my early youth I was plunged into the single group movement when I found that my father was going to prison. I discovered that he was a member of a passive resistance group in the local town for which he enlisted membership on a wide scale. The members were to be found mostly in the non-conformist churches, and were asked to protest against the inclusion of denominational school aid in the education rate under the 1903 Act. My father conducted a campaign against that unacceptable burden which had been placed upon the citizen against his conscience, as well as not being in accordance with his pocket. I was more successful in my choice of single issue groups.
Many of the major social changes have taken place as a result of the combination of thought and action of many people on a minority issue; for example, family planning and abortion law reform.
I am engaged in a single issue group now which is called the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 Reform Group. We have a mission in life, which is to try to educate the public that the 1991 Act was an offence against all constitutional principles, was rushed through in hasty legislation on false premises, and so forth. I am hopeful that that group will also prove successful.
With all the variations within our democratic system and the different views that we hold, groupings will form and will become of political significance. A successful movement at the time of the 1979 general election sticks in my mind. Over the years we had been upset at the failure to interest parliamentary candidates and Members of Parliament in animal welfare as a theme of moral and social importance. We formed the Animal Welfare Electoral Fund in 1979. We urged the heads of the political parties to include some form of animal welfare measures in their party policy statements. We had the slogan "Put animals into politics". If you want to change the law, all roads lead to Westminster. As polling day approached we urged the parties to include that in their manifestos so that we could achieve parliamentary action. Do you know, my Lords, in that election every major political party included in its manifesto a reference to 600 animal welfare? I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, who was chairman of the Conservative Party at the time, for taking on board so many of the representations that we made to him, leading to the creation of the Farm Animal Welfare Council and an extension of the terms of reference of the Home Office committee on animal experiments. That action was highly successful. I could quote numerous other instances.
Nevertheless, there is a problem when single issue groups turn from peaceful practices into a feeling for the need for more violent action. However, cast your minds back, my Lords. In your knowledge of history, has there been a major social change in Britain which has not involved people going into politics, in to the pulpit and into prison? Votes for women is one example. It took a long time for men to gain electoral democracy. Many people have joined in direct action when they have felt that debate was not leading to a satisfactory conclusion. It is not a matter of not waiting, as the noble Lord indicated; it is a matter of waiting so long and frustration that the parliamentary system is not yielding what it should in the light of public opinion.
That is merely an introduction to the debate. I am anxious to listen to other noble Lords and hear what they have to say about the subject. The single group will go on. Some of my heroes were single issue activists. One of my heroes was Charles Bradlaugh, who was a member of a group concerned with a single issue, namely to remove religion from the oath of allegiance for Members of Parliament. He managed to achieve that. He managed to have a secular oath of allegiance introduced. That action broke his health. He had to stand in several by-elections in order to be re-elected and was then thrown out of Parliament when he got back. That is lost on us these days. We do not realise how violent it all was and how upsetting socially.
I shall now sit down. I have added a little postscript to a most fascinating speech by the noble Lord. Much that he has talked about will be repeated in our thoughts and discussions on the future of society. As regards the hidden persuader, that is the real culprit in society today. He is the person behind the television and the media generally. In many ways that element is becoming a significant influence. On occasions, the media represent one of the greatest influences in our society. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his speech. I can now sit down within my time limit of 11 minutes.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in debates. It certainly is today.
We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for this debate which is the sort of occasion when your Lordships have a particular role to play in the constitution. It is perhaps a unique role. Perhaps I may also draw attention to the fact that the noble Lord who introduced the debate with his most interesting and thoughtful speech is a hereditary Peer. That may cause us to think seriously about the constitution of your Lordships' House.
I believe that the noble Lord is directing our attention to issues which are considered by their proponents as being of special importance but which are not yet 601 incorporated into the general programmes of mainstream political parties. Some are genuinely single issues. Probably the purest was Samuel Plimsoll's campaign for the loading line in cargo ships, and—pace the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—he did not have to go to prison for it.
Although the Clapham Set had a general philosophy, undoubtedly the anti-slave trade campaign was a single issue—and I am glad to say that in the presence of my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce.
However, lest the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should beguile us into thinking that all single issues are sensible and beneficent, one ought to reflect on the fashionable fad last century for bimetallism which, happily, ran into the sand. Sometimes what we regard, I think rightly, as single issues are extended. The most successful single issue group in our history was, I think, the Anti-Corn Law League. But that broadened into a defence of free trade generally and a general attack on the Navigation Act.
Then there was the abolition of capital punishment. Although it can be regarded as a single issue, it was associated with general penal and police reform both under Peel and in the 1950s.
Many of the single issue groups of influence are beneficent, as appears from most of the examples that I have stated, but not all. I have mentioned bimetallism, but there is also the single issue group on the extreme Right of the political spectrum advocating xenophobia and racialism, and, on the extreme Left, the confiscation of all private property. One must discriminate.
The disadvantages of single issue groups are several. One has been referred to by both speakers who preceded me: namely, the propensity to devolve into violence. If a group believes strongly about a single issue, and feels frustrated, it feels entitled to have resort to violence. There are many examples upon which we can reflect today. If that is the worst, at best there is the persistent lobbying to which the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, referred and which has been reviewed with disfavour in the Nolan Report.
Military tacticians tell us to concentrate our forces. The single issue groups concentrating on a single issue are apt to obtain an inordinate influence—in other words, an influence in achieving objectives which are not really acceptable to the bulk of their fellow citizens. Finally, the single issue tempts politicians to shrimp for votes. The most notable example today is what happened during the Clinton campaign in America, where undoubtedly the shrimping for the homosexual vote has landed him in considerable trouble; and his shrimping for the Irish vote has not made our task of peacekeeping in Northern Ireland any easier.
So the question arises: how can we accommodate the single issue groups without the disadvantages? I can think of three ways. The first is proportional representation. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, will not be able to refrain from referring to that issue. I believe that it is the least favourable. The second is the commission of inquiry. The third is a matter the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, will remember that we glanced at when we debated the Swiss constitution—namely, the popular initiative which is also practised in 602 a number of American states where it lies quite happily alongside the two-party system, the first-past-the-post system, and the winner-takes-all system.
However, without irritating the noble Lord, Lord Holme, too much, perhaps I may state what I regard as the disadvantage of proportional representation. Proponents will claim that it enables the minority to be fairly represented. One person, one vote, one value is a very attractive cry. It is true that it is valuable up to the point of the returning officer. However, beyond that it is a distortion. Let us take the case of a small religious party, perhaps representing 2 per cent. of the electorate, holding the view very strongly and conscientiously that all public transport should be halted on the Sabbath. They are the necessary ingredients of a working coalition and their views on the matter are their price. What happens then is that 2 per cent. of Parliament impose their views on 98 per cent. of the electorate.
So I would much prefer to see single issues resolved in commissions of inquiry which can weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. Such commissions went out of fashion in the past decade because the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, liked to get things done. She regarded commissions of inquiry as holding things up rather than getting them done. But there is much scope for them in the field which the noble Lord has raised. I venture to commend commissions of inquiry in the context of this debate and the popular initiative which I hope other noble Lords will develop. I end as I began, by expressing gratitude to the noble Lord for initiating the debate.
§ 6.1 p.m.
Lord Belhaven and Stenton
My Lords, in all the speeches I have made in your Lordships' House I do not believe that I have ever followed such formidable speakers. I shall not completely follow what they said; a little variety in a debate does no harm. I am grateful to my noble kinsman Lord Birdwood and congratulate him on an erudite speech which I shall read with great interest tomorrow and which I heard with interest today.
As has already been said, the proliferation of special interest groups and their power to distort policy is not new. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, drew attention to it with the abolition of the slave trade and other matters in the past. That, of course, was wholly benevolent, but some of the special interest groups we have are nothing of the kind. A special interest group at present threatens to get out of hand and in many cases it menaces the very basis of our constitution. Members of another place with marginal majorities are particularly endangered by the kind of blackmail which the groups frequently use.
In this short debate, however, I shall confine myself to a few groups, most of them quite respectable, but in my view in certain cases they either go too far or they base their case on scant and distorted evidence and often on bogus statistics. No one would call the NSPCC a group whose interest is unimportant—though it is a single issue group —or whose aims are not respectable. But I would like to bring to your Lordships' attention a poster which the NSPCC recently sponsored and which was prominently displayed on nearly all the bus stops throughout central London. It states:One in eight persons who reads this notice was abused as a child".603 I have to ask your Lordships what mad statistician produced that drivel.
It is true that there is a lot of cruelty to children. There is also neglect, which in extreme forms can amount to cruelty. But we must keep a sense of proportion in these matters. No one can convince me that it is as widespread as the notice suggests, and the NSPCC does no one, including itself, a service by suggesting that it is. We have seen what happened in Cleveland and Orkney when that kind of thing gets wildly out of hand. Having seen that, some might conclude that no family in this country, however kindly and respectable, is safe from persecution. The NSPCC is not subscribed to by the public to put thousands of ordinary, decent families in a state of fear and anxiety.
Here I cannot avoid mentioning the report which came out yesterday in the newspapers, emanating from the charity Shelter, that one in four women is physically abused by her partner. I am well aware that there is another world out there. But that statement is so far-fetched and removed from my experience of all classes of society in the country that I find it incredible. That kind of wild exaggeration does damage to a perfectly good cause.
Leaving that, I come to a more controversial point: the huge and powerful anti-smoking lobby. It has a point of view which can be respected, but it uses statistics selectively and with the stagecraft of professional conjurors. All statistics or findings of researchers which suggest that smoking may not be as absolutely evil as the lobby suggests are brushed aside or savagely attacked.
The authorities in this country and throughout most of Europe and elsewhere have completely surrendered to those people. "Smoking kills", it says on my packet of tobacco. All I can say is that it has not killed Sir Denis Thatcher yet. He is nearly 80 and, according to the Sunday Telegraph, smokes 60 Benson and Hedges a day. I would not recommend that to anyone, but he does, or the Sunday Telegraph says he does. It took 101 years for smoking to kill Lord Shinwell, whom many of us remember with affection.
ASH and the anti-smoking lobby are a single pressure group and they ought to remember that. It is reasonable to discourage the young from taking up smoking, especially cigarettes, which is where most of the trouble originates. It is reasonable not to smoke near young babies, though I must observe here that, so far as I know, everyone smoked like a chimney round me when I was a young baby and I am still here.
It is right that we should not smoke near people who are allergic to tobacco smoke or who are otherwise affected by it, but the issue of secondary smoking is something that needs more attention than it has yet received. Again, the statistics are distorted, in my view, and used by the anti-smoking people because nothing suits them better than that.
Taken to extremes—and many of those people would go to extremes—our homes would be surveyed by anti-smoking police and our children, and maybe even our grandmothers, taken into care and we ourselves imprisoned. If that sounds extreme, I can only say that it is the logical conclusion of the ASH campaign.
604 I should also like seriously to make a plea to the BMA and those who manage our excellent hospitals. I myself was in two this year. In many hospitals today there is absolutely nowhere for a smoker to go. Apart from the inhumanity of that, I urge that it is not logical. On the one hand doctors say that tobacco is addictive and on the other they add considerably to the distress of sick people by attempting, by force, to cure them of their addiction at a time when they are helpless and often vulnerable. In my opinion that is cruel and inhuman and not what hospitals are supposed to be for.
What worries me is the current fashion of many groups who disapprove of some activity or other. It may be an activity of which many noble Lords would disapprove; I am not particularly fond of professional boxing and I spoke about it the other day. But people also campaign to have such activities banned because they do not like them. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, we are free to say and do as we like within the law. But so many of the single issue groups want to stop us doing that. They want to stop us doing what we like and what has been perfectly legal for hundreds of years.
We live in a strange, mixed up moral climate. On the one hand, there are groups who want to ban smoking, boxing, fox hunting, meat eating, cars and road building, drinking alcohol and many more activities which I cannot remember. On the other hand, there is an extreme tolerance of every form of sexual vice and many think too great a tolerance of many forms of crime. There are cases where the convicted criminal pays a very minimal penalty for his misdeeds. We have all noticed that.
In conclusion, I say to all these people, many of whom are worthy, and some of them less, so: remember prohibition in America. The more laws we pass, the more criminals we produce, and often, like the Mafia, real criminals, who are just waiting for something to be banned. We should have enough laws for the proper regulation of a civilised society, and no more.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Desai
My Lords, in introducing this topic, the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, made one or two remarks that deserve very careful attention. He asked whether or not single issue groups were in some sense democratic. We have already heard a good counter-argument from my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale; namely, that there have been single issue campaigns in the history of many democratic states that have achieved a lot of good. That is not to say that all single issue campaigns have achieved a lot of good, but a variety of examples have been given of single issue campaigns that have been successful.
At the risk of sounding partisan, I would add the example of the anti-poll tax (or, I should say, anti-community charge) campaign. That campaign was extra-parliamentary. Many people did not like what it did. But it achieved something quite revolutionary. Within a single Parliament an Act was passed and repealed. That would not have happened without a strong direct action campaign.
605 Obviously there are direct action campaigns that offend many people. Direct single issue campaigns attract people who, relative to others, feel very intensely about a topic. That intensity is, they feel, not quite captured in the ordinary voting process; in ordinary political parties there is somehow no one to reflect the intensity of their dislike or preference on a certain issue. Therefore they resort to a single issue campaign.
As my noble friend Lord Houghton pointed out, no single issue campaign can be successful unless it filters through the parliamentary process and gets into the legislative mainstream. Then it can win. Until it can achieve that within our democracy, it cannot be effective. Therefore we have to apply this maxim to a single issue campaign. However extreme the form in which it may start and conduct itself—it undoubtedly has to conduct itself within the law—eventually it can succeed only if it can convince enough parliamentarians of one or other political persuasion to take it on board; it needs to win a sufficient number of voters not only to reflect the views of a minority who feel intensely about it but to be seen as a general issue with which a large number of people are willing to go along.
To that extent, a single issue campaign is also an educational campaign. It makes us aware of matters that we did not think about before. The question of anti-slavery was mentioned. When the anti-slavery campaign began, slavery was thought to have the natural sanction of religion and to be a question of the right of private property. One can read that it was thought outrageous for someone to state that the slave trade should be banned. Many people said, "If we do not trade in slaves, other people will. So what good will it do Britain to abandon the slave trade?". First, people had to be convinced that the trade in slaves was not right, that it did not have any scriptural justification, or logic, or a humanitarian side. The campaign was not easy. However, it succeeded in educating people. The educational effect of single issue campaigns should not be forgotten. After the abolition of the trade in slaves, slavery itself had to be abolished. Sadly, it took the civil war, one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the United States, to bring that about. So single issue campaigns can occasionally be good. Occasionally, of course, they run into the ground.
The noble Lord made another important point; namely, whether in our present democracy certain sorts of power have gone away from the mainstream political arena, from the mainstream political parties and Parliament. There has been a drift away, on the one hand, to single issue groups which have an intensity of feeling and, on the other hand, to the media, and especially to certain people who determine programme making. We have to ask whether that particular combination—a meeting, as it were, of minds and hearts across a crowded room—is more of a danger sign than anything else.
In the past any campaign that had to be waged had physically to win a sizeable number of people on to its side. The anti-Corn Law campaign was mentioned. Cobden and Bright had to travel up and down the country arguing the case for Corn Law repeal. They had to build up a large coalition which had sufficient coverage across the country for it to command attention. Society is now so 606 fragmented that very often people sit in their own private homes rather than attend public meetings. Indeed, politicians hardly address public meetings any more. It is all a matter of soundbites, television and so on. Is it the case that today one could mount a single issue campaign and, without making any great effort to recruit numbers of people, by the sheer manipulation of television change public opinion?
That is a very important question. It raises issues about the quality, the depth and the strength of political democracy. If that could happen—I do not know of an example but I am ready to be corrected—it could be an extremely dangerous sign. It would indicate that a very small minority, because of the reach that they have through technology, can extend to people the illusion that the matter is one of public outrage when there is no public outrage at all. It would mean that they could manufacture public outrage. The noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, was accused of stirring up apathy before the 1979 election. The headlines stir up scandal when there is no scandal whatsoever.
It might be possible for a combination of television and newspapers—they involve very clever people who know how to affect public opinion—to make a serious inroad so that a reluctant Parliament is driven to passing a law. My noble friend Lord Houghton has justice on his side when he says that that is perhaps what happened in the campaign against dangerous dogs. If that were to become a more frequent occurrence, we should be seriously worried. It would mean that it is not enough for a single issue campaign merely to educate people and win them over and then have recourse to the parliamentary process. The parliamentary process must also be robust enough to be able to stop such a campaign, no matter how intense or popular, and discern, regardless of the noise and the support, that it is a minority campaign and that, as a minority issue, it does not have the broad-based support that should be necessary for any such campaign to command legislative approval.
That would mean that all political parties in this country would need to be aware that the danger of media manipulation is very serious. We must be very careful; it is not just a matter of cross-ownership. Ownership is not the only problem. The problem is that very often there seems to be a Gaderene force in the media and everybody jumps on the bandwagon, afraid that other newspapers might win readers and they will be left behind. It is that kind of thing to which we are most in danger of succumbing. In pointing out that danger to us, the noble Lord has made a very significant contribution.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I want very much to support the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, in what I felt was a most thoughtful and penetrating analysis of this issue. What he said about power draining away from our traditional political institutions is at the heart of the matter. It is happening. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, there are various reasons for that. He mentioned one: the growing power of the press, perhaps without any concomitant growing responsibility. I shall come back to that point in a moment.
607 For now I shall confine myself to the subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, which is the rise of single issue groups. I believe that too to be a matter of fundamental importance, because we may be moving by that route imperceptibly, as the noble Lord said, from representative parliamentary democracy of a kind with which we are all familiar to something quite different. We should try to understand what that "something quite different" might be.
In our form of representative democracy, governments are elected on integrated, interactive and inter-related programmes, not on single issues. The difference with single issue politics is that they tend to ignore collateral effects. Single issues are pursued energetically and vigorously, very often without too much account being taken of the long-term economic and social implications of what is being proposed.
As other noble Lords have said, single issue groups are perfectly admissible in a democratic society. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, in a democratic society the right of the citizen to object openly to and seek to change laws which can be changed and which he (or she) regards as objectionable is long established. A typical example and one that we have seen a great deal on television recently is the protest against exports of live animals, by people who seriously believe that that is cruel. Here again, few would disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that to civilised susceptibilities the offence of cruelty to animals has been recognised since Biblical days. Indeed, as the great German philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, put it:Violent and cruel treatment of animals is intimately opposed to man's duty to himself'.That people should seek to change laws to which they object and which seem to permit that kind of cruelty is understandable and admissible.
But having said that, we now have to contemplate and confront the dangerous implications of single issue politics. We have heard of the good that they can do and there are many examples of it. But we must also, as the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, hinted, begin to contemplate some of the dangerous implications.
As we all know, in a democratic society there is an obligation to observe existing laws so long as those laws are democratically made, impartially administered, properly enforced and—this is the important factor—are capable of being changed or replaced by democratic means. That is where the key to the matter lies. It is self-evidently true that in the society of this country all those criteria are met: our laws are democratically made; they are impartially administered; they are properly enforced; and they are capable of being changed by the democratic process.
But it is very evident to me that many single issue groups operating in this country at the moment do not accept that essential principle of a democratic civic order. They are prepared to break the law, to trespass and to steal in pursuit of their political aims. As we heard, some are prepared to use deliberate, planned violence against property and people.
Plato in his famous Republic said that when people do that, they become hardly better than animals themselves. That may perhaps be pitching it a little strongly. But I believe that it is not too extreme to say that the use of 608 violence in the pursuit of political ends—which is characteristic of many single issue groups—is a form of terrorism. It is terrorism, whether its practitioners are members of the Red Brigade, Greenpeace, the animal rights movement or anyone else. If, in the pursuit of political aims, in a society where change can be made democratically, they are prepared to use violence to obtain their ends, it is not extreme to call that a form of terrorism.
The use of force—violence—in pursuit of those political aims is not the only political problem. It is an important one; but we must also bear in mind—this has already been mentioned in the course of this most interesting debate—the phenomenon of infiltration and exploitation of single issue groups by political extremists who have nothing to do with the single issue at all. That is the technique of "entryism", which is familiar to any student of political science. There is little doubt that such familiar single issue groups as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and various animal rights movements have been and are being exploited by people whose agenda has little to do with anything that is contained in the agenda of those groups. Certainly it has nothing to do with preserving the environment or the rights of animals.
I suppose that a classic example of entryism in the days of the Cold War surrounded the activities of the prototype single issue group the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which was systematically exploited by the other side, as it then was in the Cold War, who regarded CND as "useful idiots"—to use the famous communist expression—to be exploited for its own ends.
Finally, just for a moment we must return to the point mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Birdwood and Lord Houghton, and, perhaps most forcefully, by the noble Lord, Lord Desai; namely, the symbiosis that seems to be emerging between single issue groups, especially the more violent ones, and the press. That is a real phenomenon. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, wondered whether that was indeed what was happening. Those of us who follow such matters closely have no doubt that there is a serious alliance—a symbiosis—between practitioners of violence, especially in the pursuit of political ends, and the media.
Protest, demonstrations and violent clashes with the police make good television and good copy and will be used for that purpose. A group occupying an airfield—"occupying" as they call it—throwing stones at the police, burning flags and smashing windows, can usually rely on the presence of a television camera somewhere and on the certainty that their activities will be reported in the news bulletin that evening. I suppose that that is and will be justified by the producers of programmes and the writers of copy in the newspapers as being in the public interest. Often that may be a justifiable claim. But there is also little doubt that some of those happenings which appear on our news programmes take place only because the cameras are there to record them. Had the cameras not been there, nothing would have happened.
This is a complex subject. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said, it is not one that we can exhaust in a short debate of this kind. As I said, I feel that most of us would agree that single issue politics are an essential element of a free democratic society. But their impact is growing, the 609 abuse of their freedom to protest is growing, and there is a change in the nature of the democratic process brought about, as we seem mostly to be agreed, by a kind of symbiosis between that kind of movement and the activities and responsibilities of the press. The worst outcome of this kind of process, if it were to continue unchecked and if we did not understand it, is that society will eventually become ungovernable and, as the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, said, we shall slide into a form of anarchy. I do not believe that we are anywhere near that point at the moment. But noble Lords need only to read the headlines in the latest edition of today's Evening Standard to realise that at least we should be aware of the dangers.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Moyne
My Lords, I too am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Birdwood for introducing this debate, which deals with one of the most important half-hidden issues in our society. I am not sure that I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, though I agree with him on most things. But I have the feeling that the symbiosis between single issue groups and television, which causes violence to appear on television, is as likely to frighten members of the public as impress them. The danger from that source of anarchy is therefore perhaps less than he implies.
In the country of the apolitical, the one-issue man is king. Or, to put it as my noble friend almost did, mainstream politics have become comparatively boring; one issue politics are inherently entertaining, which is why the media like them. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is right. There have always been single-issue groups and they have done a great deal of good. Without them we should still have slavery and child labour. But we must remember also, and it has been mentioned, the fact of prohibition in the United States, which is the origin of the frightening power of gangsterism and the Mafia. It started with a small politically motivated group—I believe I quote the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, in that—who banned drink from the United States, which was something 99 per cent. of the population was against. It had the most disastrous effect.
On the question of the comparative fading of interest in mainstream politics, there is an interesting quotation from Eric Hobsbawm, the communist historian, in his recent book, The Age of Extremes, which states:The decline of the organised mass parties, class based, ideological or both, has eliminated the major social engine for turning men and women into politically active citizens".There is something in that. But the proliferation of single issues has replaced throughout Europe—in fact throughout the democracies as my noble friend said—that mechanism. Today in the Daily Telegraph there is an item saying that hunt saboteurs in Germany have been sawing through the hides used by shooters of deer. They have caused at least 10 people to break their legs falling out of the hides, which is most unfortunate. I was slightly happier to see that one of the saboteurs sawed a little too enthusiastically and killed himself—serves him right!
610 There is a whole family of modern single-issue campaigns and I see it as having two parents. The mother of the family is the campaign against capital punishment in the 1940s and 1950s. I remember the pictures, which were rather moving, of Mrs. Van der Elst sitting outside the prison where there was to be an execution. She seemed to be a crank. In my view—I suppose I am in a small minority—she was a crank. But the laugh was on those of us who thought that. Capital punishment was abolished, since when 80 people have been murdered by criminals who, before abolition, would not have existed because they would have been executed. That was a successful campaign; the mother of this family.
The father of the single-issue family was the campaign—thank goodness it failed—for unilateral nuclear disarmament. It failed because of the commonsense of most members of the public who saw that some, though by no means all, of the leaders of that campaign were primarily aiming for Soviet victory in the Cold War and were using others as "useful idiots" in the same way that Willy Munzenberg and his team used to do in the 1930s on other issues. I remember sitting in an Underground train in the early 1960s minding my own business. It was late at night and the only other two people in the carriage were a young man and a young woman covered in CND badges. The woman said to the man, "If the Russians are so peaceloving, why do they have missiles in Cuba?" The man was rather lost for a reply, but it certainly cheered me up to hear her say that. I did not intervene.
Before I deal with the family of issues, I must make the point that so often the Government stumble after these people in inept caricatures of the original campaigners, appointing quangos, implementing stale research, forcing the tobacco advertisers to cry "Stinking fish!", and so forth. The Government try but perhaps they should not try so hard. Several issues arise in the family. There are the social issues—feminism, race relations and homosexual rights. In almost every case the single-issue people have won. In the case of feminism we shall see the amusing sight of half of all Labour candidates having to be women. I happen to know that that is already causing trouble in the grass roots of that party and we shall see what happens in the next Parliament when the intake has been effected in that way. It is genuinely interesting, but I wonder whether it will do the Labour Party all that much good. We see the appointment of women priests and the introduction of politically correct liturgy into the Church of England and the Equal Opportunities Commission, which in my view exemplifies the culture of the whine.
Race relations has won also—thank goodness! But again it encourages a certain amount of litigation which is perhaps unnecessary. The issue of homosexual rights has won. However, it seems that the victors are not content with having won equality before the law—other than the age of consent, which is a detail; they seem to want to concentrate on looking into the private lives of bishops, which I suppose gives all of us a little instant amusement but is not really something to be encouraged.
Besides the social issues there are the environmental issues. They are mostly good causes. For instance, there is the rainforest and, protests against motorways and airports, which are sometimes right and sometimes 611 wrong. Just because somebody does not want something in his backyard, does not necessarily mean that it should not be there. Unfortunately, in that regard the Government have stepped in in a slightly clumsy way in introducing their Cones Hotline. That was perhaps as absurd an example of trying to be with it as one can imagine. It is rather amiable, but absurd.
We have issues of air pollution, the ozone layer and lead in petrol. The anti-smoking campaign was mentioned, and the viciousness of it. I completely agree. It cannot be true that passive smoking, as it is called, causes the deaths that it is said to cause. That simply is not possible. The statistics saying that it happens must be rigged. I am not a statistician but I hope that I have a certain amount of common sense.
There is also the question of the preservation of buildings. I wish that the authorities in this matter were not so aesthetically blind as they are in the way that they list things without any apparent regard to whether they are attractive to look at. A block in Hampstead has been listed which is perfectly hideous. If the period is bad, why preserve what is typical of that bad period?
There are also the humanitarian campaigns and the anti-fur trade, anti-hunting and the save the whale campaigns. I think that hunting probably will be abolished because I calculate that there is now a fairly substantial majority in the House of Commons to abolish it. There are also the national campaigns. Northern Ireland is one great area dominated by a single issue for years. We hope that in future it may become less so dominated.
I must finish now. This issue will not go away. The media grow in power, politics grows in dullness and the single issue people certainly do not lose in shrillness.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for initiating the debate. I share the interest in his speech but I do not share his anxieties. I do not know whether anyone else is in my position, but I think that all these new anxieties are rather childish. We talk as if there are new dangers from single issues. The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, about capital punishment showed an extraordinary ignorance of the history of the subject in this country. I agreed with him on one point. He said that when there is violence on television it does not do the violent people any good. If we asked Mr. Blair and whoever runs the Conservative campaign these days whether violence helped them, they would say that it certainly did not help the people who were revealed as violent. I think that all this anxiety is very much overdone.
I must pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I do not agree with his message on all occasions but I never fail to admire the messenger. There was a phrase used by a famous Roman emperor, stupor mundi, meaning a wonder of the world. In my eyes, the noble Lord will always be that.
Coming back to the subject of the debate, I suppose that I have introduced more new topics into this House over the past 40 years than anyone else. One could call some of them single issues or some of them not. I shall mention only five of them. Noble Lords may or may not call them 612 single issues. I opened a debate on prisons some 40 years ago. Is that what one would call a single issue? I opened the first debate on criminal injuries compensation in 1964. Is that what one would call a single issue? It is just a matter of opinion. Is pornography a single issue? Are the polytechnics a single issue? Are traditional family values a single issue? To me, the phrase is not a very meaningful one. I am sorry to be somewhat waspish but one must speak one's mind.
When one discusses these questions one is bound to be influenced by one's own experience. I would not say that I have in mind only debates in this House. Before the war, when I was a Labour councillor in Oxford, having recently joined the Labour Party, I took the chair for Harry Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party, and we campaigned away about the Spanish Civil War. I took the chair for the Dean of Canterbury, who claimed that wages in the Soviet Union were going up, up, up and prices were coming down, down, down. I do not know whether one would call those single issues, or what one would call them. Those are campaigns in which I have been involved at different times.
Taking some of the issues in which I have been involved, when I mention pornography I defer at once to the great name of Mary Whitehouse, who took up the campaign against pornography several years before I did and has carried it on ever since. It may be said that the situation with regard to pornography is no better or worse than it was 25 years ago, but it would certainly have been a great deal worse had it not been for the heroic Mary Whitehouse. When we struggle on in these debates and we take up these issues we do not know whether we are going to win or lose or what is victory or defeat. Nevertheless, we carry on.
I have been called a "Lord of Lost Causes" by a trendy critic somewhere. Some of these issues were not irretrievably lost and indeed the arguments have often prevailed. When I took up the cause of Germany it was considered to be very odd indeed—preaching forgiveness of the Germans. People tried to do the opposite for a few years after the war. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has fought for many of these causes. Some have succeeded and some have not.
Perhaps I may mention one cause where in a small way I appear on paper to have been successful. I was the first person to raise in this House the polytechnics. At the end of that debate, which took place in 1989, I said that the Minister had made a disappointing reply. However, three years later, hey presto, it was game, set and match to the polytechnics. They became universities. I am not for a moment being so stupid as to suggest that I did it, but I took up that issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has taken up his issues and others have taken up their issues, and in that case I happened to succeed. So it goes on.
I cannot see any harm in these endeavours. I am talking of issues which I took up on my own initiative, though in the case of criminal injuries I had been chairman of a committee of justice of the Legal Society. If one considers issues which are raised by large groups, I cannot see that they can possibly do any harm. Returning to what the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, said earlier, Mr. Blair and Mr. Major were not upset by these issues in the local elections. 613 They were not "the" issues and they will not be at the next general election. I think that all this anxiety is rather misplaced.
One of the greatest changes of my lifetime was the coming of the welfare state. I do not think one could call that a single issue because so many people played a part in it over so many years. The emancipation of women is surely the biggest change in my lifetime. Various methods were adopted. There was a certain amount of violence and so on. At any rate, that prevailed. I do not know whether that is called a single issue. There was emancipation of women for the House of Commons, but it took more than 40 years to emancipate them here. We know what a struggle that has always been. Whether or not they are called single issues, they are campaigns, and I would say that they have been the lifeblood of democracy.
People in this House make their contributions in various ways. They make them in different ways. Some play a big part as official spokesmen for one Front Bench or another. Others do a great deal of hard work at the Committee stage of Bills. Others work in committees downstairs. I shall always personally feel that there is a tremendous part to be played in your Lordships' House for those who take up causes that are discussed here for the first time or causes that have never been properly discussed elsewhere. If they were discouraged in any way, this House would lose a vital part of its soul.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for introducing the debate. During the course of his remarks he mentioned a phone-in. I have to confess to him that they should be treated with a little caution. When I was Chief Whip of the Labour Party in another place I had a little team on tap to attend to such matters from time to time, as and when required.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, about the value of pressure groups in the old meaning of the term, but I would go along with the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, when he mentioned the zealots who carry things to extremes. We had an example of that not long ago in your Lordships' House when we considered the Bill relating to the sale of tobacco to young children. To our shame, we endorsed the sending of young, under-age children into tobacconists to see whether they could buy packets of cigarettes while an official lurked outside to see whether he could make a cop. I believe that using children for that purpose, however zealous those middle-class children may be, is going beyond the bounds of proper pressure.
The noble Lords, Lord Chalfont and Lord Moyne, mentioned the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I have another confession to make to the House: at one time, I was a member of CND. Both noble Lords mentioned the phrase "useful idiots". Your Lordships will have no problem applying the word "idiot", but I am not so sure whether you endorse the word "useful". When I first joined CND and tried to canvass support for it, people would say, "Whatever other countries do, we should retain our nuclear weapons". By the time that I finally left the movement, the consensus was that if other people got 614 rid of their nuclear weapons, that was okay for us too. So there was a perceptible change and I believe that much of it was due to the work of CND.
My noble friend Lord Desai mentioned two groups: the very intense groups and the media-related groups. The groups that concern me most are those which combine those two categories. There are now a number of pressure groups which concern themselves with constitutional issues. An examination of such groups shows that the same names crop up in one group and another, as do the same sources of funds and information about individual donations.
That fact was reinforced for me today when, browsing through the New Statesman in the Library, I came across an article describing the formation of a new group, the Labour Initiative on Cooperation (Linc), which is aimed at forging an anti-Tory alliance. The article states:Many of Linc's supporters are old hands from Charter 88 and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform".That is the sort of stage army which concerns me.
In fact, I have raised the subject of Charter 88 in the House previously. As early as 2nd November 1994, at col. 844 of the Official Report, when discussing the current report of the Liaison Committee, I wondered whether one of its suggestions had not been inspired by Charter 88. I went on to say that while there was much concern in another place about lobbying for commercial reasons, I thought that an even more insidious form of lobbying was taking place through the activities of Charter 88 and others. I cited some of the things that Charter 88 had published about the ways in which Parliament could be influenced. I also said that I could hardly recognise this country from Charter 88's description of it in some of its literature. We are supposed to be virtually a police state where one cannot find out anything.
Your Lordships may have noticed over the months a constant dripping of articles and letters in what are known as the "quality papers", mainly written by the same sort of stage army. Such letters come from that source rather than from independent members of the public or independent journalists. I believe that that group and others are in collusion with the quality press because the outstanding fact is that the only advertisement for Charter 88 which I have been able to trace in a tabloid newspaper is one insertion in Today. There has never been anything in the Mirror, Sun or any other popular tabloid newspaper. We are talking about an intellectual élite. Not content with trying to influence policies, Charter 88 is now beginning to pick on the Nolan Committee to pursue its aims, using it as a stalking horse.
There was a lull in those activities. It coincided with the period of the VE Day celebrations. I think that that was sensible because if such activities had continued at that time—if Charter 88 had continued to portray this country in the terms in which it likes to refer to it—its members would probably have been lynched by the many people in this country who were celebrating VE Day and remembering those who had given their lives in the service of this country.
Not content with trying to influence this country, Charter 88 has made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. I am old-fashioned enough to think that one does not criticise one's country abroad, 615 whatever one may think of the particular government in power. However, Charter 88 has published a commentary on the Third Periodic Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. I shall not weary the House with it, except to cite one point. Page 15 deals with self-determination for Scotland and Wales and states that the Scottish referendum produced a clear majority in favour of devolution. However, it then states:A Scottish Assembly was not, however, created because the British government had attached a proviso to the referendum that devolution would only occur if 40 per cent. of the total electorate voted in favour".It is hard to imagine a greater travesty of what happened. I was in the unsatisfactory position of being the Government Chief Whip who was defeated on the Floor of the House by that amendment which was inserted against the wishes of the Government. I can hardly believe that those words have crept through and been sent to the United Nations as a true picture of what happened. It is a disgrace.
The chattering classes are trying to implement changes without any real support from the public. A written constitution is no real guarantee. On 11th August 1919, the German Republic adopted a constitution, of which Article 135 in Section III states:All inhabitants of the Reich enjoy full liberty of faith and of conscience. The undisturbed practice of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and is under State protection".I hardly think that the state gave a great deal of protection to the Jewish population. The written constitution did not protect the Romany gypsies who were slaughtered or the mentally handicapped and the mentally disturbed who suffered the same fate. A written constitution is no automatic panacea.
I believe that the constant working up of grievances, with the constant suggestion that legal action through the courts is the way to achieve happiness for our population, is a lot of nonsense. I ask such groups to ask themselves whether, if all their wishes were brought into being, the general populace would be happier or less happy than before.
I am concerned about the growth in litigation. It is following the pattern of the United States. I have spoken about it previously in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may give one last example of where we are going. I recently attended the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where I received very good attention and had satisfactory results from the tests on my eyes. I was told, "Come back in a couple of months' time so that we can make sure", and was given an appointment card. When I turned the card over, what did I find? An advertisement read:Had an accident? Road accident, accident at work, tripped on the pavement? You may be entitled to compensation. Home & hospital visits arranged. Legal aid available"—I stress that it does not state that legal aid "may" be available, giving various caveats. No, it states, "Legal aid available", meaning, "Come along and help yourself. The advertisement also reads:Solicitors specialising in injury claims. First interview free. David Levene & Co, Solicitors".It then gave a freephone number, suggesting 24-hour service.
616 When we get to that, and when people (possibly not fortunate like myself but in a reduced and weakened state because of, say, bad news) are given appointment cards carrying such advertisements, where are we going as a society? We must address such issues, otherwise the whole quality of our life will be destroyed.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject and some of his own original and perceptive observations. He and one or two other noble Lords seemed, in a way, to want to make our flesh creep. They want to find special interest groups under the bed and worry us that that is a bad thing for the quality of our democracy. On the whole, I do not agree with that analysis. Of course there are some matters of concern to which I shall revert later, but I am by no means convinced by the general case against the role of special interest groups and pressure groups; in our society. On the whole, I find the reverse.
Civil society depends upon a combination of pluralism and participation, and a democratically elected Parliament, although a necessary condition of progress and civic involvement, is not, in itself, a sufficient condition. We need a host of intermediate institutions and associations of one sort or another. That is what does not exist in totalitarian societies. The Czech Republic, Hungary and all the countries that have emerged from the scourge of the totalitarian years are suffering from the fact that they do not have civic pressure groups and organisations to enrich the fabric of society and progressive debate.
In a post-paternalist era, which is the one in which we live, as parliamentarians we probably have to accept that there will be many other sources of impetus and origination in society than those represented by Members of Parliament.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I have to declare what they call in police courts "past form". I have form. I am a former single interest person. I used to run something called the National Committee for Electoral Reform, the Campaign for Fair Votes, and the Rights Campaign, and—I hardly dare admit this after the words so forcefully expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks—I was the original founding co-chairman of Charter 88. I say that nervously in case he is going to leap across the Benches and throttle me after what he said. But there it is; it is on the record.
I am part of the sinister intellectual conspiracy. I must say that I prefer arguments advanced by intellectual means to those advanced by the direct action to which most of your Lordships have referred and deplored. I prefer people to engage in debate. Luckily, the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, does not, in that respect, speak for the party of which he is a member. I remember well the most moving occasion when the late John Smith delivered his lecture at Charter 88, supporting the aims of Charter 88. I remember Gordon Brown's lecture to Charter 88.
I have watched with great pleasure the Labour Party's conversion to many of the issues of constitutional reform which the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, seems to deplore, and 617 which—admitting my form—I have to say has been so far unsuccessful. In a way we are winning the argument. I do not believe that the noble Lord would have been so vehement if he had not felt that the argument was slipping away from him, but I accept that we have not yet won a parliamentary majority. Perhaps one day, not too far delayed, we shall.
When it comes to issues of public policy and decision-making and the activities of special interest groups of one sort or another, where does the balance of public interest lie, because there is no doubt that Whitehall and Westminster are the targets of such groups? Again, I do not believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that. Indeed, in some Green and White Papers and some Bills, the Government themselves, and the relevant government departments, go out of their way to consult the various interest groups which they believe have a contribution to make. Where, over the years, would the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have been without the NFU? Nowadays the Department of the Environment extensively consults environmental interest groups of one sort or another.
As for Parliament itself, I sometimes think that the help being given to the legislators in terms of research, arguments and even drafting, is so extensive that were Hansard to start giving credits, as do theatre programmes, instead of "Cigarettes by Abdulla" we should be reading in Hansard, "Amendment No. 17 by Amnesiac Action" or whatever was the name of the special interest group. Noble Lords know that to be the case. In fact, if noble Lords look around they sometimes see, peeping coyly from the notes of Members of your Lordships' House, briefs that come from precisely those groups that provide the statistics and arguments which noble Lords feel free to use.
It is interesting to speculate as to why such a dependence has grown up between the legislators and people who form organised pressure groups. One of the reasons is that individual Back-Benchers of all parties, and perhaps particularly the Opposition Benches, do not have the wonderful machine of Whitehall burning the midnight oil preparing the briefs and argumentation for Ministers. So noble Lords are inclined to take that alternative source of research rather gratefully when it is handed to them, and understandably they use it.
I have even wondered whether there was not some subconscious wish in an unrepresentative Chamber like your Lordships' House to represent someone. It may be what the Bishop of Edinburgh would call a representative gene trying to get out in all of us; trying to find someone whose views we could represent. There is no doubt that there is a symbiotic relationship now between many legislators and those interest groups.
The question has arisen of what we can do to ensure that Parliament itself is more responsive. I believe that there is a case for extending the principle of the Short money to provide, not general party propaganda money and not even the financing of parties by the state, but better research facilities for opposition parties and members.
There is then the question of proportional representation. I am very distressed that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, should think that 618 I could possibly be irritated by any contribution that he might make in the House. He knows me well enough to be aware that any opportunity to speak about proportional representation is one which, far from being irritated about, I shall grasp avidly. I had intended to refer to the subject only briefly, but I shall now have to say one or two words more.
The great merit of a fair voting system is not just the obvious one of proportionality between parties, because that argument has been well rehearsed. There are other issues. There is the issue that countries with a proportional representation system tend to have a greater variety and diversity of members. Countries with proportional representation systems have more women members. That applies even in countries which are much less socially progressive than our own on the question of a woman's role in society.
Proportional representation systems mean that every vote helps elect someone. That means that one produces a higher level of ownership in the Parliament that ensues on the part of the electorate. It is one of the perverse effects of our system that most people get neither the Government nor, indeed, the Member of Parliament they want. If we had a system in which every vote helped elect someone, the connection between Parliament and the electorate might be strengthened; parties might become slightly less blunt instruments of popular representation.
I suppose when one has an overwhelmingly strong special interest group, such as the Euro-sceptics in the party opposite, it might even, with a proportional representation system, find it worthwhile to go off and found a party of its own instead of immobilising the Government of this country.
Finally, I should like to refer to the question about which several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, have spoken. There is no doubt that there is a potentially malign interaction between the media and so-called direct action. I believe that direct action is no more than a euphemism for abuse and violence. It should not be idealised in the way that it is. Of course there is an honourable tradition of protest, and we have a right of free assembly in this country, but direct action, so-called, has one aim, and one aim only. It is by producing a display to be picked up by the media, when it becomes a form of theatre.
There is a duty on the media to do two things when direct action is involved. First, in all instances in which the direct action purports to want to change the law, to try to assess how representative is the feeling being put forward. Does it genuinely affect most people? Does it genuinely spring from some manifestation of popular opinion? We are entitled to ask the media to make that assessment—that includes the BBC and the broadcasting authorities—when they are reporting on issues of public policy. The second is a plea to producers to try to follow the issue and not the drama; otherwise, the whole agenda is taken away and seduced by people who wish to follow the anti-democratic route.
619 I believe that this is the first full debate to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, has replied. I wish her well on her debut and congratulate her on having chosen such an interesting subject on which to wind up.
§ 7 11 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for initiating the debate. It has been extremely interesting, fascinating and controversial. At times I wondered whether I was a danger to the state. I wished that I had the opportunity to respond to some of the comments, in particular those made by the noble Lord, Lord Moyne. I appear to be participating in all the things that he dislikes so much.
The pattern of single issue groups and pressure groups, protest groups and so forth whose role is to try to move government policy to their view, is one of bewildering profusion and overlap and is too varied for simple classification. As was said by my noble friend Lord Longford, what actually is a single issue group?
Their complexity, function and activities, and in particular their influence with the media, requires further debate. Such groups cover almost every issue that it is possible to cover. Many have been discussed today, including economic interests, social causes, environmental issues and dangerous dogs. Most of the groups have aims that can be met within the political system and not outside it. Of course, there are those which are more concerned to affirm their cause and to assert their rejection of the system than to compromise in the hope of making at least a little progress towards their long-term objectives.
However, we must be careful not to confuse any of those groups with the quasi-religious cults and militia groups which catch the headlines—and the media like the sensations that they cause—by committing some major acts of violence. That was the case in the Spectator article which I too read. Some people have a tendency to be alienated and withdrawn from society. They rarely if ever involve themselves in the mechanics of change, persuasion and reform. But the vast majority of single issue groups are law-abiding and work through the accepted methods of protest.
Unfortunately, there are occasions when violence flares up and when individuals lose control of their emotions and anger. There are occasions when violent elements latch on to otherwise peaceful activities. The psychology of violence and the reasons which move people to violent action in the name of a cause is a subject of fundamental interest. What drives otherwise non-violent people to such passion that their sense of right and wrong causes them to commit violence against another human being or against the state?
The violence against doctors and women perpetrated by anti-abortionists in the United States is an illustration of the over-reaction to an emotive cause. We must be grateful that such mindless violence is not a feature of our campaigning in this country. However, today I began to feel that perhaps I have missed out somewhere. Controversy will continue—it is a condition of progress—but not without democratic participation.
There is therefore a duty—a responsibility—which those of us who rightly condemn mindless, indiscriminate violence have; that is, to see that the 620 democratic process remains open and receptive to new ideas and confident to allow freedom of assembly, organisation and demonstration.
The use of legitimate pressure to effect change in our society is not a new phenomenon. Over the centuries, like-minded people have banded together to alleviate injustice, perceived or real, and have striven for a cause as a means of influencing government decisions. In the 18th century the growth of humanitarianism and the spread of Rousseau's doctrine led to the early promotional groups such as the anti-slavery movement, which was led by Wilberforce. As was pointed out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friend Lord Desai, that was a single issue group which in 1807 succeeded in persuading the Government to introduce legislation to abolish slavery.
The Suffragettes—my noble friend Lord Longford had doubts about whether it was a single issue: group, but it was—chained themselves to the railings in their demand for universal suffrage. And the Diggers attempted to take over St. George's Hill in Surrey for the people. Since the 1920s and 1930s, groups have fought for rural amenities and have opposed urban development. Today the motorway protesters build treehouses in an attempt to preserve the countryside from motorways.
We must also consider the genesis of what might be seen as respectable groups. The genesis of Shelter, which is now an influential and respected single issue group, was the informal squatters' movement of ex-servicemen and their families in the early 1950s. Many of the important political and social changes of this century have been caused, or at least accelerated, by protest or issue groups.
As we became a nation of consumers enjoying rising living standards, better education and more leisure, we became more self-confident and critical of the services provided and the society in which we lived. More people came to understand the value of participation. Since the 1950s and 1960s we have seen the growth of what might be termed in the broadest sense "community politics" and the mushrooming of single issue groups.
In addition to being an activist in my political party, like my noble friend Lord Houghton and other noble Lords I have participated in many such groups and continue to do so today. I shall not list them all but wish to mention only one; that is the Campaign Against Domestic Violence. I shall not take up the challenge offered by the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, in regard to the degree of violence against women. However, I believe that such a debate may be useful.
As regards the individual, the political institutions were and still are remote. But as part of a collective voice, a communal endeavour, they are more likely to be heard. Many single issue groups do not need to campaign; they already have the ear of government. That raises the question: should single interest groups have such direct access to government?
These groups have now become an integral part of our democratic process. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, government and policy makers of all kinds do not make policy in a vacuum. They are informed and advised not only by officials but by the people who are knowledgeable and committed to the issue. Back-Benchers, whether in the other place or in this 621 House, also draw on that expertise in order to be able to scrutinise and amend legislation. We all receive or commission briefings from a wide range of such organisations.
The noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, was only partially correct in saying that the engine of legislation has been affected by this activity in every democracy in the world. In the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, as identified by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, such groups are in their infancy and will be a necessary part of the future development of those countries. However, in this country we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg compared with, for instance, the United States. It is estimated that 30,000 interest groups are registered in Washington and that a similar number are registered in the various states. That raises the question of whether there should be registration in this country.
It has been suggested that the enormous influence exerted by these groups in the United States of America is a factor in the low percentage turnout at American elections. If that is so, does it mean that electors decide that their interests are better served by such groups than by the electoral process as it is today? That again raises for me the fundamental question of the future of our democratic structures.
But I put a different emphasis on it from that of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, because at the same time as there has been an increase in the influence of organised single issue groups, we have also seen an increase in the level of legislation enacted—some of it very complex—accompanied by the circle of decision-making being concentrated in the centre. The Executive has become immensely powerful; Parliament easily overwhelmed.
The ability of the ordinary citizen to challenge the Executive is tightly limited. Other institutions of Government to whom the electorate relate, notably local government, have been hugely curtailed. Much of British institutional life has become increasingly dominated by government appointees, undemocratic quangos, and centralised prescription. Decision-making has become even further removed from public scrutiny and local democratic action.
The Government's effort to overcome this problem by the introduction of the Citizen's Charter has to be applauded, but has the main thrust of the charter to remove secrecy and to deliver open and accountable government been achieved? I paraphrase the words of the Consumers' Association, the acknowledged interest group on behalf of consumers, when it says that it is not possible to move from secrecy to openness without the essential underpinning of a freedom of information Act.
Helping people to organise and speak for themselves is an essential part of government, but in order to do that effectively, it requires that they know the decisions that have been taken in their name and the reasons that those decisions were taken—a factor that will become even more important in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, referred to Internet. It may seem to be a fantasy, but with the ever-increasing developments in new technology, we might before too 622 long not be debating the role and influence of single issue groups but the concepts and consequences of direct democracy and press button decision-making.
The development of the information superhighway will bring new interactive methods of communication which have the potential to transform the development of public services, ease the access of the interest groups, including the intellectual elite that my noble friend Lord Cocks referred to, and radically to change our democratic processes. They will not then require the media. They will have other means of access.
The superhighway will increase citizen participation in decision-making and contribute to the development of a more open society. Government itself will become more accessible and new forces will pull our politics in a more intensely global direction. That is the future, the near future, but for the present, within our democratic system, citizens' protests and enthusiasm for particular causes will remain as a vital part of our democratic process. If we want to preserve and enhance our democracy, we should welcome their input, not only as individuals, but also through the voluntary, single issue groups.
A new-style partnership between a truly open government and an informed electorate would be a fruitful one. Conflict would not be eliminated, but people would feel that their voices are being heard and that they are truly participating in making the decisions that affect all their lives.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, may I first thank my noble friend Lord Birdwood for having introduced this most interesting and very timely debate and also those of your Lordships who have contributed to it. What a privilege for me, in my first reply to a debate, to follow so many distinguished speakers, and in particular what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, with her thoughtful speech. The noble Baroness and myself were both elevated to your Lordships' House in the same Honours List. We share many interests as well.
As I have told your Lordships on previous occasions when I have declared an interest, I have been involved with two such groups myself, including the 300 Group, an all-party organisation dedicated to getting more women into the other place. Its campaign was and is long term, with objectives extending over 25 years. It was not just some flash in the media pan. It has succeeded in increasing the number of women Members of Parliament over the past 10 years from 3 per cent. to about 10 per cent. now. That is not enough, but we are getting there. The other campaign, also cross-party, is for Women into Public Life, to ensure that more women are considered for public appointments.
In general terms, it is a healthy phenomenon that pressure groups should exist to ensure that a particular point of view should be heard and indeed on appropriate occasions acted upon. I was delighted that every noble Lord who spoke today agreed with that.
623 The fact that pressure groups cover such a wide range of interests speaks well for the maturity and democracy of our society. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, was right in pointing out that they also have a role in educating public opinion.
In this country, until recently at least, Members of both Houses of Parliament could be relied on to vote for the party whose Whip they accepted. But looking abroad, we can see what happens in the United States of America. There that sort of party discipline has never existed. Members of both Houses of Congress vote across party lines on all sorts of issues. I have seen a publication by something called the National Caucus in which the voting record of every Senator and Representative on every issue is listed, the better to enable his constituents to pressure him.
We do not need to be reminded of the immense influence that the farming lobby has on the governments of France and Germany, whatever their political make-up. While looking abroad, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for his reference to the power of the very small religious parties and the disproportionate influence they have to the size of their vote.
I am sure that your Lordships' postbags are, as mine, full of information packs on behalf of all sorts of special interests. When I was a candidate for the European Parliament there was a concerted campaign of telephone calls and letters demanding to know my views about seal culling. I discovered for the first time that there were allegations about the quality of raisins emanating from the Balkans and used in chocolate bars. Hardly a day went by when my stance on various subjects was not demanded in lengthy questionnaires of the "do-you-still-beat-your-wife" type—answer now, yes or no.
I very much endorse what my noble friend Lord Birdwood and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said about Members of Parliament representing their constituents rather than being sent as delegates. The notion of a representative democracy is central to the very way in which we govern our affairs in this country. I agree with the noble Lords that that is something to be treasured and protected. It is a valuable reminder that this principle may need to be re-emphasised and defended. Indeed, sometimes Members of the other place need to be possessed of almost saintly determination to support what they know to be right in the face of vociferous views expressed by some of their constituents.
One of the difficulties I have in considering the views of pressure groups is to find out how many people they represent, let alone who elected or appointed them. The volume of protest that they generate is no measure. Even in the case of well-established pressure groups, one sometimes wonders how far the knee-jerk reaction of their spokesmen to some new issue represents the interests of their supporters.
Only the other day the American Federal Aviation Authority announced its interest in a body scanner that could see through clothing and detect weapons not found by metal detectors. A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that the Americans would never stand for it. I wonder how he knew. I wonder how many Americans he canvassed, especially those who have been hostages on hi-jacked planes. My noble friend Lord 624 Belhaven and Stenton touched on the basis of information that these groups use when he mentioned the NSPCC report that one in eight children is abused or the report that one in four women is abused by their partner. Although I agree with all that, I have some difficulty in responding to my noble friend's diatribe against the anti-smoking brigade. I confess that I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, may well be right in the figures he quoted about passive smoking. While I would defend anyone's right to smoke, I am not a great enthusiast for sharing that pleasure with them. But the tobacco industry need have no fears. I do not believe that I am revealing any state secret when I say that at times of pressure the Whips' Office alone should keep it in business.
What then is the best way to ensure that pressure and lobbying have the best chance of success? Obviously it is to try to make sure that those views are known before a decision is made and set in concrete. It is strange, is it not, that if the Government actually listen and react to public opinion, even that whipped up by the media, or listen to a pressure group, or even to their own Back-Benchers, they are then derided by the Opposition for having executed a U-turn? That is the same Opposition which have performed, not a U-turn, but a complete cartwheel over almost everything they have previously stood for. I am not trying to be political—well, not really.
I should like to point out to the House that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has campaigned very often for things that took many years to achieve. For example, in 1989 he campaigned for the polytechnics to become universities. Everyone said no, including the Government. But the noble Earl actually got his way in 1994, so even we can have our U-turns from time to time. However, what I really wanted to point cut is that one party's U-turn is another's flexible response.
Single issue pressure groups perform the essential task of drawing the attention of the public, and of the Government, to issues and factors which might otherwise be overlooked or disregarded. The examples that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, gave us, the way that the successful campaigns have gone and the historical examples given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, are aspects that we should not forget.
I realise that it is unwise to generalise, because many groups do not want to accept or even to hear that there is another side to their question or their problem. Culling seals is undoubtedly unpleasant and bloody. I can well understand why it evokes such protest. On the other hand, thousands of Canadian fishermen, as well as indigenous groups such as the Inuits, suffer from depleted stocks of the fish on which their livelihoods depend. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, discussed similar problems as regards the export of live animals.
Saving the habitat of some rare insect or wild flower can only be applauded. But ask the motorist stuck in some fume-laden traffic jam or the resident of some juggernaught ridden village whether he would like a new bypass and you might get a totally different point of view. The need for a modern infrastructure and for job creation seem to mean nothing to the anti-road lobby, and yet they arc something that the Government arc bound to take into consideration.
625 Leafleting, letters to the press, writing to Members of Parliament and press campaigns are all legitimate tools of pressure groups. So is responding to Green Papers and giving evidence to inquiries or Royal Commissions. What is not legitimate is mob violence, rioting, occupying premises, blockading roads, attacking lorries or sending letter bombs.
When there has been a public inquiry, the decision has to be accepted, even by the party whose views were rejected. Whether it is the Government—of any party—local councils or any other decision-making body, pressure groups need to remember that messages can be heard better if they are not shouted, chanted as slogans or delivered by stone-throwing yobs wearing balaclava helmets. Indeed, I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is always heard with great pleasure in this House. The way that he managed to keep within his 11 minutes and yet still give us so much information was wonderful.
My noble friend Lord Birdwood calls attention to,the impact of single issue pressure groups on decision-making and policy formation".What the public is interested in is not always in the public interest. It is the Government's duty to put that first, even if it is not a popular or populist stance.
Her Majesty's Government are sometimes wrongly accused of not listening to the people. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, reminded us, there exist what arc known as advisory non-departmental government bodies, set up by Ministers to advise them and their departments on matters within their sphere of interest. They have a role in the processes of national government but are not part of government departments. They operate to a greater or lesser extent at arm's length from the Ministers who are responsible for appointing them. They arc there to give impartial, expert advice to departments on particular matters. Examples of those advisory bodies are the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the National Consumers Advisory Committee and the Committee on the Safety of Medicines. I have a short list of some of them with me for the attention of any noble Lord who is interested. But there are some 814 of them in existence, many—indeed, most—covering topics that are of concern to one pressure group or another.
In preparing for this first reply to a debate, I made inquiries of a number of government departments about their recent dealings with pressure groups. The following few examples may interest your Lordships. The Human Rights Policy Division of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has significant contact with Amnesty International, whose views are taken into account on various issues. Amnesty often speak on human rights courses run by the FCO. The Overseas Development Agency sees pressure groups as effective conduits for overseas aid and as valuable contributors to ODA policy through the sharing of information on a broad range of issues. That partnership is seen by the ODA as so important that it has recently set up a new network to enable such organisations to share information and experience with each other and the Government.
626 The Ministry of Defence is sometimes involved in dealings with Greenpeace, whose members usually take what they euphemistically call "direct action". Recently Greenpeace attempted to prevent the sailing and docking of nuclear powered submarines. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, actually referred to a headline which appeared in one of today's newspapers which dealt with a police raid on Greenpeace after alleged sabotage at Aldermaston. Such actions are dangerous and have no impact on government policy. On the other hand, the MoD is holding public consultation meetings at the behest of the Ramblers' Association, which is concerned about the effect of the burning of undergrowth in Northumbria.
The Cabinet Office, the DTI, the Department of the Environment and other departments have also sent me notes on their consultation exercises with a host of diverse pressure groups, ranging through the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth, Shelter and so on. Again, I shall not burden your Lordships this evening with a mass of detail about them. However, in the five years between 1989 and 1994 the Government published no fewer than 1,483 Green Papers, on which all interest groups or any individual were free to comment. Those views are analysed and considered carefully.
It is an essential part of government to listen to what is said, to weigh the arguments, to gauge the extent to which a particular view or concern is widely held, to take account of the legitimate interests of different groups and, in the light of all that, as my noble friend Lord Birdwood said, to try to reach a balanced judgment on the best course for the country and for society as a whole. I took note that my noble friend Lord Moyne suggested that possibly the Government sometimes listen just a little too much. Nevertheless, the views of pressure groups are listened to very carefully. But I can assure your Lordships that the Government are very careful not to fall into the trap of taking the most notice of the most vociferous. Listening to pressure groups is part of the consultation process, but it is only a part. I often feel when people complain about a lack of consultation that what they really mean is that the Government end up by taking a different view from their own and not that there was no opportunity to participate. Lobbying is about persuasion; it is not about intimidation or bullying.
I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, said about Charter 88, and to the very spirited defence of Charter 88 from the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I hesitate to intervene in a domestic dispute between the two noble Lords on the Benches opposite. I would just comment that in Italy there is a written constitution and there is also PR. Both of those are advocated in Charter 88, but they often seem to end up in some kind of trouble.
§ Baroness Miller of Hendon
My Lords, I did not mean trouble; what I really meant to say was that the governments change from time to time. Perhaps some noble Lords opposite might think that that is a good idea.
My noble friend Lord Birdwood has done a great service in drawing attention to the way that violent demonstrations and marches seem to have taken the place of seeking redress through Members of Parliament 627 instead of complementing it. Perhaps it is significant, and should be of concern to all of us who work in this building, that the public opinion poll recorded in the Nolan Report put government ministers and politicians on both sides at almost the bottom of the list of reliability. They are only just above journalists, who are right at the bottom.
There is nothing like a good riot to ensure publicity for an otherwise legitimate demonstration—a riot followed by the inevitable complaint that it was due to overreaction by the police, never mind the presence of men in masks and rent-a-mob generals seen on TV to be directing the action. Aside from the inevitable thugs, for whom any opportunity for a punch-up is sufficient—whether it is a football match or what was intended to be a peaceful protest—it has to be remembered that anarchists and those who believe in the violent overthrow of society did not get buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was quite right to remind us of the dangers of "entryism" and the dangers that are sometimes run when 'certain people infiltrate legitimate groups. The anarchists are still there and still looking for every opportunity to discredit the established political order of whatever complexion. This past weekend we had a deliberately provocative and disruptive demonstration by a self-appointed non-accountable organisation calling itself Reclaim the Streets. It blocked off Camden High Street. Reclaim's aim was to,take the car culture head on".But this anarchical and disgraceful conduct is not part of any democratic process; it is intimidation.
It is useful to remember that having the ear of the media and knowing how to hit the headlines—fleetingly, as it usually happens—does not prove the validity of an argument or even guarantee that it is a view that is widely held. Conversely, even a widely held view is not of itself necessarily valid. It does not matter how many people hold a foolish idea, it is still a foolish idea.
Let me conclude by saying that every Member of this House unreservedly supports the right of any individual or group, even those with their own special motives, to try to gain public support for them and to try to influence the Government to accept their aims. The forum for that is the media in its various formats, public meetings and peaceful demonstrations; also, not least of all, by the old-fashioned practice of writing to one's Member of Parliament. Violence has no place, and should have no place whatsoever, in our political scene. We have to prevent the conduct of just a handful of people, who are either simply irresponsible or who have hidden agendas of their own, turning the emphasis away from Parliament. We have to avoid allowing public opinion to be formed by television sound bites rather than by reasoned argument. To do this, it is up to all of us in both Houses to be temperate in our own conduct, to set an example of how political debate should be conducted and, above all, to show that even if proper representations cannot always be acceded to because there is another point of view, at least they have been carefully listened to.
§ Lord Birdwood
My Lords, what is it about the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that every time he speaks I see ghostly street barricades across that part of the Chamber? I have listened with delight to 628 all the contributors this afternoon. I am grateful to every single one of them. I shall read Hansard and re-read it. The world of street warfare and street warriors has lost a number of great potential contributors. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.