Friday, March 5, 2021

Blue bloods for progress? (1985)

From the March 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many noble eyebrows must have arched in astonishment and indignation, when the House of Lords was congratulated by Red Ken Livingstone's County Hall on their resistance to the government over the abolition of the GLC. This uneasy alliance between blue blood and left wing bogeys was another example of the Lords' changing reputation, from a home for senile aristocrats to a crucible of incisive debate and defence of democratic freedoms. Whether this reputation is deserved or not, the Lords press on; now they have dared to experiment with live TV coverage. Perhaps we shall have a show to rival Game For A Laugh, with a more elegant set and rather wealthier — if more menacing — participants.

The reputation which the Lords seem to be trying to lose, for obstinately refusing to recognise the times. let alone move with them, was set hard in a century of battles with the Other Place, sometimes known as the Lower House or the House of Commons. Joseph Chamberlain in 1884 responded to their obstruction of the Reform Bill with the unoriginal sneer that the Lords represented a class "who toil not. neither do they spin" (he was probably meaning to be offensive). In 1910, at the height of the Asquith government's long crisis over parliamentary power, Lloyd George described the peers as "descended partly from plunderers who came over with William the Conqueror and partly from plunderers of the poor at the Reformation" (he was in favour only of plunderers of the more modern kind).

The Lords have always defended themselves, apparently against the odds, on two main grounds. Firstly, they have asserted that their privileged standing in parliament, free of the need to campaign for the votes of the lower class, enabled them to be more objective and independent; secondly they have been sure that as a vetting chamber they do a much better job than the Commons anyway. Lord Salisbury, speaking in 1907. claimed that the hereditary principle had the merit of "trusting a man because of his sense of public duty", which was like arguing that a few people are rich because they are worthy, and worthy because they are rich. In 1910 Lord Cawdor, referring to some of the issues at dispute between the Lords and the Liberal government, said that the former were the closer to the people's will on Home Rule for Ireland, the Licensing Bill, the Education Bill and the Budget.

Cawdor was speaking at the time of the most important clash between the two Houses, which ended in victory for the Commons when the Parliament Bill of 1911 was pushed through (in theory the Lords could have blocked it) on the threat to ensure its passage by the mass creation of Liberal peers. (When it was all over and the Bill had become law the king, obviously exhausted by the prospect of all those ennobling ceremonies, rushed off to holiday in Yorkshire.) The 1911 Act cut the Lords' power to delay a Bill to a maximum of two years and less in the case of finance Bills. That remained the situation until 1949 when the Attlee government, to ensure the passage of measures like steel nationalisation, pushed through another Parliament Act which reduced the delaying power to nine months. That government, in the overall interests of the British capitalist class, planned a lot of state ownership and they could not tolerate any obstruction by the Lords. Their case was much the same as Lord Roseberry's. in a letter to Queen Victoria in 1894:
  When the Conservative Party is in power, there is practically no House of Lords: it takes whatever the Conservative Government brings it from the House of Commons without question or dispute: but the moment a Liberal Government is formed, this harmless body assumes an active life. and its activity is entirely exercised in opposition to the Government . . .
The Lords' image as a bunch of diehard, crusty Tory backwoodsmen who would travel up from the slaughter of the grouse moors to kill off the policies of a popularly elected government, was potent ammunition for their opponents. Persistent criticism on these lines undermined their own confidence in their superfluous function; clearly. British capitalism could do without the House of Lords. There was irresistible pressure for reform, if not for abolition. The only chance of this happening seemed to be in the Labour Party, which had once stood clearly for abolition but had since then failed to make it a priority in their election programmes. The more impressionable Labour supporters were quite excited by the prospect of abolition, regarding this, in the face of all the evidence about the nature of capitalism in those countries without an hereditary second chamber, as a step towards socialism But as usual the reformists were disappointed; when Labour was in office they did not get rid of the Lords but helped to keep it alive with regular infusions of new blood.

In fact, both the recent significant reform measures have been the work of Conservative governments. The Life Peerages Act of 1958 introduced life peers — and. for the first time, peeresses — so that the Lords became infested with retired trade unionists, business people, university dons and media personalities. A few years later, after a long campaign by Tony Benn, the Peerages Act of 1963 allowed hereditary peers to disclaim their title. It was never quite clear how Benn could represent this as a step towards socialism even if it was a step forward in his political ambitions. It also came in the nick of time to help two prominent Tories Lords Home and Hailsham — in their bid to win the party leadership and so to succeed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister. Unlike Benn. these two were not opposed to the hereditary principle. When it suited them, they took their title again and now sit again in the Lords. Home inclined wearily beside the frail form of Lord Stockton and Hailsham slumped pompously on the Woolsack.

These two Acts also did a lot to avert the abolition of the House of Lords which was a great boost to their lordships' battered morale. Nowadays there is no certainty that the Lords will tamely fall in with the Conservative line. Instead, the House is populated with bodily testimonies to the impotence and confusion of the men and women who have tried to control and modify the capitalist system. There sit. or have sat. so called economic experts like Balogh and Kaldor, who bore so much responsibility for the economic policies of the first Wilson government — as well as Lord George Brown, who so enthusiastically and rashly took on the job of showing how futile those policies were. Who now, apart perhaps from someone writing their thesis on Great Confidence Tricks Of Our Time, remembers the Department of Economic Affairs and what it promised to do for us? There sits the centurion Lord Shinwell. who travelled politically from pacifism to being Minister of War. but whose opinions are nevertheless listened to with awe. There also can be seen Lord Thorneycroft, one of the monuments to the Age of Supermac, who resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer because he thought we were having it too good and that government spending should be cut. Somewhere on the Labour benches rests ex-TUC chief Len Murray, exhausted by his adoption of something called the New Realism, which was actually no more than an appreciation of the fact that there is a slump on and that it will weaken the unions' bargaining power.

Exposing themselves to the TV cameras is likely to do the Lords no harm. Indeed, it has already given a lot of publicity to Stockton's patronising of the miners and to Scarman's call for a Bill of Rights (people who have already been denied their "rights" in police cells and prisons will wonder what difference another law will make). Parliament has always needed the media, whatever form it takes, but it has always tried to control how and when the media reported on it. The objections to live TV reporting were the same as those used against radio and. a long time before, against the presence of newspaper reporters. Such publicity, it was said, would encourage demagogic speeches aimed at a wider audience outside, it would lead to ministers taking up too much debating time, it would reduce spontaneity and emphasise the theatrical elements of parliament at the expense of the workaday. These objections were usually put most strongly by those members who feared that they would fail to get into the limelight; as far back as the 1950s slick parliamentary performers like Ian Macleod. Jo Grimond and Aneurin Bevan were in favour of allowing the TV cameras into the Commons.

Parliament's readiness to compromise with the media has been ensured by the Members' need to win votes for their party. It was in the late 19th century that the parliamentary timetable, which had hitherto been set by seedtime and the harvest, began to take account of the requirements of the press. This was encouraged by the rise of the popular newspapers (the Daily Mail was launched, as a halfpenny newspaper, in 1896) and the decline of the morning provincial papers (between 1900 and 1940 their numbers fell from 52 to 25). In 1850 a separate press gallery was first set aside. In 1902 Arthur Balfour, conceding that "We must arrange our proceedings. I presume, so that they may be reported in the newspapers that have currency all over the country", brought Question Time in the Commons forward so as to meet press deadlines.

The result of the publicity has to some extent been as predicted. The parliamentary exhibitionists, the specialists in newsworthy subjects and the headline-conscious Members have been encouraged at the expense of the heavy, soporific speechmakers. It has also, more crucially, given an opportunity to the listeners and the viewers, who have the power of the vote at their disposal, to see how the people they vote for do the job of running capitalism. The voters can now witness. as it happens, all the sound and fury of Neil Kinnock shadow boxing with Margaret Thatcher over some trivial difference in their policies for British capitalism. They can view the political cast-offs in the House of Lords reviewing the state of British capitalism as if their own failure to operate the system in the interests of the mass of people had never happened. They can watch mature people playing games in archaic dress, except that they should beware that behind this seeming tomfoolery lurks the awesome power of the state machine.

There can be no doubt that it is progressive and encouraging, that workers should be able to observe all of this. The important thing is how they absorb it — and how they interpret what they absorb. Will they conclude that titles and rituals are of little account; what matters is that it is by the overwhelming preference of the working class that the power to monopolise the means of life is given to a small parasitic elite? Will they see it as further evidence of the decadence of capitalism and of the urgent need to act on the issue of who controls the state machine and for what purpose? Or will they miss the whole point and regard it all as just another soap opera, even if it is one which they can't switch off when they've had enough?

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