Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Rhodesia, Wilson, Clegg and reform of the Second Chamber

Way back in the 1960s when Ian Smith declared UDI for Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) British prime minister Harold Wilson tied both hands behind his back by declaring that he would not use force to bring the rebels into line. Nick Clegg seems to have made the same error by his statement, as reported in yesterday's Independent that he will not "go to war" with the Tories over the question of replacing the anachronistic House of Lords with a largely democratically elected Second Chamber. Surely it can never be good tactics in any negotiations to reveal the limits of your determination. Nick should study how his tough predecessor, Lloyd George, took on the entire establishment and the scorn he poured over them, especially "the Dukes", in circumstances much tougher than today, to achieve the first steps of democratic reform. House of Lords abolition has been on the agenda, indeed on the statute book, for the 100 years since then. It is shameful that the Blair/Brown Labour governments, with substantial Commons majorities for 13 years, did not finish the job. Now they cloud the issue by demanding a referendum (there were no referendums for previous reforms, some carried out by Labour). Embarrassingly former Liberal leader David Steel spouts the feeble excuse that "now is not the time" because there is so much for parliament to do the cope with the economic crisis. It is true that those with a vested interest in keeping the Lords as it is (ie those already in it and existing MPs looking for a comfortable and well-paid afterlife when they lose or retire from their Commons seats) will clog up the parliamentary time-table with spurious objections and alternatives. But it is is a commonplace that parliament already spends far too much time legislating (from knee-jerk reactions to dangerous dogs to the recent complex legislation on the NHS, when those involved pointed out that all changes necessary to improve the NHS could be achieved without legislation). I earnestly hope that Nick Clegg, our ministers and MPs will stiffen their sinews, summon up their blood, pull no punches etc.etc. and finish the job begun by Liberals over 100 years ago.


  1. The Parliament Act of 1911 was not down to Lloyd George, altho his rhetoric was effective ('The Lords are like cheese, the older they get, the higher they get'. The real credit should go the the PM Asquith who coined the catchphrase 'Wait and see' in relation to it.
    The issue at stake was not the budget of 1909 whci was accepted after the first election of 1910 but Home Rule for Ireland which the Tories thought to be inevitable if they lost their power to veto in the Lords. As it turned out they were wrong, but Bonar Law still managed to delay Home Rule and this led to the Black and Tans and the troubles after the 1921 Treaty.
    I read todsy that one in ten present memebers of the Lords went to Eton - which with a cabinet of millionaires does not say much for social mobility.

  2. I bow to your superior historical knowledge, Stuart. I'm basing my impression of the part played by Lloyd George on Hattersley's biography of him. LlG's contempt for and abuse of "the Dukes" comes over very clearly in that. It's very good read if you haven't already done so. Highly recommended

  3. Do you know Keynes' wonderful if rather unfair comment on LG at the Versailles Peace conference.
    'Rooted in nothing',- he implies that when LG was in a room by himself there was nobody there as he needed always to REACT - a bit like CSP if you remember. I can't find the full quotation but it goes on about his Celtic origins. And did you know that AJP Taylor in hhis Oxford History of Britain 1914 -45 lifted his first two pages almost word for word from Keynes' 'Economic Consequences of the Peace' without any acknowledgement of course. Taylor also misquoted Grey's speeech in the Commons on the outbreak of war completely distorting his intended meaning. Make no wonder Taylor's wife had a long affair with Dylan Thomas!