In the first of two profiles of the workings of the Palace of Westminster,
Robbie Low looks at the House of Commons
INTERVIEWING PEOPLE over the last five years for New Directions has been an enjoyable job. Not so much for the opportunity to reveal the views of public figures on contentious issues, for the most part they are already known, but for the simple pleasure of spending a couple of hours in their company and listening to their life unfold. The twists and turns, the convictions and commitments, the influences, the motivations, the affections, the triumphs and disappointments that go to make up the picture of their pilgrimage emerge. My task has been simply to listen and record so that others can feel they have sat in the same room and now know that person better.
Interviewing institutions is a wholly different event. You can still listen and observe, pick up atmosphere, watch the exchange and interchange of people and events but there is little danger of intimacy, few opportunities if any for questions and (unless you have some inkling of how it works) you will depart with only a hazy and probably confused idea of what is going on.
(I reflect, as I write, that this is much what we do when we invite people to a service of Holy Communion as their first introduction to church!)
With all that in mind I thought it might be timely, given the monumental constitutional changes under way, to revisit the Houses of Parliament for the last time in its historic form. As the established church, we are subject to its fashions and fancies as much as to its wisdom and its law. The health of Parliament is critical to the health of the church – and vice-versa.
Although my discipline is history and, from childhood, I have tried to keep abreast of the political life of the nation, it is now twenty-three years since I gave up researching and beavering around the parliamentary press lobby to train for the priesthood.
I did so at the end of the Wilson years – the time of that sudden and never satisfactorily explained resignation and of the Callaghan takeover of a party which had convinced itself that it was now ‘the natural party of government’ and would be in power for twenty years. Union industrial power and political influence was approaching its apogee, state socialism and nationalisation were the order of the day and the Opposition appeared an unelectable rump who had clearly committed political suicide by electing as their leader a grocer’s daughter from Grantham.
Internationally, as enthusiastic Marxist contemporaries never tired of pointing out, capitalism was in crisis, and the power of the ‘enlightened and peace-loving’ empire of the Soviets was on an unstoppable march.
It is probably unnecessary to note that quite a lot has changed since then.
What I wanted to see, on the eve of massive change, was how much Parliament had changed.
My MP kindly got me a ticket for the public gallery on a day off which, by happy coincidence was a day on which he would be making a speech and there would be a debate on the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill – a piece of legislation on which church and charities have both had a lot to say.
I took my place as the House began to fill for Prime Minister’s Questions. Dr Jack Cunningham, Peter Mandelson’s replacement, was holding forth. He is known as the Cabinet Enforcer, and his leaden style and humourless hectoring do not make for easy listening. He is currently berating the wicked Tories for their questioning of genetically modified foods. Amusingly, less than a fortnight later, focus groups began to alert the Government to the fact that it was not only Tories who were alarmed. Sales of organic foods dwindled in direct proportion to Dr Cunningham’s assurances.
A full house – the massive Government majority overflowing everywhere – waving of order papers, cheers, enter the Prime Minister. It is an interesting half-hour. The quota of planted sycophantic questions is dangerously low and Hague and Ashdown give him a very hard time. The damning report on the Foreign Office and the massive increases in taxation are dealt with, not by argument, but by an unappetising mixture of jaw-thrusting assertion, injured sincerity, petulant dismissiveness and a self-righteousness that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
It is scarcely surprising that the House is not the Prime Minister’s favourite place or his most regular port of call. (That he does not consult it even in the gravest matter of going to war is a troubling measure of the Commons declining role in Presidential style government.) An inadequate performance is cheered to the rafters by what are known in the lobby as, ‘Blair’s Babes’. I reflect on Mrs Thatcher’s sacking of Francis Pym.
Pym, a decent moderate, loyalist and sometime Foreign Secretary, had publicly warned against the danger of too big a majority – hence his summary execution. He was right, of course. It leads to arrogance and complacency. A working majority of 30-40 keeps a government on its toes. A hundred and forty means you can ignore the House completely. As disastrously, it means you have got approximately eighty members who you never thought could be elected; or you would have taken a little more care in the selection of candidates.
We are then treated to a few minutes of extended fantasy from David Drew, the Member for Stroud. He wants to bring in a Bill “to require the production and implementation of a comprehensive participatory strategy for co-ordinated Government action to reduce and eliminate poverty and social exclusion in the United Kingdom”. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper would say.
Of course, this is not Mr Drew’s idea. Much of this has already been achieved by the Prime Minister’s work and vision. Mr Drew merely wishes to provide a framework for this magnum opus. Those who think we can abolish sin by bureaucracy can scarcely wait for the Second Reading. (Mr Drew clearly merits a place on the Archbishop’s Council.) In the event, only 16 desultory agnostics can be found bothering to troop through the ‘No’ lobby.
We are into the main business. The House is considerably emptier. A woman MP who had been sitting behind Mr Blair earlier wearing a stunning cream mandarin suit for the Question Time photo-call has returned in a comfy old green trouser suit for the less glamorous bit of the day.
The debate appears, very simply, to be about the age at which anal intercourse should be legal. The homosexual lobby are in a majority in the gallery. No MP declares a personal interest. Nor, it turns out, is this simply a homosexual issue. The lowering of the age of consent for this activity to 16 would apply to girls as well as boys. This is indeed an equal opportunities parliament. Equality is what it is all about – the word echoes like a drumbeat throughout the debate. We can decide, like Spain, to have sex at 12 or we can delay it till we’re 35 – so long as we do not discriminate on grounds of gender or sexuality. Both are equally valid and everything must be the same for both.
Dr Evans Harris (Liberal, Oxford West and Abingdon) is so enthusiastic for even more liberalisation and decriminalisation that the Home Office Minister, Paul Boateng, has to try hard to repress his clearly less than charitable feelings for this particular supporter.
Jack Straw (Home Secretary) responds to some of the more liberal suggestions sympathetically. What is notable about Straw is that he is the first Government spokesman to speak with quiet authority and the degree of gravitas that is essential to high office. Given that people are going to disagree massively and passionately on the floor of the House, it is vital that ministers are credible and respectable if Parliament is to function well.
One of the other things to note is that, for all the great divides and public rows, this seldom affects the genuine friendships and courtesy that exists offstage, as it were.
Alex Salmond (Scots Nat. leader) arrives and makes a cheap joke at the expense of James Clappison (Hertsmere) who is giving a thoughtful and responsible speech. Someone has made the same joke five minutes earlier and the embarrassed Salmond is deluged from all sides by gleeful wrath. But, notice…two minutes later he is invited into warm conversation with a couple of Tories who had so recently jeered his public foolishness. I am glad to see that the easy camaraderie, plain speaking, rough humour and speedy reconciliation are still in marked contrast to the way in which the Church of England conducts its political and corporate life.
It would be good to report on some speeches from Government MPs but there was only one. Anne Keen (Brentford and Isleworth) spoke for only one minute to inform us that the British Medical Association and her own nursing profession supported the lowering of the age of consent.
Why only one speech? With a large majority and no-one to persuade, you do not really need to put the case, it seems. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw) who had been so vigorous in his pursuit of safeguards remained silent – possibly because he had recently endured a police raid on a Thai massage parlour where he went for regular hydrotherapy.
There were extra safeguards now included to protect 16-18 year olds from predatory teachers and Scoutmasters (but not Vicars!) and one or two questioned this gross inequality.
Perhaps the most powerful speech in favour of liberalisation came, curiously, from a Conservative, Shaun Woodward (Witney). A former editor of That’s Life, and married to a very wealthy wife, his home is rapidly becoming a salon for rising liberal Tories. Of course, it was not a speech as I remember speeches. Like too many contributions, it was a well-read, carefully crafted essay.
While taking nothing away from Mr Woodward and others, this is yet another step away from live debate and responsive oratory. If a man can shine by reading his sermon, why should I risk looking foolish by learning to speak using my mind, my heart and my voice unaided with all the pitfalls that entails. We are not likely to experience many Churchills, Powells, Bevans or Foots if this fashion obtains.
Several morally conservative Conservatives contributed decent speeches, amongst them Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) and Julian Brazier (Canterbury) but they were up against some very considerable handicaps. The first problem is that their leader has shown himself a moral liberal, in word and deed.
The second is that almost every speaker against motions of this sort feels duty bound to go to great lengths to explain that he is not a ‘homophobe’. It is a perfect example of how a lobby group have invented a word and use the invented category to smear opponents. It works… How many people do you know who have an irrational fear of people of their own sex? (That, after all, is what ‘homophobe must surely mean.) But it has come to mean someone who supposedly hates homosexuals or opposes their lobby. It is not possible, by on this definition, to have homosexual friends yet be opposed to homosexual practice.
The third is that the BMA, nursing organisations and a huge number of children’s charities support the lowering of the age of consent for anal intercourse. Surprising? Especially when you consider that many of the selfsame charities have been so enthusiastic about the recent successful prosecution and possible sacking of a teacher who smacked his daughter’s bottom. Those who faithfully collect for Barnados, NSPCC and Children’s Society might have been puzzled to hear their charities cited in support of this measure. Like so many British institutions, the politics of governing bodies seldom reflect the views of the grass roots.
Fourthly, and most troubling in its implications for Parliament, is the European dimension. It is apparent that, whichever way this debate goes in Commons or Lords, in the end European Law will oblige English law to accept the principle of equality in both age of consent and sexuality. While this is worrying for any individual measure, it is, as a matter of principle, devastating for Parliament. Its implication is increasingly that sovereignty over our own affairs has all but vanished and simply waits the coup de grace of common currency.
In conversation with MPs and Parliamentary candidates over the last year or two, it is clear that many now regard our Parliament as no longer the seat of real power in the land. Certainly I was shocked at how diminished the place seemed to be.
Unhappiness is not limited to the still shell-shocked and decimated Conservatives. Long-standing Labour MPs, largely swamped by the new intake, are deeply concerned by the trends.
They have longed to reform the second chamber but, as democrats, they are puzzled by the absence of real plans other than cronyism. They have fought for devolution but it has gone through without any attempt or promise to address the West Lothian question. Many of them are veterans of CND and find themselves party to a European war without ever being consulted. Indeed the Government often prefers to make announcements or leaks via the media before bothering to tell MPs.
All of this is disastrous for the morale of serious members and deeply concerning for us. Each time I have dropped into Parliament over the long intervening years I have been more worried than before.
It would be difficult to exaggerate this time my concern for the whole democratic process.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s. Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s. He was for some time