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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:13 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord St John of Fawsley Lord St John of Fawsley Conservative 1:13 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, on a speech of great modesty and depth. If that is the level of contribution that we can expect from him, the more we hear from him, the better. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I regret to say that I agreed with almost everything that he said, but the tone of politics has now changed-thank heaven-and congratulations are now in vogue until we get bored with them.

There is one sentence in the gracious Speech to which I should like to draw attention:

"Proposals will be brought forward for a reformed second House that is wholly or mainly elected on the basis of proportional representation".

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on his speech, which, rather like overripe gruyère, was full of holes and held together only by some very good jokes. I warn him about jokes: they can be dangerous and can lead to a sudden change of career. Let him wait until people say, "Where are the jokes? Where is the Lord McNally of yore? We want him back". That is the moment to start up again, because it is safer in today's world of politics to be a co-respondent than a wit.

I am pleased that the noble Lord made the case so well for there being no hurry about this part of the Queen's Speech. Let us learn from the experience of the previous Government: you cannot evade the natural consequences of your actions. Let that be constantly in the minds of Ministers; it is essential. Why not leave the House of Lords alone? It is a modern miracle. One should not drop names, as his Holiness the Pope said to me only the other day, but I tried to explain to him the concept of a Cross-Bencher. Well, he is the infallible one, so I gave up.

We do not want a clone of the House of Commons here. We are a revising Chamber; we are a Chamber with independent views; we are a Chamber where we want more distinguished people. Above all, we want more Cross-Benchers. That case was brilliantly made by example, which is always more convincing than precept, by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, today. We do not want a lot of people elected by proportional representation; we want some distinguished people. This is a House where there are people of great eminence and people of some common sense. They all have experience. Let us move on in that direction.

We have exemplified what the Italians have a word for: aggiornamento. That means building on the past but innovating as you need to. This we have continually done, otherwise we would have become a museum piece; we would have vanished years ago. Let us look at life Peers. I do not know whether it was Bagehot or me who first proposed them-it could not have been me, because he made the suggestion in 1861, but having read 13 volumes of Bagehot I find it difficult to tell which of us is speaking. It was Harold Macmillan who implemented the proposal, which has been a very great reform. I was delighted to hear that we are to have more Select Committees in this House. I shall not go on about that, because I had some small part to play in them in the olden days.

We need self-restraint. We want to observe the conventions. You learn that with wisdom and experience in this House. This House knows where to draw the line. Noble Lords know when to push things and when to stop. That is an art that you can learn only from experience and by being here. It is vital to know.

I have nothing against the alternative vote, but let us keep the link with the constituencies. That is the most vital thing, which is lost through proportional representation. If we are to have a system, let that link be intrinsic to it.

Now let us concentrate on the economy. That is what concerns people. There is no virtue in being rich and there is no virtue in being poor. What one wants is enough. Greed is not an attractive quality and we have had quite enough of it. I once had a conversation with a judge who said that the difficulties of the people with whom he had come into contact were mainly that they had followed the advice of people whom they did not know about documents that they had not read to buy goods that they did not need with money that they did not have. That is exactly the sort of position that we are in today.

Louis MacNeice, one of the great poets of the 20th century, said:

"It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky,

All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi".

That grossly underestimates the British people, but there is such a tendency, which has risen and grown and, like a horrible monster, is threatening this country. That is why we want to provide something to meet the spiritual starvation as well as economic prosperity. You cannot have spirituality if you are struggling all the time to survive. My advice to the Government would be to leave the constitution for the commissions to get to work on-it is very complicated-and to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. That is even more important than educate, educate, educate. They should concentrate on the economy and get that right and, after that, go on with their constitutional reforms. I speak as a retired constitutional expert.