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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Swynnerton Lord Thomas of Swynnerton Crossbench 1:31 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, with this speech, I hope to join a distinguished club-that of people who thought that they had a solution to the problems of the House of Lords. It is now an old club with traditions stretching back at least 100 years. In 1930, Somerset Maugham, brother of a Lord Chancellor, wrote, in a brilliant novel, Cakes and Ale, that:

"now that the House of Lords must inevitably be in a short while abolished"- those were his words-

"it might be a good plan if the profession of literature were confined by law to the peerage".

Barons would be responsible for drama and journalism. Fiction would be the domain of Earls; a field where they are already expert. Dukes, thought Maugham, would write poetry. A little later, the poet Auden suggested that all Members of Parliament should be chosen by lot.

My solution is not as imaginative as those schemes. I would ask the Lords reformers to examine the present House and see why, in the last 10 or 20 years, it has essentially done so well. For it has been a success despite the qualifications mentioned very appropriately by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and some remarkable speeches have been made, and some great debates held as rare and worthy of account as any in the past. Surely that is because primarily we have an astonishing diversity of talent, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, put it. We have many Cabinet Ministers. We have ex-chiefs of staff. We have a few historians and biographers. We have doctors and we have had a vet. We have men as brave as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, who was tough enough to question the whole idea that the planet is warming up, and we had some policemen. We have the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller.

We have, therefore, heard some astonishing speeches, which probably could not have been made in another place or by a House made up of elected Members in a simple way. Many of us remember that great speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in favour of hunting, not to speak of the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on the same subject. Many of us vividly recall-even if we did not necessarily agree with-the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, when he questioned the need to renew Trident and the insistence of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, that the covenant between the Armed Forces and the nation needed repair.

I also remember the late Lord Kennett questioning whether it was wise to retain NATO in its old Cold War form in the new world order. The late Lord Jenkins of Putney made a compelling speech about Kosovo. I remember, too, how the late eloquent Lord Annan, in his last speech, compared the then Lord Cranborne to Comus as he led his admirers, the surviving hereditary Peers, deep into a pathless forest. I recall the brilliant speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, questioning the need to go to war in Iraq. If I may be forgiven another reminiscence, I also recall the late Lord Sherfield's speech in the Maastricht debate explaining how when he was in the Foreign Office he had been critical of the idea of the European Common market and how he had changed his view afterwards.

Since I have a long memory, I can remember wonderful speeches by the late Lord George Brown and the supreme competence of the late Lord Callaghan. We have had great cricketers in this House, such as Lord Cowdrey, Lord Constantine, and the late Lord Bishop of Liverpool, and I dare say that we should have had footballers. We could do worse than having some singers. Those debates that kept us so long into the early morning about whether it was right to extend the number of days when a suspect could be held without charge were fine parliamentary occasions even if, characteristically, the media seemed more interested in the Peers' cornflakes at 8 am than their views.

Those are great memories and might not be repeated in a simply elected House. I believe, therefore, that we need a benign, corporate approach to elections to this House. We may have to accept that there has to be an elected House, but who will be elected? It should be stipulated that there would be a certain number of trade union leaders, a few vice-chancellors, some ex-chiefs of staff, ambassadors, two or three poets, certainly, some ex-Cabinet Ministers of course, as well as some historians, please, some bankers, industrialists and publishers, such as the apparently immortal noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld. Each would serve a special time varying perhaps from profession to profession.

We should continue to have friends of Israel and also Arabists. We should have friends of Europe and critics. We could specify a few hereditary Peers who, we have all learnt, are still a far-from-negligible element in our society. All could be elected from wider groupings. Take the vice-chancellors. There may be 100 of them in this country. We might choose five of their number on a regular basis. Let us retain Bishops, although perhaps not so many as now. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster should be with this and so should the Chief Rabbi as a matter of course, as well as some appropriate Muslim leader. In a sense, I am advocating that all of us learn from how Bishops have come here in the past. We could try and arrange to have the same kind of House as we now have, or better, to ensure, by design, what we now have by chance.