House of Lords: Size - Motion to Resolve (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:54 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 4:54 pm, 5th December 2016

My Lords, there are people who think it is quite unnecessary for us to do anything at the present time—not many of them are in this Chamber. There are others in this Chamber who do not recognise the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in. I say that not looking inwards at Parliament, or even narrowly through the pearlised bubble of Westminster at our own electorate, but at the electorates of the western world, who increasingly are changing the question they are asking. In the past it has been, “Is this lot more likely to do me good, or is that lot?”. Now it is already changed into, “Well, none of those is much good, so we must look at people with more extreme views”. It worries me deeply how the centre is weakening in Europe and the extent to which both ends of the political spectrum are getting stronger. Being a little older than some, but not many, in this House, I remember the overtones of the Spanish Civil War. We are going on a dangerous course, and we are in a way affected by it. We realised that with the Brexit vote and the electorate discovering that the parliamentarians did not know what they, the electorate, were thinking.

In those circumstances, we need to analyse a little more what is going on. In this country, the new question that I believe is about to be asked—it is being asked in some places and anticipated on both wings of the political spectrum—is not, “Is democracy working for me?”, but, “Can democracy ever work for me?”. That is fertile ground for extremists, it is fertile ground for intellectuals and it is fertile ground for irresponsible politicians. It puts before the organised ones what they would call a great opportunity to recruit and establish in the public mind a doubt as to the efficacy of democracy and of Parliament, and indeed, where possible, to infiltrate Parliament. Where there is a constituency of a political colour not so bright but of the same of their own, and where there is a weak executive, the opportunity is plainly there and desirable to them to deselect and get their own man in.

This is not over the horizon yet, but in dangerous times it is as well to be pessimistic so that one is prepared for the worst. I see very dangerous times ahead. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, and my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who echoed his view, that the effectiveness of Parliament—he said of this House—depends on its reputation. Where there is a disaffected majority in the political spectrum of the electorate, it is open to extremists to start teaching it that Parliament is not their refuge but a laughable obstruction on the road to their betterment. Those operators do not believe in democracy at all, but in power on the streets and violence to implement their views.

I know I sound rather extreme in my views, but I have read history and seen what has happened before, and how apparently stable democracies can be rocked to their foundations and even toppled by the most unexpected upsurge of anti-democratic discontent. We do not now have the same population as we had in my youth. We are not so stable in our views; we are not so united as a nation. We have therefore to take great care over where we go next.

The first thing we have to do is to restore the reputation of Parliament. We who are here can restore the reputation only of this House of Parliament and undertake only the simplest step, because of the difficulty of legislation at such a pressured time. We must not absorb too much legislative time, so we need to agree in advance what the legislation shall be. I have tried exactly that on a micro scale as an amateur with a Private Member’s Bill. It is laughable that the first, simplest and most obviously necessary step in reform should be urged by an antediluvian, hereditary Peer washed up on the Back Benches in 1999; it needs to be undertaken with the strength and majesty of the whole House and entrusted to a Select Committee, which should have the remit certainly to deal with size but I hope with more. Size will not be enough; we have to return to being the arbiters of the voice of the nation, the protectors of democracy in this country, and not merely the laughable obstruction which the opposition outside Parliament would like us to be.