Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 2:45 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his Motion and the noble Baroness on her comments. Both speakers made many points with which I strongly agree.

Of course furious debate, passion and rage are nothing new in a democracy. In the Commons, the two sides are two swords’ lengths apart to stop them from striking each other. Over the years there has been protest, militancy and outrage. I understand that during the rage around the Great Reform Bill, at Trinity College, Cambridge—where the noble Lord went, as did my noble kinsman Lord Hunt of Chesterton—the fellows voted unanimously to reject the pro-reform Times from their combination room, disgusted by its violent and unprincipled language and doctrines.

Over the years we have had many more such examples. My early years were surrounded by the race riots; I was chair of the juvenile court at the time of the Brixton riots and was very involved with Scarman. This seemed appalling. I also spent many years as chairman of the juvenile court dealing with football hooligans. There were all sorts of uncontrolled groups, anger and rage, and we have seen that time and again. We have had real aggression from the Militant tendency, and other examples. Many of us have had colleagues murdered by bombs and mortars. My own daughter’s early years saw her always running around the corner so that, if there was a bomb under the car, my husband, the carer or I would be blown up and not her. That was the fear with which we all lived for many years: “Never go out without looking under your car”, and many other examples.

In a way we have to analyse what is new. What is new and different is that with mass education, effectively very low unemployment, opportunities and effectively a good health service—however much we argue about it—many of us thought that values such as enlightenment, civilised debate, balance, reason and consensus would spread and become ever more common. Many of us fear that they are in fact diminishing, and we are perplexed.

I request to the Minister that the recent speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, which he made at the Temple Church on the debate around Brexit, be placed in the Library. In it, without declaring his own position, he describes the way in which the argument is emotional, irrational and not evidence-based. There is no attempt to achieve consensus or reach a middle ground. This is an extraordinary way for a grown-up democracy to resolve issues, and we have to analyse why that is.

Perhaps the most eminent judge in this country of recent times, Lord Bingham, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and senior Law Lord, said:

“In a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion and wealth”,

the rule of law,

“is one of the greatest unifying factors, perhaps the greatest, the nearest we are likely to approach to a universal secular religion”.

In his book The Rule of Law in 2010, he says:

“In a modern democracy where the ultimate decisions rest with the people, it is the more important that they should be fully informed and empowered to choose between conflicting opinions and alternative courses of action. The media, of course, have a crucial role to play … ‘The proper functioning of a modern participatory democracy requires that the media be free, active, professional and inquiring’”.

What has happened? Many of us had thought that the more information the better. When I was Culture Secretary, so long as we had diversity of ownership and plurality of voice we all thought that we were on the forward march. It is of course the development of social media, which had initially felt so exciting and such an opportunity to connect, integrate and communicate with constituents and to be responsive. We have seen how, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, it has vulgarised society. It is not accountable. In the press you can ultimately have some redress from inaccurate reporting, but these are people without bounds who are not accessible. I am delighted that the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary are bringing online harms measures for us to consider to give social media operators a duty of care. It will be a lot more complex than people think.

The way the world operates like an echo chamber reinforcing people’s views has been mentioned. The great thing about parliamentary meetings such as those my noble friend Lord Baker and I used to go to on many occasions in Surrey was that people would come to them. You could argue and debate. You knew that in the end most decisions would be 6:4, 7:3, or probably 5.5:4.5. Social media is about assertion and emotion, with no evidence base and no balance. It has become a sort of online game, like a television show. It is almost part of entertainment. It is totally without responsibility.

I echo the points about becoming more siloed. Gillian Tett’s book about the silo effect in modern society is all too true. Politicians do not know academics. This, again, is a sinister feature. I also take to heart David Goodhart’s point about anywhere or somewhere and the emotion around Brexit if you were left behind and had not had the proceeds of globalisation. It is wonderful that 600 million have come out of poverty in China but, if you are in Hull, where I have been chancellor of its university for 11 years, it is not how it feels. You feel out of London, out of the central area, alienated without power and effect.

I agree with those who have said that women are often the butt of this. Women are either deified or vilified. Yesterday Caroline Slocock gave a wonderful address to the Speaker’s Art Fund reception about the way Mrs Thatcher was perceived, and so also Julia Gillard or maybe Hillary Clinton.

What is the answer? It is to follow through the measures to protect politicians and to do everything we can to create a more united society, in exactly the words the Prime Minister used when she came to Downing Street. I am sure she more than anybody hopes that this Schleswig-Holstein question of Brexit will be resolved— although in that case one went mad, one died and one forgot the answer. I hope we can find the answer. I believe that we are a much more united nation than is often argued. We have to cope with social media and resolve this dilemma, but we should be proud of ourselves as a civilised, liberal and enlightened nation.