Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 3:06 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harris for his introduction to this very useful debate, and also acknowledge what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester has just said about the role of the House of Lords, which I want to address in this speech.

Social media has been outlined as a big problem, and certainly there is no question that we have now reduced debate to mere assertion. This is an increasing problem, as a result of the issue in our education system. I do not want to pre-empt what my noble friend Lady Morris may say, but I am sure she would agree that it is very clear that the real problem we have is the failure to teach debate, particularly in primary school. No doubt she will talk about some of these issues.

I want to return to the issue of Parliament. My second speech in the House of Lords was on higher education and a piece of chemistry I was rather proud to know something about. I talked very volubly, asserting various things; then, as soon as I could, I decided I needed to let my pulse rate settle and my blood pressure come down, and so went through the voting corridor and to the bar to get a stiff whisky. Behind me, I heard an elderly voice say: “Lord Winston, that was a very interesting speech”. I turned around—it was Lord Porter, the Nobel prize winner for that piece of chemistry. I then had to spend a lot more on the whisky than I had intended, and we subsequently became friends. He was a remarkable man—though his use of the word “interesting” I will come back to.

One of the issues in our society now is the need to get attention—the love of celebrity. If I may say, we see this so often in the conduct of the House of Commons. It is astonishing that Prime Minister’s Question Time has been a showpiece for Parliament. It is absolutely unacceptable that that is how we judge our political measures in this country; it does us a great disservice. Unfortunately, it is generally copied; not just the arguments but somebody on one side making strident assertions and somebody on the other doing nothing but reading a prepared answer. That is not debate. In fact, it is quite destructive to proper debate, and we have to consider that.

If I may be impertinent, in 24 years in the House of Lords, I have never spoken on issues of conduct; I have avoided it. However, far too often, people come into the Chamber to give a prepared speech with no intention of debating or interpreting what has been said before, of putting some flavour on what is being said, or of speaking without notes. I think that is very derogatory.

There is competition to speak. We jump up together at Question Time and now lack the courtesy to give way to each other. That courtesy, now lacking, was an important part of that role model which was very impressive when I first came into the House of Lords. The acerbity in debate which we sometimes see has become political rather than rational, as we in the House of Lords should be as an advisory Chamber. This goes back to an Act of Parliament in the 1630s, when I think it was suggested that that should not be part of our business. Truncated business in the House of Lords is not always a good idea. Very short speeches do not always allow Members to give an adequate view of sometimes quite important topics. But I accept that I have only six minutes and am halfway through that already, and I do not want to disturb the order of the House.

In some respects, one thing that we in the Labour Party did in 1999 was rather derogatory. In the reform of the House of Lords, there was something that we forgot. Surprisingly, the presence of the hereditary Peers gave the House a kind of dignitas. I know we decided that we had to be much more ecumenical and popular in what we did, but we lost the wig on the Speaker’s head and the hats that we raised to the Speaker, and we stopped kneeling to the Speaker when we were admitted in introductions. That courteous and remarkable panoply of traditional respect was quite important in many ways. We still of course have the State Opening of Parliament, but we lost something with the loss of the traditions.

I am not a Tory but I am a conservative; I believe in conserving what we have of value and remembering why it is important. I am reminded of the novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo or The Leopard, in which that character sees the gradual change that needs to happen in society. As a great aristocrat in Sicily, the Leopard recognises that he has to give way, but it is of immense interest that he gives way with courtesy and always sees the other side of the argument, even finally, when he recognises the need to give way to the new aspect of the Risorgimento. That brings me back to Lord Porter, who used a particular word when he approached me from behind in that voting corridor. He said, “Lord Winston, that was a very interesting speech”. He did not say anything pejorative, although he obviously felt quite angry about it.