Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:05 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, we all agree that we are in a crisis of the sort just described by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris.

I recall talking to a good friend, a young female MP, some weeks ago. She said, “Do you know, as I was going through the Lobbies the other week, I thought for the first time since I came here that I was perhaps in the wrong sort of job in the wrong sort of place”. That is the level of toxicity the Commons has reached. She and some of her young female colleagues have also talked about the intimidation they face through email, social media and so on. I fear for them; all I have faced are the shouts of “Traitor!” that we get every now and again as we walk in and out of here. It is a real problem and will of course affect how many people come into or stay in politics. Things are very different from what it was like when I first started out as a political candidate, when the old sense of deference was there and people were glad to see you when you met.

We all accept that we face the major problem of maintaining democracy. Violent language by established politicians and columnists in national newspapers, as well as across social media, affects the quality of debate. Violent language encourages actual violence. Behind that, a deep distrust of the so-called political class has been growing over the years; the expenses scandal and the way we are portrayed in the media have contributed to that. The increasing professionalisation of politics means that we rank down there with bankers among those who are the least trusted by the rest of our community. There is therefore a disillusionment with politics as such. I find that the widening of the gap between the public and the professional political class results partly from a decline in party membership; again, when I started out in politics, the Conservative Party had more than a million members. Those grass-roots numbers, feeding back to the leadership, are now down to something like 100,000.

The decline in local democracy and local government is also a major problem because it increases the gap between the governed and those who govern. If your local school has been taken over by an academy with its headquarters 50 miles away, your social services and children’s services are being cut and much of what used to be your public services have been outsourced, not surprisingly, you fear that politics is remote and that you are losing control.

In the past few years, we have seen the rejection of evidence on global warming, vaccinations, international trade, regulation and everything to do with the European Union. We have seen that not just in Britain; we must recognise that it is part of a wider trend towards what Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy”—the politics of feeling and guts and nationalism against these silly liberals who muck about with evidence and detail. So, we have to be nice to each other. That intolerance is marked by President Trump’s violent rhetoric, as well as by Viktor Orbán, the Polish Government and others.

What should our response be? We have to defend the principles of liberal democracy—all of us across all parties and outside the parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, we have to defend the politics of reason, evidence, negotiation, tolerance of opposition and different views, the rule of law and respect for minorities who are so easily demonised by populists. I also agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and others who have said that you cannot have too great a degree of inequality and maintain the sense of a national community. The social contract about which Locke and others have written is a contract between the governed and the governing, and those who are governed expect the state to give them security and a degree of welfare in return. We are in danger of allowing economic change, deregulation and the shrinking of government, which is very much what the Conservative Party has been pushing for through austerity, to widen the gap too much between what the Government do and what the governed receive. That, indeed, undermines democracy.

Several speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, have also talked about the importance of educating our citizens. The failure of political education in this country is appalling. It is an issue that we have debated in this House. While we have to push at it, the problem is that it is a political football that easily becomes partisan and is perhaps the sort of thing on which this House could form a Select Committee—that is, on how to promote citizenship education in our schools. That involves an understanding of our national history, having respect for evidence and fostering an understanding of government and governance. Moreover, we need the teaching of citizenship to mean talking not just about rights but the obligations of citizenship—a term that, sadly, has gone from popular debate. I often hear on the doorstep, “I’ve got my rights”, but I never hear, “I should be doing something about my obligations”. Political education in all our schools should therefore be much higher up the agenda of all parties.

Who should respond to this problem? The Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that political parties should take the lead. Political leaders set the tone of public debate and our political leaders have failed. I do not mean just our current political leaders. David Cameron failed in many ways regarding his respect for evidence. I felt that in particular when we were dealing with European issues in the coalition Government. Tony Blair cultivated the press and refused to stand up to it when he thought that aspects of it were peddling other issues. As I say, it is not just the current Government, but when the Prime Minister fails to call out those in the European Research Group who come close to threatening violence if we do not accept a hard Brexit, she is failing in her role as a political leader. When she talks about how citizens of somewhere are much better than citizens of nowhere, she is dismissing explicitly, if one accepts David Goodhart’s terms, the educated half of the population. Incidentally, looking at the contenders to succeed her as leader, I think that Andrea Leadsom is the only one of those to have announced so far who would qualify as a citizen of somewhere rather than of nowhere, and will no doubt therefore receive the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. Jeremy Corbyn, as the leader of the Labour Party, shares in the responsibilities of political leadership. As some on his own Benches have said, he has also failed to exercise that.

The media have responsibilities, and the extent to which we have to listen to highly paid journalists who went to public school arguing that the liberal elite is refusing to recognise the will of the people, whom they understand and represent, is part of the nonsense of the situation we are now in—not to mention the calls for a more robust assertion of national sovereignty from people writing in newspapers owned by American citizens of Australian origin or British citizens who live in a tax haven in the Channel Islands. Business and finance also have responsibilities to wider society and the national community, which they fail to meet. Moreover, perhaps I may say to our two bishops present that the Church shares in the responsibility to talk about the moral dimension of markets, society and government. The Church ought to be saying that more loudly and clearly. I know that it will be sharply criticised by the media for doing so, but that is what you are there for and that is what you should be doing.

In the long run, we need political reform: restoration of local democracy, as I have talked about; devolution from Westminster back to the regions of England; and more open political recruitment and competition. Of course, that means changing the voting system; we have to remember that the referendum in 2011 was masterminded by the same team that led the Brexit campaign, and to win they promised the same nonsense about spending money on the NHS instead. Perhaps we might even consider building a semi-circular Parliament Chamber as our temporary Chamber to begin to change the atmosphere.

Lastly, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester talked about a new national narrative, and I could not agree more. I spent some time on the Government’s advisory committee on the commemoration of the First World War, on which we fought a number of battles about how far we should represent this as more than just Britain beating Germany but as a wider conflict with wider responsibilities. I suggest again that we might consider a sessional committee on the teaching of national history in England. Mrs Thatcher attempted to address the question in her last year in government and intensely disliked what the committee she appointed came up with. Michael Gove is about to tackle it again. Let us do it on a non-partisan, cross-party basis and see how far we can get. There is a lot to do; our democracy is in serious crisis, and we should work together across the parties.