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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:35 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 8:35 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, to borrow a line from PG Wodehouse, it is always easy to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and the imminent return of the European Union withdrawal Bill. Yet fuelled by a wish to find reasons to be cheerful, including real possibilities on the constitutional front, perhaps I may open with a few swift thoughts about what of enduring value might be built out of the rubble, as the dust and grit of the general election campaign start to settle.

I think the outline of a consensus is visible and its achievement possible—a thin wisp of tomorrow that is just discernible today, to borrow a phrase from the great French historian, Fernand Braudel. If it is, such a consensus could rescue the coming political generation from the pit of Europe-envenomed rancour into which the recent and current political class fell with such dispiriting regularity.

There are five questions which, if tackled with determination and consensual good will, could, taken together, represent a worthy, shared project for the political generation of the 2020s to the immense benefit of our country and our people. Here would be my quintet of ingredients. The first is social care: to do for social care in the early 2020s what the NHS did for healthcare in the late 1940s. The second is a sustained social housing drive: a generous public/private mix at least comparable in scale to Harold Macmillan’s housing programme in the early 1950s. Thirdly, there is technical education, and getting this right for the first time. Parliament has been on the case since the 1860s. Now, surely, is the hour. Fourthly, there is climate change. As the incomparable Winston Churchill liked to say, “You cannot ignore the facts, for they glare upon you.” They do in this case, quite literally. Finally, there is the constitution: the codes, statutes and conventions that we live and work by. For we can no longer rely, sadly, on what an old Cabinet Office friend of mine, Clive Priestley, used to call “the good chaps theory of government”, whereby good chaps of both sexes knew where the unwritten lines were drawn and came nowhere near touching them, let alone crossing them.

During the autumn, I took a stab at an early 2020s constitutional agenda in a pamphlet for the Constitution Society, with Dr Andrew Blick of King’s College London. We called our paper, Good Chaps No More? Safeguarding the Constitution in Stressful Times. The paper’s premise was that

“the constitution has special properties. It is a creation of history, the work of many hands and minds that reflects a myriad of experiences. A government-of-the-day is its custodian but not its sole owner. The constitution is a shared possession of the nation as a whole which imposes a special duty of care on Prime Ministers, Cabinets and Parliament … changes to it need to be very carefully crafted and to carry wide consent.”

Trust is the scarcest and most precious political metal at the moment. Faith in the constitution is essential to its restoration and sustenance. I shall not describe all the triggers for constitutional anxiety in our recent past, but any list would contain the attempted Prorogation of Parliament of late August 2019, deemed illegal by the Supreme Court on 24 September, the episode which may have sung the requiem for the “good chaps theory”. Her Majesty should never have been put in that position.

What terrain might be covered by a constitutional inquiry? We would all have our own cartography, but this is the landscape that Andrew Blick and I sketched out: the Executive, taking in Ministers, the Cabinet and the Civil Service; the relationship between the Executive and the monarchy; the relationship between the Executive and Parliament; the internal organisation of Parliament; the position of the courts as upholders of the rule of law; and the relationships between the UK Government and the devolved levels of governance. It is quite an ambitious enterprise, but one we need at the start of a decade that will take us out of the EU, and may—though I fervently hope not—see Scotland leaving and fracturing the very union in which all of us have lived, breathed and had our being. Such a change would, I believe, be more disturbing, psychologically, for the shrivelled UK that remained than anything the European question has thrown at us.

I share the concerns of other noble Lords about the Conservative Party’s election manifesto promise of a constitution, democracy and rights commission, a pledge etched into the marble of the gracious Speech. A first step in the restoration of trust would be for the Government to make plain that any such inquiry should be, and be seen to be, independent of the Government. Andrew Blick and I suggested an array of possible instruments and here there is an overlap with my noble friend Lord Cormack: a royal commission; a parliamentary inquiry, perhaps a Joint Committee of both Houses; a Speaker’s conference; or a citizens’ convention.

My final thought is that although I am not a written constitution man, maybe the time has come to capture more of it in cold print. I think we need a new equipoise between the moving parts of the British constitution, on which our system of government depends, and our people’s faith in it. In seeking that new equipoise, we might draw ourselves together, refreshing the constitutional arrangements by which we govern ourselves, and, in so doing, take ourselves by surprise with our creativity, our civility and our sense of common purpose.