People's Peers

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:03 am on 9th May 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield 10:03 am, 9th May 2001

I congratulate Mr. Mackinlay on raising the subject and on his speech. Not many Members take an interest in constitutional matters, but he has done so from the beginning. He has knowledge, commitment and passion. It is appropriate to discuss the subject now, because we are about to go into a general election--not, of course, for our Parliament, but for half our Parliament. Every hon. Member present, except me, will be seeking support on polling day. However, those who have just been appointed will be in the other place for life.

I shall address a point that is not often made: the establishment has a deep hostility towards democracy. It took me a long time to realise that the establishment and the powers that be--including the Prime Ministers of the day, whoever they may be--do not want a democratic challenge. That is maintained in a skilful way, which includes the use of the royal family for political purposes. The Queen depends on the Prime Minister for her popularity, and the Prime Minister depends on the Crown for his power. That said, the establishment is not so committed to individual monarchs that it is not prepared to sacrifice one to save the Crown, as it did with Edward VIII in 1936. The Crown is the core of the system.

People say that this country does not have a written constitution, but of course we do. Without wishing to bore hon. Members, I can recite the whole constitution:

"I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to law". Every Member of the House, peer, Anglican minister and judge swears that oath. Privy Councillors swear an even worse one: they pledge to protect the Crown from foreign prelates, potentates and powers. Indeed, when the Privy Councillor's oath was read to me, I said that I had said nothing and agreed to nothing, but I was told that the oath had been administered. Until that moment, I did not realise that the administration of an oath was an injection.

Under the constitution, the Prime Minister of the day has enormous power. Every Prime Minister--I am not making this personal--uses that power for political purposes. They used to appoint hereditary peers, but now appoint life peers. The idea of people's peers was proposed, which involves a sort of extended patronage. A committee is appointed to appoint people who are described as people's peers, but the purpose is to maintain political power.

Another important theme is the corruption of the word "representative", which has two meanings. Every Member is a representative of his or her constituency. When we are in our constituencies, the bus drivers, street sweepers, home helps and policemen are our employers. The other meaning is statistically representative. People talk about so many men, so many women, so many blacks and so many gays. The idea that we can have statistical representation and entrust to those people the right to pass laws, which we are expected to obey, is an abuse of what we boast is democracy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said.

I am not much of an academic historian, but I have studied a few things in my life in order to understand where we are. On Second Reading of the Reform Act 1832, rioters shot two redcoats in Wales. Speeches in the House of Commons warned that extending the franchise would undermine parliamentary democracy. Later, when women campaigned for the vote, Mr. Asquith, the great Liberal leader, said that, if they got it, parliamentary democracy would be undermined.

Our system is designed to brainwash us into believing that some people are better than us. Every country has people who think that they are better than anyone else, but we must be the only country where everyone accepts that that is the case. The cultural aspect of the peerage is that we are trained from birth to bow and scrape to someone else. Mister bows to the knight, who bows to the baronet, who bows to the baron, who bows to the viscount, who bows to the earl, who bows to the marquess, who bows to the duke, who bows to the royal duke. They all bow to the Queen. That is deeply corrupting of the democratic spirit. The system is not only absurd, as has been said, but absolutely contrary to our boast that we are a self-governing country. When there are riots in the streets of London, the Prime Minister always says that we live in a democracy, but we do not.

We are now being trained for a new group of managers. According to Gerhard Schroder, Mr. Prodi is to be the Prime Minister of Europe, but he is not elected by anyone. The head of the World Trade Organisation is not elected. If a peer is better than us, perhaps the head of the WTO is also better than us. Perhaps we are so inferior that we are not fit to govern ourselves. That coded message comes through all our political and civic systems, our education and so on.

If we are to tackle the problem, which I have no doubt we will--I hope that it does not take 700 years, as it did to make the House of Commons democratic--we must recognise that it involves a challenge to power. There is no other way of describing it. We must say, quite openly, that we will not accept laws that are made by people we did not vote for.

I am not an advocate of violent action; I am a non-violent man. However, Governments only listen when there is trouble. I hate to say it but, for example, the pensioners would not have received that little bit more without the Labour conference last year. Possibly, handguns would not have been banned if there had not been a big demand in Scotland after Hamilton killed those children at Dunblane. Truthfully, the environmental movement would not have made much progress if Swampy had not been rather difficult. He will be the next people's peer, no doubt; we shall hear about that in the answer. My experience of progress is that it begins outside and, through the democratic process, permeates inside. Parliament historically is the last place to get the message.

I welcome the debate. It is a much more dangerous debate than perhaps the House might realise, because it challenges power. People in power do not want to be challenged. The Prime Minister did not want to lose the right to appoint people. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister will, in a sense, appoint Members of the House of Commons. Some MPs will decide to retire at the last minute--they will get peerages--and, under the rules of the Labour party, it can appoint the successors. There could be circumstances in which Members of Parliament would have to apply to Lord Stevenson and prove that they would be comfortable in the House of Commons. Indeed, I can imagine that, if market forces reach much further, parliamentary seats might be put out to tender. I am sure that Bob Maxwell could have put in a better bid for my constituency than I could have. Perhaps even the Prime Minister's job should be subject to some external bid under the best value principle.

However one looks at it, the question must be tackled. My limited experience is that capitalism, communism and feudalism have one thing in common: the management can be changed, but the system cannot be discussed. Someone who discusses the system is a threat.

I had already made my last speech; I am afraid that I have done it again. My grandfather was the Member of Parliament for Govan, and was known as the poet laureate of the House of Commons. I will finish with some words that he wrote:

"Though politicians dream of fame and hope to win a deathless name,

Time strews upon them when they've gone, the poppy of oblivion."