Friday, 11 March 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 11 March 1994

"l'm afraid," said Lord Dacre, best known as the historian who said that the forged Hitler diaries were genuine, "it smells to me a little of political correctitude. This bill is rather like burning down the house in order to have roast pig."

And to what insurrectionary outrage was the Tory peer referring? Why, none other than the shameless attempt by Lord Diamond, formerly a Labour Cabinet minister and then an SDP defector, to change the rules on hereditary peerages, currently passed down from father to son, so that eldest children – daughters as well as sons – would inherit titles. "It's as if one were to burrow through antique architectural rubble in order to create a difficult side way into a house of which the front door is already open," Dacre fumed in the House of Lords on Monday.

Nor was he alone in his opposition to this dangerously radical measure. Indeed, the charge in the chamber was led by the 22nd Earl of Shrewsbury, whose title goes back to 1442, and the llth Baron Strabogli, whose title was created in 1318. "The present system has been with us since before the Norman Conquest," said the earl. "I can imagine much confusion, uncertainty and family friction," said the baron. And, in the end, the Lords voted by 75 votes to 39 to prevent the change in the rules. Britain's hereditary peerages will continue to be handed down from father to son, just as they have always been.

An "insult to every woman in the land", as Lord Diamond put it? Certainly. But the problems go deeper than that. Diamond's reform, if successful, would not have addressed the far more important issue of the very existence of the hereditary principle in what purports to be a democratic polity.

Of 1,203 members of Britain's upper house, 774 are hereditary peers. More than half the members of our second legislative chamber are there not because of anything that they have done, but as a reward for their ancestors' actions. Unsurprisingly, the hereditary peers are completely unrepresentative of the public as a whole: apart from their overwhelming maleness, most are rich and nearly all are Tories. And most turn up at the House of Lords only to swamp the rare revolts of working peers against the Tory party.

The legislative role of the hereditary peers is an outrage and must go – but that is not all that is wrong with the Lords. If it is insupportable for most of the members of a second chamber to be there because their fathers and fathers' fathers were adept at bribery and kow-towing to power, it is almost as bad for the rest of it to consist of people who are there because they themselves have precisely the same skills. Although many life peers work hard and perform a valuable legislative function, most are washed-up hacks given titles for their consistent time-serving. The life peerage system is essentially one of political patronage, and even if the politicians running it are themselves directly elected, life peers do not have the legitimacy of elected representatives. In short, there is an overwhelming case that, if we are to have a second chamber, it should be elected directly.

That, however, is not the end of the story. For a start, there are the thorny questions of whether we need a second chamber at all and, if we do, how it should be elected. Here, there are no better answers than those provided by Labour's Plant Commission, which – despite its inability to come up with any consensus on elections for the Commons – argued convincingly that a revising and delaying second chamber was a useful safeguard and that the upper house should be elected using a regional list system of proportional representation. Last year's Labour conference backed this recommendation, and there is no good reason that it cannot form the basis for a government programme.

But there are still details of strategy and tactics to be worked out. And here, according to Graham Allen, Labour's dynamic spokesperson on constitutional reform, there are three views that have significant support in Labour circles.

The first is that the job should be done in one fell swoop – immediate abolition and replacement of the Lords with an elected second chamber voted in on the first available Thursday in May. Second, there are those, apparently including John Smith, who reckon that, because the hereditary peers are the major affront to democracy, hereditary peerages should be abolished first, with the introduction of an elected upper house delayed, perhaps until a second term. The final viewpoint holds that the best way of dealing with the Lords is to hold elections for the upper house without actually abolishing hereditary or life peers, so that, for a time, elected peers would sit alongside unelected ones. This hybrid Lords would be left to decide in its own time what to do – the assumption being that hereditary and life peers would not dare to argue against the elective principle once it had been established.

Which of these routes Labour chooses will be decided by the party's Commission on Democracy within the next year. Each could provide a means of getting rid of the Lords in its present form – but there is a strong case for Labour not opting for the most gradualist approach of abolishing hereditary peerages first. Leaving aside the possibility that Labour would not win a second term, such a strategy would send all the wrong signals about the seriousness of Labour's commitment to democracy – not least because it would almost certainly necessitate the creation of. a large number of life peers to force the abolition of hereditary peerages through the existing Lords. Rather than raise suspicions that a Labour government would once again renege on a promise to do away with the most glaringly anti-democratic political institution in Britain, the party should make it clear that a democratic second chamber would be operating by the end of the first term of a Labour government.

Friday, 4 March 1994


New Statesman & Society leader, 4 March 1994

According to all the best placed sources in the corridors of Westminster, the government is preparing to make a sacrifice of Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney-general, if the report of the Scott inquiry into British arms sales to Iraq, due in the summer, criticises ministers' handling of public interest immunity certificates in the 1992 Matrix Churchill trial.

He should, of course, go – and there is no need to wait until the summer. Lyell was the person who orchestrated the government's attempts to prevent the Matrix Churchill trial seeing documents that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the company's exports of machine tools to the Iraqi military-industrial complex were fully encouraged by the government. He drew up the public interest immunity certificates, signed by ministers, which were presented to the trial judge claiming that disclosure of the documents would damage the public interest. If Mr Justice Smedley had not overturned the PII certificates, three innocent men would have gone to prison.

As became clear this week following Trade and Industry Secretary Michael Heseltine's evidence to Scott, the issuing of the PII certificates was by no means the mere technical legal obligation that Lyell has consistently claimed it was. Heseltine told Scott that he had disagreed with the argument that the documents should not be disclosed: Lyell's response had been to argue that ministers had a legal duty to sign PII certificates in all cases involving certain sorts of information. After a lot of wrangling, Heseltine eventually signed a watered-down PII certificate on the understanding that his worries would be communicated to the trial judge. They were not.

In public, Lyell subsequently kept up the line that ministers were "required by law to claim PII" with "certain classes of documents" – a position given full support by Prime Minister John Major. "Claiming public interest immunity is an obligation, not a privilege," Major told Scott when he appeared before the inquiry earlier this year.

Yet, according to Heseltine on Monday, a few days after the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial, Lyell informed him, apropos another case, that ministers did not after all have to sign PII certificates in every circumstance. If Heseltine is telling the truth – and in this case there is no reason to doubt that he is – Lyell has been exposed as a liar who was prepared to abuse all the power and authority that goes with his position to expedite a cover-up that would have resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of three people. If that is not cause for resignation, and resignation now, the Tories have sunk even deeper into the moral mire than even NSS thought possible.

But it would be wrong if Lyell were the only minister to lose his job over arms-to-Iraq. On the PII question, the defence of Heseltine and the other three ministers who signed Matrix Churchill certificates – the then home secretary Kenneth Clarke, Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and the then junior Foreign Office minister Tristan Garel-Jones – is essentially that offered by war criminals the world over: they were only following orders (albeit in Heseltine's case – we now discover, conveniently for his prospects of political advancement – unwillingly). The story simply will not wash.

Even if the ministers were under a legal obligation to sign the certificates – which is extremely doubtful – they all had the option of resigning instead of signing, on the grounds that non-disclosure of the documents would send the Matrix Churchill executives to jail. The fact that this does not seem to have crossed any of their minds – even the whin-geing Heseltine's – is inexcusable, and the three of the four who are still serving as ministers deserve to be hounded out of office.

But the casualty list should not stop there. The PII certificates question is only one of the issues raised by the Scott inquiry – and is by no means the most substantive. Lyell, Heseltine, Clarke, Rifkind and Garel-Jones are guilty of having engineered, or carried out, a massive cover-up: others are guilty of having constructed, implemented and acquiesced in the policy that they tried to keep from public view.

Put simply, following the Iran-Iraq war, the government secretly adopted a policy of maximising exports to Iraq – even though it knew that many of the exports were of equipment essential to Iraq's rearmament programme, and even though it knew all about the viciousness of Saddam's regime and his expansionist ideology. The policy was more than just a disastrous misreading of Saddam's intentions: it raises fundamental questions about the making of British foreign policy and about the competence and honesty of the politicians responsible for it.

Of course, many of the key players are peripheral to politics these days: Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe, Alan Clark. But others are not. The foreign secretaries who presided over the latter part of Britain's "arm Iraq" policy – for that is what it was – were John Major and Douglas Kurd: their underlings included William Waldegrave. All deserve the chop for their roles: in a decent polity, Scott would not hesitate to recommend in his report a mass resignation from the cabinet.