Last week was a disastrous week for the Cameron government, not because of anything the opposition did to it, but what it did to itself. An issue was presented to parliament of such importance that ninety-one of the Prime Minister’s normally loyal supporters could not, in all conscience, back the government line.
The rebellion concerned reform of the House of Lords. Should we get this wrong – as ‘devolution’ has so tragically shown – and all sorts of genies would be out of the bottle which could never be put back. The Lib Dem’s proposed reforms would land us with an unworkable setup between the two legislative houses and a second chamber, stuffed full of third-rate has-beens who couldn’t cut the mustard in the first house: the Commons. Patronage – itself one of our crippling ills – would, as a result, have been reinforced even further.
No one argues that the House of Lords (which, we should not forget, does a surprisingly effective job) does not need sorting out to make it more democratic. But the great conundrum is how, and we have been pondering that question for a hundred years. All we know is that if we get it wrong there will be the most grievous consequences, as we now realise with devolution, which threatens the very integrity of our country.
The Liberal Democrats want the reformed House of Lords to adopt the very system of proportional representation which was so soundly rejected by the public a year ago with – you may not be surprised to learn – beneficial results for themselves.
We would end up with two forms of democracy in our country, with the new one claiming a more genuine mandate. It seems a given that there would be serious clashes between the two house with each claiming the greater legitimacy; we would end up with the same sort of paralysis which so blights the life of Congress and the Senate in the US today.
Why does the PM test his party in the way he does? Why does he not realise that in a matter of such monumental importance he cannot expect party loyalty to override what so many in his party are convinced is for the greater good of the country? Is keeping the Lib Dems onside worth splitting his party for?
Little by little the evidence piles up that our leader – despite his good intentions – is not over-blessed with sound judgement. And the same applies to his chancellor, his deputy and so many more of his appointees. Remember Andy Coulson, the Downing Street photographer, and Liam Fox’s antics?
For a start, it was foolish – when people were feeling incredibly angry at what the moneyed classes had done to them – to stuff his cabinet with millionaires and public schoolboys, some from his own alma mater Eton College. It was Bullingdon brought to Whitehall, as many perceived. Didn’t he realise that his own privileged background raised eyebrows for some, and that to surround himself in cabinet with more of the same sent out the wrong signals? To reinforce this whole perception of privilege was crass in the extreme.
The government we have today is the most out of touch with ordinary concerns since Palmerston was sending out his gunboats. I’d put money on half the cabinet not knowing within 30 per cent the price of a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or a litre of petrol. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister was over 50 per cent adrift as to what a pensioner got. What a shower!
The trouble is that hardly any of them have first-hand knowledge of the workaday world the rest of us inhabit. They move seamlessly from Russell Group universities into think tanks and policy institutes before beginning their journey up the greasy pole. Once ensconced in the Westminster bubble they purport to know and understand the issues that concern the rest of us.
They disburse gargantuan sums of public money without suitable qualifications and experience, with none ever having headed up a public company; and they legislate on matters of which, in so many cases, they have no real experience. They live in the British equivalent of walled communities and don’t know within a million miles what it is to live on a sink estate.
On top of these shortcomings, they are too young. Occasionally, a boy like Alexander the Great or Pitt the Younger can confound the norm, but history is exceedingly short on such prodigies. (Both, as a matter of interest, had incredible fathers.) What is needed in our rulers is men of proven ability who have made their mark in the world.
Here, in our neck of the woods, we have such a man in Gary Streeter: son of a farmer, former solicitor and once Chair of Plymouth City housing. In defence of what he saw as an overriding public interest (rejecting the proposed Lords reform) he waved goodbye to any preferment in the Cameron government, which he could reasonably have expected as a senior MP and former Shadow Minister. That’s what I call guts. It is also high-minded and noble.
Everything today is so shallow. We even require our leaders to look telegenic, be bubbly and have a Tony Blair perma-smile, if possible. Say goodbye to ever getting a Churchill or an Attlee again, the miserable sods. May the Lord preserve us! How will we ever get out of the sort of crises they got us through? We could do with one such right now. But remember: he can’t be ugly, fat or have a speech impediment – like Churchill – or a clipped, staccato delivery like Attlee. No, no, they must be of the sort that can entertain us on breakfast television.