The Salisbury Convention will survive despite the best efforts of the undemocratic Lib Dems
If these seem like divisive times, cast your mind back to the Britain of 1945; a nation battered by war, a new Labour government elected on a platform of massive and radical reform, and a House of Lords so overwhelmingly Tory that Labour peers were described as “a tiny atoll in the vast ocean of Tory reaction”.
That Labour victory was led by my grandfather, Clement Attlee. And it is hard today to understand the scale of Conservative opposition to his agenda. Yet it was two peers – the Labour leader of the House of Lords, Viscount Addison, and the Tory, Viscount Cranborne (the Marquess of Salisbury) – who formed what would become known as the Salisbury Convention. The Opposition would not thwart major Bills that had been in Attlee’s manifesto, they agreed, because that legislation reflected the will of the electorate. It would be constitutionally wrong – not to mention politically unwise – to do so.
Today, many are worried that the Lords will ignore the Salisbury Convention – that, because we have a minority Government, Labour and Liberal Democrat Remainer peers will choose to wreck Brexit.
Let me say that the Liberal Democrats don’t care and haven’t cared for years about the will of the people. But Labour Lords, skilfully and responsibly led by their leader Angela Smith, will be very careful not to upset the convention. Baroness Smith and her team understand that what benefited my grandfather also benefited the Labour government of Tony Blair, whose project of Lords reform was not blocked by the very Lords it sought to turf out.
The Labour Party in the Lords will, as a result, be sensible. They know that the majority of voters chose to back parties which backed Brexit and that the Labour Party was one of those parties. It is true that Lib Dem peers feel very differently, but while people could have chosen to support the Lib Dems at the ballot box, they did not, and they should take that message.
Certainly, peers from the two main parties will seek to ensure there is clarity. We may send legislation back to the Commons if it does not do what it says on the tin and that is our constitutional role. But neither Labour nor Tory peers want to wreck Brexit. Many of my fellows are, like me, deeply Eurosceptic. We acknowledge that the country has voted for Brexit and are content with that. In the short term we must adopt the Great Repeal Bill, before taking advantage of the long-term freedoms that will come with Brexit. That has a popular mandate from the referendum and the last general election, and there is a constitutional justice in that.
Labour, to be blunt, will not make a mess like an ill-trained spaniel because to do so will rebound upon them. Only the Lib Dems will have no inhibitions, and we in the Upper House recognise that the utterly disproportionate Lib Dem representation is a very serious problem. We’ve got more than 100 Lib Dem peers, even though they only have 12 MPS. However, we Tories only have ourselves to blame. It was David Cameron who kept stuffing the Lords with Lib Dems without regard to the future position.
There needs to be a cull but we are capable of organising one for ourselves. Sadly there are quite a few peers who turn up very regularly and claim their allowances even though it is not clear what they actually do. Expect a plan where each bloc in the Upper House is assigned a quota of peers, possibly depending on their representation in the Commons. But if we do reduce our numbers, we would need assurances that the prime minister of the day won’t take up the slack and stuff the Lords again with relatively junior people. It used to be that only cabinet ministers or very senior MPS would get elevated. Now the Lords is filled with worthy backbenchers. There are far too many of them, frankly.
Not all peers should survive, but the Salisbury Convention will. It will do so, first, because most peers realise that it protects electorate-endorsed laws from rejection by our unelected chamber. And secondly because it protects the very survival of our chamber, by encouraging restraint.
The Earl Attlee entered the House of Lords in 1992 as a crossbencher and joined the Conservative Party in 1997. He is one of 90 remaining hereditary peers