John At­tlee

The Sal­is­bury Con­ven­tion will sur­vive de­spite the best ef­forts of the un­demo­cratic Lib Dems

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - John at­tlee

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

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