Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)



Mr Liddell-Grainger

  80. Were you?
  (Mr Bragg) The Queen's Royal Irish Hussars

  81. Well done, you.
  (Mr Bragg) That is how I get the Tory on side.

  82. How do you deal with the Al-Qaeda? In the European elections last time round there was an abysmal 26 per cent turn out, which we all agree is disgraceful. I am just wondering, is it not the House of Commons that may be wrong, because the perception we have, never mind the pin-striped suits, is what you see on the television is you see us all screaming and yelling at the Prime Minister, it does not matter which party it is, you then see people voting in an empty chamber, and you see people rushing in and out, we have no job description. You go down to Shepherd's Bush Empire tonight and you are on at 7 o'clock, we clock out when we finish, we are finishing today later than normally, is it not the fundamental of the whole system which needs to be looked at top to bottom than just one end or the other?
  (Mr Bragg) I agree. You have to be begin somewhere. If you could achieve the infusion of people from outside the present Westminster circle to reform a Second Chamber their presence would have a salutary effect on your behaviour, we would able to see them on tv being, we hope, more civil, working more regular hours, because they are were citizens who signed up for whatever length of term we give them. I think they would bring in non-Westminster practices that would highlight all those problems that you are talking about because you are absolutely right in making that point that when we do switch on and see those things they are very, very much—

  83. Look round the table here. We have all come from different backgrounds. I do not think any of us come from the same background. We are all professionals, semi-professionals, pole-cats, whatever you want to call us, but we have got here. I do not think you can mirror that at the other end by demanding that that is what it has got to be like. We have got to look at what we are like, not try and impose it but say "can we come to that system". It must work because it has worked quite well so far, although it is beginning to get old and jaded.
  (Mr Bragg) Is what you are talking about just tidying up the status quo or are you talking about bringing in a new infusion of ideas in the 21st Century, because that is what I am interested in doing? A second chamber which had a legitimacy, not the same legitimacy as yourselves but a legitimacy that would come with a secondary mandate could actually help you to do a lot of your parliamentary work. I think they should be full-time legislators—not 24/7 but certainly five days a week reasonable hours. One of the real problems with the present Lords is its casual nature and the fact it does not matter if they turn up and vote because it does not matter in the end how they vote.

  84. You have hit the nail on the head. What is going to be their responsibility? Is it turning down Fox Hunting Bills or is it looking at Communications Bills like we had last night in the Lords, which went on and on and on until 10 o'clock last night? Are we looking at the wrong sort of things? Are we disengaging by virtue of the way that we have the legislative programme?
  (Mr Bragg) I am not sure.

  85. It is quite a complicated question.
  (Mr Bragg) It is a complicated question and your experience of the Commons is obviously much, much greater than mine for me to be able to see through your question how that might be improved. I have a constant argument with my friends in Charter 88 who want a wholly directly elected second chamber. I keep saying to them, "What you are asking for is an animal of the same size with the same size teeth as the House of Commons and they are going to fight you because they are going to be going after the same prey. What we should be doing is trying to create a smaller animal with teeth that helps the House of Commons do its business, do its hunting. It should be something that is smaller but it has to have teeth. It has to be able to make its point and not be able to be dismissed by Ministers who say "they are unelected". That is a problem. Even if we have a directly elected second chamber and the elections are on a separate day, for instance, to that of the Commons elections, the turn-out will be similar to that of the Euro elections and then you will have the abysmal situation of ministers saying, "They are not really representative anyway. Only a quarter of the people voted for them." That is why I am very much in favour of plugging the election of the second chamber into the General Election because that is from where the source of all political legitimacy flows. It is the largest participation—obviously it has fallen a little in the last Election and that should be of concern to everybody—that we have. If we could plug into that, then we would have a second chamber that because it was so new would have a point to prove against the Commons. You would judge it immediately against what the Commons looks like, how the Commons acts. The Commons would suddenly have not a rival but a new suitor for the public's affections and it would perhaps have the effect of encouraging the Commons to look at the way it conducts itself. Can you really put rules in that stop all that hullabaloo, which has nothing to do with it, it is just yah-boo? You might as well be Richard Littlejohn sometimes for the amount of debate that goes on in here. I am sorry to keep coming back to the Lords but I do think it is an important issue because of the knock-on effect it would have on the issues you are discussing and, secondly, it is in the manifesto, it is in the Queen's Speech, it is something we can possibly do something about in this Parliament.


  86. I hesitate to ask you this but have you had a chance to look at the Committee's Report on Lords' reform?
  (Mr Bragg) Yes I have.

  87. I know that it is not your model.
  (Mr Bragg) No, it is not my model. I just hope you have a plan B, that is all I can say. Because you have recommended direct election, I think the Prime Minister will say what he has said to everybody else who has recommended direct election which is—and I more or less quote him on the back of this—"It would not be sensible for the Commons to legislate so the House of Lords becomes a rival Chamber." I took those words and put them there because this is the constant argument of those who are against reform and when we say we want a directly elected chamber, even if it is only 60 per cent second chamber, we are giving them a free shot at knocking down our ideas. We must find a way to overcome that because they have a very good point. The possibility of grid-lock between the two Chambers is something that has to be addressed. The issue of whether it is viable to have directly elected members and appointed members in the same chamber and that remain democratic has to be addressed as well. That is why I am in favour of a wholly indirectly elected second chamber. I welcome the fact that you were able to get unanimity on 60 per cent. I think you have done a great job on those things and I am very pleased that you have come up with those. I do feel that the Prime Minister's response is going to be along the lines I quote there which I believe was the response to a backbencher who asked the question why can we not have an elected second chamber?

  88. We could count you as part of our coalition of support behind this plan A?
  (Mr Bragg) You can count me as the "60 per cent and rising" tendency, yes.

Annette Brooke

  89. I have a concern sitting here. I am sure we all find modernisation of the House of Commons and the House of Lords a terribly good thing but I do not think that is what is connecting with people out there at all. I think it is all laudable and needs to be done but I do not think we are getting at the nitty gritty. Perhaps it is not quite your topic today but what I would be really interested in is a whole package of things we could start engaging with young people in particular. I had some people on the Prince's Trust who came round and they said they did not vote because they did not understand the things that were going on. I think that is a really good reason for not voting and I was quite impressed in a way. It is not just education and citizenship classes and all the rest of it. All of that is good but there must be some way of putting something back into the fabric. Given that young people's interest is going to be transient and it is going to be single issue, is there not a way we can tap into this and at least engage young people for a period of time and perhaps then we will get an accumulative effect? I would like your ideas.
  (Mr Bragg) I have thought a lot about this, Annette, partly for my own purposes. My job as a singer/songwriter is to observe the world and try and come up with some ideas about it. I do not think you can change the world by singing songs. It is a shame but you cannot. What you can do is offer people a different perspective on an issue. I speak from experience because I listened to bands—not only the famous Clash of t-shirt fame but also Bob Dylan, artists like that. I have been looking very much at the anti-globalisation movement trying to understand what is going on there because it has not yet manifested itself in an ideological way. What is the undercurrent there? I mention this because I believe that if we can tap into those issues that young people do feel very, very strongly about and show that there is a connection with the issues that you are addressing at this Select Committee, there is a possibility then to engage them on a number of levels. From looking at the issues, my analysis is that the issue that is at the basis of the anti-globalisation movement is one of accountability. For instance, is the World Bank accountable to the citizens of the nations that support it financially? The IMF, WTO, these non-governmental groups seem to have control over great swathes of the world's economy, yet how are they directly accountable to us as citizens of the states that support them? On another level, the European Union, we will soon be asked whether or not we wish to join the European single currency. Is the European Parliament the way that the European Union is run? It is not really—it is the Council of Ministers. So, is the European Union actually directly accountable to the citizens of Europe? Then bringing it back on to our own backyard, it gets back to the House of Lords again. How accountable are those people who have political power over us? Look at the Royal Prerogative, these kinds of issues. Accountability as an idea is not, as we say in rock `n' roll a very sexy idea and it is very difficult to fit into a song but the idea of holding people to account is something that is key to this whole notion of participation because if we can show young people that they do have the power to hold to account those people that have a direct effect on their lives, I think we can then expect them to be more interested because they do want to change the world. The political process of democracy is at the moment (it has always been too slow for young people) less attractive because it does not have the ideological dynamic that it perhaps had in the 1980s. That would be an issue we could talk to young people about—accountability. Why do you not vote? If you voted you could do this. And then if you pressed for other bodies to come under democratic control then that issue of accountability is a issue that we could engage them in on a number of levels. There are other issues as well to which you could apply that but that is one particular issue I have looked at. I am trying to express that to my audience and to my listeners.

  90. You could take that full circle because if anybody feels they cannot make a difference then it is not worth bothering and if it is all fixed then we come back to patronage.
  (Mr Bragg) Obviously that is the key with patronage—the message it sends to the electorate about their participation in the process is wholly negative. It is saying, "We do not really care what you think, we are going to put these people in, we know and we trust them. We do not care if you trust them or not, we are going to put them in and we are going to carry on business as usual and, by and large, they are going to be people we know from our professional circle." At a time of dropping voter turn-outs it sends completely the wrong message about participation to the electorate.

  Annette Brooke: Thank you. I am conscious of the time.

Mr Trend

  91. There is a triangle, a third side to this. There are the voters and profession politicians and people like yourself who for one reason or another are very engaged in public debate. On the third side there is the press and in recent years politicians have tried to manipulate the press, as indeed the press have tried to manipulate politicians, and personalities have become increasingly important. I have read your case and I think it is a good one and I am bound to say that I agree that it should be fully elected chamber. But the press filter a lot of this. When you go to school and find they do not know anything at all about what we would call the constitution—how the country works, the magistrates' courts, levels of government—it is a complete blank to them. That is partly because the school has not done civics in the traditional sense and it is partly because what they see on telly and read in the papers is so bland in one way and uniformly critical in another. How do you get round that?
  (Mr Bragg) Without being too vain I can perhaps compare my own career. I am making, broadly speaking, music with an agenda. Sometimes it is a political agenda; at other times it is a more personal agenda. I am not just a political singer/songwriter. I write as many songs about relationships and about life in general as I do about politics. However, the other 99 per cent of music that you hear is wholly non-political. People sometimes say that you should not mix music and politics, which to me is patently ridiculous. Music is like journalism—you should write about whatever you want to write about. The problem for me is that I find that whilst I am marginalised from the mainstream there is a sizable minority of people who are looking for something a bit more interesting. I am constantly trying to find them and engage with them. One of the ways to do that is to step outside the mainstream media and use the Internet as a means to contact other people, directly bypassing the media and getting news from places around the world from means other than the mainstream media.

  92. That is the problem for politicians. You used the word "agenda" and earlier you used the word "ideologies". You suggested that people were switched on to one ideology or another in the 1980s and 1990s, there was still a sense that there were important issues at stake, that people got involved, and perhaps that was enough. Is that missing now?
  (Mr Bragg) I think what is missing is the big idea. It is a sign of our times that there is no credible political party anywhere in Europe advocating the overthrow of the capitalist system. Where does that leave people who wish to try to articulate an alternative to the American model of capitalism, for instance? How are we going to articulate a model of capitalism that is not based purely on the way the Americans do business? It is difficult. We do not have an ideological language any more. The language of Marxism, which is traditionally used to articulate these ideas, is no use to us any more.


  93. Could not the big idea be this line from your latest album—I am showing my own street cred here—"no power without accountability"? Is that not the big idea?
  (Mr Bragg) That is a big idea but it is not yet articulated at the ballot box. The idea of the electorate holding more people more accountable is not a very fashionable idea among the political classes, if you do not mind me saying so Chairman.

  94. It is your line.
  (Mr Bragg) It is my line but I am outside the political process. It is what we want from you. We want more accountability. We respect the fact that you put yourself up for re-election every four or five years. We respect that by the fact that so many of us participate in an election. We express the fact that we believe in that as a process by which our country should be governed, but we do not believe that that is the end of it. There are other ways to take part, there are other ways to engage, there are other ways to hold people accountable. One of the things at the end of this ideological period does do is it puts everything up for debate. Everything. That is why we are engaged in this process of reform as we are now. The Government has said that they do want to encourage a sense of civic renewal and, by and large, people would find that very, very popular. We can articulate that in a solid way by bringing these new people in and showing them visibly, placing them beside yourselves in the House of Lords, and putting them on a level playing field with yourselves. In the end we want to engage the electorate on their terms, in tele-visual terms, in media terms. It is not about simply bringing in hairdressers. Hairdressers are probably no better than captains of industry at having all the answers. What it is is about bringing people from outside this closed circle that you inhabit, this circle of appointment. If you can find a way to break out of that closed circle and engage with the electorate on their terms rather than just on your terms, I think that may offer a way forward. The Royal Commission is how I became involved in this in the first place. I went along and I saw you give evidence, Tony, on the first day and I sat there watching to watch the process because I thought it was a great process. I went along as a punter and sitting there I thought I might have an idea and I eventually ended up writing this pamphlet. Obviously I am really encouraged by the way the Government and the Royal Commission has reached out but that seems to have stalled now because it is really coming to the crunch where you do have to let go and you do have to say to their Lordships, "You have done a great job." You do not have to sack them and throw them out like you did the hereditaries. There is no reason why you could not, for instance if you are going to have a 600-seat House, make a list of how often the top 600 members voted in the House of Lords in the last Parliamentary session, say goodbye to the lowest 200, take the 400 remaining, split them in two, give the people who voted the most ten years or two parliamentary terms in the new second chamber, and give the lower members a five-year term, and then bring in the first tranche of new people. You would have a great chamber then. You would have people with ten years of experience still there. The last thing we want is completely new people who do not know their way around.

  95. We recommended a version of that.
  (Mr Bragg) Yes.

Mr Trend

  96. That sounds like a politician's answer to me rather than a poet's answer. I disagree that you cannot change the world with songs. I think the history of the world suggests people who have stimulated all sorts of change.
  (Mr Bragg) Michael, I appreciate your belief in that because it has been central to my belief, but my job is not to kid the audience that I can change the world for them. My job is to make sure the audience understand that if they want to change the world, it is their responsibility. They cannot cop out by buying a Clash t-shirt and a Billy Bragg record.

  97. Are you tempted to get more involved in politics?
  (Mr Bragg) I went so far at the last Election as dressing up as a Roman centurion—

  98. I was thinking of public bodies.
  (Mr Bragg)—In the hope of engaging the public. I do not know how much further I can go. I engage where I can. It is not always easy to engage in these issues. If I could have written a song about House of Lords' reform, perhaps I would have done that but I could not, I had to look at another way of doing that, and I would hope that my commitment to the process is expressed by the very existence of this pamphlet. To come back to one last point that Anthony Wright made —

Mr Wright

  99. I am Tony Wright but I use Anthony because he is older than me.
  (Mr Bragg) I see that.

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