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Minority Views in Parliamentary Democracy

4.41 p.m.

Lord Birdwood asked Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the views of minorities are taken into account in parliamentary and democratic processes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a favourite line of attack used against this House is that too often it is just a talking shop. In truth, wherever there are officially constituted gatherings and no immediate executive actions can be seen to be outflowing, they attract this patronising label of legislative impotence. For me, one of the greatest strengths of our unconstituted constitution, itself a legacy of a thousand years of trying to get things right, has been the freedom of our House to be a talking shop. Perhaps its few moments of something approaching grandeur of moral authority are just when it is being a talking shop, for these are the instances when we give ourselves time to reflect on the bedrock principles by which a society measures its worth.

I badly needed to be reminded of what some of the great voices of the past have said about minorities. John Stuart Mill held to the idea of popular control all his life but left a legacy of elitism which might be politically

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less acceptable today. The Encyclopedia of Democracy comments that Mill was so convinced of the necessity of providing representation for knowledge and intelligence, as well as the numerical majority, that he distinguished between true and false democracy. The true kind included representation of the intellectual elite; and because it was government by this minority as well as by the majority, he regarded it as genuinely egalitarian. In contrast, the false kind was government of the whole people by a mere majority. I like the ring of those last words. Mill knew that democratic majorities have built into them an intolerance of those who do not comply with conventional norms of belief and conduct; that is, those with individuality.

I turned to Thomas Jefferson. He said:


    "All too will bear in mind this sacred principle that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable, that the minority possess their equal rights which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression".
Sydney Smith's mischief appeals to me in his remark that,


    "minorities are almost always right".
The last of my historical voices is James Fitzjames Stephen:


    "The way in which the man of genius rules is by persuading an efficient minority to coerce an indifferent and self-indulgent majority".

Everything I have said so far has been culled from other men's thoughts, other men's insights. It would be nothing short of impertinence for me to think that I could build on Burke, or Locke, or Adam Smith, or Mill. But I live in the present and I have the privilege of questioning the Government about their safeguards for these sacred principles of Jefferson. So let me focus on some specific questions for the noble Lord opposite.

What effect would the framing and acceptance of a Bill of Rights have on not just tolerance but cherishing of minorities? What is the experience of those countries which do underpin their own law with a Bill of Rights? Do the Government foresee a more dominant role for European Court rulings in Britain's legal processes? After the fragmentation of the United Kingdom, are there any guarantees for minority protection in the machines being cranked up in Cardiff and Edinburgh? Do this Government believe that the practice of plebescite before parliamentary process protects individualism? I am implying that it is not possible to be too vigilant as individuals or as groups as the Government themselves in watching for the oppression of minorities.

I believe that a precious word has been dropped from the lexicon of government. That word is "freedom". Of course no one is suggesting that this regime, elected as they were on perceptions of compassion, will care any less about freedom than their predecessors. But if one is in some easily defined minority holding individual counter-populist views, the quiet shelving of the word itself can be curiously menacing. In our sedentary society we do not on the whole have the terror of the mob. We do not generally today have riots or lynchings. But it seems that we do still celebrate collectively; and as recent events have shown poignantly, collective grief does seem still to produce group social interaction, only

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slightly managed, in its later stages at least, by media intervention. We do not have the mob but, with the modern media, we have instead the mob by proxy.

If in my exploration of the sharing of power between government and the media I see power on the move, I see clearly loss of power from one institution and its re-attachment to another. What I do not see is power being used to serve the safety of a minority, at the expense of the majority if needs be, to support that very principle. Does the legislation which followed Dunblane refute this or endorse it? As a textbook example of the mutual interests of an outraged group and the media, it cannot be faulted. At the time we saw what I would call a transient majority regarded as heaven-sent by a government hungry for any populist measure. I leave it to the noble Lord opposite to guide my reflections.

Above all, the new ingredient in the management of democracy is the extraordinary power of the media. This is the wild card which none of our past political philosophers predicted but which has deeply, deeply changed the political map of all modern democracies. My newspaper tells me that it speaks for "the people"; my radio interviewer begins the ritual flaying of my representative in Parliament with the words, "People are saying, Minister"; and my television programme-makers are giving me their perception of "the people" with images of grief, or delirium, which they believe reflect the mood of the people. But the bottom line is that it is their interpretation of this collective mood.

If there is one thing that we have learned from history, some of it uncomfortably recent, it is that the collective is the enemy of the minority. The media are the agents of the collective--but why not? It is their job and they do it well. They feed me with news and entertainment, compete for my leisure hours and comfort me with opinions which they say are what people are thinking. Well, yes, but there is a moment, mediated by the camera or the interviewer, when my legal but minority pursuit is transformed into an affront to the will of the people. I am not sure that I am wholly comfortable with that process.

Governments understand power; governments do not understand helplessness, yet helpless is what too many people in our society feel. None of us is immune from fear, but hidden in our midst are those who feel nothing else. It must be the first duty of government to protect diversity.

The minorities in a society are what give it vigour. Every culture-moving idea started as a minority credo. I want the groups which wield the real power in our land to keep precious the protection of beliefs, even when those beliefs are at odds with that great tyrant twin of democracy, the people.

4.53 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for introducing this debate. It is the kind of debate which needs to be more often repeated in this House because it is an attempt to deal with some of the underlying trends in our society and some of the crucial philosophic values which inform it.

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All our speeches in this debate are necessarily brief, but I wish to touch on three issues. The first is that raised by the noble Lord concerning the way in which the executive in this country has had added to its powers a much more sophisticated understanding of public opinion and makes much more conscious use of it to inform government actions. That combination of factors can make the executive yet more powerful than it is already. It is one of the reasons for my belief--this is where the noble Lord and I part company--that we need a Bill of Rights. We need to lay down precisely the limitations of the power of the executive. I much respect the customs and traditions of a United Kingdom which has no constitution, but I fear that in a multicultural and rapidly globalising world they will no longer prove powerful enough defences for our democracy.

I agree with the noble Lord as regards government by plebiscite. I understand why there have been referenda on certain issues. I believe that there should be very limited use of referenda because there are real dangers in using them instead of public deliberation in the democratic process.

The second issue I wish to mention follows again from what the noble Lord said about the power of the media. I wish to make two points. The first is that I believe that none of us has taken sufficiently seriously the concentration of ownership of the media. We are moving into a digitalised world where the concentration of power is in a very small number of hands for the press, television and radio. It is becoming positively frightening. If one looks at the movement of global markets one can see the way in which control over digital outlets is becoming highly limited in the hands of a very small number of people. For democracy that must be an extremely disturbing development.

In that context I wish to mention a second matter; namely, the recent proposal on the part of the BBC, and in particular by the director-general, to replace existing editors and deputy editors of BBC news programmes with a single, overall control of all the news programmes in one place. I am sure that Mr. Birt is owed a debt of gratitude from all of us for the way in which he has sought to modernise the BBC, but I am very fearful of any steps that might end the individualism and, if one likes, even the idiosyncrasies of our distinct news programmes which have enabled the BBC's quality and independence to rise to a point admired throughout the world. I hope that the governors of the BBC, some of whom have the honour to sit in this House, will very carefully consider any changes that might limit the diversity and autonomy of the BBC's editors.

Lastly, I wish to refer to one other group of minority issues. I believe that for all of us it is a pleasure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is responding to this debate since his wit and wisdom will no doubt enable him to reply to a very large number of subjects which are likely to be raised under such an umbrella title as this debate enjoys. I shall conclude with some specific questions. I give the Minister due warning.

The third issue I wish to raise concerns the position in this country of our ethnic minorities. I find myself in profound disagreement with the speech of the noble

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Lord, Lord Tebbit, reported from the Conservative Party conference. He said that there could be no such thing as a dual loyalty. I felt like saying to him that he needed to listen to the words that were applied originally to the great Sir Christopher Wren, "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice". (Look around you if you wish a monument). In his case it was, "Look around you if you want to see the truth." The truth, which I welcome, is that we live in a multicultural and multinational society today. There is no turning back of the clock and therefore we have to come to terms with the fact that we can now rejoice in the resources and richness of such a society and benefit from it.

Her Majesty's Government--and I pay them due respect in this regard--have made a very good start in terms of having announced new initiatives on a whole range of issues in order to try to encourage the ethnic minorities in our midst. For example, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has encouraged more ethnic-minority people to come forward to fill the position of magistrate. The Minister of Health has announced his intention to hold a joint conference on the issue of the health of ethnic minorities and the Minister of State at the Home Office has announced his intention to look very closely at racial assaults.

Perhaps the single most disturbing area is the total failure of anybody from an ethnic minority to reach the higher ranks of the Civil Service. As many of us know, that is at least a part of where power lies. In that respect, I hope that we can have an assurance from the Minister that the recent private report undertaken by Keith Vaz, the Member of Parliament in another place, will be taken very seriously and that there will be action not just to monitor the recruitment, but also the promotion and advancement, of people from ethnic minorities in the Civil Service. With that I wish to associate also the extreme importance of looking again at the position in the Armed Forces.

Noble Lords know that I spend part of my time in the United States. I do not believe that the Government should follow that country in every aspect of policy. In some of their welfare reforms the Government are making a mistake in pursuing American policies. But I believe that the Government can learn a very great deal from the United States in the action that was taken following the decision made 50 years ago by President Truman to desegregate the armed forces. That action took the form of training people in an understanding of human rights in order to begin to change the culture of the armed forces. I respect our Armed Forces. Every generation in my family has served in the Armed Forces in one capacity or another. However, I find it appalling that an examination of the structure of our Armed Forces reveals that there is not a single black or Asian face of anywhere near senior officer status. Given the huge contribution made by Indians and West Indians to the defence of this country on many occasions, I find that shocking.

In that context, I should like to refer also to the police. I believe that the Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, has made a tremendous effort to try to encourage more ethnic minority police recruits. Up to now, the figures have roughly doubled, but the trouble

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is that that doubled recruitment is associated also with a massive rate of wastage. That suggests that young police recruits are encountering a very unfriendly atmosphere in at least some police stations. There is also disturbing information about people who have lost their lives or been badly injured while in police custody. There have been far too many such instances.

I conclude where I started. As I said, I believe that the Government have made an excellent start, but I must stress the importance of any government (including one as energetic and as vigorous as this) recognising how very much they can learn from dissenting voices. It is vital that no government ever try to prevent those dissenting voices (even from within their own ranks) from being heard because the greatest enemy of good government is almost always the pride that comes before a fall and the belief that one cannot be mistaken. I commend those words even to our present Government, just as I would have commended them a few months ago to their predecessors.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Birdwood for initiating this debate. It is with some diffidence that I follow the excellent speeches that we have heard from both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. Fortunately, however, the breadth of this Unstarred Question allows me to strike off in my own direction and to start with a general consideration of cultures and the way in which they interact before returning to what light that might throw on to minorities.

It seems to me that there are three principal characteristics of cultures in this regard: conflict, diversity and change. Looking at the way in which cultures interact, one sees that conflict is an obvious part of that. One need look only at history and at the world around us. Indeed, it is natural enough that that should be so because if one is part of a culture, presumably one believes that that culture has something worth offering and worth defending. It is but a short step from that to believing that the benefits of that culture should be spread to other people or that the territory (emotional or physical) that that culture occupies should be enlarged. Therefore, conflict is natural when it comes to cultures living together and it is something which governments need to manage.

Governments also need to have regard to diversity. Cultures do not stand still. They change and, in the process of change, they split off one from another. Perhaps the best example of those two processes is the Labour Party. Over the past 20 or 30 years, the culture within the Labour Party has changed enormously. Indeed, over that time, the Labour Party has spawned other cultures which perhaps may return to the fold one day. As I have said, one can see those processes in the Labour Party--


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