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Another aspect of cultures is how hard-edged they are. One may take being Jewish as an example of belonging to a hard-edged culture. If you are Jewish, you know that you are Jewish. There may be some fuzzy edges but, by and large, being Jewish is a defined state. Moving on slightly, if you claim to be Scots, you could be the Italian waiter mentioned previously by my noble friend Lord Mackay and you could still be Scottish. You could be a Scot who has lived all his life in England and you could still feel Scottish. That may even apply to several generations. This definition of culture is more diffuse and less easy to determine.
Let us consider a culture which is more diffuse still and which has an even softer edge. One may say that one is a countryman. There is a continuum between being a countryman and being a townie. Where one finds oneself in that continuum depends very much on the challenge that one is facing. If my status as a countryman is challenged, I am a countryman; but if I am challenged over my right to live, and to enjoy living, in a town, I am a townie. That is a characteristic of many soft cultures. Indeed, one is a member of many soft cultures and one could be all three--one could be Jewish, a Scotsman and a countryman; or one could be some of them or none of them. We are all members of many cultures and most of those cultures are minority cultures. With reference to my noble friend Lord Tebbit, one can both be English and support the Pakistani cricket team. I certainly do because I like to win sometimes!
Other characteristics associated with cultures are stability and chaos. Again, that is a continuum. Stability can be produced by two main influences. There may be a confident and dominant culture which is able to control the minorities as it wishes, while also allowing them to flourish because it does not feel them to be a threat. There may be an external threat, binding cultures together and encouraging them to forget their differences in the cause of the common good. One can see chaos as a precipitate end to such stability, as happened in Russia, and when that happens there is complete disorganisation.
It seems to me that one must aim at the state which exists in this country now. There is a waning stability. One can see both those influences for stability in our past. Our dominant culture is noticeably less confident than it used to be. One could take the Church of England as an example. Also noticeable is the fact that external threats to our existence have decreased considerably. Indeed, I am sure that many people will feel that in their day-to-day lives such threats have disappeared. The result of that, and of the mix of cultures in this country, is that those cultures are growing more confident and more assertive and less willing to take central domination from a central government, however that government might be elected. We saw a good deal of that in the referendums this summer.
It is no bad thing that cultures develop such self-confidence. One gets a lot of strength from a diversity of cultures, but we need to understand how to manage that. In particular, the Government need to understand what they can and cannot do. It is no good
Let us consider the culture continuum between rich and poor. Looking back, the Conservative Government made the mistake, with the poll tax, of challenging the poor. Even those who were not poor knew people who were or could imagine becoming poor themselves. That is why the number of people who were affronted by our attack on that continuum was much larger than one might have thought.
In their turn, in their tax proposals in their 1992 manifesto, the then Labour Opposition made the mistake of attacking the concept of being rich. They were attacking not only the rich, but anyone who thought that they might one day become rich. The then Labour Opposition lost a lot by attacking a minority in that way. It is difficult for any government to impose their will and to think that they are part of a dominant culture without encountering some backlash within a surprisingly short period of time.
There is very little future in consensus either because consensus is the process whereby, generally, the people who shout loudest are seen to win. If one allows that process to determine what a government do, one invites chaos and dissention. One invites individual cultures to shout louder and louder so that they can have their way in that process.
The key which the Government have to find is how to manage the boundaries between cultures while not trying to manage the cultures themselves. Within an individual culture the writ of government no longer runs. We know what we want for ourselves and no longer wish to pass that up to government. But we all recognise the role of government in playing the arbiter between cultures and in deciding how conflicts between them should be resolved.
In that respect I suggest that there are some rules that the Government may follow. I should be interested to know whether the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, agrees that this is the way in which the Government should conduct themselves. First, they should respect diversity. Secondly, they should be fair and open in consideration and judgment, hear all sides and argue and reply in public. When I look back at my experiences in MAFF I can see in how many ways we failed in that regard. Thirdly, they must deal firmly with misbehaviour. If the Government have decided a difficult issue, for example what is to be allowed in respect of abortion, and people begin to dissent by attacking doctors who carry out abortions, unless one deals with that extremely firmly one encourages a cancer in society that is very hard to eradicate. Lastly, they must moderate the pace of change. All of us find it easier to accept change when it is gradual. A gradual change tends to have less in the way of violent and unpredictable aftershocks that are difficult to manage.
How do the Government measure up against those matters? There are good and bad signs. The good sign is the talk of inclusiveness. Perhaps I shall come to refer to noble Lords opposite as my noble friends. If one
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I join previous speakers in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for providing the opportunity to debate this wide-ranging subject. One can go up and down various highways and byways. When something is proposed for the future we must look as far as we can at the past in order to draw conclusions. In view of the behaviour of the previous government, I believe that this debate could well have taken place 10 or 15 years ago when they were hell-bent on an elected dictatorship. As far as I know, it was not something quoted by any Opposition party, but it had its origins in a former distinguished and learned Lord Chancellor who did not like what was going on.
I came here in 1983, four years after that government entered office. I quickly came to the conclusion that there was only one check on the previous government in those subsequent 10 years. It was not the elected Members of the House of Commons. They had no say in the matter. The government of the day made sure that they had no say. Even government Back-Benchers in another place and Cabinet Ministers who attempted to change anything were quickly dealt with and sidelined. It was said at one time that there was a better Conservative cabinet of ex-Cabinet Ministers in this House than those who were sitting in the other place running the country. They had been got rid of. It was accepted by the public that their only protection against the excesses of the previous government were the Members of your Lordships' House. I do not have the exact figure but on about 150 occasions the House of Lords told the Government to think again.
To see the worst excesses of people being driven into the Lobbies to vote, we should look at the disgraceful episode of the poll tax Bill which was forced through the House. Although members of the Government's party spoke against it, they had their arms twisted to vote on the government side. I believe that it was the biggest vote in your Lordship's House that had ever
When we look to the future we must try to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. I hope that the new Government give time to debate Opposition views. Given the way that government works today and the pressures from those outside who want their case put forward in the other place and in your Lordships' House, it is extremely difficult to get a substantial programme through both Houses in one Session of Parliament. I do not believe that the public want to swap the House of Commons and the House of Lords for a debating chamber that does nothing. We have enough such debates as it is. We must have a mechanism by which we can do something. The Government could make a good start by giving back to local authorities of all colours a whole range of responsibilities. They have been almost completely stripped of power.
For my sins I had the privilege of being leader of what I believe to be a very great city, Manchester. It had a good and progressive council that had various responsibilities. The council was run mainly by Labour and Conservative members, some of outstanding ability. There were members of both parties who were the equal of any Cabinet Minister I have ever seen at the Dispatch Box in the other place. One does not see such talent today because those people were not replaced by people of a similar calibre. There is nothing for them to do. They have been stripped of all power. For example, my noble friend Lady Hayman dealt with a little Bill today. We hope that it may mean that local authorities can begin to build council houses again, though that has never really stopped, even though councils have been denied the necessary funds.
When I was in local government the biggest landlords in the country were local authorities. I do not mean to say that I wanted to see everyone ensconced in a local authority house; it was time to review the situation. But your Lordships will know that when I spoke about housing from the Dispatch Box, periodically I asked the Government why local authorities were not allowed to build houses. Some of them still had the funds in the form of capital receipts but they were in abeyance. No Minister could give a reason. I was just told that it had been decided that councils would not build any more houses. That was in spite of in-depth reports on the housing problem, especially at the bottom end of the social scale. I refer to the report of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, Faith in the City and the report on housing commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh. Once again that was a non-party body of people involved in housing drawn from all sections of the community. That report showed the road ahead, but did the government listen? They did not want to know. We reached the position where eventually council house
I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, telling us why Labour lost the election in 1992. There may be a little truth in what he said, but I do not think that he was completely right. At that time the electorate had not tumbled to what the government had been doing to them. But will he tell us what he thinks happened on 1st May to cause such a dramatic change, because everything seemed to be going along in the same way? There must have been something to cause the electorate to demand a change.
If you want to do away with democracy, do away with the elected people who represent the points of view of the public. They can be removed. I lost my seat at the general election. I thought that I had worked hard, but the electorate did not want my party at the time. So I was removed. But what mechanisms did the Government put in place? Time after time Bill after Bill was rammed through this House giving Secretaries of State unlimited powers to do what they wanted. It did not matter what was said in the Commons or in this House. Why do your Lordships think all the fiddling and sleaze went on in the quangos?
I know of a case. I shall not name it. Noble Lords will know what I am talking about. Instead of being dealt with properly, one of the chief perpetrators ended up with a knighthood and another job. He is still in that job. When we talk about using power properly, we must be careful. I shall not make excuses for this new Government if they go over the top. I am a politician who believes that people should have their say. It would not be the first time that I have gone into the Lobby against my own government. My noble friend the former Chief Whip will bear that out. When I was in another place I was sacked from a job I did not know that I had for doing that.
Having said all that, it has been a good debate. I hope that we will shall see some powers that have been taken away from elected authorities returned to them as quickly as possible. Then we might start to have an increasing number of people of quality coming back into local government, people who can shoulder the responsibilities. They have shown in the past that they can carry out those responsibilities properly. I am not saying that everything in local government is right, but it is far better than dictatorships appointed by Secretaries of State which answer to no one.
The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Birdwood for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter. "Decentralisation" and "greater accountability" are buzz words of the moment. The modernisation of our constitution is necessary to impose,
What is extraordinary about the Government's constitutional experiment is that, among all the eulogies extolling the virtues of more power to the people, there are parallel thrusts towards less accountability and a strengthening of the executive. That is a sleight of hand, a giving with one hand while taking away very much more with the other.
Reforms to the Labour Party demonstrate the point. The modernisers have expunged debate and criticism. Discipline, as measured against the merest whiff of dissent, is all. Control is now concentrated in an elite at the centre. Far from giving more power to the people, that stultifies the freedom to express any, let alone a minority, view. It disavows that the lifeblood of any democracy is the free expression of ideas.
I do not make that point from any partisan bias. As Hutton suggests, the "centralising tendency" is endemic within our system. What disturbs is the hint of hypocrisy with which New Labour has carried it forward into government. The whole nation, not just the party faithful, is now exhorted to join the "new euphoria". As Janet Daley puts it:
It is an essential quality of good government that it accedes not only to the existence but also the merits of views other than their own. That is the seedbed of true tolerance and compassion. As Roosevelt said:
Of course, that interdependence is nothing new. It is an essential symbiosis. There must be an intimate relationship between the substance of policy and its presentation. Only in that way can it be subjected to critical examination by the public. To that extent the media are very much part of the matrix of parliamentary accountability but, as an article in the Daily Telegraph suggests:
Of course, at one level these are part of the process of consultation, but they also have the less desirable effect of reducing policy to the status of product. The point is that pursuit of market share is no substitute for proper governance because of the way in which such an emphasis can subvert the democratic process and work against minority interests. Recent firearms legislation illustrates the point. Of course there is a public safety dimension to that debate.
As Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth has suggested, single-issue adherents are distrustful of our process for this very reason. Not without justification, people do not see empty rhetoric and manipulation of their interests as an appropriate or effective way of addressing their concerns. In this sense, we can be justifiably concerned that political responses to their aspirations seem to be guided more and more by a process of auditing electoral consequence. This approach frustrates rather than enhances both the interests of minorities and the concept of "the greater good".
My noble friend Lord Birdwood cited John Stuart Mill's distinction between true and false democracy. This is a point of especial relevance in the contours of our democratic process today. In this--and I am conscious of a tinge of irony here--I have saved the last word for Oscar Wilde. I wonder to what extent we will be obliged by this Administration to live under the yoke of his assertion:
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, this has been an exceptionally interesting debate with some notable contributions, not least from the noble Earl, Lord Northesk. Such was the diversity of the contributions, I shall take as my text what I believe to be the central issue. To draw on John Stuart Mill, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, in his introduction, we are talking about the will of the majority and the protection of the rights of minorities. Incidentally--and it is a matter to which I shall return--it is a paradox of British constitutional arrangements that we have had the will of the minority without the protection of the rights of the majority.
I remember going to Colombia 10 years ago with one of those American institutes which has more money than sense and sends people around the world to advise such as the Colombians on their democratic system and the protection of human rights. We were not an enormous success, as one can tell from the results. However, I was struck by the fact that in the minds of the Americans on the deputation there was no conflict or difference between majoritarian democracy and the potential for the protection of the rights of individual minorities. They assume that democracy is a package within which everything is contained and if the will of the majority prevails surely everything will be all right. For reasons that several noble Lords have mentioned, I do not believe that to be the case.
I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, for introducing the subject. The fact that it has been moved from the Conservative Benches is particularly appropriate. It must be difficult to adjust from the Conservative's long years of majoritarian rule to the new experience of being the minority not only in the country, which the Conservatives were through the long years of majoritarian rule, but a minority of course not
We on these Benches have long practice of being a minority. We know all about minority status. No one can tell us anything about it because we know exactly what is involved. I suggest that it draws on several comments that your Lordships have made.
There are three elements to the discussion. The first is the political institutions. The Government have set their hand to the most ambitious programme of constitutional reform that this country has seen for a very long time. In that, we on these Benches are marching with them shoulder to shoulder. Proportional representation, which your Lordships would expect me to mention, has a bearing on the matter because it ensures that, broadly, people are represented in proportion to the views held in the country.
With respect, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Birdwood, was mistaken about a Bill of Rights. The essence of such a Bill, whether it is simply the incorporation of the European convention, which the Government are proposing, is to state that there are limits on executive power--
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