Parliamentary speech

Melvyn Bragg’s speech on reforming the House of Lords, from 29 March 1999, is one of the best parliamentary speeches I’ve ever read.

My Lords, I feel diffident about speaking in this debate, being new alike to this House and to the expert and opaque art of politics. Therefore, if I may, I shall take a rather personal tack.

At school I had a history teacher, Mr. James, who said that everything that ever happened came from three causes. I have observed this often enough in today’s debate. Perhaps we all had the same history teacher. However, I am grateful to him today because I am offering three causes for this diffidence. The first is history itself. No one taught as I was the history of this country, of Europe and the European world, could fail in the 1950s to be proud of much of what we the British had done. Although other stories, other versions, other truths have since been well aired, there still remains in me a pride and even a wonder that these small, damp, unpromising islands exerted so much influence, had so much imagination, bred and provoked so much knowledge, and irradiated so much that was positive around the globe.

There is of course a negative side, a darker seam–and how we have been made aware of it over the past 50 years, when our history has not only, rightly, been scrutinised from the outside but, less acceptably, often turned inside out in a mistaken zeal to revisit the past using only the lamp of a current fashionable correctness.

But the history I was taught, and was lucky enough to go on to study at that historic university, Oxford, though not blinding me to the sewers under the roads to greatness, left me in some awe that fallible individuals ever came together with such force to do what they did here in this country and over centuries. One of the great creations of the British was a constitution which, despite expert battering and acidulous attacks, most fiercely from critics in our own country, has in a relative world served better than most, even any–though sometimes most reluctantly and late–to represent and express the people in whose name it exists. Two cheers for democracy, said E.M. Forster, and our least worst of systems has weathered well.

Such a constitution is not likely to be subjected to radical surgery. The fact that it is at this time–and that the electorate agreed that it should be done, which gives it all the legitimacy it needs–does not dent or lessen the momentous and solemn nature of the debate now before your Lordships’ House. It gives us all pause.

The second cause of diffidence was well expressed, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Stafford, in his maiden speech last November, on the day when I, too, made my maiden speech. In the final paragraph of the speech, which he called a digression, he said:

“I hope that this maiden speech is not the first and last speech that I shall make to this House, possibly closing a chapter in our family’s history as I do so. It was in 1299 that the first member of my family was called to Parliament, 700 years ago next year, while just over 600 years ago we were elevated to the peerage. In the succeeding six centuries three members of the family had their head chopped off–not entirely careless to lose one ancestor every 200 years, particularly as we kept choosing the wrong side”.

As I listened to that, and more, I was moved by the tradition, the length and strength of the service, the sheer virtue of continuity, and the quality of long persistence which informed that modestly described digression, as indeed I am moved by other hereditary noble Lords.

Perhaps I may mention just one out of many: my fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, whose care of his family’s past and his country’s best interests has been exemplary. Of all the silent choirs which haunt even this comparatively modern building, surely the most resonant are those ancient voices, the chorus of past noble Lords. Their names and deeds, at their best, stand high in our history. Moreover, I would guess that the guile of centuries will not have slackened over the past few months and a number of your noble hereditary Lordships will find a way to change into a suit which fits the modern cut, and we shall see some resurrected in this place–the place which bears so much witness to their ancestral histories.

But I have ancestors too. I did not find their names in the books of history I read at Oxford. But they too had fought in wars: my grandfather, Herbert, and several of his brothers served in the Army in World War I; my father, Stanley, and his brothers were in the Air Force in World War II and doubtless before then they made up the numbers in battles which raged in the Borders between England and Scotland for several centuries and in bloody battles various around the world and in other battles here at home.

Just as they added to the wealth of the country by ploughing its fields and digging its coal, the women, too, strained to bring up decently its often inadequately provided for children: foot soldiers, housewives, manual workers, men and women, and as far as I can discover any records, decent people whose patience and tolerance helped this country, and so this House, to be what it was and what it is.

As your Lordships would expect, I am proud of my ancestors–as proud, I may say, as any hereditary Peer. They wanted betterment for themselves and their families; they wanted what was fair; they knew that the world must change and, perhaps of all people anywhere, they stalked change with caution and forbearance. But one well defended castle after another finally fell: in the franchise, in education, in health, in housing, and in a multiplicity of areas and in the sense that opportunity is equally possible. Now, perhaps the last citadel is reached: the constitution. Perhaps I feel a little less diffidence here.

But my third cause of diffidence is that I am no constitutional historian. Nevertheless, even as a new Member of your Lordships’ House, I believe that to function with the power which will be of the greatest benefit to this country your Lordships’ House can no longer be so spectacularly tilted and biased to one form of entry–thus by a chain reaction causing disproportion in gender and background and, to an overmarked extent, in political allegiance. To legislate for the country, even to amend legislation; to debate for the country, even though such debates can be lonely vigils–this demands that the House represent far more truly the vivid, changed and varied groups in this country now taking us beyond the year 2000.

Will the new House be elected or will it be representative–or to some extent both, to the advantage, I hope, for the former? Whatever it is, I am sure that the very newness will release new energies and new vigour. Will it be as independent as before? Will it be as eccentric as before? Will it have the style it had before? I hope so and I believe so. Style is not the monopoly of one section or class in our society; neither is eccentricity, and neither is independence of mind. All these qualities are liberally dispersed across all sections of the British people.

What most of us want, I am sure, is a stronger House, a more grounded House, a House able to look another millennium straight in the eye because the tradition it calls upon and the new ancestors it serves come from a far wider, more diverse, less-the-icing, more-the-cake, an unconfined range, able to give Parliament and our democracy the best energies of the British people and so be in safe hands. For that reason, I support the Bill.

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