Jesse Norman

Diary - 7 July 2012

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House of Lords reform is like a dose of the clap: it may feel good at the time, but the result is an unending pain in the proverbials. I can’t, er, speak from personal experience, but even the briefest glance at the government’s plans to elect the Lords makes the point. The new bill comes to the Commons next week, for what promises to be a stormy debate. It’s a disastrous hotchpotch which will create a free-floating class of electorally empowered senators on 15-year terms, with no constituencies and no possibility of re-election to discipline them. Even Lord Strathclyde, Leader in the Lords, has admitted that the new senators will have no accountability. Result: competing chambers, legislative gridlock, cronyism, and a free pass for the government of the day. Oh, and a permanent balance of power for the Liberal Democrats in a far more powerful upper house. I wonder if that has something to do with it?


Even the Lib Dems could learn something about constitutional mischief-making from the great 18th-century radical John Wilkes, who had a genius for it. The government was not perturbed when he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of buggery, and called the Bishop of Gloucester’s wife a prostitute. It even ignored his allegation that George III’s mother was the prime minister’s mistress. But, then as now, leaking the King’s Speech was another matter: Wilkes was arrested, his house ransacked and property seized. He then counter-sued, and was elected and re-elected to parliament until the authorities rolled over. The results included a prohibition on warrants that did not name individuals, a stronger judiciary and freedom for the press to report parliament. That’s the way to do it.


As an MP I sit on the Treasury select committee, which has been thrown into the spotlight over the Barclays Libor scandal, with a guest appearance this week from Bob Diamond, now ex-CEO of the bank. When Mr Diamond appeared before us last year he was defiant, saying ‘There was a period of remorse and apology; that period needs to be over.’ Since then we have had the payment protection insurance scam, the swaps scam and the little-noticed news that in 2009 Barclays moved nearly £7.5 billion of dodgy subprime assets into an off-balance-sheet company owned by 45 of its own staff and located in the Cayman Islands. Now it’s the Libor scam. Perhaps the period of remorse and apology had better restart. 


I myself worked at Barclays de Zoete Wedd for six years until 1997, before going off to University College London to study and teach philosophy. In retrospect what’s striking is how different the bank’s culture was then: slow-moving, paternalistic, with a whiff of its austere Quaker roots. The chairman was Andrew Buxton, a 34-year veteran of the bank and scion of two of its founding families. The commercial bankers were in charge, and leery about letting the investment bankers near their capital. Yes, it was stodgy. That was part of the point.


The 19th of July is the 40th anniversary of a battle you’ve never heard of in a war that is not supposed to exist. The place was southern Oman, where the British government in 1972 was helping the Sultan of Muscat and Oman defeat a communist insurgency. At Mirbat, nine men from the SAS and a handful of troops held 300 guerrillas at bay for six hours in the heat of the Dhofar valley, one operating a 25-pounder designed for six men, another improvising with a mortar to shell advancing troops at close quarters. At a time when heroism is in short supply, I’ll be raising a glass to these men and their Hereford brethren on the 19th.


n politics as elsewhere, timing is everything. That applies in particular to a decision to vote against your own government for the first time: you don’t want to waste it on a small measure. Luckily the elected Lords bill makes it easy. There is an issue of constitutional principle at stake; the bill is a mess; it is in no sense a piece of conservative legislation; it lacks any genuine manifesto commitment; it proposes a new upper chamber that will be less expert, less diverse and more expensive than the present one (let alone one after sensible reforms); and the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the overriding need to put out the fire in the economic engine room. I shall be voting against it. Indeed, the bill is such that all MPs, Conservative or no, have a constitutional obligation to do so.

Jesse Norman is MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire.