How times change

Lord Norton

houses_parliamentA former MP who I know, and who served in the Commons for more than thirty years, has just written to me.  He saw my letter in The Times last week and was writing to support what I said.   He also used the opportunity for some recollections.

He recalled that when he became an MP almost fifty years ago, conditions for Members were very different to those of today.  “Looking back to when I was elected…  out of my £1700 (or was it £1750?) salary p.a., I had to pay for both all the postage-stamps, and phone calls, to constituents: only letters and ‘phone calls to Ministers were free!”   A visiting US Senator was amazed to find that he had no chief of staff, indeed no staff at all.  “The poor man couldn’t believe that I even had to type about 40 letters a day, as I couldn’t afford a secretary!”

In the 1950s and 1960s, any research or secretarial support had to be paid out of a Member’s own pocket.  A secretarial allowance was not introduced until 1968.  A point I have previously made is that, in those days, MPs also were not guaranteed an office, or even desk space.  They had lockers but beyond that many had to rely on finding seats in the library if they wanted somewhere to work.  

It rather reminds me of a comment Denis Healey made to me a few years ago: “The Lords”, he said, “reminds me of the Commons forty years ago.”

16 comments for “How times change

  1. Croft
    20/08/2009 at 12:48 pm

    It rather reminds me of a comment Denis Healey made to me a few years ago: “The Lords”, he said, “reminds me of the Commons forty years ago.”

    Perhaps because 1/3 of the Lords were
    the Commons of (almost) forty years ago!!

    The point made about expenses taps into one that has rather irritated me. Politicians have banged on about C19 parliamentary practices and old boys clubs implying this was the cause of the expenses regime debacle. That all expenses including pay for MPs is a C20 development and most of it a late C20 at that seems to have been conveniently forgotten. (Yes before someone corrects me MPs were ‘paid’ up to the C17 but for modern purposes it started in 1911)

  2. 20/08/2009 at 3:13 pm

    o/t: Parliament’s Flickr collection of the restoration of Richard I statue are excellent, in particular, the ‘after’ photo of the horses’s head. This led me to the conservation collection. Who are these guys (eg are they employed by the palace, or the council), and are they winning? Well done to them (as well as the photographer).

    Back to the post. What is the ideal number of Members that could be comfortably sat, with entourages, per House? Would the reduction lead to less legislation being passed, or less scrutiny?

    Elevation to the HoL has often been used to reward/pay off an MP. Assuming HoL numbers will have to decrease by other than purely natural means, what will MPs be offered in the future?

  3. Len
    21/08/2009 at 10:18 am

    Croft, pardon me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it more like a fifth of the Lords were ex-MPs, and roughly a third of ex-cabinet ministers become Lords? Those are the figures I’ve been quoting for the last few years, right or wrong!

    LadyTizzy, I’d certainly be in favour of MPs gaining a non-seated peerage (so much like the status of the old hereditaries now – title but no seat). But then again, I’m still convinced we’d be best served with all peerages (with seats of course) judged by the Appointments Commission with the use of party recommendation lists…

    • Croft
      21/08/2009 at 2:04 pm

      Len: My fault. The official figures are close to 1/4 according to the Lords’ website. It was my carelessness as I was using 1/3 in another post where I was including the number of peers who were ex-MPs/ex-MEPs or councillors. Of course you could argue that day to day the 1/3 figure for MPs may even be too low. The average attendance of the house is 413/~725 (’07-08) so on the basis ex-MPs tend to turn up quite strongly their representation is actually higher than their bare numbers.

  4. Frank W.Summers III
    21/08/2009 at 10:45 am

    The post is rather encouraging because his lordship is a knowledgeable and practical man (not devoid of all romance I am sure). But there is increasingly one principle that has guided the modern corporation: profit. Democarcy in most countries is merely majority rule while in Britain there lingers a dynamism between majority rule and good of the whole (Burkianism to use a term Brits hate or ignore) but two principles are simple. We live in an age that I believe is slumping toward destruction with a mad simplicity of social theory.

    The House of Lords cannot be healthy in my opinion unless there is room for a Bishop who is trying to make the UK a Christian nation, another trying to apply the Doctine of the two Swords to the governance of England or Wales. It needs an Earl who can advocate the purifying of instituions of hereditary nobility and a noble who is a shameless booster of the Royal House in every instance. It needs a Labour MP of yesteryear who is questioning of the institution and so wishes to be its popular conscience and perhaps to use an instance as a type it needs your Lordship.

    The HoL is not really going to be good or valuable if it is reduced to some simple thing. That is the test which Commons did not endure. I do not believe it is impossible but it is a very great challenge. Furthermore I thin many would find my instances scandalously primitive already and yet wild as my instances might seem to many they are far fewer outposts of opinion and duty than the House actually should have and preserve for the future. In the relatively new USA we abolished legislative election of Senators and provided for their direct election. They still have a powerful federalizing effect compared to their absence and rule by one house but while we may have become a tidier and cleaner country I doubt that instance has actually made us stronger, greater or more true to our organizational and organic nature. I think the real test will be to preserve a Britsh mentality that can cope with some modicum of complexity in that house. I believe the prosperity of the HoL will have some good effect in the world even if the particular Lords were all poor specimens for a generation. Not that I predict that occurrence.Can Britain accept the torture of nuanced thought for forty more year?

  5. Kyle Mulholland
    21/08/2009 at 2:47 pm

    I still think hereditary peerages should be granted from time to time. Especially to the most senior figures in society (who should also recieve life peerages to sit in the Lords). I might say that though I’m no big fan of some of our Prime Ministers, it seems unjust that they recieve the ‘standard’ peerage that everyone else gets. Either that or there ought to be an element of seniority in the peerages.

    That Lord Weatherill, for example, had a peerage of the same type as Lord Sugar, seems an inadequete recognition of the former’s services. I don’t know, it could be just me, but I do think some of that ought to be restored.

    • 21/08/2009 at 4:05 pm

      I agree with your sentiment, Kyle, though personally believe hereditary titles should be kept on a very tight leash. As you say, there is a massive difference, if even in perception, with Weatherill and Sugar.

      Purists won’t encourage changes in titles though, for the sake of public consumption, maybe some form of ranking could be engineered. Weatherill would get a first class, Sugar a 2-2?

  6. lordnorton
    21/08/2009 at 4:22 pm

    Croft: Indeed. When I was elevated to the peerage, I was in the middle of research into the role of senior ministers and part of that entailed interviewing ministers from earlier periods. When I took my seat, I was able to look across the chamber and see the very people I wanted to interview! On expenses, you are quite right. Indeed, insofar as the balance has tipped on the generous side (salary plus expenses, and pension) it is extremely recent. It is not that long ago that some Members had difficulty in making ends meet and for financial reasons feared the prospect of retirement.

    ladytizzy: As you will see, I have done a separate post on the restoration of the statue. As far as I am aware, it was a specialist team of conservators employed for the purpose. The restoration constitutes one of about twenty different works projects being completed during the recess. On the accommodation capacity of the two Houses, both are operating at maximum capacity. In the Lords, this means most peers with desks, but with virtually no space for peers’ secretaries and researchers. Over the years, apart from the new build, space has been converted to create new offices. I am not sure there is any spare capacity left within the Palace itself. On MPs being elevated, you are right that we need to reduce numbers, so in the fullness of time there will be a problem with translating MPs from one end of the corridor to the other. In the event of a Conservative victory at the next election, there will be a need to create new Conservative peers, but little scope for new Labour peers.

    Frank W. Summers III: I think the value of the House is that it has the diversity to which you refer. We have a rich mix of members drawn from different backgrounds and sections of society, be it the Lords Spiritual or the elected hereditaries, or life peers with varied life experiences. There would certainly be dangers if it comprised members who were essentially the same as one another.

    Kyle Mulholland: One possibility may be to amend the 1958 Life Peerages Act. Under the Act, all life peers hold the rank of Baron. Perhaps other ranks could be opened up (a life Viscount or Earl, for example) in order to allow for the hierarchy you seek. Of course, as you mention, some people could be rewarded with an hereditary peerage, which confers no seat in the House. Alternatively, there is Len’s suggestion of a non-seated (presumably life) peerage.

  7. Croft
    21/08/2009 at 5:59 pm

    It must be exceedingly convenient to be able to borrow politicians for academic purposes in the spare moments you all have in the house. There must be a other writers who wish they could get their interviews so easily…

    I was going to add about the restrictions of the Life Peerage Act but you pre-empted it. Of course other European Countries allow both life and hereditary titles at all ranks, though I have a vague memory that it was felt at in ’58 that this might lead to the end of the creation of hereditary titles. It has no proved so elsewhere so I can’t see the issue myself.

    I can see a political advantage for Labour in distorting the history of pay/expenses to portray it as C19 and perhaps the Tories to see this as an argument best avoided but I can’t quite work out why the press has swallowed it so unquestioningly.

    Though I’d thought it myself when this was discussed before I wonder on reflection does a ‘Tory government’ need a majority in the Lords. Labour managed to govern despite a massive minority before ’97 as had the Liberals and Conservatives at various times in previous centuries. Does a revising chamber really need a majority if the Salisbury Doctrine is observed? I have a sense that the Tories might be tempted to fill the house as a consequence of the flood of Labour peers in recent years but I question if it is really needed.

  8. 21/08/2009 at 8:16 pm

    “…there will be a problem with translating MPs from one end of the corridor to the other.

    It’s quite clear what you mean but this is a curious turn of phrase. I must have been snoozing if this has been explained before, apologies if so.

    Your post of 13 May indicated peers do not get a pension – “As there is no salary (and as peers in any event cannot retire) there is no pension. Your reply above, as well as that of Baroness Royall to Viscount Tenby’s recent question, gives the impression that pensions are paid to peers. Would you clarify the situation for me, please?

  9. Len
    21/08/2009 at 11:00 pm

    Surely the real problem of an appointed for-life second chamber will arise if and when a major party collapses and a minority party experiences a boom in support – think the decline of the Liberals and the rise of Labour. I don’t suppose you know how the House accommodated that change back in the day?

    Croft, thanks for the correction; you bring up a very good point about the attendance statistics. I hadn’t considered whether ex-MPs would attend more than others.

  10. lordnorton
    21/08/2009 at 11:01 pm

    Croft: Journalists tend not to have long-term memories and take what they are fed. Some report it as an almost ancient feature of Westminster, others appear to believe the additional cost allowance was introduced by Margaret Thatcher: it was introduced under Edward Heath. Some are even continuing to claim that Michal Martin is the first Speaker in almost three-hundred years to be forced out of office! I take your point about new creations, but I doubt now if any new government would give up the opportunity to have more peers than any other party. It is true that whether it has a majority or just falls below having one may not matter that much if it fails to carry another party and/or most cross-benchers with it in a division.

    ladytizzy: There is no pension for peers. We have no salaries, so even if there was provision for leaving the House (as proposed in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill) we would still not qualify.

  11. lordnorton
    21/08/2009 at 11:09 pm

    Len: You raise what is a very real issue. It was a serious problem when Labour emerged as the second largest party in the Commons. It basically lacked support in the Lords. That appears to be the reason why George V sent for Stanley Baldwin, rather than Lord Curzon, to be PM in 1922: it wasn’t an objection to having a peer as such as PM, but rather because it was difficult to have a PM in a chamber in which the Opposition was not represented. In terms of the contemporary position, it is something we tried to accommodate in the House of Lords Bill. As the Government have not accepted that the Appointments Commission should be put on a statutory basis, the situation you outline would have to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.

    • Croft
      22/08/2009 at 10:20 am

      Lord Norton: You consider that the main reason then? I’ve often heard asserted (in the way the present rewrites the past with its sense of values) that it was because he was a peer. I’d never taken that very seriously because of two things. That it is clear that Curzon was not that popular even in his own party and that from everything I’ve read he was not in 1922 the man of 1915 let alone 1905. Churchill summed it up perfectly in his description that Curzon’s ‘morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were polished till it shone after its fashion’

      Even if I thought the majority was necessary, which I don’t, the system would descend into gridlock if we had a one term conservative government followed again by Labour as we’d be looking at >100-130 new peers in four years!!! I know the Lords had been briefly that large before but in very different times.

      Len: LN will doubtless be able to give a better sense of attendance but the infrequent attenders seem to be the celebrity peers, active businessmen, party donors and the bishops.

      • lordnorton
        22/08/2009 at 11:41 am

        Croft: Yes, my understanding is that this was the King’s reasoning. Curzon may not have been the man he was, but he was certainly far senior to the rather junior and untried Baldwin. Despite all his personal failings, Curzon did have some considerable strengths. On a majority, you are quite right about the implications of frequent changes of government. That is why there needs to be some provision to reduce the size of the House. Provision for retirement would also bring the actual strength of a party in the House more into line with its nominal strength.

  12. Frank W. Summers III
    22/08/2009 at 1:34 pm

    I will assume that Lord Norton was allowing for brevity when he did not challenge my use of the word “Devolution” in a previous post of his (Reforming Parliament I believe) to apply to possible National Parliaments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in Scotland. This flows from the nursery principle that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”– except that it doesn’t really. Still as I am a conservative American one can guess I am a perpetual booster of the federal principle though American foreign policy no longer is really.

    Should Britain ever adopt at least four national parliaments each with a national House of Lords (or Lairds)the ones in the nations would be able to be relatively weak and nobility would lose nothing over what it has now. On the other hand Laws could then be drafted which would seat Lords in the Union Parliament on the basis of every seen and possible sense of justice and due process. Thus one would have elected MPs who would be nationaly seated only and Union MPs who would serve together in each national parliament but have no interchangeable qualities. However in the life long seats at Lords there would be Lords who could be pulled up or sent down to the national only status when a change occurred in the Union Commons (which would still be the main show). One could plan this for serious discusssion in say 3012. That would be more charitable than dismissing it at as a crackpot former colonial influence. This would create the possibility of seating more hereditary peers as well who in some form or other give the flavor to the body that is and would be the House of Lords.

    In all this I wonder if anyone has written a book as towhether anybody pushed to create a House of Lords containing the Princes of Princely India in the Parliament of the India we have had since the end of British Rule. I wonder how differently the future of the world might be if that had happened and also if perhaps it might have made a complexity which allowed for and India where there is now Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Majority rule alone may get the UK a whole lot of votes in the UN Security Council if the principle is followed fully and thoroughly.

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