Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 October 2006
Call me an old cynic if you will, but I have a sneaking suspicion that no one reacted to last weekend’s leak of Jack Straw’s latest discussion paper on reform of the Lords by exclaiming: “Wow! A 50 per cent elected, 50 per cent appointed second chamber! What a brilliant new idea!”
Because it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t new. In fact, it was proposed, and rejected by MPs – just as every other option was rejected – last time Lords reform came up, when the late and much-missed Robin Cook was leader of the House of Commons.
What was wrong with it then is what is wrong with it now. In a democracy, the legitimacy of legislators can be rooted only in direct elections. A second chamber that is 50 per cent appointed is by definition not legitimate. And no amount of guff about the need to encourage distinguished people from all walks of life to lend their expertise to the legislative process (see, for example, Max Hastings in Monday’s Guardian) can disguise the fact. If those distinguished people want to play a part in the legislature, they should put themselves up for election – end of story. There really is no democratic alternative.
And of course everyone knows it. Indeed, I suspect that the real reason Straw has resurrected the 50:50 proposal is precisely that a second chamber lacking democratic legitimacy would not be able to challenge the primacy of the Commons. But there is another simple way of ensuring the leading role of the Commons, which is to carefully delineate in law the respective powers of the two houses of parliament. Plenty of other countries do it. There is no good reason Britain can’t do the same.
The 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution has been marked by a series of features in the Guardian and a very good book by Victor Sebestyen (which I reviewed in Tribune last week) – but I’m a little surprised at how little the left (at least in Britain) has had to say about it.
Hungary 1956 was one of the left’s great watersheds of the 20th century – perhaps not as important as the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 or the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 but certainly up there with the Spanish civil war and the Hitler-Stalin pact. Before the Soviet tanks rolled in to smash the reformist Imre Nagy government and the workers’ councils that had sprung up to defend it, it was just about possible honestly to consider that what was wrong with Soviet communism was down to Stalin’s excesses and that the regime was essentially on the right tracks. (This is not my view of the Soviet Union, need I say.) Afterwards, only fools and liars could praise the Soviet Union as a workers’ state.
Throughout the western world, Hungary caused a mass exodus from communist parties. The Communist Party of Great Britain – never a mass party like the French or Italian communist parties, but nevertheless a significant force on the left – lost one third of its membership, including its most talented intellectuals, most notably the historian and polemicist Edward Thompson. Some ex-communists withdrew into political inactivity, but Thompson and others threw themselves with vigour into creating a New Left that was explicitly anti-Stalinist and socialist.
That New Left fizzled out, but its members remained key players on the British left – as Labour MPs, in the peace movement, as writers – until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those who are still alive are getting on a bit now, but their role in reviving what had become a moribund British left culture deserves to be marked. We need a few like them today.
Now, I know this is controversial but it has to be asked: what exactly do all those people clamouring for rapid British and American withdrawal from Iraq – from Simon Jenkins to George Galloway – think would happen if their demands were met?
Would the Iraqi people, joyous at throwing off the yoke of imperialism, settle down at once to live in peace and harmony? Somehow I have my doubts. The wave of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing currently sweeping Iraq suggests that a rapid British and American withdrawal would be the prelude to civil war and mass slaughter not unlike the catastrophe of Indian partition in 1947.
That things have come to this pass is certainly at very least an indictment of the British and American governments’ failure to plan what happened after they toppled Saddam. And we can continue to argue about whether it was wrong to topple Saddam at all. But what is important now is that Britain and America, having helped create this almighty mess, do everything they can to avert civil war. And for the life of me I can’t see how they can do anything unless they have large and well equipped armies on the ground in Iraq.