Lord Cranborne, his grandfather and a game with high stakes

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FIRST, A LITTLE history. The last time a Lord Cranborne was Leader of the Conservative Opposition in the House of Lords after a Labour landslide was in 1945. The programme for the Attlee government's first year launched an assault on the commanding heights of the economy which was calculated, in a way that makes the Blair government look feebly consensual by comparison, to horrify every red-blooded Tory.

Yet in the 1945 Lords debate on the King's Speech, Lord Cranborne, while sharply criticising the measures in the speech, had these cautionary words to say to his colleagues: "Whatever our personal views, we should frankly recognise that these proposals were put before the country at the recent general election and that the people of this country, with the full knowledge of these proposals, returned the Labour Party to power. The Government may, therefore, I think, fairly claim that they have a mandate to introduce these proposals.

"I believe that it would be constitutionally wrong, when the country has so recently expressed its view, for this House to oppose proposals which have been definitely put before the electorate..."

It is this admirably democratic principle, known as the Salisbury doctrine in deference to the ancient title to which all Lord Cranbornes are heirs, through which his own grandson now intends to drive not so much a coach and horses as a lengthy queue of Eurostars, 20-ton lorries, and double- decker buses.

The Tory leader in the Lords has hinted, to put it at its politest, that he will use the in-built Conservative majority in the Lords to do everything he can to block not only the proposal he is protesting about, the removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers, but the other legislation that passes through the Lords as well. For his part, Lord Richard, the Leader of the Lords, repeated yesterday that he was ready to invoke the Parliament Act to force the bill through the Commons if it becomes necessary.

Do not be deceived by the dustiness of the subject. This is a game being played for very high stakes indeed. One of the most frequent criticisms on the left of the Blair government is its alleged reluctance to make enemies, to engage with the forces of reaction. Over this issue, however, lack of engagement is not a problem. Gears will grind and brakes will squeal. The hereditary peers' capacity to inflict grave damage on the Government's legislative programme by delaying measures for up to two years is not in doubt.

This promises, unless either side has a change of heart, to be one of the great constitutional showdowns between a left-of-centre government and the overwhelmingly Tory- dominated House of Lords.

The ostensible argument of the Tory leadership is seductive. It is that the proposal will produce the "greatest quango in the land" and that it is the product of the Government's failure to lay out its plans for a properly elected second chamber. Delay the abolition of the hereditaries' right to vote, the Tories imply, and we will help you over time to develop radical long-term plans for a second chamber fully appropriate to a modernised democratic Britain in the 21st century.

Of course, the Tories are right that the first-stage reform of an appointed Lords is a pale and dispiriting shadow of what a proper second chamber should be. There are however two problems with the Tories' approach.

The first is that a simple bill abolishing hereditary voting rights is what the British people indisputably voted for on 1 May last year.

The manifesto said that "as an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute". If that isn't a proposal on which, to use the 1945 Lord Cranborne's words, "the government ... may fairly claim a mandate", I don't know what is.

The Salisbury doctrine was good enough for the grandfather when discussing measures which included the nationalisation of the Bank of England and the entire coal industry. But it isn't good enough for the grandson when defending the voting rights of a hereditary peerage which polls show two-thirds of the country want abolished.

The second is the small question of whether Lord Cranborne is quite as open to reform as he claims. If the Cranborne blueprint for an elected chamber exists, it has passed me by. And since such a Tory plan actually exists, namely the one for a two- thirds elected, one-third appointed, second chamber drawn up 20 years ago by that revolutionary old desperado Sir Alec Douglas-Home, it might not be too difficult a task to produce one.

Lord Cranborne argues, of course, that it is not for him to do the Government's work. If the Government wants to agree a one-stage leap to a democratic second chamber let them produce their own plan.

Now there are grounds for believing that some ministers - Jack Straw for one - are more comfortable with the idea of an appointed Upper House than they should be. But even they would not let themselves be outflanked if the Tories were clearly serious about a "big bang" approach to Lords reform. And Lord Richard, who for all his worldly experience as a lawyer- diplomat shows every sign of being a genuine reformer, who wants to see a lively, democratic second chamber, got nowhere with cross party talks on how such a chamber might be composed.

Ministers think Cranborne has been playing for time, that he is a reactionary wolf in a reformist sheep's clothing. But then they would. That analysis matters more because it is shared by a rapidly growing number of Tory MPs, particularly the younger ones, who believe privately that the noble Lord is leading them, apparently with the blessing of William Hague, towards an electoral brick wall.

OK, there is the mouth-watering prospect of tying the Government up in legislative knots for much of the Parliament. But they will be paying a heavy price with the voters for defending an archaic institution which makes Tory pretensions to a classless society look ridiculous. After all, as Paddy Ashdown has said, the Tories would have an ample part to play in formulating a democratic second chamber in the all-party talks envisaged in the pre-election Lib-Lab agreement on constitutional reform. Such talks are being considered along with the alternative of a Royal Commission by a Cabinet committee.

But then there is a difference between the Cranborne of 1945 and the Cranborne of 1998. The one in 1945 believed that in time the British people would change their minds and vote out the proposals passed by the Attlee government. The one in 1998 knows that no party will ever go to the country promising to restore the voting rights of hereditary peers. This, as Cranborne knows, is a last ditch. But a principle is a principle. Grandad must be spinning in his grave.