In his invaluable diaries, Mr Tony Benn records that on 27 January 1977 I came to lunch at his ministry on Millbank. I remember the occasion well. We had cold sliced ham (the sort that helps the supermarkets make their billions) and that unique English salad consisting of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber with the peel left on and, to complete the combination, Heinz salad cream. Mr Benn thoughtfully provided me with some sweetish Anjou rosé wine but drank nothing himself, his signature tune then as always being "My Drink Is Water Pure From the Crystal Stream" or, alternatively, that even firmer old Band-of-Hope favourite, "Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine".
"They do a rather good lunch here," Mr Benn said.
The place in question was the Department of Energy. I felt it would be impolite to dissent from this view, which had been advanced with every appearance of seriousness. We turned to other matters:
"We talked about the sovereignty of Parliament and about lawyers and politicians, and he [AW] remarked: 'You know, if I had to choose between being governed by Dennis Skinner or by the Master of the Rolls, I'd rather have Dennis Skinner' – a curious comment from somebody whom I think of as a moderate. Lord Denning, he said [Denning then held this office], had got some idea that the sovereignty of Parliament was not part of the British constitution; that there was some moral law which overhung everything."
Mr Benn was, as usual, an accurate reporter. That was what I said to him and believed at the time. I no longer believe it or, if I do, it is with such large reservations that my faith in the sovereignty of Mr Skinner is as fragile as that of any Victorian religious doubter.
What changed my mind was Margaret Thatcher's period of office: in particular, her vindictive abolition of the Greater London Council. It was not that I was Mr Ken Livingstone's greatest admirer: rather I thought that, if the GLC was to be abolished, the deed should be done through some special procedure preferably involving the wishes of Londoners. Mrs Thatcher and her man-of-business Kenneth (now Lord) Baker were making an improper use of a parliamentary majority. They were acting unconstitutionally.
Others took the same view. Charter 88 was founded. I did not join because I am not a great one for joining things and because I thought the motives of the founders were not entirely pure. They wanted to curb the powers of Old Ma Thatcher rather than of government in general. For this reason, a few members of the Labour Party gave the organisation their support, though the party's traditional view of these matters was simple, brutal even.
A Labour government should be able to do precisely what it wanted to, unimpeded by the courts of law or by the House of Lords. It is, by the way, worth noting that the Government's proposals for a new upper House nowhere suggest that the Lords' present powers of delay should be diminished at all. As for the courts, they were regarded as a ramp set up by the upper-middle classes for their enrichment, with the incidental object of frustrating Labour governments and local authorities.
Labour backbenchers were expected to sustain the government obediently: that was why they were there. Conscience, as C R Attlee once remarked, was as he understood it a still, small voice rather than a megaphone. It operated in a narrow field comprehending sexual intercourse and strong drink. War, as Ms Hilary Armstrong correctly pointed out, is not a matter of conscience in the People's Party.
Mr David Blunkett's Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, published last week, is fully in accord with Labour's grand tradition of despising MPs, being suspicious of foreigners, taking as much power to ministers as it thinks it can get away with, preferring tribunals to the courts (in this case the Special Immigration Appeals Commission) and trying to remove the courts' jurisdiction over those tribunals.
The Bill also extends the new racial offences of assault, criminal damage and harassment to cover attacks aggravated by religious hostility. It extends the provisions concerning incitement to racial hatred to cover religious hatred. It includes cases where the hatred is directed against groups abroad. It increases the maximum penalty for these offences from two to seven years' imprisonment. The perpetrator must use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief, or lack of it.
At the same time Mr Blunkett tells us that the law of blasphemy, which applies only to Christianity, is to be abolished. What is happening is that this discredited law is being extended to other religions, as Lord Scarman foolishly suggested it should be in the Gay News case. We are told by Mr Blunkett that the new law will not affect attempts at humour or expressions of opinion. They always say that. Let me give an example. When he was writing a column in The Times, my late friend Auberon Waugh claimed that some Mohammedans – a word which itself now causes trouble, though it was good enough for Gibbon – wore baggy trousers because of their alleged belief that the Prophet would be reborn of a man rather than a woman. As Waugh recounted in his memoirs:
"I repeated an old army joke about the curious trousers worn by men in certain parts of the near East ... Furious letters were received from half the embassies of Islam, demonstrations were held in Printing House Square and the British Council Library in Rawalpindi was burned to the ground. I was naturally proud to have caused such devastation, but also rather apprehensive. Fortunately, [the editor, William] Rees-Mogg, to his eternal credit, seemed unmoved by it all ..."
Would Mr Blunkett prove equally insouciant? I rather doubt it myself. What makes these provisions doubly scandalous is that they should clearly be contained in a separate Bill. It is possible for the House to split a Bill. Twenty years ago such an instruction was issued to a Commons committee over a local-government measure. A greater scandal still is that Mr Blunkett mendaciously claims we are in a State of Emergency: not a fully fledged state, mind you, which would enable obstreperous trade unionists to be shot at dawn, but a purported condition which merely enables the Government to evade certain provisions of the Human Rights Act. What a slippery lot they are!Reuse content