The Sketch: Standards are slipping, as the Lords debate stuck to party lines

  • @SimonSketch

When did the Lords get so dull? Maybe there was more to the hereditary principle than we thought. They still limp, hobble and doze in their attractive way – I feel more and more sympathetic towards them – but last night all the argument fell out on party lines and no one said anything unexpected. That's not right, is it? Paddy Ashdown made the best speech – that's what today's House of Lords is like.

Lord Giddens, late of the LSE, was he going to sell us the benefits of revolutionary evolution? No, wrong revolution, this one was "ill thought through, corrosive and socially divisive." Lord Winton's "declaration of interests" was longer than his speech and sounded more like professional boasting.

The Bishop of Lincoln asked us to consider what Jesus would have thought of it. Jesus? What's He got to do with it? Was it legal, even to name Him in Parliament?

Chris Patten asked him why he found public debt unthreatening but private debt to be so bad. It was the start rather than the end of an interesting argument. The man responsible for it all, Lord Browne himself, sitting next to the ghost of the Astronomer Royal. He – Browne – said he approved of the Browne Review.

To their credit, many speakers got out what they needed to say in four to six minutes (something the Commons regards as fascist censorship). But Labour's Lord Triesman leading for the opposition could only make the traditional Conservative case – "Why do we need change, aren't things bad enough as they are?"

Late of the Association of University Teachers, he called for resistance in the traditional way. "These are not proposals about gaining efficiencies but are an attack on students."

And it was clearly driven by the deepest Tory malevolence because the "game-changing" instrument amounted to an undeclared privatisation of universities.

Higher education, he told us with great emphasis, "was not that kind of supermarket".

Clearly he has no idea what sophisticated and subtle institutions supermarkets are.

He wanted market research to establish "the appetite for debt among lower-income people" as if we couldn't find market research to say anything the hell we wanted to. The increased fees, he said confidently, would reduce demand by 7 per cent. Down to about a third of student population – which many think is about the right proportion.

Then it was the Liberal Democrat Paddy Ashdown making the most dashing case for fees that has yet been made.

"People take out mortgages for visible property – why not for their intellectual property?" And he concluded with "the Dickensian picture of poor families that can't pay the fees – but it's not the poor who will pay, it will be graduates earning £21,000 a year!" He was magnificently without embarrassment. Lord Krebs shared with us his change of mind on the issue.

This would be good, surely. He summarised himself: No, no, no. The proposal was not fair, it wasn't more sustainable and, no, we didn't know what the consequences would be.

But the last of these conclusions fatally undermined the first two. Krebs said he is the principal of Jesus College, Oxford. How standards have slipped – it's not just in the Lords.