Lord Cranborne's reward for doing his duty was the sack

Conrad Russell on the alienation of the Conservative peers
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ROBERT CECIL, Viscount Cranborne, has served William Hague in the same spirit in which his ancestors served Elizabeth I. The difference is that Elizabeth I was big enough to take it. All leaders have people who will serve them according to their wishes. The Cecils served Elizabeth I in her interests. Sometimes the results infuriated her.

In 1587, when the Queen was finally persuaded, against her inclinations, to sign the warrant for the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, persuaded the Council to send off the warrant, and not to tell the Queen until after the execution. This decision was, in Lord Cranborne's phrase last week, "outrageous". The Queen was, very properly, incensed. For three months she refused to see Cecil, or to open any of his letters.

She did not sack him, however. Slowly, and very reluctantly, she was forced to realise that he had supplied her with an alibi for a dangerous decision, and in the process he had saved her from a real risk of war with France and Scotland. She restored him to all the favour he had had before. It is that act of bigness of which Mr Hague has proved incapable.

What Lord Cranborne did, in continuing a negotiation which the Shadow Cabinet had forbidden him to continue, was not as outrageous as what William Cecil did in the case of Mary Queen of Scots. Yet it was in keeping with family tradition. Lord Cranborne served his leader in what he conceived to be his interests, and not according to his wishes. Mr Hague was, as Lord Cranborne has conceded, within his rights to sack him. The question is whether a bigger man would have exercised those rights.

Lord Cranborne was exercising his authority within his own sphere of responsibility, and, more crucially, within his own sphere of knowledge. The House of Lords and the House of Commons have two different cultures, and they have a built-in institutional rivalry. Whether one calls the relationship one of Oxford and Cambridge or of Liverpool and Everton, the local-derby flavour is unmistakable. For centuries attempts to manage the business of one House from another have led to al- most uniform failure. On one such occasion in 1593, the quarrel of Lords and Commons comically developed into a father and son quarrel within the Cecil family. I used to think that quarrel was collusive - that each spoke as instructed by their House, while holding a common position in private. Now, having seen the strength of the culture of the two Houses, I am not so sure.

Today, the culture of the Commons is one of confrontation, point-scoring and playing to the gallery. MPs do not concentrate on constructive change of detail, for they cannot achieve it. The culture of the Lords is one of consensus, compromise and detailed change of working. The Lords cannot play to the gallery: it is empty. The long guerrilla war of attrition which Mr Hague wants is alien to Lords culture. The culture of compromise, dealing, and working for the best practical effect which Lord Cranborne wants is alien to the Commons. The passage of Lords reform is a House of Lords problem, and it should have a House of Lords solution. Maybe the question is not whether Lord Cranborne should have disobeyed the Shadow Cabinet, but whether the Shadow Cabinet should have been calling the shots at all.

It is in that context that Lord Cranborne has raised the question of loyalty. In his words, "The House of Lords must come first in my loyalty". I have yet to find a single member of the Lords, of any party, who does not instantly and instinctively agree with him. Loyalty is a complex and plural thing. It must be extended not just to leaders, however good, but also to institutions, to principles, to parties, and to the public interest. Leaders claiming loyalty must understand all these different loyalties, or else the loyalties they get are worth no more than those of a swarm of lemmings. One can say of ministers and shadow ministers what Burke said of MPs. They owe their country and their leader not only their attendance, but their judgement. This is what Lord Cranborne has offered and that, as every faithful counsellor in Shakespeare knew, is the truest form of loyalty. Leaders for whom it is not good enough will be badly served.

Where Lord Cranborne has most conspicuously exercised his own judgement is in the question of what is the best way to get to Stage II of Lords reform, when we are to move on from getting rid of the hereditaries to having a fully legitimate House. This is what all the protagonists say they want. The question is how to get there.

William Hague wants to get there by postponing the expulsion of hereditary peers until there is agreement on proposals for Stage II. As a matter of practical politics, he cannot have this unless or until he is ready to advance and discuss practical proposals for Stage II. He cannot cry for postponement. The party imbalance is too gross, and all peers, in their hearts, know it. No government of any complexion can long accept a legislative chamber in which the Opposition, without warning and without build-up, can win any division it chooses. Any attempt to persuade the Government to postpone the abolition of hereditaries could only succeed if some 200 Conservative peers were to take leave of absence. The House of Lords may be public-spirited, but it does not contain 200 versions of Captain Oates. That cock will not fight.

Lord Cranborne and Lady Jay, by contrast, share a belief in talk, dealing and compromise. They share a belief that the proposals advanced by Lord Weatherill and the cross-benchers will, by starting serious talking, lead on to a succession of com- promises which may enable us to end the session without blood on the ground, and move into the construction of a legitimate Stage II. If Mr Hague wants to be sure of Stage II, he would do much better to make offers to enter into serious discussion of the shape it might take. He does not realise it, but the ball is in his court. If he were, for example, to offer to accept the outlines of a Royal Commission Report in return for consultation on its membership, things might start moving. The obstacle to serious negotiation is distrust, and surely Lord Cranborne, offering to talk, has a better chance of removing distrust than Hague threatening scorched earth. As it is, Mr Hague is going the right way to get the House of Cronies he fears.

He has also alienated Conservative peers. There is an almost complete division in the Conservative Party between Lords and Commons. This should be seen in the light of the Lords' support for Kenneth Clarke in the leadership election. Underneath the rhetoric, is Mr Hague perhaps as eager to get rid of hereditary peers as Tony Blair himself?

Lord Russell is social security spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

Comments