A lesson to the Commons: drag your feet too long and the Lords will get you

Plus, religion's dying roar sounds profoundly out of key in parliament

Chris Bryant
Friday 08 February 2013 20:15

Wednesday evening was the new Political Book Awards, the brainchild of the LBC host and owner of Biteback publishers, Iain Dale.

The veteran historian Lady Antonia Fraser told of a lengthy review of her first book, Mary, Queen of Scots, which ended with Veronica Wedgwood accusing her of showing “absolutely no political sense at all”. She has spent the rest of her life trying to make sure that she gets the politics right in every other book.

If only David Cameron had learnt from her. Ever since Lord Justice Leveson produced his report, the Tory side of the Government has been dragging its heels in a rather naked attempt to make sure that absolutely nothing happens. Such prevarication might carry the day in the Commons, but in the Lords such political management techniques merely wind up the cross-bench peers. So when the Defamation Bill came along, they decided to insert a Leveson-style clause.

The Government didn’t spot it coming and is now caught in a beautiful double bind. When the Bill comes back to the Commons, there will almost certainly be a majority for implementing Leveson, so Cameron will either have to let the clause go through, or draw up his own Leveson clause, or ditch his Bill. Since his father-in-law voted for the clause and Lord Ashcroft told me at the Book Awards that he voted for the amendment to sink the Bill, Cameron had better beware.

It’s enough to make you lose faith

I heard the dying roar of faith this week. Sure, it bellowed loud enough throughout the debate on the same-sex marriage Bill as MP after MP invoked his or her own particular creed. There was a tremulous cadence to the whole six-hour affair, as so many MPs had asked to speak that the Speaker had laid down a four-minute limit and, like successive waves upon the beach, the arguments tumbled forth from every which end of the religious spectrum.

There were a couple of moments of light entertainment, as when Edward Leigh furiously denounced the “merciless prism of equality” (which should be the title of the next Bond movie) and David Simpson thundered that marriage “is an ordained constitution of God” before completely mangling a soundbite as old and as corny as time, by saying: “In the garden of Eden, it was Adam and Steve, not Adam and Eve.”

But what really amazed me was how many MPs brought religion into it. Dr William McCrae, a Unionist MP and Free Presbyterian clergyman with a gentle, lilting voice, was the most overtly evangelical as he merrily thanked God that our nation still has some “gospel light” and reckoned that “as leaders among our people” MPs still acknowledge “God’s sovereign throne, the authority of His revered word and our need for wisdom far greater than our own” before decrying the Bill. (Hansard, incidentally, still puts a capital letter for a reference to the Divinity if you ask it.)

McCrae was not alone. Stewart Jackson and Sir Roger Gale virtually spat out their faith-driven opposition to the Bill, and soon the whole debate was confessional and everyone was coming out as a Catholic, an Anglican, a Muslim or even an atheist. Indeed, the words “as a Christian” became such a common refrain that Richard Drax seemed forced to admit (in the course of one of the most confused speeches) that he is “not a great practising Christian”.

To borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase from “Dover Beach”, the whole affair felt like the sea of faith was receding down the shore. Several of the MPs who spoke ardently in favour of the ancient teaching of the churches on marriage were divorced and several times remarried. Others made preposterous claims. Ian Paisley Jnr complained about “Christophobia” as if his family had always devoted itself to campaigning against prejudice in all its forms; Matthew Offord moaned that he had been called a bigot for equating same-sex marriage to incest and polygamy; and all around there was a nasty pervasive smell of immolating martyr. It was enough to put one off religion.

Get off that fence and vote

The House of Commons has never had a means of abstaining. You either vote “aye” or “no”. In the days of the old chamber, before the fire of 1834, one side stayed in their seats while the other side trooped out and the tellers counted the numbers. Now we walk through one of the two lobbies. Just occasionally somebody has mistakenly voted in the wrong lobby – and in an attempt to cancel out their mistake has voted in the other lobby as well.

It is frowned upon (“deprecated” is the parliamentary word) and members have been forced to explain themselves, but a habit has grown up in recent years of MPs deliberately voting in both lobbies as a form of conscious abstention. Half a dozen Tories did so on the same-sex Bill. This is just cowardly. Politics is about making our mind up. If you don’t have a view, then just stay away. It’s time the Speaker cracked down on this pathetic vacillation.

Falklands hysteria distorts history

In the midst of the SSM Bill, we had a little excitement in Committee Room 20, as the all-party group on Argentina had not just the Argentinian ambassador, but the country’s Foreign Secretary as well. Inevitably, all the Falklands-obsessed MPs were there. Many of us would love to have a better relationship with Argentina. After all, our historic links are so strong that the Anglo-Irishman William Brown led Argentinian troops for independence from Spanish colonialism in 1814, and the trains in Argentina all run on the British side of the rails.

The Foreign Secretary did himself no favours, though, as he launched into an offensive and overstated argument equating the Falklands to the illegal Israeli settlements. Nobody could even bother to point out that Spanish is not exactly the indigenous language of the original people of South America, and in the end we are all settlers.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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