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News > History & Politics > Q&A: The Lord Lisvane KCB DL

Q&A: The Lord Lisvane KCB DL

George Baker (WH5) discusses the state of British politics with Lord Lisvane
OT Society President, Lord Lisvane (SH 63-68) has had over 40 years of parliamentary experience, including working as Clerk of the House of Commons between 2011-2014. He was made a Life Peer in 2014 and currently sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher. After years of public service, and now free to express his opinions without restrictions, he last year ‘went viral’ for having likened opposition to a second EU referendum to forcing nervous aunties to the cinema to see Reservoir Dogs. In the aftermath of March’s ‘meaningful vote’, Politics student, George Baker (WH5) sat down with Lord Lisvane to discuss the state of British politics and the odd anecdote about his time at Tonbridge School. 

Q: What is the future of the House of Lords moving forward in terms of reform? 

I am a member of a group called 'A Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber'. Our effort is to identify how the House needs to change in way that does not require legislation because firstly, unless it is a government initiative you’re not going to get time in any legislative programme to do anything about the House of Lords. Secondly, if you introduce a bill, the scope would be wide enough to do lots of unplanned things.

Our efforts then morphed into the Burns Committee (Lord Speaker's Committee) focusing on the size of the chamber. I think people generally agree that the Lords is very effective at what it does in terms of legislative scrutiny but that it is much too big. Every journalist who writes about the Lords has a sort of module on their computers that says, "second largest chamber after the People's Assembly in China". Burns can be summed up in one sentence as "two out, one in". It does require the PM of the day to play ball. Our present PM has been more equivocal on this than she has been in relation to Brexit - saying she would not 'overdo it'. Over the last year, I think we have made a net loss of getting on for fifty. I think at the moment, we are around 790 and the aim is to get down to the size of the House of Commons. To go back to your original question, I don't see the Lords being reformed in the immediate or even the midterm.

Q: Would it be fair to accuse Speaker John Bercow of overreach and of abusing his powers as Speaker of House in recent months?

I think he was absolutely right to rule as he did on a potential 'Meaningful Vote Three'. There is an old rule - and I am sorry he made so much of it being 1604 - because there is a sort of assumption that if things are 415 years old that somehow, they must be decrepit. Whereas the point he was making, and should have been made more strongly was that this has been a central part of House of Commons practice for centuries. The media picked up a couple of occasions when it was challenged, but of course what nobody sees apart from the practitioners are the fact that time and again, somebody goes into the table office says: "Can I put this down?", and the answer is: "No, because the House decided that in a debate six weeks ago". So it is a check on wasting the House's time, basically. So I think he was right in not allowing MV3, given there was no real change. I think there was a change from MV1 to MV2 because of the legal analysis which was bolted on.

Q: Would you vote for Theresa May's Brexit Deal?

It is a question of what the alternatives are, because if you had said to me three months ago would you vote for it, I would have said no. This is partly because I think we are all in a handcart to hell at the moment because I am a very strong 'remainer' and I would like to see a second referendum. This is because I think only the deluded would think that the 2016 mandate is still current, because we have had three more years of people who can now vote, and three more years of people falling off the perch at the other end of the scale. John Reid said in a debate in the Lords in responding to the Brexit Minister in the Lords, "If I interpret the Minister's remarks correctly, we shouldn’t have a second referendum because the people have spoken, and it would be very divisive". He then said that "those are two very good arguments for never having a general election again", and I completely agree with that. I am amazed by the irony that Theresa May tells us that we can't rerun 2016, but at the same time she tells the Commons, three times now, please will you accept my deal. That seems to me to be wholly illogical.


"I am amazed by the irony that Theresa May tells us that we can't rerun 2016, but at the same time she tells the Commons, three times now, 'Please will you accept my deal?'"

Q: What are the challenges to people my age agreeing to take on a career in politics and public service? 

Before the challenges, I would say there are duties, as I think there are two big problems in society at the moment. One is the challenge of fake news and all its ramifications, when you have got somebody like Trump who thinks in order to make something true, that you simply have to say it. Going back to the Brexit debate, it was simply opposing assertions, and nobody was brought to book on those, such as the 350 million pounds a week to the NHS which was simply a statement. Grown-up political discourse requires people to take responsibility for what they say, and it requires them to submit themselves to scrutiny and challenge. The ubiquity of 'fake news' now here, across the Atlantic and in other countries, means that we really risk losing grown-up political discourse and I think people at your stage really need to feel that it is a duty; that they have to do something about it.

The other problem that worries me is the leaching of trust out of politics and Parliament. There have been blips such as the expenses scandal, but nevertheless the basic mechanisms of Parliament and its role are unchanged. Brexit has made people mistrust Parliament, very often on the wrong grounds. There is no doubt that if we don't do something about this mistrust in politics and in Parliament, then we will be a very much poorer society, and a poorer polity in the years ahead.
In answering your question about the challenges of public service, my role as Clerk of the House of Commons was very varied, it required lots of adrenaline. There is a combination of real intellectual stretching as well as person skills, and it was great fun. It is a feeling that you are close to or indeed part of great events, which is a thrill. I would not have recommended to my daughters that they go into the Civil Service because I think it is so stretched and its morale has been so damaged over the last few years. Austerity, with successive governments has hollowed out the civil service and has made it much less fit for purpose. 

Q: Does it feel liberating being able to express your own opinions in Parliament after years as a public servant?

Well, you have chosen exactly the word that I always use; it is very liberating. I don't overdo it because I am a cross-bencher and the way we work is that you don't talk about something you don't know about, and that is very healthy in a parliamentary environment. My colleague Lord Hennessy once wisely said, “Bullshit in the Lords at your peril.” 

I have been difficult to the government on a few things, but on things that are really about constitutional propriety. For example, too extensive powers being given to ministers in Bills. I'm not going to wade into the big issues about police numbers for example, as we've got four retired commissioners of the Met as cross-benchers who have the appropriate level of expertise to deal with these matters. So I haven't become a sort of polemicist in political terms, but I have got used to, and really rather relish the idea of getting up and saying I don't think the government’s got this right - but within that relatively narrow constitutional framework.   

Q: So why did you decide to be a cross-bencher?

After 42 years of being absolutely politically neutral, I couldn't have taken a party whip, not least because I didn't cleave to any of the major parties, as I had got so much into the habit of being neutral. Also, it would have poisoned the wealth of my successor because let’s say I had gone to the Labour benches, people from either side may have said that the Clerks are against us, or for us.  

Q: If there was a General Election tomorrow, who do you think would win?

Well firstly, I think it would be a disaster, because it would be a Brexit election and one of the many disasters of Brexit is that the government has been paralysed for a year, possibly two, ever since they realised that they are going to have to cope with Brexit. The rabbit has been in the headlights for two years and so much including crime, education, social care, health, have just been put on the backburner because nobody has had the bandwidth to cope with that. If we were to have a General Election now, I think that would be exactly the same. The choices that really need to be made for the country at large wouldn’t be made because they have all been crowded out by Brexit. 

One of the extraordinary things of the past months is that Labour is behind in the polls. When we have a government that is so clearly riven by dissent and when constitutional expectation is turned on its head. The government on the one hand can win a vote of confidence by 19 votes, which the whips would have said in an earlier age is a comfortable majority, and it still loses the major plank of its policy by 230 votes. If Walter Bagehot was around today, he would be completely disbelieving. When that same policy is then rejected by 149 votes, that is in terms of constitutional theory, completely chaotic. So you have a government that has lost command of the House, and collective cabinet responsibility - which I think is even more important - has completely broken up. The book is being rewritten every day and when you have that all happening, the Labour party ought to be 20 points ahead in the polls, but of course they’re riven by dissent too. The anti-Semitic argument hasn't helped. This, alongside the lack of leadership are two things that are a chain around the Labour Party. If I were a Labour member of Parliament, I would be very annoyed as it’s an open goal yet the ball has been kicked into the crowd and lost.  

Q: With the emergence of the Independent Group as a potential alternative to the two main parties, do you think a new centrist movement is inevitable considering the Lib Dems are still doing poorly in the polls?

I think the Lib Dems are absolutely stuck and there is a problem for them in terms of image. If they were to elect Joe Swinson say, then I think they would get a boost. In terms of the Independent Group, the history of trying to form new parties is not a happy one. You have just got to look back at the SDP as an example. It’s a bit like a rocket, and it goes up with a terrific shower of sparks and then... nothing. I think the emergence of a centrist party is probably only going to come if there is an apocalyptic division of either of the two major parties and if they simply can't carry on under the banner, whichever it is. If the ERG and the Brexiteers go off and form a right-wing party, then there will be a lot of people who will move towards the centre and it might possibly coalesce into a new party. The problem is, we are talking about the political ideas and attractions of a new party. The hard mechanics across the country such as constituency organisations are really important, and if you want to fight an election as a new party, you have to set those things up from scratch. When you look at how much infrastructure there is for the two main parties, trying to replicate that at relatively short notice would be absolutely impossible.  
Q: Is Parliament healthy at the moment and are we facing a constitutional crisis?

We are, certainly, facing a constitutional crisis. We were told we were going to take back control. However, I think our PM and Government being told by the EU 27 what they can and can't do is about as far from them taking back control as anybody could imagine. I make a distinction between ‘is politics broken?’ and ‘is Parliament broken?’. Politics I think is in a very bad way for the all reasons we have discussed. I don't think Parliament is broken and the metaphor I use is - if you see a car driven into a ditch, you go and have a look at the driver, you don't immediately decide to change the engine. So it is about how you handle the institutions and what you do with the institutions which is more important. There may well be things that can be done which would make Parliament more effective, but what needs fixing is politics and the link between what people aspire to, and what they’re prepared to take responsibility for - and that will take a lot of fixing.


"I make a distinction between ‘is politics broken?’ and ‘is Parliament broken?’"


Q: What are your memories of Tonbridge and what are the biggest changes since you were here?

I think it’s become a much more socially conscious society and people in a community like Tonbridge have duties of care and toleration towards each other. I think if you'd sat us down fifty years ago and asked the same question, I think we would have said yes, in theory, but not in practice. One of the things I find very impressive and warming about the society that the school now represents is that it understands inter-relationships and responsibilities much better, and it is a more benign and tolerant society than the one I was educated in. There is also a broader intellectual understanding and aspiration. The fact that you can put very different subjects together at A Level is a good example. For us it was a choice between the arts and sciences. I think the feeling that you really can make choices which are not imposed upon you by academic staff is entirely positive.

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