It has been a busy month in the British parliament, climaxing in this week’s budget, the 11th and last, we assume, of Gordon Brown’s chancellorship of the exchequer. His 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax is the sort of populist measure usually taken by the government in the run-up to a general election. In this case, he must hope that it will ease his less dramatic accession from heir-apparent to the leadership, if and when Tony Blair really does stand down. Whether or not anyone will stand against him remains to be seen, but it appears increasingly unlikely. As a top civil servant has just compared Brown’s dictatorial style to Stalin’s, he may think he needs a bit of extra popular support, but I doubt that he will ever achieve the touchy-feely charm that has rescued the prime minister, against all odds, from so many tight spots. Meanwhile Blair continues to the bitter end, laying a trail of legislative red herrings to divert the spotlight from Iraq, his inevitable legacy when the history books are written.
His Labour backbenchers rebelled in force against white-paper plans for the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system, but heavy opposition support from the Conservatives in the vote saved his bacon on that one for the moment. Questions of the cost of any future nuclear deterrent have not been fully answered, undoubtedly it will be high. Currently a figure of £23 billion is being bandied about, but judging by the dramatically rising costs for the 2012 Olympics in London, whatever the initial figure, the end cost will be way beyond. Skilled orators have used persuasive arguments on questions of nuclear deterrence over 50 years. Of course, we cannot tell what will happen in the future, but for the moment, there seems to be more pressing needs for this country’s cash than building nuclear weaponry. As the most media-covered social and political issues of the moment are global warming and the greening of the country, money would be better spent on nuclear energy development than on nuclear warheads, let alone the unending chaos of the National Health Service and education.
The green agenda is currently in a silly phase with ministers and opposition vying with one another to be the greenest, even as academics argue the toss endlessly over climate cycles versus human destruction of the planet. Nature probably can and has healed itself up to a point. Now, however, the important ecosystems on which we rely to replenish oxygen, the oceans and nature’s foodstocks, and to order climate cycles have little space left in which to do so, overburdened as they are by the needs of vast populations. Malthus would no doubt be surprised that we have not yet all starved, but he did not anticipate the modern food production techniques that have allowed us to ignore the damage at the same time being inflicted on nature, until, we are told, the eleventh hour. The slightly potty measures being inflicted on us at the moment in a first-aid approach to better care of the planet appear to follow no clear programme for change, even supposing such a thing existed. Rather, they are all about forcing our participation in some sort of green competition that will theoretically absolve us of any responsibility when the Ganges shrinks to the size of the Thames. Well, at least we’ll have a nuclear deterrent.
The prime minister has got back as well to the knotty problem of the reform of the House of Lords, also essential to taking the public eye off another little blip in his leadership, the cash-for-honours scandal. To most people’s surprise, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a fully-elected second chamber. This presents an improbable picture of two houses of parliament, democratically empowered to be in constant competition with each other. Given the current ability of the Lords to be a thorn in the side of the Commons, it is an interesting prospect. Even if this government’s progress in sidelining parliament as much as possible continues, it cannot be wholly avoided as the legislative body. The Liberal Democrats favour an 80/20 split, with 20 per cent of the Lords being appointed. This hybrid house is a distinctly odd idea since the democratically elected 80 per cent must surely be seen as more legitimate than the appointed 20, and therefore ultimately lead to a fully elected chamber.
It is quite obvious that the House of Lords must be reformed in a less half-hearted way than heretofore, entirely dispensing with the anachronisms of the hereditary principle once and for all. This does not mean that able and proven hereditary lords should not be appointed to the House in their alternative professional capacity, whatever this may be. A fully appointed House of Lords, representative of the best and obviously most willing to serve in all the major professional fields, including as now, the law and the Church, is by far the most sensible way forward.
The ‘Church’, in this instance, should not be only the accepted Church of England status quo, but include members from all faiths represented in the population, many of whom represent more proactive communities than the C-of-E bishops. Appointments should, in no way, be the remit of political parties; all appointees should be independent, at least in theory, and at all costs, the taint of privilege in the name, the ‘Lords’, has to be removed. We have been discussing this and came up with all sorts of delightfully republican titles in the Roman model which might not fit well in a monarchy. In the end, perhaps ‘Councillors of State’ offends no one and would acceptably dignify the important role of members of a future second house of parliament.
Lastly, no one here can have escaped knowledge of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. I have spent most of my life, since school history-lessons, wrongly believing that the slave trade was abolished here in 1833. In fact, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, followed by the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, resulting in a good deal of compensation for slave-owners like Henry Philpotts, the High Church and High Conservative Bishop of Exeter, who had 665 slaves for which he received £12,700 compensation. His slaves were not, in fact, in England, swelling the ranks of the cathedral choir but working in the sugar plantations in the West Indies, part-owned by the bishop. His compensation allowed him to build a large house in Torquay, a south-west seaside town, which is now the luxury Palace Hotel. A film comes out this week about William Wilberforce, the moving force behind the 1807 act and close friend of William Pitt, the youngest ever prime minister. Wilberforce himself became MP for Hull, where the deputy prime minister now squats, when he was only 21. He may be less highly thought of for his insistence on the introduction of Christian teachers into India from 1813 as part of the renewal conditions of the British East India Company’s charter.
Unfortunately, in the face of unpalatable historical fact, the government shows the usual signs of wanting to apologize for the past and for the slave trade instead of concentrating on present horrors. I have spent some time writing about human trafficking and bonded labour in India but the incidence of slavery and trafficking is rising here and all over Europe, let alone ongoing slavery in Africa. Slavery was criminalized in Niger only in 2003, but a local human rights organization believes that nearly one million people are still held in bondage, many of whom were born into slavery from slave parents. Wilberforce died three days after the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Bill in 1833; he was buried with great honour in Westminster Abbey. He must be turning in his grave now, 174 years later.