5 JUNE 1971, Page 8


Billed for boredom


The tedium of the debates on the committee stage of the Industrial Relations Bill is by now pretty well felt by all parties. The Conservatives only wish to see the debate en- ded, and so their backbenchers refrain from intervening; the Labour party have to honour their decision to protest the Bill through all its clauses. The tedium derives from the rigidity of a situation where the decisions have been already taken, and no political combination will form, within the House or outside it, to upset them. Although the use of the guillotine in the House of Commons is an argument for further debate, in fact speakers are only accidentally aware whether they are speaking to an amendment or clause which was or was not debated in the House of Commons. The House of Lords is ignoring, not complementing, the House of Commons.

Lord Byers, the Liberal leader, has demonstrated an admirable impatience with this situation, both in robust interventions in the House, when he has been greeted with full-throated expressions of righteous ap- proval from the Conservatives, and last week in a Times article. He relates the looser disciplines of the House of Lords to the more advisory nature of its function, which depends for its proper exercise on forbearance. Certainly, for it to be in order for all peers, who so wish, to speak on any subject under discussion, and to move in their own name any amendment, is a remarkable, and probably valUlible, privilege which would not withstand prolonged abuse. The Socialists have not been forced to face up to this difference in function between the two Houses, as the Conservatives did when in opposition, because their• permanent minority protects them from the conspicuous and unseemly consequence of a clash with the House of Commons.

Since any attempt to impress a collection of party members with the need to put the interest of the British Constitution before their own political demands must be the responsibility, however unwelcome, of the front bench, it follows that the Labour front bench is weak. And indeed the front bench has simply executed, in a show of leadership, the role of resistance to the Bill which the party demands. Lord Diamond. the Jewish intellectual, Lord Delacourt-Smith, the bourgeois ex-general secretary of the Post Office Engineering Workers Union, Lord Shepherd, a hereditary peer, the urbane Lord Champion—each of these has given his name and talent to the successive amendments. Lord Delacourt-Smith and the Conservative Minister Lord Drumalbyn, when they face each other, seem far more united by their political impotence and the common strain the Bill imposes on their grasp and concentration, than they are separated by any political aggressions. Only Lord Shackleton, the Labour leader, seems plainly unhappy, but whether with this or some other problem is hard to determine. Capable of force and style in debate, he has taken to blowing up a storm over minor impertinencies from the other side. But the weakness of the Labour leadership derives less from any weakness of personality than from the fact that for the Labour party the House of Lords has still not been legitimised. To demand the subordination of political preferences to the interests of the House of Lords as an institu- tion is not for the Labour party a respectable public argument. Nor can it be until the House is reformed, and the gap between the parties narrowed by removing the permanent inequality in their size, whether or not it is put on a basis which will produce a majority for the party in power, whether or not the cross-benches are to be given a prepon- derating influence. Until this happens, there will not be the unity of interest which is capable even in moments of extreme con- tention of putting constitutional interests before those of party.

It could therefore be argued that Lord Byers was not simply overstating his case when he talked of the House of Lords being on the brink of a constitutional catastrophe, but that he was actually missing the point because it cannot be right both to believe that the House of Lords needs radical reformation, and that it is a glory to our con- stitution as it is. A crisis could as well be used to provoke constructive reform, and to stimulate even a Conservative government to assume the initiative for introducing it, as to destroy. In the meantime Peers have a further opportunity to reflect ruefully on the cruel arrogance of the conservatives of both right and left in another place, who demanded successfully that the House of Lords persist in a form which it had itself already decisively demonstrated it wished to abandon.

It would be unsuitable to leave the subject of the Industrial Relations Bill in the House of Lords without a reference to Lord Donovan. His name is as essential a point of reference in the subject of industrial rela- tions as that of Enoch Powell in the subject of immigration, only it is far politer to men- tion him. 'We have gone further than

Donovan here' . . 'Donovan never suggested that' . . . 'even Donovan' , . . 'not even Donovan'; the refrain has been recurrent, and he is becoming an industrial folk-hero, the master who offered the glit- tering future of compromise, in place of the feudal past back into which the Government is obstinately, fantastically, trying to push the rising masses. Lord Donovan's speech on second reading was indeed masterly: he compromised neither his future as a possible adjudicator, nor his integrity as a man to Whom the politics of co-operation are an essential base for progress in this field. At one point he said this: . . . if 1 were once again a trade unionist my vote ... would not be cast for a policy of total non-coopera- tion. My argument would be that to do so would be to risk getting the worst of both worlds; the loss of advantages in the Bill, and the inability to prove the failure of the Bill by experiment'.

Such a delicate observation can only be tested in the proof which everyone must be impatient for. For our industrial problem is in suspension until the Bill is law.