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Lord Speaker's Corner

26 January 2024

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Hear from members of the House of Lords in this new series as the Lord Speaker finds out what influences their work in and beyond the Lords.

Each episode sees Lord McFall of Alcluith discover what drives members and what they hope to achieve in their time in the House.

This new series is available to watch on YouTube or a longer interview is available to download on the House of Lords Podcast.

Lord Speaker’s Corner episodes

The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees of Ludlow

Hear from the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees of Ludlow, on topics from AI to bioethics, ending manned space flight and why we should focus on climate change instead of trying to live on Mars.

‘Now that robots can do the things that humans were needed for 50 years ago, the case for sending people is getting weaker all the time.’

In this episode, Martin Rees - astrophysicist, former President of the Royal Society, and now Lord Rees of Ludlow and Astronomer Royal – explains to Lord McFall of Alcluith that he thinks governments should no longer pay for manned spaceflight. He explains ‘robots can do all the practical things,’ meaning that ‘only people who really have a high appetite for risk should be going into space, and they should be privately funded, not by the rest of us.’

Looking beyond Earth, Lord Rees also advocates for the need to focus effort on tackling climate change rather than looking to move to Mars. He suggests that ‘dealing with climate change on earth is a doddle compared to making Mars habitable.’ He also gives advice to ageing billionaires, saying ‘these billionaires when they were young, they want to be rich, now they're rich, they want to be young again, and that's not quite so easy to arrange.’

Lord Speaker:

Lord Rees, I'm delighted to welcome you to Lord Speaker's Corner, and it's a privilege for us to have such a distinguished scientist along. Can I start by asking you about your early life? Because it seems that you had an unconventional education with your parents establishing a private school and you went on from there to university.

Lord Rees:

Well, I went to the school which my parents established, which was in the country in south Shropshire, had a really idyllic upbringing in beautiful surroundings. I went to the school till I was 13, but they then thought I should go to a more sort of academic school and I was sent away to a boarding school, Shrewsbury School, despite the fact that they were rather anti-public schools of the traditional kind. But I shared their views to be honest. But it was a very good place for getting taught and I got entry into Cambridge University at the age of 18.

Lord Speaker:

And you studied astrophysics there for your PhD?

Lord Rees:

Well, I studied maths and I realised that was a mistake because the other students doing maths, I realised they thought differently from me, I like to think in a more sort of synthetic way rather than long, logical arguments. And so after I got my bachelor's degree, I thought I'd try and do some postgraduate work. And I got into a group that was doing astrophysics and this was really trying to make sense of new mysterious phenomena that has been discovered, evidence for black holes and the expanding universe and all the rest of it. And so I got into that and it was a style of work that suited me quite well and it gave me a bit of advice that I would pass on to all young people thinking about a scientific career. Pick a subject where new things are happening, then you can be the first person to use new techniques, use new data, et cetera. Whereas if a subject's stagnant, then you are stuck doing the problems the old guys got stuck on. And so it's not so encouraging. So pick a subject where new things are happening.

Lord Speaker:

And today, where is that happening, where are the new things happening, and what areas would you encourage young people to get into?

Lord Rees:

Well, I would encourage astronomy again because the subject seemed on the roll when I was starting 50 years ago with the discovery of evidence for the big bang and black holes, et cetera. Whereas if I think of just the most recent five years, discovery is about planets around other stars, the James Webb Space Telescope looking right back to the formation of galaxies and lots of new ideas about why the universe is expanding the way it is, et cetera. And it's a wonderful exploration. But of course we do it not just to explore but to learn about the basic laws of nature, which of course manifest themselves in a far more extreme way out in the cosmos than we could ever simulate in our labs. And so we can actually extend our knowledge of the laws of nature and, as it were, test them to breaking point. And that's why it's really part of fundamental physics to understand the strange phenomena we find out in the universe.

Lord Speaker:

And how would you characterise the development of scientific understanding in the universe?

Lord Rees:

Well, I would say it's extraordinary that we can talk with a straight face about how the universe has evolved from the time when it had been expanding for just a millisecond, all the way from a millisecond up to 13 billion years. We understand the outlines, not the details obviously, but that's a change from a time when I was starting research, when there was a big controversy about whether the universe was in a steady state or whether it was evolving, even that wasn't clear then. My famous mentor, Fred Hoyle, believed the universe had always been there, had never changed. So that's been a big change and I think we've learned a great deal about the entities in the universe, understand stars, and we've discovered some new surprising entities which are behaving in ways we could never predict. But I think if you look 10 years ahead, we fill in the details of all those things, we'll have further checks of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

But I think the most important thing is going to be to understand the planets around other stars. We know our sun is surrounded by the earth and the other familiar planets, but what we've learned is that the night sky is far more interesting because the night sky contains stars, nearly all of which are surrounded by a retinue of planets just as the sun is surrounded by the earth and the other planets. And of course that raises the question, is there life on any of those planets? And that's the question which I'm always asked if people learn I'm an astronomer. Then lay people, they ask, 'are we alone?' And it's the most fascinating question in science, I would say almost. And so I'm not surprised that everyone's keen that we should make progress on it.

Lord Speaker:

And what's your position on that?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think to be open-minded because we just don't know, we've got to search for any evidence. It could be that life is a rare fluke that only existed here, but I think most people would suggest that life exists in some form in other places in the universe. Whether it exists in any advanced intelligent form is less certain, of course. And if there are aliens, I don't think there'll be like little green men with eyes on stalks. They'd be completely different from us, but it's worth a search. But that's a new area. And this of course links astronomy to biology and other subjects. And if I could put in a plug for astronomy as a subject, it's something which appeals to young people. Dinosaurs and space are the two things that the young kids like and one has to build on that enthusiasm to get people keen on more science.

And I think what is very encouraging is that there's so much for them to learn about. And I think I'd say this, if you look at all the sciences, astronomy and evolutionary biology are the two subjects that have a positive public image. People are a bit ambivalent about genetics and nuclear science because they know they could be used for good and for harm, whereas they're unambiguously positive about understanding the natural world and about the stars. And after all, astronomy is not just a fundamental science, but it's the most universal environmental science because everyone throughout history has gazed up at the same sky, the same vault of heaven and interpreted it in different ways. But it's something which brings us all together.

Lord Speaker:

If I'm correct. Did you say that the impetus for the evolution of life started elsewhere?

Lord Rees:

Well, that's a possibility. We don't know. I don't think that's very likely actually. I think it started here and we don't yet know exactly how it started because we've known for 100 years or more about Darwinian evolution, how from very simple life then over millions of years, natural selection leads to the development of the marvellous biosphere of which we are a part. But there's still a mystery and we don't yet understand how the very first life evolved, how you get some complex molecules to the first replicating metabolising entity that we could call alive on which natural selection can act. And that's still a mystery.

And there are people in the laboratory of molecular biology in Cambridge and other places working on trying to understand how this might have happened. But of course, what we also hope is that there may be some evidence from trying to get a spectrum of the light from planets around other stars, which would tell us if they have any vegetation on them, for instance, from the colour of the light, et cetera. And I think within 10 or 20 years we will have some evidence of that kind. So the question's entirely open at the moment, but I think we'll get some evidence and this will be an exciting development in the next 20 or 30 years.

Lord Speaker:

How important is it for scientists to engage with wider society and your membership of the House of Lords? How has that assisted you otherwise in reaching out?

Lord Rees:

Yes. Well, I mean I think obviously as an educator and as a professor, one should outreach to the public whenever possible. I do that in the case of astronomy. But I think if you think of science in general, and I have some perspective on that because I was for five years president of the Royal Society, which is our academy for UK and the Commonwealth for all the sciences. And that is concerned with all the sciences. And I think it's very, very important that although obviously most people won't know the details of sciences and no scientist knows more than just a tiny fraction of the overall field, we have to specialise. But I think it's very important that everyone has a feel for what science is about, how it operates and how it's advancing by settling controversies and firming up things that are speculative. And I think that's very important because in so many areas of politics and policy, there is a scientific dimension, obviously energy, environment, health, the pandemic and all that.

They have a scientific dimension and the decisions which should be made are decisions made by the public and representatives because scientists have no expertise in ethics particularly. But I think in making those decisions, it's very important that the politicians and the public who elect them should have some feel for science, what it can do and what it can't do. And also of course have some feel for numbers and statistics and the fallacies that could come from misinterpreting those things. So I think it's very, very important and it is really something which is relevant to school level education, to have an education which gives everyone a feel for numbers and a basic idea of the environment they live in.

Lord Speaker:

How important is it to have individuals of experience and expertise in the House of Lords and does that assist science in engaging with wider society?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think it's very important that they should be in the political process in the Commons and in the Lords. And of course it's easier to have them in the Lords because they can continue with their profession in some way. And they are people who may have spent 20 years or 30 years of their career full-time doing science, and therefore that's probably too late in the present system for them to go into active full-time politics in the House of Commons. And so I think it's natural that the House of Lords is a better location for scientists and experts in other things like engineering and medicine than the Commons. And I think it's very good that there are people who are appointed by the Crossbench route.

Lord Speaker:

The fundamental responsibility of members in the House of Lords is to ensure that there's better law. How with your experience has that helped you and what tangible benefits do you think your membership in the House of Lords has delivered?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think there are a lot of laws which govern bioethics, which are better in this country because of the way they've been through the mill of the House of Lords. Take the most famous case in 1980s, the law on embryo research saying that up to 14 days it's possible to use human embryos, but beyond that it's not. That was a consensus which developed, and it was formulated by a committee chaired by Professor Mary Warnock who was a philosopher.

Lord Speaker:

Oh yeah, I remember that.

Lord Rees:

And I think that was something which was adopted by other countries. And that's an example where a group of experts including philosophers and scientists were able to actually come to a consensus. And there are other examples when we need more expertise than you can find among active full-time members of the House of Commons. And so it is very important that this should happen. And of course there are more and more issues of this kind coming up. I think to take one example, it's going to be possible to genetically modify not just animals, but even humans perhaps to some extent. And the question is that ethical? And if not, how do we constrain it?

Lord Speaker:

Do you think there's a risk that humanity won't get past the end of the 21st century?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think I've written some books on this topic and I think we will certainly have a bumpy ride, but I think we will still be there. You can imagine scenarios that wipe everything out, but I think we'll still be there. But the reason I'm not very optimistic is that we are more empowered by technology than we ever were. And one species, named the human species, is having an effect on the rest of the natural world in a way it never did in the past because there are now 8 billion of us and we're all more empowered by technology and we use more energy and use more resources. And so we are depleting natural capital as it were, and there's a risk that we will leave for our descendants, a depleted world with mass extinction, et cetera. And I think it's an ethical imperative that we should change our policies so that just as we benefit from the heritage of centuries past, we leave a positive heritage for the future.space

We must be good ancestors as it were of the future generations. And that's a very important ethical system. But also the other thing I worry about is that new technologies are so powerful that even a few people, a few dissidents or a dissident group can cause some kind of accident, which could cascade globally, massive cyber-attacks, which can knock out the electricity grid in a large region. And of course that will lead to social disruption in a few days. And these things can spread globally in our world, which is interconnected in a way it never was in previous centuries. And so I think we are vulnerable to classes of catastrophe, which are not just local but can spread globally. I mean COVID-19 spread globally as we know, and any other pandemic would spread globally and even worse than the prospect of future pandemics, which could be more virulent and more transmissible than COVID-19, is in my view, the possibility that people with evil intent might engineer more dangerous viruses because it's possible by a technique called gain of function to make viruses more virulent and transmissible than the natural variants.

And if that can be done and that leaks out by error or by design, that could cause an even worse pandemic than the natural ones. And of course you mentioned AI, and AI and everything that goes with it means that we are more and more dependent on complicated networks, which we don't fully understand. And some people worry about them taking over the world as it were. I worry less about that than about them breaking down some bugs being present in the system, which is very hard to deal with. And if we become overdependent, then that of course will cause a catastrophe. It may cause the electric grid to break down. We had a mini version quite recently when the air traffic control system broke down because of some bug or some incorrect entry into a system. And so these systems are so complicated and so interconnected that I think we're going to be very lucky if we can escape severe setbacks of this kind.

Lord Speaker:

I think you've said that this could be achieved by just a lone wolf?

Lord Rees:

I think so. I'm not a technical expert especially in that, but we know that lone wolfs can carry out cyber-attacks and we may get to the stage when some biologist can, as it were, play God on the kitchen table and make some new variant of a virus, which is very, very dangerous. And I do worry about that, and I think that's very intractable because you can't build a nuclear weapon in your back garden. It needs big facilities and they can be monitored globally as we know by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But if someone really wants to make a dangerous pathogen, then they could do it in an existing lab or maybe in a private lab that no knows about.

And it's very, very hard to be able to verify compliance with any regulations. And of course there are special labs that have high security and they are monitored. But I think the point is that we can have these regulations, but enforcing regulations globally could be as impossible as enforcing the drug laws globally or the tax laws globally. We've not had much success in either of those two. So I do worry very much indeed, and I think that the only way we can make ourselves adequately safe against a possible mega disaster of an engineered pandemic is by accepting more intrusive surveillance than we've had to accept up till now.

Lord Speaker:

What advice would you have for politicians and government? My experience, whether in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords, is that governments are largely behind the curve than society itself, technology is increasing, but the laws that regulate that are way behind it. So what advice do you have?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think they have to bear in mind that there are new things that are happening, cyber-attacks and all that, which are at the frontiers of engineering expertise. And it's very, very hard to legislate for those. But we have to because they can be so colossally important and we do have to develop technology in a benign way because as technology gets more powerful, then the stakes get higher, it can produce more benefits. And of course we need those benefits to get clean energy, not just for the global north but for the global south, and we need to have lots of innovation for that. But that same innovation can be misused and legislating for that or regulating for that is something which should be done. But as I said, I think it's very, very difficult. And the biggest problems are things that could be of global consequence. So even a tiny, tiny probability is too much, but which are very hard to regulate. And I would put generating new engineered viruses as top of my list.

Lord Speaker:

You mentioned clean energy sources, the drive for clean energy sources, you're suggesting that globally that should be taken so seriously it's on the same lines as the Manhattan Project or moon landings. And if I'm correct, the relationship between the rich countries and the poor countries where the rich countries have to develop this to ensure that the poor countries skip the fossil fuel era. There are huge ramifications in that. Could you explain your thinking?

Lord Rees:

Yes. Well, I think this is a very, very important thing which I address in one of my books, that we can, if we have the will, move towards net-zero in the rich countries to the north. Whether we are going to is another matter, but we have the technology and we could do that. But of course, the countries of the global south at the moment are producing far less energy per capita than we are in the north, but there are more of them, and by 2050 there'll be four billion people in the global south, I mean India and Sub-Saharan Africa, et cetera. And we want them to develop, they'll need more energy per capita, and it'll be no good if we in the north have achieved net-zero if at the same time by 2050 the global south is producing as much CO2 as we in the north are today.

And so as you say, we've got to ensure that they can leapfrog directly from what they're doing now, which is very low consumption of energy and often rather primitive techniques, directly to clean energy bypassing coal and oil. And that's very hard, but we've got to see if this can be done. And it's rather like they all leapfrog directly to mobile phones never having had landlines throughout Africa. And so in the same way we would hope that we can collaborate with them and it can't be neo-colonialism, it's got to be through helping their technology and we've got to ensure that they can develop clean energy on a scale to suit their own countries.

Lord Speaker:

And the thorny question of redistribution of resources, would that have to be involved?

Lord Rees:

The inequalities within nations between the richest and the poorest and the equality between nations, the global north and those in the south are of course unacceptably large. And we need a political system that gradually reduces them, and we should do that and help the global south to advance. And this is not just for altruistic reasons. If that doesn't happen, then I think we can expect continual disruption and of course massive migration because the one thing which they do have in the globalist south is the ability to travel and also the knowledge of what's happening. They all have TVs or smartphones and things like that, so they know the injustice of their fate.

It's not like 100 years ago when they were living lives separate from the rest of the world that didn't know what they're missing. So I think for all these reasons, we've got to ensure that there's a levelling between nations as well as within nations. And this is going to, I think, involve something which is a mega version of the post-World War II Marshall Plan and Lendlease and things like that whereby we invest in the global south and help it to develop.

Lord Speaker:

And you've advocated the establishment of supranational institutions to fight climate change and others with an appropriate regulatory framework. Does that apply to AI as well as these other subjects?

Lord Rees:

Certainly. I think the special problem of AI is that the main players are now multinational conglomerates as we know, which are dominating the world's market. And it's very hard to tax these companies properly and for the same reasons can be very hard to enforce regulations on them. But we've got to try and it's good that it starts being made in a number of ways to try and get agreed regulations, but of course, the fact that there's a few really dominant players in the market makes it more difficult for nations to assert themselves even in collaboration. But I think it's very important to ensure that there is regulation of these new technologies.

Lord Speaker:

Now you've made the case for carers to have increased conditions in that, I suppose with an ageing society, their role is going to be more important.

Lord Rees:

It is, of course, it depends not simply on the ageing society, but the trajectory of our health. I mean, if we have a long and slow decline, it's going to be far worse in terms of the number of healthcare workers needed in the population. So the idea is to extend healthy years of life and not those where we are dependent on others. Whether that could happen, I don't know. Of course there are some people who want to extend the lifespan in a big way. There're three labs, two in California and one actually in Cambridge called Altos Labs, which are bankrolled by billionaires who want to extend their lifespan and live much longer. And I rather hope they won't succeed because this would be a fundamental new kind of inequality.

And the way I would see it is that these billionaires when they were young, they wanted to be rich, now they're rich, they want to be young again, and that's not quite so easy to arrange. And if they could arrange it, that would be perhaps not good for society. But on the other hand, extending the healthy lifespan for everyone and extending medical knowledge is surely a good thing. And that's going to be something where we hope that AI may be able to help.

Lord Speaker:

Non-humans travelling huge distances and time spans, which humans cannot do, they're unattainable. I think you've made that point?

Lord Rees:

Yes, yes. I haven't answered the second part of your question about aliens. I think that there probably is some kind of life out there, a long way away on a planet orbiting other stars, whether it's anything like us at all, I don't know. I mean, I think it's probably something unrecognisably different. And I also, I'm sceptical about the idea of a human space flight being worthwhile. As you know, humans went to the moon 50 years ago, and we are old enough to remember that. And I certainly thought it'd only be 10 years before the footprints on Mars, but of course that didn't happen and people haven't even been back to the moon. I talk about that. But now that robots can do the things that humans were needed for 50 years ago, the case for sending people is getting weaker all the time.

So my line on the human space flight is that it should not be funded publicly, certainly not by government agencies because they've got to be very safety conscious and that makes it very expensive. Robots can do all the practical things, assembling big structures in space and exploring the surface of Mars and all that. If humans want to fly into space as an adventure, then perhaps they can be supported by sponsorship or the billionaires. We know that Messrs Musk and Bezos are spending billions on space exploration and they could perhaps launch the kind of people, adventurers prepared to accept a very high risk and therefore be launched much more cheaply. So my line is that robots should do all the practical things and only people who really have a high appetite for risk should be going into space, and they should be privately funded, not by the rest of us.

Lord Speaker:

You mentioned Musk. He has indicated that humans could live on the moon or Mars, but I think the point you made is that space travel will not sort out the problems that we have on earth.

Lord Rees:

Yes, I mean, I disagree with him on that. I think there might be a few crazy pioneers living on Mars, just like there are people living at the South Pole, although it's far less hospitable than the South Pole, but the idea of mass migration to avoid the earth's problems, which he and a few other space enthusiasts adopt, that I think is a dangerous illusion. I don't think it's realistic and we've got to solve those problems here on earth. Dealing with climate change on earth is a doddle compared to making Mars habitable. So I don't think we should hold that out as a long-term aim at all.

So I don't agree with him, but I think he is an extraordinary figure, and I think we've got to hand it to him that despite being a rather strange personality, he's got great achievements in that he's transformed two major industries, electric cars and rockets, because in fact, more than 100 rockets per year are rockets that he's made, the Falcon Rockets and there've been more than 100 launched with no failures at all. And so he has done a much better job than the big conglomerates that used to work for NASA in producing efficient rockets, which can be reused, and that will make it cheaper to actually send stuff into space and more feasible to have some engineering done in space and even solar energy gathered from space.

Lord Speaker:

The advances that scientists and technologists will make, do they need a wider buy-in from society and politicians? And if they do, how do you envisage that turning out?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think much of innovative science is best supported by the public purse, whether it's in universities or in standalone research institutes is a different matter. That's a separate debate, but pre-competitive research is best done and supported publicly. And I think one thing we've got to do is to ensure that the UK is a leading player in this. We have a very strong tradition in research and we don't have much in the way of raw materials. So I think it's fair to say that if we don't get smarter, we'll get poorer. So let's ensure that our science is well-supported. The last few years has been rather worrying, the Brexit and the loss of the support from the European Research Council, Horizon, et cetera, that made the UK less attractive. And so we've had more people leaving the UK for other countries than attracting, what we want is to make this country an attractive place for doing research. And that probably does involve some slight changes and not doing something we're doing now like charging huge amounts of money for visas.

Lord Speaker:

With a world of technology, our young people in education, and you have a real passion for that, they need to understand science more. What way should the curriculum be changed to ensure that that's the outcome?

Lord Rees:

Yes. Well, I think that's a very important question because more people now accept we need to have a broader curriculum. Post 16, we shouldn't have specialised A levels, we should have a technical stream and all that and give people more choice so that a choice made at 16 doesn't foreclose what happens later when you have to make a decision for higher education. And I think that's generally accepted. What's happening now all too often is that young people, who when they're very young are fascinated by dinosaurs and space and all that, they aren't sufficiently well taught to maintain that enthusiasm. And when they get to age 16, when as you know they have to decide on specialisations for their A levels, many of them drop science. And that forecloses the option.

Lord Speaker:

Particularly physics.

Lord Rees:

Yeah. And that forecloses the option at age 18 plus of going back and doing a specialised science course. So we've got to keep options open to the age of 18 and have less specialisation. And I would go further than that.

I think we've got to make our higher education more flexible. We want to have a mixture of technical and academic education post 18, and we also want to get away from the view that universities are to provide three-year courses between the age of 18 and 21 for full-time residential students, we need to give people a chance to intermit and come back later. At the moment, one thing that's wrong, for instance, is that if you're a student and you go to university at 18, and if things don't work out for you, you have problems and you drop out after two years, then you are dismissed as wastage and your university vice chancellor is berated for the wastage and there's an incentive to lower the quality of the degree, which is not a good idea. What should happen instead is that someone in that position should get a certificate.

They should say, I've had two years of college and have the opportunity to go back and do more courses at a later stage and any time through life, indeed. And the government in a small way has moved in the right direction by the lifelong learning entitlement - a loan rather the grant. So I think we need to move in that direction. And I think we also need to ensure that people can do a mixture of online learning and residential learning to enable people of a mature age to participate. I don't think online learning alone works except for motivated mature people doing a professional master's degree or something like that. You need to have a mixture, but I think we can learn something from the development of online teaching. But I think the main thing is that we need to make access to higher education, and that includes technical education more open and more flexible so that you can accumulate credits through life.

Lord Speaker:

And do you think lifelong learning can assist and enrich people's lives and wellbeing?

Lord Rees:

Oh, definitely. I think it can. Yes. And of course it doesn't have to be formal. Of course, once people get the bug that it's good to read a lot, then they can learn informally. There's a difference between formal education and education, but I think it should be possible for people to get education when they want it without financial sacrifice.

Lord Speaker:

And maybe as a launchpad, models like the Open University.

Lord Rees:

Well, the open university was a great pioneering achievement of course.

Lord Speaker:

And I did a degree there...

Lord Rees:

Yes, and I think that showed that there is a demand, and it could be far better now when we have far better online facilities than they had with late night TV programmes in effect, weren't they? And so we could do far better. And so I think that's a real model. And I think also that's a model that could be spread around the world.

Lord Speaker:

Science, technology, engineering, and maths, STEM subjects. You've been very strong in them, but you've also added another subject, arts, to make it STEAM.

Lord Rees:

Yes.

Lord Speaker:

Why is art so important not just to the culture, but to the political process?

Lord Rees:

Well, I think it's very important that people should study the arts, and especially if they can actively pursue an art and creative art, that's very good for everyone. But I think education in languages, for instance, shouldn't be allowed to lapse as is happening now. And I think that clearly just as I deplore the fact that people don't know the difference between a proton and a protein, it's equally sad if they can't find Taiwan or Iran on a map. And many people can't do that, or if they don't know the basic literature of their country and the history of their country. So I think wide education ought to include the subject which are typecast as humanities, as well as science. So when I said that everyone should understand basic science and their environment, the same thing goes for understanding the history of their country and the language.

Lord Speaker:

The distinguished historian Simon Schama made programmes with the BBC where he said that the culture and arts have an impact on politics and a very important impact. How do you see that? What's your view?

Lord Rees:

Well, I mean, I think that politicians ought to certainly be aware of history. If I could say something which is against science, if we have a senior politician, I'd rather they got a PhD in history than in dentistry, for instance, because one is more relevant to the decisions they have to take. So I certainly think that we want to have politicians who know the background context to the decisions they're making. That's crucially important.

Lord Speaker:

You have thought very deeply about the future of humankind. And when you look into the future, would you say that you're fundamentally a techno pessimist or a techno optimist?

Lord Rees:

I would say I'm a techno optimist but a political pessimist, in that I think we already have the scientific knowledge that would enable us to provide a lifestyle like we have in this country for everyone in the world. But we're not heading that way at all. And the reason for that is the politics. It's very, very hard to arrange to reduce these inequalities and all that. So I'm a scientific optimist and I think science is going to continue to increase the scope of what we're doing. But the downside is that politicians haven't proved very effective at the international relations that would lead to the benefits being spread. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, the advances in science give new deeper downsides as well as more exciting upsides. And so we've got to ensure that we can harness the benefits and minimise the downsides.

But I think the main thing that I'm pessimistic about is the politics, which is going to make it very, very hard to collaborate and also to move towards a world that's sustainable because we know that we have to minimise the risk of pandemics and all that sort of thing. But we know also that if we go in as we are now, we are heading for a world that's going to be depleted in many ways with mass extinctions and all that sort of thing. And so there's a risk that we will leave a worse world for our descendants, and I think that's something which we should feel ashamed of given what we have benefited from generations past.

Lord Speaker:

And you say that the electoral cycle of four to five years works against these scientific ambitions?

Lord Rees:

I think it does, and I think we could get round that by having more commissions outside politics so that there's an acceptance that they're decided in the way, like the Bank of England and all that, which don't reverse policies when the government changes. I think that's one thing that we ought to be able to do. I think apart from that, we've got to perhaps accept that we delegate more authorities to multinational bodies. We already have the International Atomic Energy Agency, we have the World Health Organisation. I think we need an international body to deal with AI and all those issues, and I think for biosecurity, et cetera, and maybe others. So I think we've got to accept that many of the challenges we face can't be tackled by each nation separately, and so we need to delegate more of our national decisions to an international body.

Lord Speaker:

In the defence area, what are your worries about the future with automatic weapons, which some distinguished scientists would say there's no control, no regulation on it at the moment.

Lord Rees:

Well, it is a worry of course, automatic weapons, which are not under direct human control and things can happen very quickly, so that a third world war could be over in a day. So we've got to avoid that kind of situation. And I think we've also got to avoid the introduction of new weapons, bio and all that. And also nuclear weapons of course, which have been with us for 70 years. We've avoided through luck as much as judgement, nuclear exchange. I mean, at the time of the Cuba crisis, Kennedy said that the risk was between one in three and evens. And McNamara in his later years you remember, said that they were lucky rather than wise in order to avoid catastrophe at that time.

And there were many near misses. And I think that it is also a new class of threats and something which we discuss at our centre in Cambridge, that if the command and control system for nuclear weapons is sort of automated, then of course there's a risk that people will be overconfident about how reliable it is and can't tolerate any kind of probability of things going wrong in something as colossal as that.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, in the Cuban missile crisis, I think President Kennedy, in his own words, didn't take the advice of the chiefs of the defence staff, but deliberated on the issue and discerned it and established a personal relationship with Khrushchev in Russia. So we need sensible politicians. What advice do you have for making politicians sensible?

Lord Rees:

Now we need on a bigger scale, people to be prepared to make decisions, and they will do that if the public is behind them and the public will only get behind them if there are charismatic influencers who do persuade them. And in my book I mention a rather disparate quartet of influencers on my list. The first is Pope Francis, who's encyclical in 2015.

Lord Speaker:

Oh, Laudato si'

Lord Rees:

Yeah, the Laudato si', that was the first time a Pope had stated that humans have a responsibility to the rest of creation and don't just have dominion over it, which was a traditional view. And he had a standing ovation at the UN, and he made a big impact on forging the consensus at the 2015 Climate Conference. He did that. And so he's my first. My second is our secular Pope David Attenborough, who is worldwide being a leader, influencer of getting people to care about nature and the problem it's in. And two others, Bill Gates, who I think deserves credit for being someone who talks sensibly about technology and points out it isn't reasonable with our known knowledge of technology to move towards net-zero and all that.

And fourth, Greta Thunberg, who's enthused a whole younger generation, and of course the younger generation who will be alive at the end of the century. They're naturally the ones who care most about this, but we ought to care about the lives of our grandchildren and care equally about this. So it's influencers like that who may be more charismatic than the average scientist, and they can help to raise these issues on the public agenda in competition with the noise level from urgent policy questions, which politicians clearly get preoccupied with for most of their time.

Lord Speaker:

Well, Lord Rees, not just I'm delighted but privileged to have you along. This has been a fascinating experience for me, and I hope when this is made, that many people will listen seriously to you, not least the politicians. So thank you for your wisdom.

Lord Rees:

Thank you very much.

 

Lord Mandelson

Peter Mandelson - former Cabinet minister, leading figure in New Labour and now Lord Mandelson - speaks to Lord McFall of Alcluith about his life in politics.

‘Born into the Labour Party’, Lord Mandelson began a career of campaigning at school, where he was reprimanded by his grammar school headteacher for advocating for comprehensive education.

‘It was very difficult in the 1980s. It made me, of course wonder whether I could ever be a Member of Parliament… And that's when I discovered the innate decency of human beings.’

In this often personal interview, Lord Mandelson reflects on the difficulties he faced when he first stood for selection in Hartlepool in 1989 having been outed as a gay man by the News of the World in 1987. He also explains how the people of Hartlepool rallied behind him in the selection process to become their Labour candidate following an attack by his opponent.

Lord Mandelson explains that he ‘loved being a minister’ and how his experience in television helped him prepare for the task of getting the public onboard with difficult decisions. He also shares his experience of being in government, from his roles as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Business Secretary and the need for ‘big goals, big missions, clear policies consistently pursued over a long period.’

‘Now, this is a constantly flowing river of poison, of polarisation, of people being mean to and about everyone else. And my advice to politicians now is get off it. I'm not on Twitter.’

Lord Mandelson also reflects on the changing political landscape with the rise of AI and social media culture today, warning colleagues to ‘Get off it, go out on the doorstep, talk to the public.’

‘A lot of clear, honest debate goes by the board, because people are so busy taking chunks out of each other. That's fine. That's the adversarial bit of politics. Our end of the parliamentary system is different. It's about scrutiny, it's about debate, it's about revising, it's about advising.’

Finally, Lord Mandelson shares his perspective on the differences between the two Houses of Parliament, plans for reform and what might be next for him, telling the Lord Speaker ‘I'm looking forward to creating a third career.’

Lord Speaker:

Lord Mandelson, Peter, welcome to Lord Speaker's Corner. I'll take you back to your early time. You're the grandson of a famous politician, Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister, 1945 to '51. You have met, if I remember, 14 Prime Ministers including Clem Attlee whom Harold Wilson introduced you to in the 1960s. So is it safe to say it's in the blood from an early age?

Lord Mandelson:

I think it's safe to say that I am biologically attached to politics and the Labour Party. I mean, most politicians like me like to set out the political journey that they took throughout their lives. I'm afraid my political journey ended before it started. I was literally born into the Labour Party and it remained my home, my family ever since.

For some reason too, I seem to have been recurringly dogged by controversy all my life. I don't know why. I mean, I started being controversial when I was at school and my headmaster denounced me in front of the school assembly as an industrial militant who was trying to tear apart the fabric of the school community. And that was because I was campaigning at the time for comprehensive education. He didn't like that, because he was the head of a state grammar school and it sort of rather continued. Even in my first job when I left Oxford University, I went into the economic department of the TUC and that became controversial. They thought I was far too political and that ended prematurely. Then I was controversial when the National Executive Committee of the party divided over whether to appoint me as the campaign director in the 1980s. And then again in the New Labour years, all these people operating in the dark, that's when I became the Prince of Darkness. I mean, I hope now that I'm-

Lord Speaker:

Who labelled you as Prince of Darkness?

Lord Mandelson:

Private Eye. It actually came from something that Clare Short had said. She bemoaned in the 1990s these people surrounding Tony Blair who operated in the dark. Anyway, now I am the Dark Lord, [laughter] no longer the prince, and I hope to lead a rather more sober, quiet and uncontroversial existence in your House.

Lord Speaker:

Good. Well, I remember being quite amused when you said that in your family car journeys, the game you played was looking at constituencies and remembering the MPs.

Lord Mandelson:

It was ridiculous. I was very good at it, I have to say. But I mean my parents were driven to distraction and my poor brother was bored to tears, but I liked them to name constituencies and then I would tell them who the MP was. I mean, ridiculous.

Lord Speaker:

And then you became a councillor in Lambeth and I think you got disillusioned with ‘Red Ted and his socialist kingdom.’

Lord Mandelson:

I think I had two defining political experiences when I was younger. One was, as I say, working in the economic department at the TUC in the 1970s during the period of the Jim Callaghan Labour government when the trade union thought they were jointly running the country. And whilst I believe that the Labour Party and the trade unions should remain close, I don't think they're interchangeable in their roles. And I formed a view then about how the party and a Labour government and the trade unions should operate in slightly different spheres.

Then I became a councillor in Lambeth in the early '80s during the sort of heyday of the far left, the so-called ‘loony left’. Ted Knight was a Trotskyist, the leader of the council, and I was in the minority of the group who fiercely opposed him. And that was a defining experience for me, John, because I mean, although apart from one or two excursions in my political life, I've always remained broadly speaking with the same political outlook.

I am a centrist Labour person, rather as my grandfather was. My grandfather who was, as you said, Herbert Morrison, the first secretary of the London Labour Party. He was the first Labour leader of the London County Council in the 1930s and then was Attlee's deputy. His view was very strongly that the Labour Party was a national party or it was nothing. It had to appeal across geographic, social, class, professional boundaries. It had to represent and speak for the country as a whole, and I'm very much my grandfather's grandson. But what I saw in Lambeth was a very, very different Labour Party, a very different outlook. And I thought that these people were not only completely alien to the traditions, the social democratic traditions of the Labour Party, but were also colossally electorally damaging to the Labour Party. And that's why, when the time came in the 1980s after I'd worked in Westminster as a shadow cabinet researcher and parliamentary aide, I then went to work in London Weekend Television.

I went into current affairs television and became a producer on Weekend World, which was presented at the time by Brian Walden. But the moment I saw the opportunity to jump back into politics and to join Neil Kinnock's team, I did so. I was 30 years old. I'd been working as a volunteer in the Brecon and Radnor by-election.

Lord Speaker:

- I remember that

Lord Mandelson:

Neil was reorganising the Labour Party headquarters, creating a new directorate of campaigns and communications. And I asked whether I could apply. And he eventually said, "Yes, I'll support you." Roy Hattersley was his deputy, he also supported me. But it was quite controversial with the National Executive Committee with the entire NEC of course, who did the interview. And I was very clear what I stood for and what I believed in and how I saw the Labour Party, how I saw its future, how I saw its professionalisation, its modernisation. And of course, I backed Neil Kinnock, who was on a mission effectively to save the Labour Party.

If you remember the conditions -

Lord Speaker:

- I do

Lord Mandelson:

We were in the early 1980s, and I would just say this about Neil Kinnock, if he hadn't saved the Labour Party in the 1980s, there wouldn't have been much left for Tony Blair to modernise in the 1990s. So he took on the far left, he took on the Militant tendency and he turned around the Labour Party in the '80s. And we were in the 1987 general election, which was the first campaign I directed as Labour's campaign director. We reinstated ourselves as the alternative to the Conservatives, because of course by then the SDP had been created. They were pointing a dagger to our existence in the 1980s. But in that sense, but also in other ways, the 1987 general election was a very profound watershed for me.

Lord Speaker:

That's when I came in, '87, so I remember it vividly.

Lord Mandelson:

Is it? Well, the reason it was a watershed election for me was because I learned in that election the limitations of communications in politics. That of course if you have good policies, you don't throw them away on bad presentation - of course. And you had to embrace the media and make the media as it will work for you in communicating with the public. But that if you didn't have coherent policies and a philosophical outlook and a strong offer, unless your election campaign was anchored firmly in those policies, it wouldn't be successful. But personally, it was a watershed election for me.

It was quite a traumatic one, because in the first weekend of the election campaign, the News of the World chose to torpedo me and to try and torpedo the campaign by splashing on their front page, and then believe it or not, continuing the story on pages three and four, about me being a gay man. About being a gay person in politics whose partner, who I'd been together with for seven years, had fathered a child and that we were together helping to bring up this child. And it was a brutal thing on that first weekend of that election, and I remained fairly scarred by it.

It was very difficult in the 1980s. It made me, of course wonder whether I could ever be a Member of Parliament, this controversy that surrounded me, sparked by this News of the World story. But then do you remember Ted Leadbitter?

Lord Speaker:

I do, yes.

Lord Mandelson:

So Ted was, he'd been re-elected in '87 and it was going to be his last Parliament. And I thought, "God, can I have one shot, at least overcome all the difficulties and whatever." I can't say that Neil Kinnock was very pleased about that. He wanted me to remain in my job, but he said, "Look, kid, have a shot at it. I don't think that a constituency party like the one in Hartlepool is going to select somebody like you, but let's see, give it a shot and then when you come back, we'll open a bottle of Champagne."

Lord Speaker:

But you're assiduous in campaigning. I knew that.

Lord Mandelson:

Well, I was fairly assiduous. So I spent a year literally, John, knocking on every door of every party member and trade union delegate in Hartlepool. And I thought I was doing okay. I was what I was, I was a southern, gay, Oxford educated smoothie from London. I was not a Hartlepool type to put it mildly, but I was doing well. And then 24 hours before the selection, my leading opponent in the selection went back to the News of the World story, photocopied the whole story, put it anonymously in brown paper envelopes and put it through the door of every single party member in Hartlepool and trade union delegate to kibosh me. And that's when I discovered the innate decency of human beings, people in the Labour Party. They recoiled at this. It was such a horrible thing to do. And they gave me 60% backing on the first ballot and I was home and dry. And that's how I became selected in Hartlepool.

Lord Speaker:

When I speak to university students or young people and they ask me what makes a politician? I say, "Politicians have got to be resilient." So I think you have underlined that and you've got a gold medal for that.

Lord Mandelson:

Now gold medal for resilience, that's true. Famously a fighter, not a quitter. As I said later on, when I continued to be dogged by controversy in my political life, it didn't end there.

Lord Speaker:

[Laughter] Good. Now, take me back to the 1945-51 government when you mentioned your grandfather, because my memory of the history is that when the NHS came in, there was a view that it would be a regional NHS. There was a real political drive to say, "No, this is a National Health Service." Was that in the DNA of politicians like your grandfather?

Lord Mandelson:

You have to understand the difference between my grandfather who was essentially a municipal socialist - he was a local government man - and Ernie Bevin, who was a completely trade union man, and by the way-

Lord Speaker:

Foreign Secretary.

Lord Mandelson:

... my grandfather fell out with Ernie Bevin over the nationalisation, Morrisonian nationalisation after the war, because only Bevin thought, "Well, all you need to do is take state ownership of it, put the trade union representatives on the board, and they can run it along with the managers." And my grandfather said, "No, that's not how we're going to do it. These nationalised industries have got to be run arm’s length from the government in the national interest, and they have to serve the public, the consumers. And so we're going to appoint people to run those nationalised industries who don't simply represent the workforce. They represent the public at large, albeit with trade union representatives." So he seriously fell out with Ernie Bevin over nationalisation. And then he fell out with Nye Bevan over the NHS. Why? Because my grandfather believed that healthcare was the flip side of social care. That you couldn't really divide these two essential public services.

Lord Speaker:

A contemporary debate today.

Lord Mandelson:

A very contemporary debate today. And he said that the only part of government that can effectively deliver both sides of that coin joined together will be local authorities. I mean, large local authorities who would know their area, know their services, know their people. Nye took a different view. He said, "Look, this has got to be an absolutely centrally run national service." And as he said, as Minister of Health sitting in Whitehall, "I want to hear when a bedpan crashes to the floor in Tredegar, and I'll be controlling our response to that bedpan." And my grandfather said, "This is ridiculous. You can't build a care, a health, and a social care service just run from Whitehall." So they fell out over it a bit, had a good debate. Nye won, Nye won the argument and it became a centralised, centrally run national service. Now, there were good arguments for that, John, I'm not disputing that.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, of course. Of course.

Lord Mandelson:

And to set it up from scratch, you probably did need to set it up as a national service. But of course, fast-forward all these years, we're now having a debate about decentralising public services and the way that they are run and delivered - tailored more to individual need and closer to the people in the communities they serve. But of course, particularly as you say, the social care/healthcare argument, so it's come full circle. But my grandfather, he had strong views. They all had strong views in that government. I mean, Attlee was the inimitable chairman of the board. His job was to make sure that this Morrison and that Bevin and that Bevan and this Hugh Dalton and that Stafford Cripps and this John Strachey, that they could all come together amid their disagreements and yet function as a single cabinet, as a team. And by and large they did.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. Let me take you back to when you left local government, then you went to Weekend World and I think you worked with John Birt, who's a good friend, who's in here as well. And then you went into politics again, as you say, director of communications. What did you learn from being a TV producer and your engagement with industry that assisted you in politics? Because you went to Department of Trade and we'll maybe come on to this later, but you were very keen in establishing an industrial strategy. So you tackled that with vigour, but you must have had views on that before you went back to politics maybe as a result of your Weekend World.

Lord Mandelson:

Weekend World, and I smile when you say John Birt, because John is a very clear, coherent, always sort of surgical person in the way that he would say, "Look, our job is to explain." And this was a very cerebral programme. I mean, Neil said, "Oh, we've got to have this guy Peter Mandelson become our communications director, because he knows all about television," as if I was some producer from Hi-de-Hi! or Blind Date or whatever. No, this was a very cerebral current affairs programme. But here's the point, John. What it taught me was that if you're clear enough in your own head, you can explain things to the public and bring the public with you as it were on a journey. And that you need to, in order to engage the public, present clear difficult choices to the politicians that you interview so that the public has got an idea, an insight about what it's like, what goes on in a minister's mind or a Prime Minister's mind when they are choosing between probably imperfect and unpalatable choices.

I mean, very rarely do we have a choice between what's available and perfection. It is a choice between what's available here and what is far from perfect over here, and there's a trade-off in each option, in each way that you might choose. And politics is a messy, complicated business. As I say, nothing is ideal and what government is about, and this is why I loved government, I loved it when I stepped away from the campaign machine, and the back room, and the whole Prince of Darkness thing. I loved being a minister, because having those rigorous debates with your colleagues, with your civil servants, knowing that at the end of the day you're going to have to make up your mind, take a decision, make a clear recommendation, and then when it's adopted, go and sell it to the public. Then bring the public along with you so that they know about some of the difficult trade-offs and invidious choices that you've made in arriving at this particular policy conclusion.

And what Weekend World did in a very real sense was prepare me, to train me to analyse policies in that way and to put those difficult choices and trade-offs to the ministers we interviewed in the studios afterwards, because we all wrote these interview plans, structures – ‘if he says this, bash him with that. If he goes that way, confront him with that choice.’ And it was a very good training for me. I enjoyed it, but I infinitely preferred being on the other side of the table: being interviewed rather than writing the scripts for the interviewer.

Lord Speaker:

What stopped me at the time of Weekend World, I think it was a Sunday programme, but it was an hour long.

Lord Mandelson:

It was an hour. I know.

Lord Speaker:

Exactly. And we don't have that nowadays. We've got a couch with three or four people on, they get a couple of minutes. So there's no explanation.

Lord Mandelson:

It's nanosecond stuff. No, no. This is what John Birt designed. I mean, this was an hour's worth. I mean, half of it would be analysis and explaining and half of it interviewing the minister or whoever it was. It was tough stuff. But it attracted viewers.

Lord Speaker:

Oh, very much. Brian Walden was forensic.

Lord Mandelson:

And we miss it. Well, he had these forensic people working for him.

Lord Speaker:

Exactly. You were doing the business. I forgot about that. Good. Communications is different nowadays, particularly with social media. And there's positive-

Lord Mandelson:

All done in a second.

Lord Speaker:

Exactly. Positive aspects to social media, but there's a toxicity to it as well.

Lord Mandelson:

That's quite different now.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. Do you have any advice for people in this environment?

Lord Mandelson:

Yes. I mean, look, in a sense, the News of the World was pretty toxic to me, but it was like an Exocet. Now, this is a constantly flowing river of poison, of polarisation, of people being mean to and about everyone else. And my advice to politicians now is get off it. I'm not on Twitter. I've oftentimes asked, said to my office-

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, I looked you up on the weekend by the way and you weren't there.

Lord Mandelson:

... "Why can't I be on Twitter? Everyone else is on Twitter." They said, "No, no, no, no. It's a really bad idea if you're on Twitter. Not only you'll say things you regret and you'll then be cancelled or whatever, but you'll hate the things that people say about you and you'll be engulfed in this sort of stuff." And so I'm not on Twitter, and I would say to my colleagues in politics, get out of the Twitter sphere. It's not the real public, it's not the real world. It's like a little microcosm of hateful people talking to each other and scoring points both off each other and everyone else. They just delight in targets. You have to have a target the whole time. Get off it, go out on the doorstep, talk to the public.

Lord Speaker:

So there are more positive ways of communicating?

Lord Mandelson:

Much more positive ways of communicating. Just remember when you're on the twittersphere, you're communicating within a bubble. You're not talking to the general public. And time and time again, you have politicians, my friends who are now on the frontbench in the Labour Party saying, "Oh look, this is really taking off on Twitter." And I said, "Well, let it take off on Twitter, because it's not the general public." "I know, it's going viral." I said, "Yes, but it's going viral in a bubble."

Lord Speaker:

In terms of what's happening nowadays in the political environment, you've got deepfake. And I think there was a video of Joe Biden asking people and Democrats not to vote in the primary as a result of that.

Lord Mandelson:

This is the big new challenge with artificial intelligence.

Lord Speaker:

Exactly. And the oversight board for Meta said that they don't want it removed, but they want it labelled. Now we have a number of distinguished peers and baronesses here working on the online bill, for example, Baroness Kidron, Baroness Morgan, and others in that. I suppose that you'll encourage them in that, but how far should we go in that area?

Lord Mandelson:

Well, I think that Baroness Kidron and Baroness Morgan are two very good examples of two fantastically publicly-motivated members of this House who probably would not be able to do this and raise these arguments and present these flags if there wasn't a House of Lords, by the way. Perhaps come back to that in a moment. But the House of Lords has also had, their Communications Committee has produced a very, very good report recently on AI.

Lord Speaker:

Baroness Stowell

Lord Mandelson:

And what I liked about Tina Stowell's committee's report was this, perfectly realistic about AI. Warning of possible courses it might take or eventualities and flagging up some of the risks associated with large learning machines. But they're not saying, "Oh my God, let's all crowd in and smother this at birth." They're not saying, "Oh, this could have such terrible, profound existential dangers. We've got to almost regulate it to death before it even gets off the ground." There may be a need for some sort of basic backstop legislation, I don't know. But my inclination would be to say, look at the opportunities that AI offers us, both in raising productivity and efficiency in the private sector, but also potentially transforming the delivery, the design and delivery of public services as well. Making them much more personally tailored and relevant to people. AI has the potential to transform diagnosis and preventative medicine in the National Health Service. So just be careful what you wish for when you move too quickly towards regulation, you don't want to smother it at birth.

Lord Speaker:

Yep. I'm reminded of Northern Ireland when you were Secretary of State, and I think we overlapped for a time on that. But when people asked me about that, I said, "It's a very different type of politics. It's all about personal relationships and bringing people together, and it's foreign to the department element there." But you were engaged in that. And I was involved in Omagh in the first weekend in that, and I kept up a continuation for that, because I was charged with the post-Omagh.

Lord Mandelson:

I'm so glad you have.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, but I remember people like Michael Gallagher was there and his son Aiden, a car mechanic, 16 years of age. And Michael Gallagher, he's the best of humanity, and he's kept that going. And you have been and still are very close to him on that.

Lord Mandelson:

I had a problem. That was in the summer of 1998.

Lord Speaker:

'98.

Lord Mandelson:

I came in the following year, 1999. And the problem was it wasn't that my department, the Northern Ireland office, was insensitive or indifferent to what had happened. It was a terrible, terrible calamity for those families and all those who were affected.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, 29.

Lord Mandelson:

You've mentioned Michael and his son Aiden. Heavens, there were so many others. And I said, "Look, this has got to be a priority. We've got to get to the bottom of this. We've got to find out who was responsible. We've got to bring them to trial." And they said "Secretary of State, you've got to leave this to the police. This is not a matter for you." And I said, "Well, the families are really agitated about it and they feel that we could and should be doing more, and I want to go to Omagh." "No, no, it's better if you don't go to Omagh." I said, "Well, why not?" They said, "Because you will stir up emotions. You will create expectations. You might lead people to believe that what we're doing might deliver some sort of justice earlier than frankly we're going to be able to do." I said, "No, I'm very sorry, but I'm going," and I went.

And it was a terrible, I mean, it was so emotional. It was emotionally draining, and I never let go of Omagh from that moment onwards. Months went by and I kept saying to the security director and the NIO, I said, "Tell me, give me an update on how the Omagh investigation is going." And I could feel him, he's a great guy, but I could just feel him slightly bristling. I said, "Well, I want to talk to the chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan." "No, Secretary of State, that is really not your job to talk to the chief constable." I said, "Well, I want to."

I talked to the chief constable and I just didn't feel that anyone was properly explaining to me why we had so much intelligence, John. To me it was a matter of joining the dots. And I said to Ronnie, "I'm really not happy with this." And he said, "Look, Secretary of State, it's our job, not yours. But as an exception, if you want to meet the investigating team, I will allow you to do so." I went to their offices, went to where they were conducting the investigation, sat down and talked to the three or four leading members of the investigation. I felt it was all I could do was to just demonstrate my political ministerial interest and commitment. And it has been a long journey of delivering justice over Omagh. Not entirely perfectly or satisfactorily, I have to say. But I still engage. I cannot leave from me and from my mind that initial experience I had.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, I was down in Omagh, in fact, an hour after the bomb went off and it left me with-

Lord Mandelson:

Were you the security minister in the Northern Ireland office?

Lord Speaker:

Yes, at the time. I was the only minister on duty.

Lord Mandelson:

Yes, you were minister on duty. It was a weekend.

Lord Speaker:

On the Sunday I went down with John Prescott to visit, and then Tony Blair came across, he was on holiday in France and I phoned him. He came across and Bertie Ahern came up and there were intense talks taking place on that Sunday and all the participants came. But to talk about the separation of powers, on the Sunday, my office said to me that Willie Thompson, Ulster Unionist MP who represented Omagh, he had requested to come down to Omagh with me, but they said it was not appropriate. And I said to him, "Look, get him down. He's the MP for the area. It's very important, because there's a message here and the message is that this is an all-party issue. And as well as that, this is an atrocity on the whole of Northern Ireland, not just a section of Northern Ireland." So the mindset was a bit different from the political mindset, the administrative mindset.

Lord Mandelson:

Well, it was complicated, but I felt just as you felt that weekend and afterwards, I felt I had a duty to represent those families and their interests, and that's what I did.

Lord Speaker:

But as well as that, you saw the Assembly restored, you saw the police service reformed, and that wasn't easy at all. Can you give us an insight into that because-

Lord Mandelson:

No, what happened was Chris Patten, another member of this House, had done a really first-rate job in reviewing the entire Royal Ulster Constabulary. And radical change, radical replacement of the RUC by a new Police Service of Northern Ireland. I was completely committed to it and its implementation, and I did carry out that implementation. I introduced the legislation, we did it all. There were two things I was worried about. Chris wasn't really happy with me at the time about this. One was that I was just slightly worried that the supervisory boards that we were creating, the overseeing boards politically representative of all the parties, every section of the community across Northern Ireland, that they may not realise the need and the propriety of standing back away from any operational activity or decision of the police. I was worried about frankly, political interference by elements who frankly were connected with criminality. And so I just tweaked that a bit. Chris, not happy.

The other thing he thought was a bit excessive, I think. I wanted to save the face of the RUC. I didn't want to humiliate the RUC. They had made such sacrifices. They had lost so many of their members to the terrorism of the Provisional IRA. I had met families and widows and I wanted in saying goodbye to the RUC and finally standing them down and replacing them, I wanted to say a thank you. So I asked Her Majesty the Queen whether she would agree to awarding of the George Cross to the RUC as an acknowledgement and recognition of their sacrifice they had made. And in many, many cases, their bravery in the face of that terrorism. I knew all the political reasons why they had to go, and the Queen agreed, and we had a ceremony and I thought that was a nice way to stand down the RUC. But some disagreed. They said, "Come on, the RUC should just be swept away." And I said, "Come on, we can do this in a nicer way."

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, but it was a fantastic achievement when you consider it was, again, two different mindsets, two different political beliefs and bringing them together.

Lord Mandelson:

But look what we've got now. Now you've got a Sinn Féin First Minister in tandem, in lockstep-

Lord Speaker:

With DUP.

Lord Mandelson:

... with the DUP. And everything they decide they have to decide together. Each has a veto. I mean, it's an amazing achievement, it is one of the signal greatest achievements of British politics, certainly of New Labour...

Lord Speaker:

Are you positive for the future?

Lord Mandelson:

I'm very positive about the future, because they keep on encountering these potholes and hurdles in the road and they'll go over them. They'll go around them. It will last, because that's the will of the people of Northern Ireland. They want it to work.

Lord Speaker:

In one of your government appointments, you were Secretary of State for trade, and as I mentioned earlier, your view in industrial strategy and you seem to have a big global approach to these issues. Probably reinforced again by your role as Commissioner in Europe on that. And I think you mentioned Lee Kuan Yew was very influential-

Lord Mandelson:

In Singapore, yes.

Lord Speaker:

... in giving you that view. But you've said that the drift economically is from west to east. What advice do you have for the country at this time, particularly as we go forward economically? Because since the banking crisis, I think we've been quite sclerotic in terms of our GDP growth and economic growth. I think it's 0.4% per year.

Lord Mandelson:

We have not had a brilliant decade, that's for sure. Look, I tell you what my advice is, don't be defeatist. Don't be fatalistic. Of course the world is changing. Of course China and the Asian countries are fast emerging. There are other large, populated countries that have plenty of natural resources and critical materials that perhaps we lack. They're now creating and developing some fine universities. And by the way, the future of any economy, the future of our economy, our future prosperity as a country is going to be built on the broad strong shoulders of our great universities in Britain. So let's not be defeatist or fatalist about this just because we see others emerging. The global economy is not a zero-sum game. And if we invest and we raise levels of public and private investment, if we invest in our infrastructure again, if we invest in our skills, we invest in AI and the introduction of technology to some amazingly new fast emerging markets and industries, which didn't exist 10 or 20 years ago.

Now we can compete, John, in this country. Okay, we've had a terrible 10 years. We've had global financial crisis, we had austerity, we had Brexit, heaven help us, we've had Covid, and we've had all the divisions, political divisions of successive Conservative, Prime Ministers and ministers. But look, I think the country's ready to turn a page. They want to start a new chapter in our national story. And at the root of that has got to be our drawing and our strengths, leveraging our science base, mobilising our great universities. But making sure that whilst we have some of the best entrepreneurs and private investors in Europe and the world, they need a government that's backing them and doing some of the heavy lifting, some of the pump priming. That's what I discovered. The essential partnership between public and private, between business and government. We're operating sensibly, going with the grain of markets, but a government doing what sometimes only a government can and should do. And that's what we've got to do again.

Lord Speaker:

Would you recommend keeping a link with China?

Lord Mandelson:

We have no alternative but to keep a link.

Lord Speaker:

There's some saying we should-

Lord Mandelson:

Oh, I know, but I mean it's barking. Look, I don't like China's political system. I don't like their complete disregard for conscience in a broader sense of the term in which they conduct themselves both at home and internationally. I think Xi Jinping, by the way, in the way in which he's taking the country and operating a very centralised system, rather authoritarian system, is doing China colossal damage, potentially, economically. So there are many things I could say about China, but also we are in one global boat, John.

Lord Speaker:

And globalisation is not bust as some pessimists would say.

Lord Mandelson:

Globalisation is changing. It's not stopping and it's not reversing, but it is changing. Structurally our economies, the structure of international trade, the structure of many supply chains are changing and we've got to adapt to those changes. But at the end of the day, we are in one giant global economic boat and we've got to row together and make sure that we move forward at pace, but in a way that doesn't simply benefit and bring rewards to those who are the most advanced. But those others in the world who want to catch up, they want their opportunity to do what we've done. To trade, to generate economic growth and prosperity, to lift people out of poverty. The last thing we should be doing now, and all these people who say, "Oh, we don't like trade or we don't like globalisation." What they're saying is, what you want to do is kick away the ladder that we've climbed up in our economic growth so that others, developing countries, are not able to follow us. Well, I don't agree with that.

Lord Speaker:

You have said that generally speaking, politicians are not good at strategy. They're good at tactics on that.

Lord Mandelson:

Did I say that?

Lord Speaker:

You did somewhere. I'll tell you afterwards where you said it. [Laughter] But in terms of that strategy, the need for long term thinking is important. What's been your approach to strategy as opposed to tactics?

Lord Mandelson:

Values are your starting point. Your public policy goals are what the country needs and what the public wants. The policies are your means of pursuing those goals. But if you're constantly thinking in a completely transactional short term, here today, gone tomorrow way, you're not going to be able to drive that great ship of state in pursuit of those big goals and pursue consistently, consistently the policies you need to underpin them.

Our great, the bane of British economic life and history is this constant muddling through the whole time, chopping and changing. If not just from almost one Prime Minister to the next or one government to the next, it's one minister to the next. When you've had as we've had in this country, seven Business Secretaries in as many years, seven Digital Secretaries in as many years, every single year, your priority or your emphasis or what a particular minister wants to do in their portfolio changes. No consistency. That's not what other countries do. And they're more successful than us in developing, pursuing and implementing policies over the longterm. And that is going to be the driver and the measure of success of the next government of our country. Big goals, big missions, clear policies consistently pursued over a long period. That's the only way we're going to be able to get up out of the economic mire that we're in at the moment.

Lord Speaker:

And as an experienced communicator, with the strategy it's important that alongside that is a story about the future and providing what-

Lord Mandelson:

You're explaining to people what you're doing, why you're doing it, where you're going, and you're asking them to come on that journey with you. And there will be pitfalls and elephant traps and setbacks, and you've got to explain those as well. And if you do, people will understand. People prefer honesty now. We've had a really difficult time. The other day, the other week rather, Labour adjusted its borrowing policies to do with investing in renewables. And people said to me, "Oh God, this is going to be a disaster, another U-turn, the public's going to think we're not competent." I said, "Well, actually the public like a bit of honesty. They'd rather be told now what has to change and what has to be adjusted in accordance with economic realities than have that hidden from them and then discover further down the course." A little bit of honesty with the public goes a long way in my view.

Lord Speaker:

Let's go on to the House of Lords. You've been a member of the House of Lords since 2008. In fact, you have been a minister in both Houses. How do they compare with each other?

Lord Mandelson:

Well, they're completely different. I mean, the-

Lord Speaker:

What about scrutiny?

Lord Mandelson:

The House of Commons is a sort of bull pit. It can also be a pulpit as well as a bear pit. It's the adversarial end of our parliamentary system. And quite honestly, a lot of detail goes by the board. A lot of scrutiny goes by the board. A lot of clear, honest debate goes by the board, because people are so busy taking chunks out of each other. That's fine. That's the adversarial bit of politics. Our end of the parliamentary system is different. It's about scrutiny, it's about debate, it's about revising, it's about advising. It's about saying, "Look, we have people here who know an enormous amount on the subject matter of these bills, of this legislation. They're able to bring this experience and this knowledge in an informed way. Listen to what we're saying."

And what strikes me about the House of Lords now is the colossal number of amendments that the government actually accepts and sometimes initiates in the House of Lords, because they know they're going to be properly debated and scrutinised here rather than in the House of Commons where you've had debates guillotined and short-circuited. You've had a headlong rush to pump the bills through like a sausage making machine until they come to this end when there's a more reflective approach.

And what worries me, John, about the ideas, the proposals of my own party to sweep away the House of Lords, is that what they're proposing to do, what they're envisaging. If you take their proposals, or the report of Gordon that was done for the Labour Party, they no longer want to see a House, a second chamber having that role. I mean, as far as I can see, I've read the proposals very carefully. I can't see anyone focusing on what is the essential role of a second chamber, which is to revise, advise, and reform what the legislation that comes from the primary, elected chamber. Instead, what's being proposed is something completely different, is to abolish the House of Lords, put in its place a second chamber of the nations and regions of the UK in order to entrench the constitutional status of self-governing nations and regions of the UK.

Now, there's an argument to be had about further devolution. There's an argument to be had about how much more you might want to invest in Scottish and Welsh devolution. There's an argument to be had indeed about devolving, decentralising government in England as well. But the idea that we should almost entirely rewrite our country's constitution and indeed write it down for the first time, and to enshrine in this constitution a whole new concept of self-government of nations and of regions of England, which as far as I can see don't yet exist; that the job of the second chamber is not only to entrench that self-governing status, but also to ward off from the House of Commons policies and legislation that might question or impair that self-governing status of nations and regions; and that you are simply creating a second chamber to give a voice for those self-governing nations...

Well, we haven't even got to the stage in this country of agreeing that we want self-governing nations and regions, let alone doing away with the entire role and purpose of the House of Lords in order to create a second chamber that would entrench those rights. And I think that we've got to have a far deeper conversation and analysis about this than has taken place to date. Well, we haven't had a substantive discussion about it in our own party, let alone a debate in the country. And yet we're told six months away from a general election, all this is going to happen, abracadabra, in the first term of a Labour government. Well, I mean there are real issues of principle. There's a real question mark over the continuing, necessary role of the House of Lords. There are other questions, by the way, about reforming the House of Lords.

Its numbers, its members, how they're appointed. The hereditaries and the by-elections, et cetera, all of which I'm absolutely up for. Let's have that serious discussion about how the House of Lords has got to be changed. But that's quite separate from a completely different set of proposals to do away with the whole thing. And I'm afraid that, having looked at the proposals very carefully, I mean, what I see is a sort of multi-layered cake with an assortment of very diverse ingredients in it with a thin layer of icing at the top, which is called a new second chamber of the regions and nations, which has barely been put in the oven yet, let alone fully baked.

Lord Speaker:

And in the speeches I've made on it, I stressed the fact that our role is complementary to the House of Commons. We don't make legislation, but we scrutinise. And I think you mentioned about the number of amendments. If I remember the Levelling Up Bill, which has come to us, on day 10 of the Levelling Up Bill, the number of amendments were greater than on day one. So I think that tells you about the depth of scrutiny. And what I've said to people is, we're getting quite animated about this, "If we're going to do something about this, then the strap line has to be "seek to understand."'

Lord Mandelson:

Look, the House of Commons needs a House of Lords. It can't do all the work, all the amendments and all the revising and all the scrutinising and all the reviewing that a second chamber can do. They're too busy operating the sausage machine. I mean, they're too busy… questions and gladiatorial contests and all the theatre of the House of Commons and whatever. Look, the House of Commons is the essential fulcrum. It is the pivot of our parliamentary system. And we in the House of Lords have to respect that by the way. They're elected. We're not.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, absolutely.

Lord Mandelson:

We respect that. We don't pull the rug from underneath legislation that has been endorsed by a majority in the House of Commons. But what we can do and what the House of Commons expects us to do is take a second and a third look and help them improve the legislation. And that's our job. And yet that precise thing is being proposed to be swept away, put in the dustbin in order to create a completely different chamber to entrench self-government or whatever. This hasn't been thought through. I'm sorry.

Lord Speaker:

No, you've made that very clear on that. Is there anything else you'd like to say before we wrap up this chat?

Lord Mandelson:

No, except that it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for the opportunity and you've taken me down memory lane. But what I really want to do now is to live the next period of my life in a slightly more, I don't know. I don't know what I'm going to do in the next period of my life, but I enjoy being a member of the House of Lords. And I hope that whatever I do next, I'm looking forward to creating a third career. I've done politics-

Lord Speaker:

A third man creating a third career.

Lord Mandelson:

Third man creating a third career. I've done politics. I've created an advisory business, Global Counsel, done that for 13 years now. Perhaps time for something else, a third career. I don't know what it's going to be, but I hope it'll enable me to be a more active member of this House.

Lord Speaker:

Yes, resilience. Lord Mandelson, Peter, it's been a real pleasure for me to interview you. And if I look at the clock, I think we've outdone Weekend World in the time that we're conversing.

Lord Mandelson:

Well, I hope we haven't lost our viewers.

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely. But listen, thanks very much. I'm really grateful for you coming along. Thank you.

Lord Mandelson:

Pleasure. Thank you.

 

Lord Ricketts

Former top diplomat Lord Ricketts speaks to Lord McFall of Alcluith about the conflicts in Israel/Gaza and Ukraine, the impact of Brexit and more in this episode of Lord Speaker’s Corner.

Peter Ricketts, an expert in international relations and now a crossbench member of the House of Lords, has previously served as the UK’s ambassador to France and representative to Nato. He has been chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was the UK’s first national security adviser and the most senior civil servant in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he was a diplomat for 40 years.

‘I think the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are rather that you have to think about the longer term consequences. What is the political settlement you want to get to by your military intervention? And it's proved elusive in both Iraq and Afghanistan.’

In this new interview, Lord Ricketts shares his expertise on a wide range of developments around the world. He explains how the change in international approach by countries such as the UK and USA have resulted in a more aggressive stance by Russia, Iran and China on the world stage. He also reflects on the likely outcomes of the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza.

‘You begin to lose the challenge that the civil service ought to represent.’

Lord Ricketts also offers his thoughts on politicisation of the civil service, what inspired him to work in the Foreign Office and the impact of frequent turnover of ministers in government departments.

Lord Speaker:

Lord Ricketts, it's a real pleasure to have you here at Lord Speaker's Corner. If I'm correct, you did a BA at Oxford. And then since then, man and boy, you have been a Foreign Office servant. So could you tell me what inspired you to go into the foreign service and what has kept you there? I mean, you're a real diplomatic individual.

Lord Ricketts:

Well, thank you very much for having me on Lord Speaker's Corner, and I'm very relieved I don't have to stand on a soapbox. Yes. In my university years I didn't think very much about my career. I had already started to love going abroad. I went to France with a pen-friend at the age of 16 and I just loved it. The difference, the exotic sense of being in another country. And so I was always clear I wanted to do something linked to international affairs.

And my third year at university, my friends started all to do serious sounding things like join banks or join accountancy firms and so on. I began to think I better think a bit about what I want to do.

So I actually applied to the Foreign Office through the civil service exam and the BBC for their news traineeship, and I got offers from both. Such was life in those days where people got job offers more easily than they do now.

And I think I went to my tutor and I said, "I've got these two offers, which shall I choose?" He said, "Young man, I think the Foreign Office would be a more structured career." And so I went into the Foreign Office without a great deal of thought, and I was 42 years there, and I loved every minute of it.

Lord Speaker:

Good. And what is it that makes diplomacy exciting and a rewarding career?

Lord Ricketts:

Well, the world is such an interesting place, and there are constantly differences between countries, tensions between countries. But understanding how other countries work... Speaking a language is an enormously rewarding thing because you can't really understand a country unless you can speak the language, which means also understanding the culture behind the words in the language.

Now my only foreign language is French. I don't think there are such things as hard languages and soft languages. All languages are hard to learn. But I think the connection with other people, building bridges, and opening up opportunities, trying to damp down tensions, it's constantly fascinating. Whether you are serving in an embassy abroad or in the Foreign Office at a desk in London, I found the substance of the work always fascinating.

Lord Speaker:

How does the balance between civil servants and ministers work, particularly the churn that there is in ministers?

Lord Ricketts:

If you are going to be a civil servant, you have to accept the deal, which is that you will carry out the policies of the elected government. If you're somebody with extremely strong personal convictions, you're probably not the right person to be a civil servant, because in the end you carry out what the government of the day decides to do. Occasionally that can be challenging, but very few civil servants in the end take the other alternative, which is to resign rather than carry out a policy. But it's become more and more a problem, the rapid churn of ministers.

If I think back to 40 years ago, many ministers did years and years in the same department. Cabinet ministers might be there pretty much through a full parliament. I worked closely with Geoffrey Howe when he was Foreign Secretary, and he did a long stint as Foreign Secretary, and we've had ministers in the Foreign Office like David Lidington who did many years as minister for Europe.

It's got much, much shorter now. And the problem is you are constantly going back to square one, briefing a new minister, introducing them to contacts around the world, and then they change. So the friction, the cost in terms of resource and effort in the civil service of constant ministerial changes is very high.

Lord Speaker:

I remember Chris Mullin telling me when he was a junior minister in the Foreign Office, and he was responsible for Africa, the African leaders complained that every year there was ministerial change, so it didn't allow the ministers here to build up a knowledge of the country enough, and the African leaders felt that they were being short-changed in that.

Lord Ricketts:

I think that's absolutely right and it applies all around the world. Human contacts take time to build. Trust and confidence has to be created, and if it's a new face walking through the door every time, you essentially go back to square one.

So it is much better if, especially in the jobs that require you to understand Africa or the Middle East where the human relationships are so important, I think it's much better if ministers can stay two or three or four years and really get to know people.

That's what we do with ambassadors. When we send ambassadors to countries, normally it's now four years, three years if the country is more difficult, perhaps a year if it's really tough like Afghanistan or Iraq. But the norm is four years, and that's the time where you make the connections and then you can use them and benefit from them.

Lord Speaker:

Do you think it's important that civil servants speak truth to power with their ministers, and has that changed over the years?

Lord Ricketts:

It's absolutely essential that ministers get frank and honest advice, otherwise they'll make bad decisions. And that's what civil servants want to do. But it does require the ministers to create the environment where people feel safe in saying unwelcome things, bringing messages that the minister may not want to hear, that the proposed policy won't work. So we are suggesting you do something else.

And it's up to ministers to set the tone, and it has got more toxic in recent years. I mean there's been a bit of a culture of people finding that their advice is leaked into the newspapers if it's not welcomed from somewhere in the political echelon, whether special advisors or ministers. That's incredibly damaging to trust and confidence. And if ministers reject advice because it doesn't fit with their preconceptions, also people then go back into self-preservation mode and will only tell ministers what they think they want to hear.

So it's in ministers' own interest to create the climate where frank advice can come, it can be challenged, but people will never feel inhibited from saying what they honestly think.

Lord Speaker:

Has there been over time, politicisation of the civil service?

Lord Ricketts:

I think to some extent there has. The civil service is a very strong and deeply rooted institution, and the ethos is neutral. People will adapt to the government of the day and follow their instructions. But the trend by ministers to want to choose their own senior officials, the permanent secretary who runs the department and perhaps the people immediately in the private office around the minister, the more that happens, the more ministers want to pick and choose someone who they think will work well with them, the more political things become.

And at the extreme end of that spectrum, there's the US example where when a US administration changes, 3,000 or 4,000 officials change because they are political appointments. We are light years away from that here, but any trend towards ministers wanting to pick the official that they think will be most comfortable for them is in my view a dangerous trend, because then you tend to get people picking those with the same kind of outlook and view. You begin to lose the challenge that the civil service ought to represent.

Lord Speaker:

The essence of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and ensure good law. What do senior civil servants and diplomats add to that?

Lord Ricketts:

It was a new experience. And to be absolutely honest, I didn't realise how much sheer hard work goes on in this place to scrutinising draft legislation. A lot of it comes from the House of Commons in a pretty, let's say, unfinished state and requires a great deal of hard work.

And I fully admire the talent available on all the benches in this House. For example, on the crossbenches, the non-political Lords of which I'm one. We have judges, we have barristers, we have extremely experienced people who've worked with legislation in their previous life, who know what works and can see the risks of what could not work. And therefore, they propose amendments, and they spend hours, and evenings, and nights discussing it, advocating for it, and from time to time getting support for it, sending back to the Commons.

That's a new world for me. I watch it carefully. I try to study some of the bills that I'm particularly interested in and vote when I get the chance. I have not actually got involved in proposing amendments, partly because my life is a part-time peer. I have other activities outside the house. I'd started them before I was given the privilege of coming here. And so I can never be absolutely sure that I can be there on a Tuesday evening when some important stage of legislation is reached.

So in fact, I've found my mark more in the work of committees than in the process of legislation, which does require members of the House of Lords to be pretty available to adapt to the calendar in which legislation goes through. So I've been rather more observer than an active participant. But I've been very, very impressed by the quality of scrutiny that goes on because of the range of experience we have in this house.

Again, it's been a surprise to me, a very welcome surprise to find that you have leaders here in all different walks of life who have had fascinating lives outside this place and bring that to looking at legislation. I think it's an irreplaceable role actually.

Lord Speaker:

We have very serious situations in the world now geopolitically, whether we're talking about Ukraine, whether we're talking about Gaza, or whether we're talking about Rwanda, which has been through our House this week. Some would say that the unelected House of Lords really shouldn't be involving themselves in this. What's your answer to that?

Lord Ricketts:

I think we need in this country all the expertise we can bring to bear in helping the government of the day navigate this very dangerous world. As you say, we've got multiple crises going on simultaneously at the moment. The government have to cope in all sorts of areas. Rwanda is a rather special case, because they've chosen that as the place where they want to remove asylum seekers as part of their plan to reduce small boats. There are many strongly held views on that around the House. I personally doubt that that will act as much of a deterrent.

But where it comes to the war in Gaza, or the war in Ukraine, or the strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, I mean we have in our House many former Chiefs of Defence Staff, other distinguished military leaders. We have people, of my own background, National Security Adviser, Foreign Office, Cabinet Secretaries.

These are people, we've all of us lived through multiple crises in our lives, and I hope that we can help to bring to bear some of that expertise both in the debates and in the committee work that we do. And my own committee, the European Affairs Committee, which I'm now really fortunate to be chair of. We are just completing a report on the implications of the war in Ukraine for how the UK and the EU work together. And we've got a lot of fascinating evidence that we'll be producing in a report shortly.

That's the kind of thing where we've got the time perhaps to look at different angles that busy ministers and senior civil servants won't have that time. So I hope that is at least some help.

Lord Speaker:

You were chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee just before 9/11. You stood down and then you went to Nato during the Iraq War. How have these issues affected Britain's standing in the world?

Lord Ricketts:

Yes, I chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee for a year. That's the place where the intelligence agencies bring their assessment, their raw intelligence, their reports, and then we put them together into an assessment. We balance out all the various bits of information coming in, intelligence, news reports, reports from ambassadors around the world, into one assessment that goes to ministers. And that's always been a very respected process.

Actually I jumped from that across to the Foreign Office for two years, and I worked very closely with Jack Straw through the run-up to the Iraq war and actually the outbreak of the Iraq war, which is a period of high emotion and some difficulty in terms of squaring one's loyalty as a civil servant to the huge moral pressures that were around in the run-up to the Iraq war.

And I think in those periods, Britain was seen as a major country in terms of trying to deal with international crisis with the Americans as well. Much criticism of the decision to follow America into the invasion of Iraq, and there were many hesitations around it at the time, but Tony Blair decided he would do that. He had parliamentary support to do it. In the end, it turned out badly.

And that and the bad experience in Afghanistan I think has really knocked confidence in the US and in the UK about the idea of intervention in other people's wars in the sense of sending ground forces and potentially long-term commitments there.

And ever since Iraq and Afghanistan, ministers here have held back from that. There's been no great public or parliamentary support for it, which tends to mean that the authoritarian states and the more reckless states push forward, if they sense that the West has pulled back from that.

So one of the reasons I think we have such an unstable world is that the US, Britain, and others have stepped back from the very direct and interventionist approach which they took in the period of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lord Speaker:

Was it a signal to the rest of the world regarding Iraq, and Britain, and America's position, that the ethics and immorality of diplomacy was lessened?

Lord Ricketts:

Yeah, I think it was certainly a lesson that the decision was taken in the short term after 9/11. First, certainly Tony Blair had a burning conviction that there was too much of a risk in letting Saddam Hussein have what he thought were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Turned out they weren't there. Not enough thought was given to the longer term.

And I think this is always a problem, particularly in democratic countries where all the impulse, all the pressure is for short-term decisions, immediate responses, and that crowds out time for thinking about the longer term. And I think the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are rather that you have to think about the longer term consequences. What is the political settlement you want to get to by your military intervention? And it's proved elusive in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And in subsequent conflicts, I think western countries been much more cautious about intervening. And they've tended, if at all, to use airstrikes as they did in Syria and now against the Houthis in Yemen, but not commit ground forces.

But that does leave the world without the international arbiter role that the Americans played for half a century after 1945. And there, you see the authoritarian countries pushing forward. Russia in particular in Ukraine now, China flexing its muscles, countries in the Middle East more willing to go their own way. Iran feeling, I think unconstrained. And that's part of the reason we are facing such a world of disorder at the moment.

Lord Speaker:

And the Iraq war, the link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, do you think that there was something to that by the US and the UK going ahead with that war?

Lord Ricketts:

I personally don't think there was ever any evidence of a link to Al-Qaeda. That was part of the case that the so-called ‘neocons’ made in Washington. I don't think we ever found any evidence for it.

I think Tony Blair's feeling was that after 9/11, he couldn't afford to leave a leader like Saddam Hussein in control of what he thought were weapons of mass destruction. And therefore, the risk of going into Iraq and dealing with these weapons was less than the risk of leaving Saddam Hussein alone.

That was a historically wrong decision. I think it was made for good motives. I don't think the intelligence was accurate. I don't think it was really tested enough with the rigor it should have been.

And for civil servants, that was a difficult time. I was then the job of political director in the Foreign Office with Jack Straw. I remember coming to work on a Saturday morning. There were a million people demonstrating against the war, and we all knew war was coming very closely. Jack Straw and I had spent six months trying to get UN resolutions, which would either have given Saddam Hussein pause or at least given us the legal base to act. And we didn't get them.

I decided I wasn't going to resign in terms of conscience. I thought that in the end, the government had parliamentary approval for what it was doing. But there were people who were concerned. I remember hosting a meeting for staff in the Foreign Office where people could air their problems, discuss things, test whether senior officials like me had thought about the consequence. It was the only time in my career where I've seen people really actively struggling with their duty to support the government as civil servants and their moral uneasiness about what was going on.

Anyway, that is now history, but I think it'll be a long time before the US or the UK launch a major war of that kind without the most careful scrutiny.

Lord Speaker:

Simon McDonald has been in this room, and he mentioned about Brexit, and his views on Brexit are known now that he was opposed to that. But he informed me that he had a meeting with his staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a whole range of views on it. But it helped gel them together and helped them understand even more the distinction between civil servants with their views and a neutral civil service. Does that still prevail?

Lord Ricketts:

I think it was a testing time, but yes it has. And I think in my own department, I know so well the Foreign Office, I think genuinely, people would've had views as citizens. It doesn't mean that because you've spent a lot of time working in Europe, you're necessarily hugely pro-European. But people accepted that this was the decision taken in the referendum, whether the referendum, it was right to call it or not is another matter. And it was their job to do the best they could to implement it in a way that promoted Britain's interests effectively. So I think people were professional in their approach.

I think it was difficult. I think to be an ambassador in a European Union country after the Brexit vote would've been very tough. I retired in early 2016, so I missed it by six months. But to have had to explain to all my French contacts and friends what Britain was doing would've been difficult.

But that's what a civil servant diplomat is paid to do. Now I think, we're in much better territory where everybody is focused on moving on from where we are and trying to do the best job we can for the UK in the circumstances seven years after leaving the EU where we need to be minimising all the barriers and the obstacles.

But I think in the months after 2016, the civil service was under real pressure. Yes, people must have had questions. In the end, I think everybody decided the right thing was to try and work with the government to pull it through.

Lord Speaker:

The rules based international order would seem to have been damaged, particularly after the Iraq war. What advice do you have for governments, for ministers, to try and ensure the revival of that?

Lord Ricketts:

You're quite right. The international order, which was never perfect, came into being in 1945 with the UN after the Second World War has been unravelling, partly because of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the pullback that we've seen from America.

But if the authoritarians thought that they could now exploit a vacuum with Putin launching the war in Ukraine, with Xi Jinping flexing his muscles in the South China Sea, with terrorists launching attacks in Israel, well actually they've been shown to be wrong, because what the Ukraine invasion has done is bring America back to leadership of European security. They've done more than anyone in terms of arming Ukraine, of supporting them economically. They've moved forces back to Europe. Nato is stronger and larger than it was before, more focused on keeping the peace.

So I think the Western institutions, US and its allies have performed effectively on Ukraine. And the crisis in the Middle East is extremely worrying. It's gone on very long. The toll of civilian casualties is very high, but which country is doing most to try to broker a solution? It's America.

And so the Americans are back in that role, which they in the end are the only ones, the indispensable nation to try and bring Israel together with the Palestinians, and see there has to be a better way than simply a security response to the Palestinian issue.

No other country can do that. China's not doing anything. Russia's certainly not. And all the many non-aligned countries who sat on the fence in the Ukraine war chose not to condemn Russia, certainly not support sanctions. They're not doing very much either to try to bring tension down, reduce the violence.

I think we do have a real lesson to learn though, that those non-aligned countries when we went to them to ask for support, tended to say, "Well actually, you invaded Iraq, so why are you now saying we should condemn Russia for invading Ukraine? You haven't been very interested in our issues." In Africa, you mentioned earlier, on climate change, you haven't been funding that. You haven't been spending the development assistance we need or worrying so much about the crises on our doorstep. So this is very hypocritical for you to now expect our support.

I think we have to think seriously about that. We have to spend more time talking to these important non-aligned countries, India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia. Why have they felt that this international order, which we thought was in the interest of all countries, actually was serving the West's interests? That's a serious issue I think for the years to come. And it means ministers in all our countries spending more time out in these countries listening, understanding their concerns, and giving their priorities more focus than they've had frankly in the 20 years where we've been absorbed in Iraq, Afghanistan, in financial crisis, Brexit, Covid, the rise of populism in many countries in the West. We've been quite inward looking, and I think we've suddenly realised that we need to be more engaged with a wider group of countries, who are cynical frankly about the idea of an international order.

Lord Speaker:

Do you think the Ukraine war and others have helped pull Europe together? And during your time as Ambassador of Nato, you saw on the ground the Americans, and what they did. Could you give your views to a wider audience on that, and why it's so important to have America and Europe?

Lord Ricketts:

Absolutely. My first time I served in Nato was in the Cold War, where Europe absolutely depended on the American military guarantee against the Soviet Union whose declared objective was to overrun the West and establish domination in the world. That didn't end well for them.

But in the period after the Cold War ended, I think people perhaps felt that we no longer needed to invest in the level of defence we had, that there was no real threat from Russia, that we should spend money on our domestic priorities. And America reduced its engagement in Europe, began to focus more on China, confrontation that will be the key one, the structuring ones for the next generation.

And then, Putin reminded us all that war in Europe is not something that's been consigned to the history books. First of all, he went into Georgia in 2008. Then he helped himself to 20% of Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, and then he went for the whole thing with his extraordinary gamble of an all-out invasion two years ago now.

And that has brought America back into full engagement in Europe. For how long that will last, I don't know. But it has reminded people that when we are facing down Russia, the US is absolutely indispensable. The European countries can't alone deter Russia.

But as you say, the effect of Ukraine I think has been to pull European countries, including the UK, closer together. I think it put all the rows between the UK and the EU over Brexit into proportion, when you've suddenly got full scale war two hours flying time away. And the subject of our report that will be coming out shortly from my committee is that relations have improved between the UK and the EU as a result of the Ukraine war. We've been working much more closely on issues like sanctions against Russia, which only makes sense if you do them in the widest possible group. And in other areas, we are coordinating more effectively on defence of Ukraine, supplying arms, a whole series of areas where we're talking more to the EU.

So I think the effect has been both to strengthen Nato and also to focus the EU on its geopolitical role, which it's underplayed up to now. And I would never have imagined that the EU would've funded out of its collective EU budget arms deliveries to Ukraine. That would've been a taboo at any time up to the outbreak of this war.

So a little bit of a sense of the EU discovering that they can play more of a geopolitical role, and I think the need for them to be working closely with the UK reciprocated from London, we'll see how durable that proves to be. The EU has not actually been very effective over the Israel-Gaza war. Countries have been divided on how to deal with that. But on Ukraine, they have been effective, and I hope that we can use that to build some rather deeper rooted cooperation in foreign policy that will last in the years to come.

Lord Speaker:

The historical reality is that for every war, there has to be a peace process eventually. How do you see it working out with both Ukraine and Gaza?

Lord Ricketts:

In Ukraine, I felt from the beginning it's most unlikely that there's going to be an outright victory by either side. I don't see the Ukrainians driving Russia out of every millimetre of Ukrainian territory, unfortunately, including Crimea. Nor do I see the Ukrainians collapsing and Russia overrunning the whole of the country.

So at some point, there is going to be an armistice, a truce, with a dividing line between a US... A Russian occupied zone and independent Ukraine. That is not a good outcome, and it will be for President Zelenskyy to choose when that time comes.

But it's not necessarily a terrible outcome. If you think of the armistice in Korea, which has now lasted over 70 years, what's happened in North Korea, completely dismal. South Korea, spectacular economic success. If you think of the division of Germany in 1945, West Germany hugely successful, East Germany a failure, and eventually unification between the two countries.

So I think if we can get 80% of Ukraine, independent Ukraine on the path to EU membership and Nato membership, imagine the result of that in the 20% still occupied by Russia. They will benighted and rather sad places. And I think the problem for the Russians will then be to stop talent moving from the occupied part of Ukraine towards the west.

So I don't think we should look on a truce or an armistice in Ukraine as necessarily a terrible thing. In Gaza, the war has to come to an end sometime. And in my view, the Israelis have to think that the policy of purely a security response to the Palestinian problem, occupying Palestinian territory, repressing Palestinian opposition, that hasn't worked. The awful terrorist attack of 7 October showed that that has not worked, and however difficult, they need to start thinking about a two-state solution. We'll need the moderate Arab countries to come in and fund the enormous reconstruction program that is going to be needed, with European and American help, probably also provide security. New Palestinian leadership that can be much more focused on working with Israel, not the terrorism we've seen in the past. And frankly, a new Israeli government who can put behind them Prime Minister Netanyahu's policy security only, and look at a political settlement. Because at the end of the day, the security settlement hasn't worked.

But that's asking a lot. But sometimes, crisis can produce opportunity, and I just devoutly hope that in this case that will prove to be the case.

Lord Speaker:

So in many ways, it's a rerun of the Oslo Accords for a two-state solution. But do you see the possibility for a wider conflagration in the Middle East spreading even further?

Lord Ricketts:

Just before coming to that, you're right. And the Oslo Accords were about as close as we got. And the reason people like me support a two-state solution is not because it's easy or ideal, but because I just don't see any alternative. The alternative is a forever war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which is in nobody's interest. And I think probably an Israel-Palestine settlement can only be reached by widening the scope.

I think it was Eisenhower who said, "If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it." And so peace between Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and the remaining moderate Arab states, that could be part of a solution, which would give Israel more of a sense of belonging in the region and integration into what after all is a very dynamic economy. For as long as this goes on, the risk of a wider war is there. The Houthis wouldn't be firing missiles at Western shipping if it wasn't for this war. Hezbollah are on a knife edge frankly, for wider military action in the north of Israel. The risk of an Israel-Hezbollah conflict is absolutely there. And Iran is enjoying poking the West, provoking the West, encouraging their proxies to make trouble wherever they can without directly involving themselves.

So it is urgent that this is Israel-Gaza conflict is brought to some sort of at least a ceasefire, so we can start to build an outcome that gives Israel security, but also recognises that the Palestinians have rights as well. All that is easy to say and extremely hard to do, but we're at a dangerous moment, John, at the moment.

Lord Speaker:

If I can reflect on Northern Ireland, is that when there was the conflict between ourselves and the IRA, that the conflict led to a recruiting drive for young people to sign up for the IRA. Is it a parallel with Gaza and Israel here?

Lord Ricketts:

Yes, there is. Absolutely. I mean, there must be a generation of young Arabs in Gaza, but perhaps more widely in the Middle East, radicalised by what they've seen going on in Gaza. And the huge challenge for a new Palestinian leadership, rather like in Northern Ireland, is to turn that round and to say, "However we've been provoked, this is not a solution to our problem." And that the right way is to accept the reality of Israel, and to work with Israel, and find a peaceful settlement, find a way of coming together. And it's probably even more difficult than it was in Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland shows the power of two communities saying, "We've had enough of terrorism and violence, we're going to come together in our mutual interest." That has to be the objective in Gaza and the occupied West Bank as well. Although my goodness, it feels like quite a distant prospect at the moment. It's a case of leadership that's really what's needed in the region.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, there was that opportunity that the leadership, as you mentioned years ago, but it dissolved.

Lord Ricketts:

Yes, it's been tantalising. It's come close sometimes, and Prime Minister Rabin and other Israeli leaders. For the moment, it feels a long way away. But it feels to me that the Netanyahu policy has failed. And I suspect that Prime Minister Netanyahu won't be Prime Minister very long after this conflict has been at least put into a ceasefire. Equally, Hamas won't be around. We need new leadership on both sides. That's a matter of course in Israel for the Israeli people. But there has to be a better way than just waiting for another terrorist attack on the lines of 7 October and then responding to that. We've got to try and move on from that.

And the Americans are crucial. Britain has been playing, I think a very effective role. Moderate Arab countries are more involved than they were. If you think back to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Kissinger did most of that shuttle diplomacy himself. Now we've got Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, UK, other Europeans involved as well, which is good.

Lord Speaker:

Let me take you back to Brexit. What's your view on Brexit? What have been the consequences on Brexit?

Lord Ricketts:

My own professional view as a former diplomat is that it has left the UK less influential in the world and poorer than we would've been if we'd stayed in the EU.

If you look back, it turned out to be an extraordinarily bad moment for the UK to decide to leave the EU and to try and seek a future as a free trading nation. The world has been in retreat from global free trade for some years now. The Americans have been pulling back, other countries. Barriers are going up rather than coming down. That's a very tough world to go and make your living in a world outside your closest economic block.

So I think there's no question that Britain's role in the world was diminished both by leaving the EU and both by the manner of it as well. The chaotic way in which it was done, the years of British politics being completely preoccupied with that issue, not really engaging with the wider world. And we've got to build back from that. Every time the government has threatened to break international law, it just does rather further damage to our international reputation.

And so I think we need a period now of re-engagement with the world, recognising that Brexit is a fact. We're not going to be re-joining the EU certainly in my lifetime I would say. But there's lots we can do to improve links to reduce obstacles, and frictions, and barriers in the years to come. As long as we convince the European countries that we are serious about it, and that we will carry out the agreements we've signed, that we will be clear about what we need, and then good partners in delivering it. Incremental improvements are possible and they are needed. I do not think we are going to see a night and day change in our relationship with the EU anytime soon. Remember, the EU has massive issues of its own to cope with now, like the proposal to bring Ukraine and six or eight other countries in. I mean, that's an agenda for 10 or 20 years.

And so Britain needs to be working bit by bit to rebuild good links with our European neighbours. Having found that the idea of pure independence, pure sovereignty in a world as troubled as this one with as many barriers, hasn't been a good solution.

Lord Speaker:

Is there such a thing as sovereignty in the modern world?

Lord Ricketts:

Nobody has complete sovereignty in the modern world. Not even America. And even the world's biggest superpower cannot simply ignore other countries, has to work with other countries.

I think Britain has always been great when it's worked with allies and partners, when we've provided the ideas. And I'm very interested in the period as the Second World War finished, where Britain was absolutely fundamental in the design of the United Nations, the international financial institutions. British ideas, American clout, hard diplomacy, helped to lay the foundations of the international order.

And we can play that role again, provided we accept we do it with our friends and allies as partners, and not in some kind of British exceptionalist mode, which I don't think has worked.

Lord Speaker:

So what we need is the equivalent of a Marshall Plan after the Second World War. Would you agree?

Lord Ricketts:

I would agree. I would agree, absolutely. And we need the leadership that led to that, the vision that saw that investing in the rest of the world, from America, from Europe, rebuilding Ukraine, putting the resources into the Middle East to try and move beyond that, dealing with the problems of these non-aligned countries who have seen the international order not as serving their interests. All that is going to require major investment. Not just from governments, I think from private investment as well. And there, the City of London is an unsung asset for the UK I think. For example, in dealing with climate change, I think you could say we need a new Marshall Plan to save the planet from the devastation of climate change. But that needs real political leadership.

Lord Speaker:

And I think you've said on climate change, there's not just an environmental program that's required, but there are also security implications with climate change. Can you elaborate on that?

Lord Ricketts:

There certainly are. There's no doubt about it. I mean let's take for an example, the Sahel region bordering the Sahara Desert. It's an area where the French have played a major role for many years. But successively, their position has been knocked back by a series of coups by extremist Islamist regimes taking over in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger.

And it's happening partly because of desertification, which is depriving rural communities of their living. Young men are migrating to the towns, they're becoming radicalised, and longstanding dynastic rulers have been overthrown. And the French are being kicked out. French bases around the region have closed. This is an area where a great deal of migration come through, from the very populous parts of more southern parts of Africa.

So we have migration, we have trafficking, we have instability, we have Al-Qaeda and its offshoots setting up shop there. And this is partly because of the stresses put on traditional regimes by climate change.

And there are many other examples as well. I think if you look over to Sudan, for example, Eritrea, Somalia, exactly the same sort of phenomena happening. So climate change can produce radicalisation, which can stimulate migration, which is then an immediate issue for our countries as well.

Lord Speaker:

And on immigration, I think what you infer is that we need a long-term strategy for immigration. Not just focusing on this year, the number of immigrants that come, but it's a global issue.

Lord Ricketts:

It's absolutely a global issue, and it can't be stopped, I think by building more walls or preventing desperate people from coming. Really the problem starts at home in the countries where these people are not finding jobs, or are finding that wars, and chaos, and instability are making life impossible, at which point they then all move towards the wealthy countries.

It is just worth a slightly more optimistic note remarking that nobody wants to be a migrant to China or to Russia. They want to come to the West because of the quality of life here, because of what we offer. Of course, many of them bring skills, and we in many cases need the contribution that they can give.

But this is only going to get greater. And the greatest proportion of under 25s is in Africa. And unless we can help African countries improve their economies, create job opportunities, deal with climate change at home, a lot of those people are going to want to migrate towards the wealthy, well off, West European countries. I think that's just inevitable. It's a huge issue for the next generation of diplomats, parliamentarians, and citizens.

Lord Speaker:

And demographics have to come into that. The European countries as a whole, the populations are going down. So it would be suggested that we need more people to come in to service the economy.

Lord Ricketts:

Absolutely. And we've seen, for example, in Germany, Germany accepted over a million migrants from Syria and Iraq in that very fraught period in 2015, and pretty successfully integrated them. There have been tensions. But when far right parties have recently called for mass expulsions of migrants, we've seen millions of people demonstrating against that policy. In other words, in favour of maintaining a generous, welcoming approach towards the migrant communities that have come to Germany, because partly Germany needs their support and they've many of them integrated effectively.

It's the same in all our countries. We are a declining population in terms of age, and the demographic of the workforce is getting smaller. We're all getting older, I'm afraid, John. And we are all going to need in our declining years, more support.

So yes, we need young people coming into our countries, and the politicians have really got a responsibility to get people to see that that can be an advantage, shouldn't be seen as a threat or a risk. Of course, it comes with implications for public services, and housing, and all the rest of it. But I think if the political class could see that as the opportunity it is rather than a threat, and encourage, perhaps the inevitable public worry and anxiety about that, then we are in real trouble.

Lord Speaker:

There is a view of politics and politicians that the population don't have much trust in. Is politics a noble profession, is it a vocation?

Lord Ricketts:

I call myself a parliamentarian rather than a politician, because I don't belong to any political party. But I have worked with politicians throughout my career. And I've seen almost all of them have been decent, hardworking, well-intentioned people who want to make a difference, who want to serve the national interest. I think that's why they went into politics.

And I've seen bosses down the years like Geoffrey Howe, like Jack Straw, like David Miliband, working late into the night every night trying to add value to the problems that were crowding onto their desks.

And so I don't think the politicians have got worse from that point of view. I think the climate in which they work has got more toxic. I think it's become more difficult to be a politician and not to be affected by the abuse that seems to become the currency now in talking to politicians.

But yes, I think politics is a noble profession. I think being a public servant is a noble profession. You commit your life to trying to do better for your country in these different ways, and that deserves some respect. And the cultural abuse, it's extremely unhelpful, because I think it drives away many talented people from wanting to do that.

Lord Speaker:

Lord Ricketts, you're a supreme example of the type of expert voice that's in the House of Lords. And I'm delighted and privileged that you have come along to share that experience today. So thank you very much, and this will go out, and there'll be many people looking at that, and I think will be grateful for your contribution. Thank you.

Lord Ricketts:

Thank you, Lord Speaker, for the privilege of coming and talking to you.

 

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

Lord Lamont talks tackling inflation, controlling interest rates and growing up in Shetland in the latest episode of Lord Speaker’s Corner.

‘Although I personally would not have joined the ERM and although I personally didn't think it was a disaster when we had to leave, I think the period we were in the ERM for two years did actually do the economy a huge amount of good.’

Norman Lamont, now Lord Lamont of Lerwick, was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 90s, and was responsible for trying to restore stability after the UK dramatically crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on ‘Black Wednesday’. In this episode, he shares with Lord McFall of Alcluith what was going on behind the scenes and explains that despite it being ‘a political disaster… a great humiliation’, it set up the following 15 years of growth.

‘I did actually go and see both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair when they were in opposition. And I told them that it wasn't my business to do anything to help the Labour Party, but I think it would be in the interest, thought it would be in the interest of the country, if they made the Bank of England independent.’

Lord Lamont also explains how he suggested to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to make the Bank of England independent, having not managed to convince John Major to do the same when he was Prime Minister. He also explains how we have got to where we are with interest rates today, by introducing a policy to use interest rate setting to target a set percentage for inflation.

Born in Shetland, Lord Lamont also explains how growing up there influenced his perspectives on the UK and Europe, and talks about his hopes for the UK's relationship with the EU post-Brexit.

Lord Speaker:

Good. Lord Lamont, Norman, welcome to the Lord Speaker's Podcast. Can I start with your early life? You started in Shetland, seems a long way from a boy in the most northerly part of the United Kingdom to the City and to Westminster. How did you start in Shetland?

Lord Lamont:

Well, my father was the surgeon. When I say the surgeon, I mean the only surgeon. He did everything. I think today there are several surgeons in Shetland. And he had a very active life getting on boats, going out to see people. I went to school there, stayed there until I was, I think 11 or 12. Then we moved to Perthshire.

But growing up in Shetland, was a great experience. I mean, it's very cut off. Hard life really for many people there. Closer to Norway than it is to Aberdeen. Jo Grimond was once asked, "What's the nearest railway station?" He had to fill in a form. He said, "Bergen." [Laughter]

So I think actually in a funny way, Shetland is less Scottish than many other parts of Scotland. And many people there have an affection for the concept of Britain. I think I'm a very strong unionist, but I think that's affected partly by having been born in Shetland.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. In fact, I think at the time of the referendum in the Scottish Parliament, Shetland had a different point of view from the rest of Scotland.

Lord Lamont:

They didn't want the devolution. That's right. And Shetland also in the referendum, were you referring to the referendum about the Scottish Parliament?

Lord Speaker:

Yes, yes.

Lord Lamont:

In the EU referendum, not the 2016 one, but the one that Harold Wilson had, they were the only part of the UK that voted not to join the EEC. And the reason that was given for that, rather jocularly, was that the government published a pamphlet setting out all the advantages of joining the EEC. And they had a map on the front of the British Isles, and Shetland was not included. [Laughter]

Lord Speaker:

Good. And I've always had the impression that Shetland and other islands felt that Edinburgh was a long way away, and maybe that-

Lord Lamont:

Yes, I think that's absolutely right. That's what I was trying to say. They looked to London as much the same as Edinburgh, really. And I think many people there did have a feeling of being British, as well as being Scottish, but a strong feeling of being British.

Lord Speaker:

And then you went to Cambridge. And your friends there, Michael Howard and other individuals. Leon Brittan, you were a good friend of his. What was your experience in Cambridge like? You seem to be the frontline people. Were you all going to make Prime Minister?

Lord Lamont:

[Laughter] I don't think so. I think we all wanted to get involved in politics. I don't think we thought about becoming Prime Minister, or certainly I didn't. I think that I was always very interested in politics. My mother was very political in Shetland. I mean, she was a supporter of the Conservative Party in Shetland, which had a bigger vote then than it does now, even though it was still a liberal constituency.

And she used to take me to political meetings in Shetland, they did have such things. I mean, I remember being by my mother's side where Sir David Maxwell Fife, I think he was then Secretary of State for Scotland, spoke in a village hall in Shetland. An abiding memory.

But I went up to Cambridge, interested in politics. I wouldn't say I was a diehard Conservative. I joined the Liberal Club, the Labour Club, the Marxist Society, and the Conservative Society.

Lord Speaker:

A Marxist?

Lord Lamont:

And the European Society, as well, to look at all the viewpoints. But I remember I met Kenneth Clarke and John Gummer, Lord Deben now, and got drawn into them. And I decided I had more in common with the Conservatives. I had quite a long flirtation with the Liberals actually, because of my connection with Jo Grimond's constituency.

But I became more aware of politics. I think, I thought, shall I become a journalist when I leave? Shall I be a civil servant? I thought the world of public affairs was exciting and something I wanted to be involved in. And then gradually the thought occurred to me that maybe I could actually get involved in politics.

And I have all these friends, as you say, Michael Howard, Leon Britain, Peter Lilley, John Gummer, Kenneth Clarke. We all tended to be on the Macleod wing of the Conservative party, very much liberal Conservatives rather against the Ancien Régime. Our views since have dissipated and we've all become different.

But in those days, we were all Macleod-istes. But I think in the Union debates at Cambridge, we sort of found our feet and found our identity.

Lord Speaker:

And Ted Heath, famous for our entry into Europe. What was your opinion at that time? Did you have a different opinion from him?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I supported joining the EEC as it was then called. I made my maiden speech, and I had a go at Enoch Powell who was opposing it. And-

Lord Speaker:

And Michael Foot?

Lord Lamont:

Michael Foot was opposing it. But Enoch Powell, I had heard speak at Cambridge once in favour of joining the EEC. Now, when I was in Parliament, he was opposing it. So I made a little bit of fun of how I'd been converted to being pro-EEC by Enoch Powell, and he was very generous about that and very nice to me afterwards.

But that was my maiden speech. And I believed at that time in joining the European Economic Community, I believed in the free trade area. My shift to Euro scepticism and supporting Brexit was really because as I saw it, the nature of Europe changed.

Ted Heath, you don't get many people who say a good word for him these days. But I have to say at the time I admired him. He was a contrast, a bit of a breath of fresh air with the old-fashioned Ancien Régime we'd had. He was a big contrast to Sir Alec Douglas-Home: a very honourable man, but gave an impression of being something of an amateur. Whereas Heath was a master of detail.

I think the Conservatives chose him as leader of the Conservative party, really, because they thought he was the only person who could take on Harold Wilson, who was a great mastery of detail. Heath didn't have Wilson's debating skills, Wilson's Witt, but he had this great grasp. And although I subsequently became disillusioned with what happened with Heath's policy and disagreed with some of it, I admired his sense of purpose.

His determination that Britain should not get into a cycle of decline. Britain needed to be modernized in all sorts of ways. He was quite a radical person. I remember Richard Crossman, the Labour Cabinet Minister, gave a series of lectures at Harvard where he talked in awe about Ted Heath. He called him the battering ram of change. He was just so amazed that Ted Heath could get so much done.

Unfortunately, Ted Heath got into this terrible situation with the miners, which led to chaos, the three-day week, and led to his eventually losing the premiership. But not to go into that in too much detail, but that was all very much caused by, I think, the monetary policies of Ted Heath. The expansion of the money supply.

Lord Speaker:

Prices and incomes policy.

Lord Lamont:

Yes. We, in a futile attempt to deal with it, rather than tightening monetary policy, chose to have a statutory prices and incomes policy. I mean, people today can hardly believe that we used to have laws that regulated the price of milk, regulated the price of bread or anything. Anything in the shops was subject to legislation.

And this, of course couldn't possibly work in a free market economy. And that also fuelled inflation. And although I felt that the unions had to be tamed somewhat, in one sense, the unions were reacting to the inflation.

Lord Speaker:

But you were the youngest MP.

Lord Lamont:

Youngest Conservative.

Lord Speaker:

Conservative MP, 1972 if I remember. But your first contest was against John Prescott, and obviously he won. What was it like engaging with John Prescott at the time?

Lord Lamont:

Well, he was quite distant. I thought he was, to be honest, surprisingly edgy. I mean, he beat me by a small narrow majority of 24,000 votes, so he didn't have much to worry about. But I remember he kept denouncing me and wasn't very friendly at the count.

But I subsequently got to know John a little in London and in the House. And I like him very much and I respect him. And I think he was a very good MP who brought a lot to politics, and I can see why he was important to the Labour Party. I have a lot of respect for him.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, there is a lot of respect for him. You then joined the Treasury, I think in 1986, and you were there for about seven years. And you had a close engagement with Nigel Lawson. Sadly, he just died recently. Give us a feel for that engagement and what you learned from Nigel Lawson.

Lord Lamont:

Well, I'd known Nigel Lawson really ever since I left university. I joined a political club that he was a member of in London. I'd got to know him over political dinners. And also I worked for a while before I became an MP in the Conservative research department.

And Nigel was working there, rather part-time, I think it was while he was also editor of the Spectator. But he was speech writing first for Alec Douglas-Home, and then for Ted Heath, and I got to know him then. I also got to know Nigel in a strange way. I was in competition with him to be the Conservative candidate for the constituency of Blaby for the 1974 election.

And this selection took place in 1972. And the shortlist for the constituency was Nigel and me. And the selection committee very wisely, I'm sure, absolutely wisely, chose Nigel instead of me. But I got into the House of Commons before Nigel because a few weeks later I got picked for a byelection in 1972. And Nigel sent me a charming postcard saying 'I'm so pleased I did you a wonderful favour by defeating you.'

Lord Speaker:

The exchange rate mechanism was a very-

Lord Lamont:

Maybe I should just say people to this day get very puzzled by why Nigel was in favour of joining the ERM. Because people associate the ERM with the single currency and that it was a dress rehearsal for the single currency. Nigel did not believe in the single currency. He was not a European federalist, a European unifier. He did support joining the EEC, but he didn't support a political Europe.

But he believed that by linking your currency to a hard, low-inflation currency, like the Deutschemark or like the ERM generally, which was a currency grid, your inflation rate would eventually converge with that of the low inflation rate countries. So it was after the period when monetary supply controls, control of the money supply had failed, proved too difficult as a guide for policy.

That was what the conservatives did originally in 1979. They set money supply targets. But money supply proved very difficult to control, very difficult to measure. And Nigel moved to the position of thinking exchange rate targeting was the answer to controlling inflation, and that was why he wanted to join it.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, the exchange rate mechanism, that features a lot in your political life. And John Major supported you at that time, but I think there was a parting of the ways after that relationship and your views on it. Could you give me a few?

Lord Lamont:

Yeah. Well, the exchange rate mechanism, the fixed exchange rate system, it was John Major as chancellor who joined. I played no part in it. Most people seem to think I invented it. And I carried out the policy.

Actually when Nigel resigned, I was asked in the House of Commons by Giles Brandreth at question time, "Why haven't you resigned at the same time as Nigel Lawson?" And I replied to him, "Because I don't believe in joining the ERM." Well, that was a rather ironic thing because I became the Chancellor of the Exchequer eventually, who had to implement our policy of being in the ERM.

You merely need today to mention the words ERM to Conservative MPs, and you get a shudder. They think it's all... But actually, although I personally would not have joined the ERM, and although I personally didn't think it was a disaster when we had to leave, I think the period we were in the ERM for two years did actually do the economy a huge amount of good.

It did precisely what Nigel Lawson had thought it would do. It lowered inflation very dramatically. I mean, when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the day I became, inflation was nearly 11%. Shortly after I left, inflation came down to two or three percent. It was painful. It was a tough medicine, but it really worked. And the period after we left the ERM, and the period after I was Chancellor, ushered in the longest period of growth, I think there was 60 quarters of positive growth.

Now, a lot of Conservative MPs mistakenly say, "Oh, that's because the pound was devalued." It wasn't just because the pound was devalued. It was because interest rates came down and inflation was now super competitive. We had inflation below the level of Germany for the first time for many years. And that was why we had this long boom, the main beneficiary of which was Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

But when Conservatives say the ERM was a disaster, I think it was a political disaster. It was a great humiliation. But we would never have had the growth that we subsequently had if we hadn't actually had the discipline of being in. But it was a good thing we got out because it couldn't have gone on forever.

Lord Speaker:

William Hague and I did a visit to Japan, just the two of us, and one morning we went out running together and he said to me, "Interest rates are 8%." We went upstairs, showered, ate breakfast, and then he said to me, "Interest rates are about 12%." He says, "Given that I'm the PPS to the Chancellor, do you think I should fly back?"

I said, "I think that'd be a good idea, Will." [Laughter] As a result of that. And that was a really turbulent time. What was it like being in a room at that time? Because your memory, and that has still been same.

Lord Lamont:

Well, you're going back to the ERM?

Lord Speaker:

Yeah.

Lord Lamont:

Well, it's a complicated story, but people often say, "What was it like? What did you think?" I didn't have time to think about it. I just had to do what we had to do. A number of countries were under pressure in the same way, and they all put up interest rates, so we had to go.

The day started off, interest rates were 10, not eight, 10%. We put them up to 12. And I said to John Major, "The game's up. We will have to leave the ERM." But unfortunately, various cabinet ministers didn't agree. Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine, and Kenneth Clarke and they formed a committee with the Prime Minister. And they insisted really, that I put interest rates up to 15%, which I didn't want to do. I said, "It'll have no effect." Anyway in order to-

Lord Speaker:

It didn't, yeah.

Lord Lamont:

I put them up to 15% and it had no effect, and then we put them down again. It didn't look very pretty and it was very stupid.

Lord Speaker:

You were derided for that at the time, but some economic historians would say that you gave birth to inflation tracking and the public debt element. And that's what was a catalyst for the, as you say, the economic situation, which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown ushered in.

Lord Lamont:

Yeah. Well, thank you. I mean, I'm well aware now, opinion has swung a bit, not unanimously, but a bit back more in my favour, or in favour of what actually happened. After we left the ERM, I mean, we'd gone from control of the money supply to targeting the exchange rate. We had to have a new policy.

And the policy, which I introduced, I didn't invent it, it had already existed in New Zealand, was that of having an inflation target. I was a bit sceptical when we first introduced it because inflation targeting, which is targeting a specific rate of inflation, two to four percent, we introduced it, and then it became two percent. It's essentially backward looking. You are looking in the rear mirror, but of course when you are trying to fight inflation, you have to look forward as well. So I never abandoned looking at the money supply as well.

When I introduced inflation targeting, I did at the same time argue and say that we should have regard to the money supply as well, which was more of a forward-looking indicator of that. But the amazing thing is that inflation targeting until very recently has worked extraordinarily well.

I mean, people are at this moment, very critical of the Bank of England, and inflation has gone through the roof, but due to a lot of factors outside anybody's control. But over the whole period since inflation targeting was introduced, the 2% target has been hit for most of that time. It's only recently it's gone astray.

Lord Speaker:

Well, your views in QE in the Bank of England and independence of the Bank of England. Give us your views on that.

Lord Lamont:

Well, I was very much influenced by Nigel and became strongly in favour of an independent Bank of England. And I don't wish to make a point against John Major, but he and I had some disagreements about interest rate policy. And I felt sometimes he wanted to subordinate interest rate decisions to political factors. And I felt politics should have nothing to do really with it. You can't time an interest rate because there's a by-election or you've got a closing of a mine that you want to distract attention from.

And I did feel that from what I'd seen inside government, not just under John Major, but even under Mrs. Thatcher, politics intruded into interest rate decisions. And I felt this was wrong and led to bad policymaking. And so I was a strong supporter. I tried twice to persuade John Major that we should make the Bank of England independent.

But on both occasions, he rejected it. And I did actually go and see both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair when they were in opposition. And I told them that it wasn't my business to do anything to help the Labour Party, but I think it would be in the interest, thought it would be in the interest of the country, if they made the Bank of England independent.

I remember Tony Blair said to me, "You don't understand the Labour Party. They'd never accept it." And the day before Gordon Brown announced that he was making the Bank of England independent, he did ring me up and he said, "Well, we've decided to take your advice."

Lord Speaker:

So there you are. Okay. You were less guarded in some of the comments you made, like the green shoots and je ne regrette rien, and singing in the bath, tell me about them.

Lord Lamont:

Singing in the bath actually was slightly misreported. I didn't sing in the bath the day we left the ERM. But I think it was two or three days after we'd left the ERM. I was strolling in the garden in the British Embassy in Washington because I had to go to the IMF.

And I forget which interviewer it was, but someone caught me and they said, "You seem very cheerful this morning." It was a very sunny day in Washington, and someone said, "You seem very, very cheerful." And I said, "Well, that's funny you say that. My wife heard, says she heard me singing in the bath." That was the remark I made. I didn't say, "I sang in the bath when we left the ERM."

Je ne regrette rien. Well, that was a sort of, I was asked a question by a journalist, "What do you regret more? Singing in the bath or seeing green shoots?" And I replied, "Je ne regrette rien." How do you reply to a question like that?

Lord Speaker:

The role of the House of Lords, it's been questioned that there's wanting reform. Some people think, like Gordon Brown want route and branch reform, assembly of the nations and regions. What merit does the House of Lords have with its present composition and the different membership from the House of Lords from the House of Commons?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I think the House of Lords is a reforming chamber, and it is also a chamber of people of experience and expertise. And I think a second chamber is I think, important. I know there are countries in the world that have unicameral or one chamber government. But I think the House of Commons doesn't always scrutinise legislation as carefully as it should, and I think it's important to have proper scrutiny. I think the House of Lords does that well.

If we were starting from scratch, completely greenfield, I don't think one would design the House of Lords as it is today. I think ideally it would be 200, 300 very eminent experts, probably elected and maybe on a regional basis. I don't mind about that. I think that's the Gordon Brown plan.

But I don't think it's very easy to get there from where we are now. And I don't think that all the talk about the House of Lords is too large. Optically, it does look too large, but you know as well as I do, that in fact, there are 400 people or so who are here a lot of the time.

Also, the people who come occasionally make a valuable contribution. I once had a very interesting remark from Mrs. Thatcher. I asked her, "What do you think of the House of Lords?" And she said, "I think those who come the least often make the best contribution."

And if you think of somebody like Lord Browne of Madingley, or the Astronomer Royal, who come occasionally and make very outstanding speeches of great expertise, I think there is a role for them. But people look at this, theoretically, very large number.

I personally thought the scheme that was introduced by your predecessor and was observed by Theresa May, of gradually reducing the numbers, I personally thought that was very sensible. I strongly support it. As I say, ideally, if you were starting from scratch, I think we'd have a much smaller House and I think it would be elected.

But we're never going to get to that stage very easily without having a constitutional convention, cross-party agreement. So I would stick with what we've got now, but lower the numbers. But it does require discipline by Prime Ministers not to appoint all their cronies and friends. And I think Prime Ministers have got a bit loose with the appointments that they've been making. There have been too many of them.

I think it's also important that you don't just make into members of the House of Lords people who are, sort of, would be MPs. Being a member of the House of Lords is different from being an MP. And I don't think people should treat this place as though they were constituency MPs.

Lord Speaker:

How has the House of Commons changed since your day? Because some would say that the House of Commons now is a chamber where little scrutiny goes on.

Lord Lamont:

Well, I think that's absolutely right. I sort of used to wonder whether this was really true. But looking at some debates in Hansard of the House of Commons recently, I've been shocked at how truncated some quite controversial legislation has been. And key amendments have had, sort of, half an hour's debate or an hour's debate, and reply from the minister lasting 10 minutes.

I think the use of the guillotine and timetabling is really very reprehensible. So I think the House of Commons has changed, but I think the House of Commons has changed in all sorts of ways. It has also changed. I think there are, to be honest, too many professional politicians there.

And when I got into the House in 1972, I would guess the average age of the House was much older, and there were people who'd served in the war. People who didn't necessarily have an ambition to be a minister were content to be a constituency MP and do their service to the country. And it was a more stable assembly, really. I think in many ways, politics has become more volatile, more unstable in the House of Commons, and it's not always an attractive sight.

Lord Speaker :

You're a really strong proponent of Brexit. I've mentioned earlier, you were an early person in that area. But I get the feeling from what you said, engagement with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, John Smith, and others, that you're reaching out now.

And I was quite struck by the initiative you undertook at Ditchley Park where Peter Mandelson and others were there. What was the reason for that? Was it to ensure that Brexit worked and political parties came together?

Lord Lamont:

Well, the invitation, as I understand it, the whole thing was the idea of Peter Mandelson. I mean, I was invited by Ditchley to go to this gathering to discuss Brexit and the future relationship. But I wasn't advocating any modification of the trade and cooperation agreement or modification of Brexit.

What I strongly believe in, I mean, I believe in Brexit strongly, but I believe that we should have a strong, harmonious, relationship with the EU, as a third party. And I think that's perfectly possible. And I think the fact of Brexit, the fact that it happened, caused a lot of angst and a lot of bitterness. And the people within the EU who, I mean Donald Tusk was reported as saying there was a special place in hell for those who voted for Brexit. I think we've got to overcome this and work together.

And I believe that even though we are an independent nation state and a third party to the EU, there are areas like foreign and security policy, where Britain can play a leading part in the continent of Europe. Our security concerns are shared with the EU. Britain played a leading part [on Ukraine].

I think one of the benefits of Brexit was the greater agility we have in foreign policy. We were able to act more quickly and send arms more quickly while France and Germany were agonising over this and agonising within the EU. The EU eventually got its act together, but 27 countries, it inevitably took a lot longer.

And I read the other day, someone in Brussels said, "Well, if Ukraine had been relying on the EU, the Russians would've been marching all over. Britain was the first off the mark." But all I wanted at that gathering at Ditchley was to explore different ways in which we could improve our relationship, show that we were friendly. That we want to have partnerships in all sorts of areas like Horizon, for example. That's all it was about.

Can I just say for me, Brexit was not really about economics. It was about sovereignty. It was about independence of this country. I mean, while I was Chancellor, I negotiated our opt out from the single currency, and I lived through this whole thing, and I saw how the nature of Europe was changing. And before I became a minister, I believed this was all rhetoric. It wouldn't really happen.

All this stuff about a United States of Europe, a political union. But my experience as a minister was that they were deadly serious about this and wanted it to happen. And we were going to become more and more politically integrated, and that would undermine our democracy at home.

And that's what I feel to this day. And so I don't agonise about Brexit and worry about the economic consequences. I think the economic consequences will be fine. But for me, the prize was avoiding political union

Lord Speaker:

During the Major premiership, in the '90s, we had the Maastricht Treaty, and John Smith was very prominent in that area. What was your opinion of the Maastricht Treaty? Because it caused a lot of division in the Conservative party.

Lord Lamont:

Yeah. Well, the Maastricht Treaty, if you remember, was the treaty that had the single currency provisions in it. So when I say I negotiated our opt-out from the single currency, I was negotiating part of the, well, I was negotiating our opt-out from the single currency, from the Maastricht Treaty as regards to single currency.

So I thought as Mrs. Thatcher put it, the Maastricht Treaty was a bridge too far. It wasn't just the single currency. There were other provisions like an integrated policy on security, defence. Well, some of this was amended, but we then had the Maastricht Treaty followed by the Lisbon and Nice treaties. And for me, that was all far too much.

Lord Speaker:

You mentioned Mrs. Thatcher. What was it like working with her?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I always got on well with her, but Mrs. Thatcher, it was her willpower that was so remarkable, and her courage. And she would sometimes just ask questions no one would had thought of asking, "Why don't we do this? Why isn't this possible?"

And she was a person of great integrity, I would say as well. She never did anything dishonourable, never wanted to do anything dishonourable. Very clear about what she wanted. And an inspiring person to work for, but she could be very difficult.

Lord Speaker:

What was your most difficult engagement with her?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I remember once, if I can tell a story, it's rather a long story, but she was once came back to this country and told me that she wanted to subsidise film studios in Rainham Marshes on Essex. And I couldn't believe she wanted to do this.

And I said to her, "But, Prime Minister," I didn't believe that we wanted to subsidise industries. "Prime Minister, there's no unemployment in Rainham Marshes in Essex. Prime Minister, we have to build the roads to get there." And she got anger and angrier and angrier.

And I remember she said to me, "You are impossible. All you ever say to me is no." And then she said, "If you'd been in my government since 1979, I wouldn't have achieved anything." And I said to her, "Well, Prime Minister, you're always right about everything, but you're forgetting I've been in your government ever since 1979." [Laughter]

Lord Speaker:

Very good. What advice have you got for the Conservative government now?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I personally think that Rishi Sunak's pursuing the right policies. I would say stop quarrelling, stop bitching with each other, support the Prime Minister. He's the best Prime Minister you've got. He's a serious, highly intelligent person. Any country would be proud to have him as Prime Minister and back him.

Lord Speaker:

Last question. Given your longevity in parliamentary life and your comments about the House of Commons and House of Lords, what advice would you give to young people about embarking on a political life?

Lord Lamont:

Well, I always encourage young people to think about having a career in politics. I think we all need to be interested in politics. I was taught at school that the Greek word for idiot was apoliti, somebody who's not interested in politics. I think it's the duty of everybody to be interested in politics.

And I think our country will only prosper and do well if people of ability and talent who might succeed in other walks of life, are prepared to take the risks. And there are risks in a political career, and you risk your reputation. It's a very dangerous job being a politician, but people have got to be prepared to do that for the public good.

And I like to think that there are people who will always feel this is a challenge. It's a great thing to do, and that they're going to embark on it.

Lord Speaker:

And apoliti, that will stay in my mind. So thank you very much, Lord Lamont. It's been very, very revealing and engaging.

 

Lord Forysth

Hear from Lord Forsyth as he warns of a 'presidential' style of government that he believes has weakened Parliament’s role in scrutinising and improving laws.

'The House of Commons is failing in its function. It’s just abandoned its function of considering legislation properly.'

In this episode of Lord Speaker's Corner, Lord Forsyth tells Lord McFall of Alcluith that he wants to see 'root and branch' reform to cut the use of time-limits on debates and prevent overuse of secondary legislation. He explains that the task of scrutiny now falls largely to the House of Lords, where members can examine proposed bills with greater rigour because there is no guillotine on debate and every proposed change is debated.

Michael Forysth, now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was first elected as an MP in 1983. He went on to serve as a minister under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, becoming Secretary of State for Scotland in 1995. He was the local MP at the time of the Dunblane Primary School shooting. Speaking about the tragedy, he explains 'It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. It was a huge shock. I still get flashbacks of that scene in the gym.'

In the House of Lords, Lord Forsyth has chaired the Economic Affairs Committee and served on committees investigating the Barnett Formula, House of Lords reform, soft power and the National Security Strategy. He shares why he thinks Lords committee reports are so important and the dangers of government not giving their recommendations due attention.

Lord Speaker:

Lord Forsyth, Michael, we've known each other for a long time. Take me back to your early days in Arbroath.

Lord Forsyth:

Well, I was actually born in Montrose.

Lord Speaker:

In a council house?

Lord Forsyth:

Yes, yes. In a council house. And I had various moves, which ended up in Arbroath and I went to school in Arbroath. I went to Arbroath High School, got the most fantastic education. I did five years of Latin and Greek and maths and physics. Of course in Scotland, we'd never had a national curriculum. And then from there I went on to St. Andrews University. I mean, my father started his own business, he overextended himself. The business went down and we went back into council housing, but then he picked himself up and started again, and paid down all the debts. And it's made me very, very wary of folk who are critical of people who start up in business and it doesn't work. I'm very supportive of free enterprise. But when I went up to university, I thought I was a socialist, John.

Lord Speaker:

And you come out a Thatcherite.

Lord Forsyth:

I did. Yeah. Mainly because of Keith Joseph. And I got involved with Margaret in the early years, in the seventies when the country was in quite a state. Inflation was at very high levels, interest rates were very high, unemployment was dreadful, and we had the collapse of the old industries. And that's how I got drawn into politics. But I never really wanted to be a politician. And I'm not sure, I didn't really expect my life to be so dominated by politics, which has been a huge privilege. And it really saddens me to see how the reputation of Parliament and politicians has been damaged. Whereas, as you and I know, the vast majority of parliamentarians are good, decent folk trying to do their best for their country.

Lord Speaker:

You mentioned Margaret Thatcher. You were known as a really robust Thatcherite in Scotland, and it was probably a bit of an uncomfortable position, but I don't think that aspect, it worried you given a lifelong engagement with her during her life. What was it like to work with her and relate?

Lord Forsyth:

Well, I can tell you a story about Margaret. During the Maastricht Treaty, Margaret stopped being Prime Minister. John Major was Prime Minister, I was in his cabinet. And she was holding drinks parties for backbenchers and telling them the Maastricht Treaty was a really bad idea and they were all coming back and saying they were going to vote against it. So John Major said, ‘You know her, will you go and talk to her because we're going to have to start having a go at her.’ So like a fool, I rang her up and said, ‘I'd like to come and talk to you about the Maastricht Treaty.’ So I arrived and she said... I went into a room, she got the Maastricht Treaty, all annotated, and she said, ‘Which section of the treaty would you like to discuss, Michael?’ And I said, ‘I'm not here to discuss the treaty, Margaret. It's just that if you go on with these parties, the party machine's going to be turned against you and it would be really damaging to you.’

At this point, there was a thermonuclear explosion. And I remember her screaming at me, ‘Michael, how can you of all people use that argument on me? Do you think if I ever cared about me, we would ever have achieved any of the things that we did?’ And it was a bit like that for me in Scotland. I mean, I was very concerned about education, I was concerned about health and a number of issues. And I had lots of ideas upon what we could do.

Lord Forsyth:

I mean the Daily Record was the sort of daily assault, but I think it's really important to have courage and to have the courage of your convictions. And we did some good things. We established the University of the Highlands and a number of initiatives. And I do think, even though what we were doing was very unpopular and against the grain as it was then, I do think when we warned about the dangers of devolution and the platform that we'd give to the nationals and so on, that has come to pass. But in politics, you've got to accept change and make the best of it. And I think there's further work to be done there.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. Maybe I could take you to Dunblane where you had a really prominent role, but in many ways with politicians working with each other, it's usually in private and people get the idea that Prime Minister's questions is the norm for politicians. But in Dunblane, you brought other politicians in. Why did you do that, and what effect did it have when you brought the Prime Minister up?

Lord Forsyth:

Well, I mean, Dunblane was just, I mean, it's the worst thing that's ever happened to me. It was in my constituency. I was the Secretary of State. I knew the murderer because he used to come regularly to my surgeries. It was a huge shock. I still get flashbacks of that scene in the gym. It was just horrendous. I was really anxious that it shouldn't be turned into a political squabbling match. As soon as I was given the news, I said to my office, ‘Find George Robertson.’ George Robertson was my opposite number, and he lived in Dunblane. I said, ‘Find him, get him on the plane with me.’

And we did it together. And together we went to see John Major and Tony Blair, and said to both of them, ‘look, you need to come together.’ There's a lot of political people giving contrary advice. But they came together, and that was hugely appreciated by a community which was traumatised by this horrible murder of 18 people on the 13th of March 1996. And one of the things that really struck me about the late Queen Elizabeth, because she agreed to come afterwards and meet the bereaved families, was it's very difficult to give any comfort in these circumstances where you've lost a child like that. But I don't think there's anyone else in the world who could have given as much comfort as she did.

It was a bad time. And that was in March of 1996, and shortly after that, we were told that everything that we'd been told by the scientists, that BSE couldn't jump across the species and infect people, and CJD and all of that, that was reversed. And then we had an E. coli outbreak in Scotland. So it was quite a tough time. This is pre-devolution, and there's a Secretary of State and four ministers plus your involvement in cabinet. And I must say, I think John Major was hugely supportive, and he ran a cabinet where he gave his Secretaries of State time and space to get on with the job and held them to account. But we've moved steadily since then towards a kind of presidential system, where ministers are there for five minutes, and you can't run a country like that.

Lord Speaker:

The writing was on the wall for the Conservatives in Scotland really, I think since from the 1992 election. But you were firm in terms of being Secretary of State and running things yourself because you were very prominent in that. But you were seeing the writing on the wall, in terms of the Conservative support in Scotland. What was your determination at that time, in terms of the Scottish Parliament versus Westminster, and what do you feel about that now since the Scottish Parliament's been established since 1998?

Lord Forsyth:

Well, I remember saying to George [Foulkes], or anybody who was listening in the Labour Party at the time, may even have said it to you.

Lord Speaker:

Yes.

Lord Forsyth:

Just be careful what you wish for. I mean, my perception at that time was that the Labour Party were quite keen on having a Scottish Parliament because the Labour Party was so dominant. But they ran a campaign which was basically the Tories don't care about Scotland, Scotland's getting a raw deal, et cetera. They used the language, the rhetoric of nationalism. And I said, ‘If you ride the nationalist tiger, it will divide you.’ And that by creating that platform, there was a danger.

And I think one of the things that went wrong from the point of view of people voted for it, but I thought it would lead to pressure on the Union, which I really care about. And I also thought it would lead to us becoming the highest tax part of the United Kingdom. And that was the so-called Tartan Tax, and that would be damaging to our economic outlook. And that we would, because the Secretary of State pre-devolution, I sat on all the key cabinet committees. I was involved in Whitehall, I was able to say, ‘Yes, but hang on a second. This is not going to work in Scotland.’ And you had at that time in both parties, really talented people like yourself, like John Smith, Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, real tight, Malcolm Rifkind on our side, and Ian Lang, people like that.

But of course, none of them chose to go to the Scottish Parliament. They wanted to be in Westminster. It means it's so important to actually have effective means of communicating between the two parliaments, something that George Foulkes regularly brings up in the House of Lords today. But I basically, as a junior minister, I was responsible for health, social work, education, sport, and the arts, and you had to cover all of that. So I see why there was a bit of a democratic deficit. I see that.

And it was a hugely demanding 7/24 hour role, but I wouldn't have missed it. But the things that really concerned me was, 'is the education which I got, is that still available to people in Scotland? Is there still an opportunity?' And I didn't think there was then. I mean, I used to go on about the five hours reading, writing, arithmetic, right and wrong. And I think under the Scottish Parliament, I think where we were once way ahead of England, we're now behind on education.

The fact that you don't pay university fees is great, except it means that Scots can't get places at Scottish universities. I mean, my old university is now dominated by overseas students, Americans and so on. It's very hard for Scots to get into St. Andrews. I mean, I wouldn't be able to get into St. Andrews today, and I don't think I would've got the quality of education at Arbroath that I got. And that, to me, that remains a central facet of politics. But I mean, you would think the same, I dare say an SNP person would think the same. But we've got a long way to go in terms of social mobility and improving standards in education, in my view.

Lord Speaker:

So I detect 25 years later that you are not a convert to the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Forsyth:

I'm a democrat. That's what people voted for. But I think the Scottish Parliament needs to be very careful. If you have a huge differential on income tax between England and Scotland, you're going to find it hard to get well-paid, top people to come to Scotland and we'll lose our people to England. So I think there are some issues. I think the fact that the nationalists have been so obsessed with independence and that the kind of bread-and-butter issues have not really been at the forefront of political debate and accountability is a problem. But if you're asking me, would you reverse the devolution? No, of course not.

Lord Speaker:

Let me take you on to the House of Lords. And you've been very prominent, both on the floor of the House of Lords, but also in the committees that you have served, and particularly as Chair of the Economic Affairs Committee. One thing that's struck me about that is that you have not stuck rigidly to just economic affairs, but the economic implications, for example, in social work, in universal credit and student fees. And it seems to me that the remit of a House of Lords committee has more of a reach and a depth than a House of Commons committee who consider the departmental role solely. Is that a fair analysis?

Lord Forsyth:

Yeah. I mean, I love the House of Lords. When I lost my seat in '97, John Major offered me a place in the House of Lords and I turned it down. And I turned it down because I'd lost my seat, we'd lost all our seats in Scotland, and I just thought it was completely wrong to be translated to the House of Lords. Fortunately, I was asked again in '99, and when I came in, in my maiden speech, to my shame, I said that the House of Lords should be elected. And then after about six months, I realised what the House of Lords was and what it was doing. And I realised that that would not work. If it was elected, what am I going to do, knock on doors and say, ‘Hello, I'm Michael Forsyth. Vote for me. I'm very good at revising legislation. But of course I haven't got any power to change things because ultimately the decision rests with the House of Commons.' I mean, that's not a credible position.

And just to answer your question directly, chairing the Economic Affairs Committee, and as a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, was a huge privilege. I got two former Chancellors of the Exchequer, a former permanent Secretary at the Treasury, former Governor of the Bank of England, really high calibre people. And we operate completely differently from the House of Commons, as you well know. That our approach is evidence-based, and we always produce a report which has got consensus agreement, evidence-based consensus agreement, no one grandstanding because we've all had our careers, but trying to get at how we address this problem.

So for example, on HS2, you were on the committee…

Lord Speaker:

I was on the 2015 committee…

Lord Forsyth:

Yeah, the 2015 committee said, ‘We're not sure about the business case for this. We think it might be better to spend the money on infrastructure in the north, look at it again.’ Ignored. Four years later, I chaired the committee, we looked at HS2 again, we said, ‘Costs are out of control. If you don't get this under control, perhaps by making the train go a bit slower, perhaps by looking at the terminus, various other ideas, if you don't get this under control, you're going to end up cancelling all the routes in the north. And the effect of that will be that you'll end up with a very expensive white elephant.’ That was four years ago. Ignored. Unanimous report. Same on social care, which you mentioned.

Lord Speaker:

Which was a very substantial report and still referred to today.

Lord Forsyth:

Yeah, it was a great report. It was a great report because there were good people on the committee, and we took evidence. And the evidence is absolutely clear. If you don't tackle this problem with social care, you'll have a problem with waiting lists. You'll have a problem with beds and the health service, and more importantly, you'll have elderly people being put to bed at three in the afternoon because there aren't enough care workers and all that. And it explained what was required, but the government ignored it. Boris said, ‘I will fix social care.’ Well, he didn't.

Because one of the things that report pointed out is the problem is not people having to sell their houses. The problem is that we are not paying enough for the people who do this wonderful work, and we're not doing enough to create a career structure and training. And the problem is that the relationship between the health service, social care is not integrated, that the demand varies according to local authorities. Some of the local authorities, which have the biggest problems, have got the lowest tax base and a whole range of issues. And it was unanimously supported in this House, on all sides. But nothing, as we sit here, the problem's got worse, not better.

Lord Speaker:

You and I know, politics is a serious business, and there's a difference between the rhetoric and the implementation. Give us an example of that.

Lord Forsyth:

Well, I think that the House of Commons, the House of Commons that you and I remember, I remember going past in a taxi after I'd been kicked out and a taxi driver saying to me, ‘Do you miss that place?’ He didn't know I was in the Lords, do you miss that place? And I said, ‘The place I miss no longer exists.’ And he said, he looked at me and he obviously thought 'poor lad's got early dementia. He doesn't know where he is or whatever.' He didn't understand what I meant. The House of Commons now, I think, is broken. The House of Commons that we were members of, having a guillotine motion on a bill was a very, very rare thing and always caused a row - requiring the bill to be timetabled. Now all legislation is timetabled, which means it comes up to this House, vast tracts of legislation which have not even been discussed in the House of Commons, not even voted on in the House of Commons, often not particularly well drafted, full of Henry VIII clauses, which just passes power on to the executive without proper accountability to power.

Lord Speaker:

So maybe you can explain that. It allows a Secretary of State to change the law by secondary legislation.

Lord Forsyth:

Exactly. Even amend the legislation itself or gives them powers to do stuff. And there's no guidance on how they would use these powers. And so it is a huge transfer of power from Parliament to the executive, and a huge diminution of accountability. Now the House of Lords does a fantastic job. We sit for longer hours now than the House of Commons. I mean, just a few months ago before the recess, we were sitting till one in the morning and the House of Commons was going home at four o'clock in the afternoon.

And all of this is done by dedicated individuals who have to put up with all the abuse that we see in the tabloid press about the House of Lords.

And yet the work on that legislation is being done here and nobody notices. A cabinet minister said to me just before the summer recess, ‘I'm so sorry that you're having all this trouble with legislation because of the Liberals and the Labour Party.’ And I said to them, ‘The reason we're having all this trouble is because you lot have not been doing your job.’ And they said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘You don't scrutinise legislation.’ And they said, ‘Well, I didn't realise.’ I explained what it was like in our day. And they said, ‘Well, I didn't realise it was like that’, because they'd only been in Parliament a short time.

So I feel very angry about the rhetoric about we must have an elected House of Lords, we must do this and that. Coming from people who do not understand what Parliament is for or about, and do not understand the fantastic work which is done in this house and the way in which the House of Commons is failing in its function. It's just abandoned its function of considering legislation properly. And then we have Secretaries of State who are just moved after five minutes, who are not allowed to run their departments. And we've moved from a system where we have the Prime Minister is first among equals in cabinet, to where we have a sort of presidential system where the Prime Minister is surrounded by special advisors who then boss around cabinet ministers. It is no way to run a country and we've seen the consequences of that. So we need a root and branch, I believe, reform of the House of Commons and the process of government. And we need considerably more respect for the House of Lords and the work which it does.

I do think we need reform. What is really dispiriting is, as you say, no names, no pack drills, but some of the appointments to this House, you would think, I mean, Caligula appointed his horse as consul in order to discredit the institution. And I think that we've had examples of that. And sadly, we have examples of people who are really able, who are sitting on leave of absence and not actually coming into this House. Now out there, there are lots of really good people, who if they take this place seriously, could make a great contribution. If you come in here as a crossbencher, you are interviewed by the committee and you're asked, ‘Have you got the time? Do you have the necessary skills?’ They look at the range of skills that are available.

But if a political appointment, no undertakings given, no commitments made, no consideration given. I mean, okay, you can say originally the hereditaries, it was because you were the pal of the King. Well, I think we need to move away from that. And then also, if you look at our frontbench, and if there's a change of government, it'll be a problem for Labour as well. One third of our frontbench ministers, who have a really tough job in this place because every minister at the despatch box answers for the government as a whole, a third of them are unpaid.

And the reason that that's the case, is because the number of ministers in the House of Commons, there's a limit on the total number of ministers, has been allowed to increase. Because of course, if you make them a minister, they've got to vote for the government. And so departments have got many, many more ministers than they used to have. And there are not enough for the Lords. And yet ministers in the Lords work very hard indeed. And the idea that you have to have private means in order to be a minister, I thought we ditched that in the 19th century.

So there's a lot that needs to be reformed, and you well know, across this House there is a consensus on the things that need to be done. We'd like to have legislation to achieve that. It would sail through this House, but the government refuses to provide time. So we can find time, government time for the Animal Trophies Bill, but we can't find time to make this, this House of Parliament with its great expertise and contribution, more efficient and more acceptable in a democratic world.

Lord Speaker:

I have advocated in a number of speeches that any reform should in part be incremental, for the point of view of better governance. Because you've eloquently made the point, that with the House of Lords and the scrutiny, that ensures better governance. In fact, the UCL inquiry made the point that 55% of the legislation that's passed by the House of Commons has had some input and influence in the House of Lords.

Now explain to people the relationship between the government and the opposition in terms of the House of Lords. It's not a naked engagement, it's much more a consensual engagement. Because I've made the point to people that when the government come with their legislation, it gets examined here. And my colleague and friend Helen Little, when she was in the Treasury, she had a bill, I think it was relating to energy, that came up and that was changed quite dramatically. But when she took the time to reflect on it, she said, ‘I didn't understand a lot of this stuff.’ And there was that expertise in the laws. And I interviewed David Blunkett recently, and he said that whilst he was annoyed initially on that, it made for good law.

Lord Forsyth:

Absolutely right. And actually, one of the things that's gone wrong, we don't have a written constitution. We rely on what one of our colleagues calls the Good Chap Theory-

Lord Speaker:

Peter Hennessy.

Lord Forsyth:

Peter Hennessy, the Good Chap Theory of government. I mean that sounds like kind of an old boys’ sort of thing. That is our constitution. Our constitution is respect for those conventions. And one of the conventions was if the House of Lords amended a bill or proposed an amendment, you in the Commons, the government, would not immediately respond by saying, ‘This is rubbish.’ That they would consider it carefully, and they would look at the arguments and they'd give a considered response. That's gone. That's gone. Equally, on the other side, I mean, I think I was told that on the Levelling-Up Bill, there are a hundred pages of amendments. Now that is-

Lord Speaker:

Well, on the 10th day of the Levelling-Up Bill, there were more amendments than there were on the first day.

Lord Forsyth:

Yeah. And there are two reasons for that. One is really bad drafting and things not thought through and it not being discussed in the Commons. And the other, is people using the process as a campaigning platform to put forward their policies. That's not what the House of Lords is for. I mean, the House of Lords must always take the view that the government will get their business but try to get the government to think again. And the government needs to be respectful of those changes. And the government needs to be respectful, also, of their colleagues in the House of Commons.

And I think that relationship with MPs... I mean, when I got in the House of Commons, I didn't want to be a minister. Just being a member of the House of Commons is a huge privilege, and there's vast amounts you can do for your constituents and so on. So I think there's a lot to be done. And I agree with you, it should be incremental. We could have a bill to deal with the size of the House of Lords, to deal with some of the anomalies in the House of Lords, to deal with some of the problems I've been discussing in terms of ministers are being unpaid and so on. And it would sail through the House of Lords.

Lord Speaker:

House of Lords Appointments Commission as well.

Lord Forsyth:

Yeah, all of that. All of that. But you see there again, when I was offered a place in the House of Lords, it was unthinkable for me to come to the House of Lords having just been kicked out of the House of Commons. We've now got to a stage where people give up their constituencies, out of pique, because they feel they should have come to the House of Lords. I mean, that shows things have gone a bit off the rails and people are not respectful of the institutions to which they've been privileged to be elected.

Lord Speaker:

Can I take you onto the social aspect? For many years you were against assisted dying legislation, but you changed your mind. And the last time it was debated in the House of Lords, you actually put an amendment down on it. Take us through how this happened.

Lord Forsyth:

I put down an amendment actually, which flouted the convention, which I've just been telling you is so important.

I put down an amendment because I wanted the government to provide time so we could have a debate. Because what happens is every time that there is a measure on assisted dying, people who are against it table lots of amendments. So it runs out of time and it dies because it has to be private members' legislation. So I tried to get the government to commit to providing time so this matter could be discussed. Complicated, sensitive, really needs to be properly debated in government time. Why did I change my mind? My father, when he was dying, I went to see him and he was in a lot of pain. He'd been in a huge amount of pain and there were problems controlling the pain. And I said to him, ‘I am really sorry, dad, you're going through this.’ And he said, ‘Well, Michael, you're to blame for this.’

And I was completely taken aback by that. I said, ‘How'd you mean I'm to blame for this?’ He said, ‘Well, you have consistently voted for what I wanted, voted against it, which was the ability to be able to just ease out of this because I'm at the end of my life.’ I know you should not be influenced by your own personal experience in that way. But when I thought about it, all the arguments, I mean, I've raised a lot of money for Marie Curie, and I do believe that people should be able to die at home. And I supported the hospices. And when I was health Secretary, I introduced pound-for-pound funding in Scotland for the hospice movement. I support all of that. But for some people, it just isn't possible. I've always felt a hypocrite because if I, God forbid, but if I was told you've got motor neurone disease, I would want to have that ability to be able to avoid just choking to death and all the pain and suffering it would cause.

But so I kind of thought, well, I'd quite like it for myself, but I worried about it being abused. And I'm now persuaded that it is possible to set up a system where you can limit the abuse. But at the moment, there's nothing to protect people from being taken by greedy relatives to Switzerland or many other countries. And in Scotland actually, the Scottish Parliament, I think is way ahead of us. And there the time has been provided and there's a bill going through and it's been properly consulted.

And I think it would be ridiculous if we end up with the Isle of Man allowing it and Scotland allowing it, but not England. I mean, you can go to Gretna to get married because there's a differential in the laws on marriage, but you couldn't have a differential on the laws on assisted dying. So I think we need to have a proper debate about this. And I think if you look at the opinion polls, the public are way ahead of Parliament on this issue. And it's never a good idea for Parliament to be too far behind public opinion on something sensitive. So my view is, respect everyone's views, but Parliament needs to discuss this. And people abusing, because that's what they're doing, abusing our procedures to prevent a decision being reached on this, I don't think does us any credit.

Lord Speaker:

On the social side, you're an enthusiastic mountain climber.

Lord Forsyth:

The last mountain I did was the highest mountain in Antarctica, which is called Mount Vincent. And I was so lucky, we had perfect weather. And you stand on top of the mountain, and because the air is so clear, you can see for 150 miles, and all you see is mountain after mountain after mountain and not a footprint anywhere. And in the silence, because it's so cold, nothing can survive. In the silence, no birds, no wind, no noise. It's a spiritual experience. And that was the last one. Quit while you're ahead.

Lord Speaker:

I think you climbed Kilimanjaro and it was for charity. Explain your charity work there.

Lord Forsyth:

Well, Vincent and Kilimanjaro, I raised some money for DEBRA. There's a horrible thing called EB, which is where the skin is not attached to the body. It's a horrible, horrible disease. I have a niece who died from it. And also for Marie Curie, and my wife was involved in an Indian charity helping women with babies and nutrition and so on. So I raised a bit of money for that. I paid for the expeditions myself. And then I wrote to all my friends and people I knew in the City and said, ‘I'm giving some exorbitant sum, would you support it.’ And we raised, I can't remember exactly, about half a million quid or something of that order. But I've done Vincent and I've done Kilimanjaro, and I've done Aconcagua, which is highest mountain in the Southern hemisphere, which is, I think it's about 23,000 feet. But I'm not fit now. The thing I hated John, was having to go to the gym every day. Some people love that. Having to run up and down mountains behind my house and do the training. But I couldn't, I mean, I struggle with the stairs now.

Lord Speaker:

Well, Michael, thanks for this. It's been a very engaging conversation, and I think there are issues which you have articulated here, which many people don't know about. So thank you for that.

Lord Forsyth:

Pleasure.

Lord Speaker:

Thank you.

Baroness Finlay

'I think I've learned from all of the campaigns, a simple message gets through, complex messages don't.'

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is a leading doctor, a professor and pioneer in the field of palliative care. 'Always wanting to change the world', Baroness Finlay has often been ahead of the curve in campaigning for change on topics such as smoking, organ donation and protecting young people. 

'The internet is a great tool for us who feel fit and well to find things. But the trouble is when people are in despair, it can really suck them down a route of despair... And, of course, when life is gone, it's gone... So I was very keen to work with these parents who want desperately to improve things for others.'

In this episode, Baroness Finlay talks about campaigning for change, including on banning smoking in public places, the 'opt-out' organ donation scheme and most recently on combatting online suicide promotion via the Online Safety Act.

'Wales means a great deal to me. It has provided me with a fantastic platform. I don't believe I could have done what I have done, particularly in palliative care, if I hadn't had such fantastically supportive colleagues in Wales.'

Baroness Finlay also talks about why she applied to join the House of Lords, her thoughts on assisted dying, what she learned during her time as a GP in Maryhill in Glasgow, and the importance of her work in Wales now.

Lord Blunkett

'We anticipated there might be a second attack, particularly on the City of London.'

In this episode, former Home Secretary Lord Blunkett discusses a range of topics including the government's immediate response to the tragic events of 9/11, clashing with the Lords over measures introduced post the attacks and how his opinion of the second chamber has subsequently changed.

'There were times, particularly when I was at the Home Office, when the House of Lords asked us to think again and we actually did. And the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which was the aftermath of 11 September, was a much better piece of legislation - much more balanced, much more effective - than it would've been had we not listened to the House of Lords with the expertise that existed there.'

Lord Blunkett is one of two members of the Lords who use guide dogs, and he explains how important they have been to him. He also talks about his 36-year career in Parliament, his time as Education Secretary and what he thinks is the reason he has got to where he is today - 'sheer pigheadedness', having rejected advice to aim for work in 'piano tuning or telephony or secretarial.'

Baroness Benjamin

Find out why broadcaster and campaigner, Floella Benjamin, wants the government to reinstate a Cabinet-level champion for young people in the latest episode of Lord Speaker's Corner.

'I feel when you are in power, the policy that you make directly and indirectly affects children...

I want to see somebody sitting at the Cabinet table saying, 'How is this affecting our children?’, because they are the future. If you don't consider them enough, we've got a broken future.

We're having broken children who are suffering from depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide, you name it. All the things that they shouldn't be having to face because of the kind of society that we've created for them. And we've got to fix it.'

Baroness Benjamin explains that it was while presenting TV’s Play School in the 1970s and 1980s that she first realised that 'children didn't have a voice… People didn't take what's going to happen to children into consideration enough.' She has gone on to play a significant role advocating for children's rights.

In this extensive interview, Baroness Benjamin also shares how she overcame discrimination in many forms, from name-calling in the playground to being told there were certain roles non-white actors could not portray on screen. She later discusses the importance of the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush Generation.

Baroness Benjamin also reflects on being recognised by Queen Elizabeth II in her final honours list and being asked to carry the Sceptre with Dove in the coronation of King Charles III earlier this year.

Watch the interview

Lord Heseltine

Hear from former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, as he speaks to the Lord Speaker about an extensive political career spanning almost 60 years in Westminster.

'Liverpool changed me. There's no doubt in my mind.'

Talking about his career in Parliament, Lord Heseltine said he hoped his involvement in the regeneration of Merseyside after the 1981 riots would stand as his political legacy. He told Lord McFall that one of the most moving moments of his life came when he was offered the freedom of the City of Liverpool.

In this wide-ranging interview, Lord Heseltine also discusses further devolution in England, the UK's relationship with Europe and calls for a 'Marshall Plan for the developing world' in order to tackle migration.

Lord Speaker:

Well, welcome, Lord Heseltine, Michael, you have a vast experience over the past seventy years as one of the most influential statesmen. Looking back over that time, how has politics changed and what position do you feel we're in at the moment?

Lord Heseltine:

I don't think politics ever does change. I mean, I think - read Shakespeare and every piece of devious behaviour, every plot, it's all there, all the weaknesses of human beings, he parodies it brilliantly.

I've never taken a view that there's something new about politics. You're dealing with human nature and, by and large, that's a very encouraging and exciting thing to think and be experienced by.

Of course, there are the exceptions and they're the ones who get the headlines and often create the public impression but they are, fortunately, for all of us, a very small part of the total.

I'm hesitant about seeing something different about the present circumstances. Of course, the challenges are different because, of course, society evolves and different problems emerge. Today, I think the great change ... Well, this is the most extraordinary thing because one of the big issues today across the world is immigration and understandably, in recent years, people have felt pretty cheesed off, because their living standards, at best, have remained static.

People, quite understandably, hope things are getting better and they haven't been getting better, and so they look for people to blame, the BBC, the civil servants, but top of the list, immigrants, and the problem is going to get worse, for the simplest of reasons, because whilst we may have our anxieties about our relative underperforming living standards, literally billions of people have got one of these [a smartphone] and they can see how we live.

They're not crooks, they're not evil people. In the main, they're relatively young people who say, "Well, I want a share of the action. I've got my own life to live. I've got children and dependents and I'm going to try and get them into this totally different world that now represents what we regard as the western world", so they're going to keep coming.

Global warming, what is it? 70 million people are going to be dispossessed by rising sea levels. Where are they going to go? Of course, you can say they move a bit further inland but once you start telling people to move, they, understandably, start saying, "Well, why don't I choose where to move to?"

The whole immigration issue, which is now increasingly toxic in democratic politics is in its infancy compared with what generations yet to come are going to face.

Lord Speaker:

Is that a dismal message then for politics? Is there hope somewhere?

Lord Heseltine:

Well, you know, you shouldn't be in politics unless you've got something called hope. I mean, what's the point? I suppose you could say, "Well, things are pretty ropy and they're not likely to get much better but, at least, I can try and help those who are in increasing trouble" but that would be a very depressing approach to life.

Certainly, it's something that never occurred to me, there's a limit to what anyone can do and the circumstances are always very stretching, but there are things you can do and there are things that can help and if you can be in a position and you have the ideas and, above all, the drive to pursue them, then you can have an extraordinary, exciting, and I hope, comfortable life.

Lord Speaker:

But given the political situation where we have elections every four or five years and we have manifestos, is it not the case that we can't solve problems in four or five years, so the discourse in politics, the engagement we have with the electorate has to change?

Lord Heseltine:

Well, you raise an important point about whether democracy can deliver the perfect solution. I think you're back with Churchill, it's not a good system until you look at all the others. The great thing is there are these temptations in the human psyche, get power, hold it, at any cost, and that's what people at the extreme do. We've seen catastrophic consequences in my lifetime, the Second World War is a classic example of that, but you've only got to look at problems going on in the Sudan or the problems we saw recently in southeast Europe, to realize that that nasty tendency of the accretion of power, the abuse of power is an element and that is why democracy is such a vital protection.

People perhaps don't make sometimes the most sophisticated judgment but they are a check on the abuse of power and I think that there is a priceless connection between the need to consult the people and listen to the people and the exercise of power.

Lord Speaker:

Looking back over your long career, you faced many challenges and we can come onto some of those later on. I know you have said that your legacy will be trees, but what's your political legacy, you feel?

Lord Heseltine:

Oh, well, it has to be Liverpool. Liverpool changed me. There's no doubt in my mind. I started the regeneration in London. It was London and its derelict Docklands that really got me going.

Perhaps in terms of buildings, money spent, visible success, London is still the example I would choose, but it isn't, because 18 months after I had become involved in Liverpool, replicating what I had been doing in London, they rioted.

Lord Speaker:

Toxteth.

Lord Heseltine:

Toxteth riots. I said to Margaret, an interesting conversation this actually, in terms of Margaret and her reputation.

Lord Speaker:

We're talking about Margaret Thatcher.

Lord Heseltine:

We're talking about Margaret Thatcher. Yes. Look, I said, "As Conservatives, we have to be completely on the side of law and order and the backing of police and absolutely no question at all.

I think there's something more complex about these riots, and if you let me, prime minister, I'd like to just say to my junior ministers, you look after the shop, I'm off to Liverpool" and I arrived and I didn't have any great agenda, except as I had said to the prime minister, "I want to get inside this thing."

The first two or three days were welcoming, "Very good to see you, Secretary of State, of course, it's only the riots that brought you here but anyway, here you are, and you're listening and we like that, we appreciate that."

Then, of course, inevitably, on day four, the journalist, there's always one of those in the back of the crowd, "Secretary of State, you've been here for four days. What are you going to do about it?"

Well, what had I found in those three days? It was indelible, in my memory, everybody knew what was wrong, he was wrong, she was wrong, they were wrong, everybody was wrong, except me.

No one had any positive contribution to make about what they would do, so I was asked this question, "What are you going to do about it?" Well, I could have said, "Well, I'll go back and talk to my friends in London and I'll tell them what the problems are" but that didn't wash with me.

I spent another couple of weeks going all around, looking for things that I thought could be done, which would actually show people that this atmosphere of decline and despair could be remedied and changed.

After my three weeks, I gave a press conference and I published a list of 30 projects that I said, "Look, let's start here" but the problem with that was, who was going to start?

Lord Speaker:

Yes.

Lord Heseltine:

For 18 months, once a week, I turned up at Liverpool, I has a taskforce from public and private sector. They did the hard slog all week. They had a notebook, a page a project. Thursday night, we went through the notebook. Any trouble, I spent Friday trying to sort it out.

What changed me? For the first time, I was involved, personally, in acute levels of poverty and despair, in acute examples of dereliction, in a public environment of hopelessness.

I thought, "I better hang around and try and do something. People have been generous." One of the most moving moments of my life, to be honest, was when the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson at the time, came to see me in London and said, "We'd like to give you the Freedom of the City." This was a council of 60 Labour councillors giving a Tory the Freedom of the City. It brought tears to my eyes.

Lord Speaker:

I would like just to ask you a couple of questions in that, because when you went there, some of the news stories were 'the prime minister wants him out of the way. You know? He's going up to Liverpool and, by the way, this is an impossible job, so why is he taking that on?'

Going from those stories to getting the Freedom of the City from Labour people and sitting beside Joe Anderson when you got it, how did you achieve that? Because politics is not easy. Politics is very difficult. You seem to have shown the graft and the desire for engagement and listening to people, which in today's social media is missing that discourse of listening, engaging with people, and understanding them.

Give us more insight into that.

Lord Heseltine:

Yes. I think I can help you with that, because if there's a problem about politics, it's two mountaintops, and the more articulate politicians get to the top of the mountaintops and bang on at each other, and their supporters follow the lead, so anything the Labour Party does is wrong, anything the Tory party does is wrong, the Lib Dems don't matter, they can't do anything, and that is the dialog. Whatever comes up, it's coloured against that background.

I had a list of 30 things in Liverpool that I thought needed to be done. It was no use being in Conservative central office and saying 'how do I go about that? 'The first question would be who owns this piece of sand? Classically, it was a piece of derelict land. Who owns it? Find out, sit down. What do you want to do about this? Oh, well, the local authority won't give ... I said, okay, we'll go and see the local authority together. You want some government money? Okay. I have a budget, I can help a bit but I'm not going to spend money on this land unless we get somebody who will say, "If you do this, I will do that." You've got a builder who says, "Yeah. If you clean that up, I'll build a house."

But that is very technical, but something much more subtle happened, because the people who came together no longer were shouting abuse at each other. They were looking at a piece of land and working out the technical problems of actually turning it into a green site and putting a house on it. They became friends, because they had a drink together in the pub at the end of the meeting.

That process, which accelerated later on dramatically in a thing called City Challenge, brought together people who, in their traditional working mode, never met, never talked. They filled in forms, they had telephone calls, but they never sat there and said, "Look, we're all basically on the same side. This is Liverpool, we'd like to help" and once that happened, the human relationships changed and I think I did play some part as a catalyst, but in the process, it made me realise of the huge potential there is in the devolution of power to the local communities of this country.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. In fact, I was going to suggest you acted as a facilitator and as a catalyst but along with that, there was a human element to it as well, that you just get down to people as to what they felt, how you could move forward together. It wasn't you leading out front. It was you engaging with them and walking along with them was the problem. Would that be fair enough to say?

Lord Heseltine:

Yes, but again, I've been extremely fortunate. I've had a number of interests and a number of careers. First of all, I started a business, much of it in property. Secondly, I was a birdwatcher and deeply involved in environmental culture. I came from South Wales where we were a relatively prosperous middle-class family but you couldn't drive very far without knowing that there was another world.

All of these things, did I think equip me. When we sat at these meetings, these endless meetings, I could talk to the property people, as someone who knew what it was about, how to do it. I had done it on a private scale.

I was equipped by my background for the process of facilitating. I think my understanding coming from South Wales of the two nations did much influence me, that ... Well, the most shocking thing that happened to me at Liverpool, and I was deeply shocked, when some Conservative supporter said, "Why are you bothering there? There's no votes for us there." I was really absolutely shocked that they could think like that.

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely. In many ways, you have continued that journey and you did the development corporations. I think just in the past few weeks, you visited Teesside and when we had the Levelling Up Bill here, I actually predicted to my staff that you would come in and they said, "Why?" Because I said, "He's the grandfather of levelling up and devolution."

How much farther do we need to go today in that to ensure, if you like, a UK-wide more harmonious engagement where we don't see London being exceptional?

Lord Heseltine:

A long way. This is the tragedy. If I could roll back and change history, I would go back to Radcliffe Moore's report of 1968, which the then-Labour government commissioned, and, basically, the report looks at the public administration at local level in this country and it found out that there were 1300 authorities and why? Because historically, the pattern had evolved when the only means of getting anywhere was either by foot or horse, so you couldn't get very far and, therefore, you needed this proliferation of authorities to administer public welfare.

Radcliffe Moore looked at the 1300, analysed the contemporary position of the 1960s, and said, "You need 60." I was Peter Walker's junior minister in the then-1970 government, which had to deal with this proposal and the conservative party couldn't live with the abolition of the two tiers, too many Tory councillors and it was too important a part of the political structure but Peter managed to persuade them to take the 1300 down to 300 and, basically, that's where we are.

We need 60. If you have 60, by and large, you have identifiable units, the large cities, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, London, of course, Newcastle, and you have counties, and that takes you to about 60 authorities. They're all different, they all have different strengths and opportunities, different weaknesses and they, by and large, attract a loyalty, because people know which county they're in and that sort of thing, and there's a regiment of there's a cricket team or whatever it may be, that is the building block upon which Radcliffe Moore said we should build a modern society. He was absolutely right.

Now so far, we've got to the point where we have now got mayors in most of the major conurbations and one or two missing but, by and large, we've made progress there but we've made very little progress in the unification of the counties, one or two have done it, but not that many.

The politics, the party politics of doing something are extremely difficult and how do I know? Well, I have to tell you, because in Scotland and Wales, in the 1990s, I used primary legislation to get rid of all the two tiers, they're all unitary authorities now, and I was helped, because there weren't many Conservative councillors and so on, the backbenches of my party, there was little interest in the subject but in England, there was massive interest in the subject.

Lord Speaker:

Yes.

Lord Heseltine:

The fact is we have not made enough advance. Now if you could make advances, and you could, you could and should, then what you can do is to take the powers of London, which are all functionally divided, housing, transport, education, skills, home office, whatever it may be, they don't meet either.

When someone says to the home office, "What's the problem about Liverpool?" They will say, "We want a Chief Constable, we're doing this, we're doing that." Well, that is an important part of Liverpool's problem but what about the housing? What about the transport? What about the education and all of these other things? There is no coordinating process.

First of all, Whitehall has got to go back to the position where there are regional groupings of the Whitehall departments. Secondly, it needs a central grouping under a senior cabinet minister of the relative departmental ministers. Thirdly, they then need to say to the elected mayor of the 60 authorities, "You work out the strategy that is relevant to your area, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, threats, and we will work with you in partnership and we will mould the money that government can afford to meet your strategic vision."

That has a terrific effect and the real tragedy is that every other capitalist economy in the world does it, except us.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. Yeah. When I took up this position, my first visits were to Belfast, Edinburgh, and Cardiff. It was to bring people together, to establish an informal inter-parliamentary group, which is now established here with House of Commons representative and House of Lords representative.

In the run-up to the Brexit internal market bill, the First Minister of Wales in speaking to the Institute of Government said that the House of Lords was really, really helpful but this isn't rocket science. This is just bringing people together to understand them and to engage them.

I feel certainly, as one who comes from Scotland that we could be a foreign land in many ways, in terms of people having other people's ears on that. Do we need more of that engagement and to make it more formal, so that we can get UK-wide full engagement?

Lord Heseltine:

I hesitate to, especially to you, talk about Scotland and Wales but my feeling is that the devolution arrangements have actually been devolution of Whitehall to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.

I don't think that's the right end product. I think that, again, it's not for me to work these things out but Swansea, Cardiff, mid Wales, north Wales, Pembrokeshire.

You can do the same thing in Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, the Highlands. I think that devolving on within the devolved authorities would be a very exciting project.

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely. I'm strictly non-political in this position, so no comment, but what I will do, I'll say the comments of Professor James Mitchell of Edinburgh University, public policy expert, and he had an article in the Holyrood magazine, a number of months ago, stating that in many ways, in his opinion, Holyrood is a mirror image of Westminster, in that we don't have that further devolution element. You have people with the same views as yourself on that.

The reform the House of Lords is on agenda, whether it was the Conservative manifesto in 2019 or the report with Gordon Brown for the assembly of the nations and the regions. If we're going to reform, what would you advocate for the House of Lords?

Lord Heseltine:

Well, if I ... You'd have to be prime minister to be in a position-

Lord Speaker:

Exactly.

Lord Heseltine:

... drive such an agenda, and I would not drive it all, because it's one of those wonderful things that if only we reform the House of Lords, but how? And what will be the consequences?

Basically, you couldn't invent the House of Lords. I mean, it's an anachronism. It's part of our history. It's an evolution. It's where it is. But the moment you started to rationalise it, you'll end up with what? A second House of Commons? Is that really going to change anything? If you bring the bitterness of party politics into a second chamber, probably not coincidental in its electoral strategy with the existing ones, so you get the blockage of changing power like you get in Congress? Would it attract better debates?

I, personally, because I can see where the momentum takes you, and I know it won't be any better and it won't solve anything, I would not, myself, commit the government I led to anything like the time-wasting debates that would be necessary to bring about an unpredictable change.

Lord Speaker:

Would you sanction incremental change?

Lord Heseltine:

Well, there's been incremental change. We've seen the hereditaries down to a relatively small number. We've had the life peers introduced. It hasn't done anything to change public mind about these things.

But the House of Lords has got one great strength, in my view, and that is that the debates are polite, they are often conducted by people who are real experts in their field, who do not actually subscribe to one party doctrine or another, who genuinely give their time, because they have a contribution to make, and because it's all rather low-key, the government can use it as a testing ground or admit when it got something wrong without a terrible sort of, "Government Defeated" headline all over the place.

The British constitution is a very sophisticated process. Nobody would create it if they started with a piece of paper and a crayon, but that's not the point. It's what we've got, and before you change it, you should be very clear that what you're putting in its place is better and, therefore, more effective in delivering what people want, and I don't see what that would be.

Lord Speaker:

You think the concept of a second chamber is really important in terms of keeping a check on the main chamber?

Lord Heseltine:

I think the second chamber does have the advantages of a more informed debate, a quieter debate, less publicity, and, therefore, the ability of governments to be more flexible in the way they decide policy.

All of that is a plus. Going to a replica of the House of Commons, which, in one way or another, is what it would be, would not, in fact, enhance those attributes.

Lord Speaker:

We see the debt ceiling negotiations in Congress and it went to the very edge, as a result of that. If someone was elected to the House of Lords, in my own mind, I would envisage me going to a community hall and people asking me what I'm going to do to repair the local school, to ensure a more adequate facilities in the hospital, to fill in the potholes in the road, and if I said to them that, "Look, I don't take part in any financial debates", I'm sure, and you'd have had this in Liverpool, "What use are you?"

Lord Heseltine:

Well, of course, but you've got to face it, public don't like us. They don't trust us. They don't believe we're up to any good. 'What are they in it for? They're only in it for their own purposes.'

Journalists, estate agents, and politicians, you do the public opinion testing, we're all at the bottom of the queue and I think we always have been and, sadly, I don't see how that changes.

But I understand why it's the case, because, you see, if you're a senior minister, the only decisions you're ever asked to make are those that nobody else can make. They're all controversial. In the nature of human beings, if you agree with them and you do what they think is right, they think you're a good chap, well done, all that. If you disagree with them, they think you're an idle shirker who never listened, who doesn't give a damn, dah, dah, dah.

Every day, you are making these decisions. You are accumulating an awful lot of enemies. Every day, let alone over a year or five years. But that's the business you're in. You know?

Lord Speaker:

Yeah, but you need resilience as a politician.

Lord Heseltine:

You need resilience.

Lord Speaker:

You've demonstrated that admirably.

Lord Heseltine:

That's a very important point, because young people say to me, "I'm thinking of going into politics." I say, "Don't. If you are only thinking about it, don't. It's a tough, thankless, 24/7 career and in the end, you'll be kicked out. You've got to have that determination and that tenacity and that conviction and, I hope, the vision."

Lord Speaker:

When you're a minister, perhaps you were irritated with the House of Lords holding up your legislation at times. Now you're on the other side of the fence here. There's a real merit in being able to hold up legislation for a while.

Lord Heseltine:

Yes. I had a ... Now I can't remember what it was but I remember being absolutely furious with the House of Lords over a piece of legislation that I was responsible for and Peter Carrington, Lord Carrington, was the leader of the House of Lords at the time, or leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords perhaps. That would have been the case.

I came to see him and I said, "This is intolerable. These unelected people are stopping the government's mandate and you've got to ..." I had some wild scheme that I wanted him to pursue. He said, "Michael, we don't behave like that here." He was quite right.

But, yes, I mean, in the House of Lords, I don't, myself, play a big part but on the big issues in which I have a voice and some experience, I value the opportunity to be able to express it in the House of Lords and, certainly, on Europe and on devolution, I have participated and will continue to participate.

Lord Speaker:

Absolutely. Your voice is still very strong here and people come in and they listen to you and understand. One of your former party colleagues who is a cabinet minister is now in the House of Lords and when I asked him what the difference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords was, he said, "Well, believe it or not, when I was in the House of Commons and I made speeches, nobody listened to me, but, surprisingly, when I'm in the House of Lords and I make a speech, people come up and make comments and ask me about it."

Maybe that's because of the length of time that people have been in politics, the lack of party-political confrontation here that I have described this place as, in many ways, the best think tank in the country.

Lord Heseltine:

I think you make an important point and I think that, by and large, in the Commons, the speeches are about proposed legislation and they're relatively narrow in their focus, and they're relatively partisan in their concept whereas in the Lords, you have both such a wide range of experience, not just from ex-politicians but from people from a whole range of very important public and private sector activities, that you are getting an expertise that you could never replicate in the House of Commons.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. I remember in the Brexit debate, when we were talking about Article 50, or Prime Minister Theresa May's proposals, that a number of peers spoke about Article 50 and then Lord Kerr of Kinlochard stood up and says, "Well, I can tell you about Article 50, because I wrote it. It was with this pain, which I wrote it." You can't get experience like that elsewhere.

Lord Heseltine:

No. You can't replicate that. No.

Lord Speaker:

But now, Lord Heseltine, you're an unaffiliated peer and looking back at the legal landscape, certainly, when I went into the House of Commons in 1987, there was an ideological element to our politics with Labour, working class, supporting workers, social justice, Conservatives, aspiring middle class people, business and law.

With the social media, we now have identity politics, to an extent, and it would seem, to me, that the ideological element has been lost, in part, in place of the identity politics. Say, for example, Labour voters now, what the polls would tell you is that the preponderance of university-educated individuals voting for Labour, millennials voting for Labour, the urban areas voting for Labour whereas with the Conservatives, you would have the rural areas voting for it, and maybe a higher proportion of non-university people being in that.

Now I only cite what the opinion polls are seeing, is there a kernel of truth in that?

Lord Heseltine:

If I may pick your first point up about me being an unaffiliated peer. I mean, this is funny.

Lord Heseltine:

But it is ... I mean, I make few claims myself but in life, in the last 70 years, quite difficult to think of a big political battle in which I haven't been at the forefront on behalf of the Conservative Party. Actually, I'm a member of the Conservative party and they're constantly writing and asking me for funny. It's quite fun. I sent to the Scottish Conservatives, because they've got a saner view about Brexit.

But the idea that I am unaffiliated, I just find a joke of major scale.

But on the analysis that you put about the party changes, I think this is probably about Brexit and frozen living standards. I think that Brexit is such a historic disaster that a large number of the sort of people who are involved in the world that is affected by Brexit have lost faith in the Conservative Party whereas a lot of people, particularly, working class people in the red wall seats still believe that their economic fortunes can be changed if the government changes, because we got rid of the bureaucrats and the BBC and the blob and all this other rubbish.

They're learning the hard way, that they were deceived, and my guess is that the Labour Party will make inroads into that sort of constituency, much less in the constituency that is an anti-Brexit-oriented constituency.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. There's an apocryphal tale that when you were at Oxford, you wrote that you wanted to be a millionaire at 25, in the cabinet at 35, and the prime minister at 55.

What do you say to people ... Because, again, I remember that in one debate or one interview, you said that we betrayed our young people. Given that we need hope in politics and you reinforced that earlier in your conversation, what hope can we give young people at the moment?

Lord Heseltine:

Yes. Hope is very important. Yes, I have said we have betrayed a generation and I believe it profoundly. The world is shrinking. A major reason why it's shrinking, but in my long political experience, time and again, I came across the role of government and the technological interface that sustains the industrial base and I discovered very early on, first in space and then in defence industries, the enormous cashflow that central governments are providing to force-feed the technological advance.

Silicon Valley, good slogan, everybody likes it, we all want to be Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley is the agency of the American defence budget and the space agency. That's where the money comes from, on dramatic scale. I can give you the figures, the Star Wars program, the screen that would stop enemy rockets.

Lord Speaker:

Ronald Reagan's thing.

Lord Heseltine:

Ronald Reagan's Star Wars. General Abraham sitting in my office, $29 billion Secretary of State and today, I could do a partnership with Heriot-Watt University in Glasgow who are at the leading edge in this technology, $100 million out of my $29 billion. I think he thought I would smile with appreciation. What I heard him say was, "I got $29 billion of taxpayers money and I know where every advanced technological base is taking place and I'm going round all of them and do partnerships and all of it will go back into the American industrial base."

China, that is a government using public money to create what has to be the most extraordinary transformation of any society in human history. India, massive scale. Europe, massive scale. Where are we? On the fringe.

Of course, we want to be a leading edge but how do you become a leading edge if you can only afford so much and you've cut yourself off from the technological base and the funding of Europe? You can't.

To that extent, it's a delusion. Immigration, there is no solution to British immigration that does not, in fact, involve Europe, because they are coming from outside Europe into Europe and then from France into this country. The only credible solution is a two-fold solution, one is to put a wall, a ring, a protective barrier around Europe and that would be seen by many people as an immoral reaction to poverty outside but if you were to couple it with a Marshall Aid program, of the sort the Americans did after the Second World War and to come to deals with the countries from which the immigrants are coming to create the conditions that persuade them to stay there, then you have an effective policy and you have a moral policy.

We aren't part of that and we are talking about stopping the boats. They'll find another way.

Then environmental policy, I mean, we could debate how serious climate change is, I'm personally not going to risk by being on the wrong side of this issue, so do you think this country can solve the climate change issue? Inside Europe, with 400 million of us, we can do something, we can talk as equals to the big power blocks. Outside, do people really listen?

What we've done is to create a separate unity called United Kingdom. Outside one of the power blocks that is bound to affect us in numerous ways, and what I see is an empty chair in one of the major power blocks of the country, and it came home to me ... The other day, I was on holiday with my wife in Cyprus and I suddenly realised that Cyprus is closer to the centre of power in Europe than we are. That's unforgivable.

Lord Speaker:

Yeah. In this post-COVID world, which we're now experiencing, has there to be a changing role for government? You mentioned about the Americans. We have the IRA Act, Inflation Reduction Act by the Biden administration, which is putting in over a trillion dollars in grants and tax-deductible allowances for that.

Do we risk it? We've really been left behind and is it too late? How do we get on that bandwagon?

Lord Heseltine:

This is how it always was. As I explained to you, the Star Wars program was exactly this in a different context. The Europeans are going to respond on a similar scale, compatible with the European economy, to what President Biden and the Chinese are already doing.

We have cut ourselves off, and so what is the solution? There is only one solution and that is to re-join the single market, and the quicker we realise that, and the quicker we do it, it can't be done tomorrow and it can't be done easily but it must be the purpose and if there is one criticism of body politics in this country today is that no serious politician is arguing this case.

I know why, because they're terrified of the populist voice and the effect on the populist votes in an election context, so there is a disconnect between the truth and reality of Britain's increasingly disconnected posture in the world and the ability to garner votes of people who think that Brexit was part of the problem.

Lord Speaker:

Okay. We have to be part of a bigger fraternity.

Lord Heseltine:

We are part of Europe. We can either seek to influence it or let them make the decisions which will affect us anyway. We have been for 1,000 years and more, part of Europe.

Lord Speaker:

Your experience at the end of the Second World War, the Marshall Plan, as you talked, you and your contemporaries seemed as if that experience, it infiltrated your very political and human being of the Second World War, is that correct?

Lord Heseltine:

You absolutely put your finger on the epicentre of my political faith. I helped to start, as an undergraduate at Oxford, a subunit of the local Conservative Party. It's called the Blue Ribbon Club. Blue cover, three interlocking circles in gold, United States, Commonwealth, Europe.

I was introduced to politics at the time the Conservatives were leading the vision of Europe. It was a very simple vision. It must never happen again. It started with the Schuman Plan, inspired by the men and women from the resistance movements and the prisoner of war camps, who had seen three wars in Germany and France in three-quarters of a century. It must never happen again.

The Conservatives developed Churchill's great speech, "We must create a kind of United States of Europe." He didn't say they must create, he said, "We must create" and then, of course, the great winds of change speech by Harold Macmillan explaining that the end of empire had come, we could no longer afford, even if we wanted to maintain that hegemony of such a large part of the world's surface. Ted Heath secured our accession.

My generation saw that as a vision, as compatible with the concept of humanity and peaceful conditions in a way that history had denied so many people. My party has blown it. It is unforgivable and it must be reversed.

Lord Speaker:

Well, Lord Heseltine, can I thank you for the privilege of this conversation with you? Your resilience, your openness, your honesty, and your relevance to today's society is every bit as fresh as it was from day one, so it's been a real pleasure for me and thank you very much.

Lord Heseltine:

It's been a privilege, my Lord Speaker.

Lord Speaker:

Thank you.

 

 

Baroness Butler-Sloss

Baroness Butler-Sloss, the highest-ranking female judge in England and Wales as President of the High Court’s Family Division from 1999-2005, speaks to Lord McFall of Alcluith about her career and warns of moving away from parliamentary scrutiny in draft laws before the House.

‘There’s been a creep, a distinct creep, in the last 10 - and possibly mainly the last five - years to move away from parliamentary scrutiny. It’s not just the Lords, it’s parliamentary scrutiny. I remember talking to a Conservative MP and saying: “Are you noticing the extent to which you are not now being asked to make the decisions?”’

Baroness Butler-Sloss also speaks about her long legal career, her success in breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ holding back women lawyers, her report on the Cleveland child abuse scandal and representation of different faith groups in the Lords.

Watch the interview

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

Leading human rights lawyer, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws KC, discusses human rights, social media and access to justice with Lord McFall of Alcluith.

'I was challenging the state, and often taking on the state, because of abuses by arms of the state, by police, by immigration authorities… And that is the purpose of law. That is what the rule of law is all about.'

In this episode, campaigning barrister Baroness Kennedy talks about her early career, plus work on international cases of human rights abuses, such as the mistreatment of Uighurs, Russia’s kidnap of Ukrainian children and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She also explains her work in the House of Lords to contribute to and improve the law.

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Baroness Kidron

From making movies for Stephen Spielberg to groundbreaking protections for young people online, Baroness Kidron talks to Lord McFall of Alcluith about her wide-ranging work as a filmmaker and campaigner.

‘When the data bill came into the Lords, I put forward an amendment that created a data protection regime for children… And when it came into force, we saw the biggest changes in social media that we've seen in two decades, since it's been a thing in our lives… We are currently working in seven different countries and I believe that by the end of the legislative season, there will be five more states who have passed age-appropriate design codes in their own system. And that is one code introduced in the UK, in the House of Lords.’

Baroness Kidron also discusses the Online Safety Bill - and reveals what inspired her to become a filmmaker and her experiences making television and films including Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.

Watch the interview

Baroness Morgan of Cotes

'The fact is you can have proper lengthy, detailed debates… and ask difficult questions. Ministers can't get away in the House of Lords with trite answers or too many promises of future action because the peers won't stand for it. And I think that's a real service to the nation.'

Former minister, Chair of the House of Lords Committee on Digital Fraud and Chair of the UK Commission on Covid Commemoration, Baroness Morgan of Cotes talks to the Lord Speaker about her work in the Lords and beyond. As one of the few people to have served as a Secretary of State in both Houses, Baroness Morgan also explains which members of the two Houses of Parliament ask the toughest questions.

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Lord Dubs

‘I think it's possible in the House of Lords to achieve things. And there's no point in being here unless one sets out to do that.’

Speaking shortly after Lord Dubs’ 90th birthday, the Lord Speaker discusses Lord Dubs’ experience in the Kindertransport as a child refugee and what continues to drive his work. They also discuss their shared experiences in Northern Ireland, and convincing the government to change legislation.

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Lord Alderdice

‘One of the problems I had growing up as a young person in Northern Ireland when things were breaking down into violence again was... I was very troubled by the violence. I thought we must find some kind of way of living together. But the other thing was, I wanted to understand why.’

Psychiatrist, former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and leader of the Alliance Party, Lord Alderdice discusses his involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process and his current work on international conflict and peace building.

Watch the interview

Lord Norton of Louth

‘In the House of Commons there's a culture of assertion. Government knows it'll normally get its way. In the House of Lords, it's a culture of justification. So government's got to persuade the rest of the House that what it wants to achieve it is desirable. So ministers have to engage. They can't simply rely on their own side to get a measure through.’

Constitutional expert and Professor of Government at the University of Hull, Lord Norton of Louth, talks to the Lord Speaker about the importance of good lawmaking, why everyone should care about secondary legislation and the complementary roles of the House of Lords and House of Commons.

Lord Norton of Louth

A

 

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Most members of the Lords are life peers: they are members for their lifetime (their title is not passed on to their children). These members are appointed under the Life Peerages Act 1958, which paved the way for women to be members of the Lords. 

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