Labour and the Lords – History Misused

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s fascinating to see the House of Commons beginning the 2nd reading of the Reform of the House of Lords Bill. Nick Clegg is being attacked by members of his own government as well as the opposition as he tries to make the case for reform.

He has claimed that we should remember that Labour has always supported an elected House of Lords. As Margaret Beckett pointed out, this is entirely incorrect. Prior to the 2010 election Labour never supported an elected Lords in its manifestoes.

In its early years, at the time of the 1918 constitution, the Lords were, of course, hereditary. Their unconstitutional behaviour towards Lloyd George’s budget which had led to the 1911 Parliament Act was fresh in the memory, and Labour understandably did not want a reactionary, overwhelmingly Tory, undemocratic House to frustrate the policies of a future progressive Labour government. Labour’s first policy statement in June 1918, Labour and the New Social Order, therefore proposed abolition of the House of Lords. This, however, was left out of the election manifesto in December 1918.

For almost a century after that, Labour’s manifestoes made very little reference to the Lords. Labour’s concern was primarily with the powers, not the composition of the Lords. There were occasional brief references to the Lords not being allowed to obstruct ‘the people’s will’. Thus the famous manifesto of 1945, Let us Face the Future, included towards the end ten words to this effect. The 1935 party manifesto had revived the proposal to abolish the Lords. but it subsided and would probably have disappeared in the manifesto had a general election taken place in 1940.

In fact, such figures as Attlee and Dalton had written that a second chamber, to revise and improve Commons legislation, was desirable. They felt that an elected Lords might summon up the will to challenge the primacy of the Commons. Dalton favoured a second Chamber that was not the product of ‘direct election by popular constituencies’ but indirectly elected by the House of Commons itself, a proposal by a former Cabinet minister, H.B. Lees Smith. This odd idea did not survive.

The Attlee government by-passed changing the composition of the Lords. Hereditary though they were, the Lords deferred to the Commons through the Salisbury-Addison convention. Labour did, however, see the need to restrict the power of the Lords to delay or conceivably veto legislation coming from the Commons (eg perhaps the nationalization of iron and steel). One blow to reformers had come indeed in 1948 when the Lords exercised the power of veto over abolishing capital punishment in the Criminal Justice Bill. And so the 1949 Parliament Act reduced the delaying power, as is well known, from two years to one. Proposals in all-party talks convened by Morrison for creating life peers were promptly abandoned.

Labour did nothing about the composition of the Lords for years to come. It gave support to the life

Photograph of the debating chamber of the Hous...
Chamber of the House of Lords                                (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

peers created in the Act of 1958. In 1966, however, Richard Crossman, leader of the House, insisted that reform of the Commons, his main objective, should be considered alongside reform of the Lords. After the Lords rejected economic sanctions on Rhodesia in 1968, Harold Wilson revived the Lords issue in 1969 (ignored in the 1966 manifesto) with complex proposals for a part elected, part nominated House (to which the Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, was hostile). It included a proposal which would allow up to 80 peers being nominated by the prime minister. This was defeated in the Commons by a bipartisan campaign, led on the Labour side by Michael Foot who denounced the proposed remodelled Lords as ‘a Seraglio of eunuchs’.

To Callaghan’s joy, it was ignominiously dropped.

The Lords then reappeared on Labour’s programmes during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The idea, however, was never to have elected Lords but to abolish them entirely. As is well known, the abolition of the Lords was included in the 1983 election manifesto, the celebrated ‘suicide note’ which led to the worst election defeat for Labour since 1918. It vanished in 1987. Thereafter New Labour in the 1990s focussed on removing the hereditary peers, without immediately proposing that they be replaced by elected ones. The myriad party and government proposals since 1997 are familiar to colleagues. But the outcome was that in 2010 Labour committed itself to an elected house (albeit endorsed in a referendum). No manifesto and no leader between Arthur Henderson and Tony Blair had done so before.

The fairest conclusions are, I think, as follows:

(i) Lords reform has never been one of our priorities. Labour has always focussed on very different, mainly social and economic issues. To say that the party ‘have always favoured Lords reform’, however defined, comes close to saying nothing.

(ii) Labour has invariably focussed on the powers of the Lords, together with proposals three times (1918, 1935, 1983) for abolishing it. On balance it has been consistently in favour of a bicameral legislature ou grounds of good governance..

(iii) It has been concerned above all to ensure that the Lords, however composed, should not be encouraged to thwart the will of the Commons or challenge its primacy.

(iv) Like Lloyd George in 1911, it has over the decades not favoured an elected House, which might not be a force for progress. Our leadership stance today is, for good or ill, at variance with earlier tradition. Opinions will vary on this, and I offer none here. I am just concerned to get our discussions based on historical fact and not on fiction.

Of course, historical precedent isn’t a reason to take a policy position today. The House of Lords does need to be reformed. However, the current bill is poorly drafted, badly thought out, and will cause a great deal of difficulties at a later date should it be allowed to pass. I therefore hope this particular bill falls.

The Unmentioned Debt


A poster of 1942 during World War II in suppor...
A poster of 1942 during World War II in support of Greece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us, at some point recently, will have been glued to the news coverage of the Greek financial crisis. We’ve seen anti-austerity riots. We’ve seen governments fall. We’ve seen elections fail. And we’ve seen the rest of the Eurozone nations, most notably Germany, try to dictate terms to Greece.

Rather than pick up the can and fix the problem, the leaders of Europe have kicked that can a little further down the street, buying a few weeks at a time. There have been lots of arguments about the failings of Greece and the German demands for greater austerity and closer fiscal union.

But one thing that doesn’t seem to get mentioned too often is the debt between Greece and Germany. I talk not of the €130 billion Germany has used to bail Greece out. That’s had LOADS of coverage.

I’m talking about the €75 billion that Germany owed Greece in the first place. For Germany still owes Greece those billions in unpaid war reparations.

Despite the danger of Godwin’s Law, and not wanting to simplify the complex relationships of European nations to 6 years in the early 1940s, there’s a case to be made.

In 1941, Germany invaded Greece, and then continued to occupy the ancient home of democracy until 1944. During that time, the Germans forced the export of goods from Greece, ruining the Greek economy. That export of goods for no payment led to massive inflation for the Greeks. At the same time, the National Bank of Greece was made to lend Nazi-run Germany 476 million Reichsmarks with absolutely no interest.

At the post-war reparations conference, Greece claimed $10 billion – 7.95 billion Euros – from Germany. Economists calculated that, in terms of quantifiable economic damage through occupation, Greece came fourth behind Poland, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Eventually, Greece received $25 million worth of material goods – machines, industrial supplies and so on. That’s the equivalent of almost $3 billion at today’s value.

However, in 1953, the London Debt Agreement deferred reparation payments until a peace treaty was signed. You’d think that would’ve been signed by 1953, but you’d be wrong. You’d think, then, that it’d be done within a year or two of the London Debt Agreement. You’d still be wrong. In fact, it wasn’t signed until 1990! And that peace treaty made no requirement of Germany to pay further reparation to Greece or other occupied nations. Only individual claims could be made for reparation.

Having been in NATO with Germany since 1952, and in other European organisations from 1961, Greece was in a difficult position diplomatically when it came to demanding reparations. So it meekly accepted the treaty, barring the occasional mention from Greek politicians.

Despite Greece’s acceptance of the terms of the original reparation conference, the London Debt Agreement, and the final peace treaty, payments were made. Germany has paid as much as $41 billion – €33 billion. West Germany also paid compensation to individual victims of the occupation under an agreement between them and Greece for a total of 115 million Deutsch-marks. Some of those claims are still before the courts to this day.

The interesting element of all this is the loan that Greek banks were forced to make to Germany.

Because of the 1990 treaty, if the outstanding money was treated as war damage, reparation would no longer have to be made for it. However, if this debt was treated as just that – credit owed by Germany to Greece – then Greece would be entitled to that money.

476 million Reichsmarks borrowed in 1941, with no interest added, would be $14 billion – or €11 billion – at today’s value. With interest added at a more-than-reasonable 3%, that would be $95 billion, or €75 billion Euros.

That’s €75 billion that Germany owes Greece and has never repaid. And nobody is mentioning it.

Beyond The Red Suit

It’s interesting to me, as a Christian, to see what people think of Christmas. The crass, commercialised holiday we have in December doesn’t really have a lot to do with the real meaning of  Christmas as I understand it. The dominant figure of the season isn’t a baby in a manger. Some would say that’s a good thing because the baby didn’t exist. I imagine, then, that they’re much more satisfied with the obviously real icon of all things festive, the jolly fat man in a red suit we call Santa Claus. There’s no way that’s not true.

It’s very easy to write a few hundred words about the what those horrible capitalist marketing people from Coca-Cola have done by creating the red-suited, white-bearded, rosy-cheeked Santa myth. But it’d be boring.

It’s much more interesting to take a bit more of a look at who Santa was. The original Santa Claus is far more interesting than 21st century version we see in toy shops and movies.

There has been a whole series of growing stories built up around the facts of a boy called Nicholas who was born in AD 280 into a wealthy family. His parents, it’s said in early histories, brought Nicholas up in the Christian faith and taught the sacred texts of the time.

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from t...
Early depiction of St Nicholas

Orphaned before manhood, Nicholas was left on his own in the world with nothing but a lot of money and  knowledge of Jesus. He heard of a local man who had been left with nothing and had three daughters to raise. Without a penny to put toward dowries, they had been doomed to live an unhappy life of spinsterhood and prostitution. That thought horrified Nicholas so, late one winter night, he threw three small bags of gold into their home, some chronicles say via the chimney, and so saved the daughters from their fate.

As a seventeen year old, Nicholas went on pilgrimage to Palestine where he felt called to priesthood and so went on to be ordained. He went to serve in a monastery near Myra in Lycia, which is now in Turkey. While there, an old priest was reported to have had a vision that the new Bishop would be Nicholas.

The people of Myra elected Nicholas as bishop and he was known for his zeal and love of the Gospel. In these still-early days of the Church, the pagan gods of Rome and Greece were still the dominant religion. Nicholas made it his mission to challenge at the Temple to Artemis in Lycia.

Of course, the challenge of one man wasn’t going to overturn centuries of worship, and in AD 303, Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians. As the “chief priest of the Christians”, Romans arrested, tortured and imprisoned Nicholas along with many of his flock.

It was 10 years later that Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, ordering an end to the persecutions and Nicholas and all other Christians were freed.

Nicholas had been beaten raw, but he had refused to renounce his confession of Jesus as his saviour. It was also reported by other Christians that Nicholas had spoken up on behalf of those falsely arrested for being Christian and that he went out of his way to help his people survive.

After Arius made the Arian assertion that Jesus was a created being and not in existence from all eternity, Methodius wrote that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected.”

Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea....
The Council of Nicaea and the burning of Arius' books

It is also written by historians of near the time that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, where Arian doctrine was finally rejected, and that Nicholas had himself debated with Arius personally over the theological question of whether there was a time when Jesus did not exist. The debate was said to have ended when Nicholas punched Arius in the face and knocked him out right in the middle of the council floor at Nicaea as the emperor Constantine looked on.

Not quite the fluffy character you see on your Christmas cards today! In fact, quite far from it. He was a godly, charitable man who was persecuted, imprisoned and tortured for a decade just for believing in a baby in a manger.  He was a passionate defender of his faith. He defended the weak, the needy, and the helpless against the ravages of famine, poverty and the persecution of the Roman empire.

He’s a lot more than a marketing tool for retail giants and fizzy drinks, even today.

Guido, The Fabians, And Defending The Indefensible

As you would expect, Guido Fawkes has leapt to defend Howard Flight.  Except he’s taking a rather unusual strategy in doing it.

He wrote here this morning that the Left shouldn’t be criticising Flight’s ridiculous comments because some members of the left, particularly within the Fabian Society, in the 19th and early 20th centuries were known to support eugenics.

George Bernard Shaw, toward the end of his life, was a supporter of the theories of eugenics, and the New Statesman in the early 30’s made mention of eugenics as a positive thing.

The flaw in this argument is that Labour and the left moved on. Nobody today believes that stopping the poor from breeding should be a political aim. That obviously can’t be said of the Conservative party given what Howard Flight said only a couple of days ago.

Guido’s argument would mean that Conservatives shouldn’t be able to comment on housing due to the number of Conservative MPs who took part in the enclosure of common land in Georgian England. Nor should they speak about race because, in the 18th century, some Tories were prominent traders in African slaves.

It’s a very silly way to defend the indefensible.

We Will Remember Them

Some Corner Of A Foreign Field


With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,

England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is a music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncountered:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.

Knowing your Labour roots

A little while ago Derek Hatton was on a political show talking about Labour party politics and Michael Gove’s “New Militancy” nonsense. All perfectly sensible. Hatton was the poster boy for 80s militancy, so dragging him out for that made sense. There were tweets flying back and forth about this show. (It was This Week with Abbot and Costello Portillo and the hairstyle that is Andrew Neil, if you’re wondering.) A few tweets were from 20-something Labour party members asking who Derek Hatton was. So myself and a few others told them. Militant Tendency member, Trotskyist, etc. All good. But then came the responses. 

“Ah so Hatton was to do with Smith. Well, the winter of discontent was a long time ago.” 

Say that again, says I. And they did. More than one person managed to conflate various combinations of Militant Tendency (1985ish), Winter of Discontent (1978), John Smith (1992), and the three-day week (1973). 

James Keir Hardie, first Leader of the Labour Party


It was this that made me realise that a  section of the membership are in their 20s and can barely remember a time before Tony Blair. I mean a 26-year-old would’ve been 9 when Tony Blair became leader, and mere toddlers when Kinnock became leader on 2 October 1983. Not that I’m ancient or anything. I don’t remember Wilson, Gaitskill, Atlee, or even Callaghan. I just happen to have studied them all. There was a time when Constituency Labour Parties and Trade Union branches would make sure people knew the history of their movement, but that doesn’t really happen today. Today’s organisations are much more focussed on being election-fighting machines, rather than places to debate, deliberate, and discuss.   


So, in light of this, I’ve decided to return to my roots as an academic 

1957 Labour poster


historian and blog the history of the Labour Party. It’ll be an ongoing project which I’ll probably post on a separate page of this blog, so as not to interfere with my usual laughing-at-Cameron posts. I’ve dug out my old papers and am working on the first post at the mo, hopefully to post next week. I’d really like to know what you, the people who read my blog, think of this idea, so please do comment with well, er, comments I suppose. Oh, and suggestions and ideas too now I come to think of it.

A fitting monument?

Queen’s Life Guard

Whitehall is an odd place. I had occasion on Sunday to find myself wandering through St James Park, across Horseguards’ Parade and onto Whitehall itself. Obviously, lots of tourists were about, getting snapped with the high-booted Guards or the traditional British bobbies. Which is lovely for the tourists and probably immensely annoying for the people in uniform, especially as the Guards aren’t allowed to move, and lots of the police officers are diplomatic protection group with big machine-guns which isn’t exactly Enid Blyton imagery. For me, though, there’s an awesome sense of history on those streets. The Admiralty, where the seas really were ruled from. Horseguards where Wellington had his desk and wars were run from, the Foreign Office where the lamps went out all over Europe, the Treasury building, Churchill’s war rooms down Clive Steps, Downing street with its huge gates and paramilitary police officers, a definite but sad sign of the times in which we live.  It’s an otherworldly place, seemingly so different from the rest of London. All those buildings are great but, of course they are overshadowed massively by the Palace of Westminster, the seat of our democracy since the Model Parliament of 1295. I’ve visited the place many times over the years, as a tourist, to lobby, and just as a guest. And the place fills me with awe every time.        

To stand on the steps in Westminster Hall and read the little plaques on the       


The Central Lobby, Palace of Westminster


 floor where Mandela stood, where Charles I, William Wallace and the genuine Guido Fawkes (we can but dream, friends) were tried; the broom cupboard where suffragette Emily Davison hid herself during the 1911 census; the spot where Spencer Perceval was shot and killed (though his dead body was carried to Downing Street where he was declared dead, as nobody ever dies in a Royal Palace); to stand in St Stephen’s Hall and think of Cromwell, Walpole, the two Pitts, Wilberforce,  and Grey; to stand in Central Lobby – what Erskine May called “the political centre of the British Empire”  – and think of the orations of Churchill, Bevan, Lloyd George, FE Smith,  Foot, and Cook. All these things move me in that place. It is one of the few places where you can stand and feel the history around you.            

Cromwell's Statue, Westminster

 Had it not been a Sunday, I probably would’ve found a reason to go in and lobby someone into getting me a drink in the strangers’ or sports and social while having a nose about at all the above stuff. But it was a Sunday. So I was stuck on the outside of the building and was struck by a few things. First, the number of security barriers around now. I know there are always concerns about terrorist attacks, but it’d be nice to resurrect Charles Barry and try and blend the damn things in a bit. Second, the statuary. I don’t know who chooses the statues on the Parliamentary Estate, but I have to imagine it’s some committee somewhere. The choices are a little odd for me. The first big one you see is of Oliver Cromwell. Now, I know that he lead the Parliamentarians in the Civil War and some see him as a hero of liberty. But the truth is that he dissolved the “Barebones Parliament” in 1653, made himself Protector for life, introduced a dictatorship, had everyone address him as your highness, and committed genocide in Ireland. Hardly a national hero. As you walk along the front of the palace to what is called Old Palace Yard but is in fact a car park, there’s a huge bronze statue which is of King Richard, placed there in 1860. A romantic choice for Victorian readers of folklore, but a pretty poor choice other than that. Richard was king from 1189 to 1199 during which time he spent 6 months in Britain, could speak only French, said he would sell London if he could find a buyer, ordered Jews flogged for, well, being jewish mainly, and led a war against Muslims. I can’t help thinking this isn’t the ideal role model for a 21st century Parliament.         

Richard I with House of Lords behind


Buxton Memorial Fountain and Victoria Tower

On the other hand, if you walk further round to Black Rod’s Garden and Victoria Tower Gardens, you’ll find the Buxton Memorial Fountain to commemorate the British emancipation of slaves. You’ll also find a nice statue of Emmeline Pankhurst from 1930, so these gardens gives us a lot more of what I think Parliament should have. Of course, it also gives us a fibreglass cow in the red ermine lined cloak of a Lord, which is a bit jarring. Guess it’s for American visitors. British sense of humour eh?         

 *Update – the cow is called Ermine-trude and was part of Cow Parade London and was sold for charity in 2002.