Peter Wilby: Lords reform, Louise Mensch and the Olympic snack race

The First Thoughts column.

So farewell, then, House of Lords reform. “The people who make the laws of the land should be elected” – that was your catchphrase. A reformed Lords, however, would have no more clout through being elected, possibly less. The big decision-makers are corporate executives and bankers. Their wishes are articulated by newspaper proprietors and editors, and obediently implemented by ministers and civil servants, without regard to parliamentarians, whether elected or unelected.

Lords reform failed because it was based on a false premise: that Britain is a democracy and an unelected chamber of parliament is, therefore, an anomaly. It has been suggested that the second chamber should be formed from top people in science, engineering, medicine, the law and so on, perhaps after elections in such bodies as the Royal Society. But it would make more sense to appoint ex officio the leading 
directors of the top 100 FTSE companies, whether or not they are British, alongside the bosses of any hedge funds or private equity companies that exceed a minimum turnover. Then the real power and the real source of veto on the most important legislation – tax avoidance, for example – would be brought into the open. The Lords would be restored to its original function: to represent the most powerful interests in the country, formerly the Church of England and the landowners, without whose consent nothing can be done.
This solution, I suspect, would appeal to those Tory backbenchers who have so thoughtlessly shattered Nick Clegg’s dreams.

Tolerant views

The case of Shafilea Ahmed, murdered by her parents because she refused a forced marriage, has rightly provoked horror and outrage. But it has also led to the usual sniping at left liberals and “multiculturalists” who allegedly take a kindly, tolerant view of such behaviour. This ignores an important distinction. Many British Asian marriages – possibly the majority even now – are arranged by the families but, in the sense that either party can reject the match, not forced. Ziauddin Sardar has written in the New Statesman and the Guardian about how his own long-lasting marriage was arranged and how his children have reinterpreted the tradition. To those who condemn, he says “look at your own dilemmas of family breakdowns, 
divorce [and] human despair”.
One might, it is true, be more convinced if one heard from Mrs Sardar on the subject. We should, however, note that until recently most marriages among the upper echelons of European society were also arranged. They were comparable in some respects to deals between rival business concerns, attended by similar armies of accountants and lawyers. There is obviously a fine line between a forced and an arranged marriage, given the emotional and financial pressures parents can exert on their children. But while one is deeply repugnant – and I know of nobody, inside or outside the British Asian community, who thinks otherwise – the other should at least be understood, if not supported. That is all we left-liberals are saying.

Don’t Menshn it

Like most people, I am sad to see the departure of Louise Mensch, an unusual example of an MP who was interesting, independent-minded and amusing. But I have one question. If she was having such trouble with her work-life 
balance, how did she find time to launch a rival to Twitter, called Menshn?

Black and gold

Andrew Gilligan, writing in the Telegraph, of all places, described the Olympics as “the most right-wing major event in Britain’s modern history”. He cited the billions taken from taxpayers on low and middling incomes “to build temples to a corporate and sporting elite”, the cuts to “democratic, grass-roots sport” and the conversion of the police and state into an “enforcement arm of Coca-Cola”. Yet (and here was the Telegraph angle) the left was “suckered” into enthusiastic support.
What lefties liked – as anticipated by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony – was the collective endeavour of the organisers and participants, the communal spirit of the spectators and volunteers and, above all, the multiracialism. “A white red-haired man, a mixed-race woman and a Somali immigrant are the wonderful, beautiful and multiracial face of Great Britain tonight,” was one lefty tweet after a string of British victories. It made a telling contrast to the England cricket team, which, following the withdrawal of Ravi Bopara for “personal reasons” (another of countless examples of talented non-whites mysteriously failing to establish themselves) is once again all-white, with Kevin Pietersen its biggest hero. Pietersen may be a brilliant player, but he is also a white South African who left his native land complaining about the quotas that, after a century of exclusion, helped blacks rise to the game’s top levels.

The snack race

On a visit to the Olympic Park, I observed a row of eateries serving fish and chips, Indian, Cornish pasties, ice cream and the ubiquitous McDonald’s. All were besieged. Beside them stood a forlorn salad bar, which didn’t have a single customer in the ten minutes I watched.
One of the Olympic volunteers told me that, in two weeks of dinners at one venue, he was served everything but salad. The message, 
I suppose, is that you can’t run far on lettuce and raw spinach. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism