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28 March 2022

Why shouldn’t Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe get a seat in the House of Lords?

As a woman who has endured the kind of trauma most of us can barely imagine, she would bring a unique perspective as a peer.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Almost as soon as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to the UK after six years detained in Iran, she became a front in the culture war. At a press conference to mark her return, she refused to express gratitude to the UK government for bringing her home, instead asking why it had taken so long. Decried as “entitled” on social media under the trending hashtag #SendHerBack, it didn’t take long for her supporters to strike back, pointing out the racist and misogynistic undertones of telling a brown woman to be grateful for being rescued – or for people to note how the controversy around her divided down Brexit lines

No wonder, then, that Labour has taken note, with speculation that she could be an asset to the party. “Keir’s people are very taken with her,” one Labour peer told the Daily Mail. “They’re talking about lining her up for a seat.” An MP, meanwhile, has pointed out the challenge of parachuting her into a constituency, but commented “I can see them getting her into the Lords.” Cue yet more social media outrage, and a heated debate on whether being jailed in a foreign country qualifies someone for a seat in parliament. 

It is sad that a cause that should cut across party lines – the return of a British citizen held as leverage by a hostile government – has become so polarised, not helped by the fact that one of the foreign secretaries who bungled the issue is the current Prime Minister. Because beyond petty party politics there are good reasons for her to be nominated to the House of Lords, by either Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson. 

It is true that, at first glance, this might not seem wholly appropriate – although not for the reasons that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detractors imagine. A peerage is – theoretically – meant to be a reward for great achievement: scientific, medical, charitable or academic accomplishments, or a lifetime spent in the law, the military or politics. Former PMs and cabinet ministers take their seats there, continuing their careers above the cut and thrust of daily politics. There is a reason that, when honours are awarded, they are announced “in services of”. 

While Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been through horrendous suffering, it doesn’t feel right to call enduring six years of detention in an Iranian prison an “achievement” or “service” – ordeal is a far better word. Rewarding someone because of things done to them seems crass, as if some ermine robes and a title could undo any of the damage inflicted by the Iranian government and the loss of being separated from a partner and child. 

However, the House of Lords is not just a members’ club for the political and social elites – it serves a vital constitutional purpose in scrutinising legislation and sending it back to the Commons for improvement if needed. Anyone who has read or listened to Lords debates will know they are far more stimulating, meticulous and erudite than anything that occurs in the Commons. The widely acknowledged democratic disadvantages of having an unelected upper chamber are counter-balanced by the expertise and cross-party scrutiny offered when authorities from a wide variety of fields check the work of slapdash MPs. 

It should hardly need saying that Zaghari-Ratcliffe could bring a unique perspective to UK policymaking. Some may have baulked at her forthright criticism of successive British governments’ failure to secure her release, but she has experienced first-hand what can happen when international relations go badly wrong. Not everyone will agree that the UK’s disputed £393.8m debt with Iran (believed to be the true reason for her detention) should have been settled years ago, but her insights – on hostage negotiations and where the lines should be when dealing with hostile powers – are worth listening to. She would also be a valuable voice in debates on press freedom, justice, security, “enhanced interrogation” tactics, mental health, trauma and any number of other subjects. 

Nobody designing a second legislative chamber from scratch would ever come up with a system like the current House of Lords. It is the second-largest legislature in the world, behind only the Chinese National People’s Congress – of its 767 members, nearly 100 of them are there purely because of who their fathers were, and 24 are bishops. Too often in recent history we have seen peerages handed out like sweeties to party donors or political allies owed a favour by the current Prime Minister (Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation springs to mind). There are, without doubt, numerous individuals earning £323-a-day to attend the Palace of Westminster who do not deserve to be there. 

But given the imperfect situation as it stands, why not ennoble a woman who has endured the kind of trauma that most of us can barely imagine outside our nightmares? Why not offer a peerage, not as a reward but as a recognition of suffering, and an acknowledgement that the expertise it confers has real value? Doing so would not be political point-scoring, but the opposite: a signal to Iran and other governments like it that democratic countries are not afraid to elevate those who criticise them to positions of power.  

For now, of course, Nazanin’s top priority is to “get back to normal life” and spend time with her family. But if ever she is reintroduced into the public eye as Baroness Zaghari-Ratcliffe of West Hampstead, I for one will be cheering her on.

[See also: No one has any right to tell Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe how to feel]

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