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  1. Diary
17 January 2024

How to reform the House of Lords

Also this week: finding peace in weekly Mass, and what Winston Churchill knew.

By Tim Waterstone

My visceral longing for Labour, at last, to win again, has become an obsession. Early each morning, I am glued to the latest polls on Wikipedia. So far, all looks good. But I will never forget the 1992 horror when we went into the election seemingly bound for victory, only to be cast down on the day itself, maybe partly because of Neil Kinnock’s shrill triumphalism. Shrill triumphalism will certainly not occur under Keir Starmer, but equally nor will Kinnock’s real, raw centre-left drive and conviction, which at its best was inspirational. So, I worry.

If we do make it through, I hope Starmer lifts spirits with an immediately dynamic start. In 1997 it was Gordon Brown giving independence to the Bank of England. For Starmer it should be the long-awaited reform of the House of Lords. Reduce it to, say, 600 peers (from 782 at present), of which 500 would be appointed by proportional representation based on the general election popular vote, and selected from party lists (if Labour wins 40 per cent of the vote it gets 40 per cent of 500, so 200 peers; the Tories 34 per cent, so 170 peers; the Greens 7 per cent, so 35 peers, etc). The other 100 balance peers should be crossbenchers selected by the Appointments Commission, with an eye to special groupings, such as regional ones. The Lords Spiritual should go, as should the Hereditaries. Future peers would only be appointed within the above structure.

A simple, clear, dynamic start to our Labour future – and straightforward to implement.

The beatific vision

“Humans seek a higher power and greater meaning because they are born to do so, not because there is anything to find,” read the introduction to an article in the Times by Matthew Parris on 5 January. But, he admits, faithlessness is in itself an act of faith.

Sentient minds from time immemorial have struggled with exactly that. Bertrand Russell once wrote to a lover: “The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life.”

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Similarly, the atheist AC Grayling has talked of his “sense of yearning for the absolute”. And Tom Stoppard has declared: “I don’t believe that we evolved moral psychology, it just doesn’t seem plausible to me as a biological phenomenon. About 40 years ago I said I just didn’t find it credible that some green slime grew up to write Shakespeare’s sonnets. And I don’t find that idea any more plausible today.”

As for me, I reject simplistic, literal religion as fully as anyone. Yet for years I have been to Mass every Sunday, these days at the delightful St Mary’s, Bourne Street, in Chelsea, west London. I find in attending Mass there a peace, a reconciliation, a calmness, a turning aside to a brightness, as RS Thomas put it, and it’s part of my life.

I once heard a sublime put-down of an invariably irritating academic, which went as follows: “‘Heaven doesn’t exist; it’s a delusion,’ Richard Dawkins tells us. But Richard Dawkins knows no more about whether God exists than I do. He’s an arrogant jackass. He seems to think that if God were to exist, he would have to reveal himself to modern, sceptical, Oxford scientists. That is the sum of Dawkins’ argument – that God is obliged to exist in a way that Richard Dawkins can understand.”

Special delivery

After 20 months of absorbed writing, I have just this last week delivered to Curtis Brown, my agents, 153,000 words in the form of a collection of novellas and short stories.

I find tales of this length extraordinarily satisfying to write, and am in awe of the masters of the art – the Russians, Chekhov and Turgenev, particularly. I looked again, after decades, at W Somerset Maugham – in his time the most widely read English writer since Dickens, and the highest-paid – only to recall that his stories are like entering a competition for who can insert the most clichés into 1,000 words.

Of them, though, those in his Ashenden spy sequence are of a different class: confidently paced and based on autobiographical material – so precisely so that his friend Winston Churchill quietly advised him that 14 of the stories were in breach of the Official Secrets Act. Maugham destroyed them.

Body of evidence

Waterstones, forever in my heart, has voted Katherine Rundell’s Impossible Creatures as its 2023 Book of the Year. A quite superb book chosen by a quite superb body of booksellers. Truly.

[See also: The Tory party is inviting defeat]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge