I have just been expelled from the House of Lords. I was one of the handful of working Labour hereditary peers who were not made life peers. I feel both resentful and liberated: for me, a new and interesting combination.
Resentment first. Is this, I ask myself, the way for new Labour to treat someone who has served the democratic socialist cause in parliament for 39 years (19 years on a front bench, including four as a Labour minister; twice elected by the Labour peers, first to the European Parliament, and then to the Nato assembly; founder with others of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology; author of the first bill against female genital mutilation; etc)?
It was Harold Wilson who asked me to enter the House of Lords. I was a member of his disarmament advisory group when my father, the first Lord Kennet, died, leaving me to inherit his title. “Shall I renounce the peerage?” I asked Wilson. “No, you go in,” he replied, “we’re going to need you.” I should have suggested a life peerage instead. Since then, I have consistently advocated the end of hereditary membership and the introduction of democracy. Neither has been achieved.
It is true that, during Michael Foot’s leadership, I joined the SDP. I should perhaps have swallowed my objections to that interlude in Labour history, as many did, and pretended to be a nationaliser and unilateral nuclear disarmer. But I wasn’t. Country above party. When the party returned from the wilderness, I returned to the party. I am a permanent democratic socialist.
Then liberation. My expulsion leaves me free to say what I think about the present regime in the party without fear of being deprived of what remains of my utility. In the Lords, I accurately warned about the war in Kosovo and about Madeleine Albright’s love-in with the Kosovo Liberation Army; about GM foods; about the American lobbies and Nato enlargement; about anti-ballistic missile defences; about relations with Russia; and even about a mistaken cut-and-cover tunnel proposed for the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
Recent new peers have been largely stars and “businessmen”, mostly financiers with a few industrialists. I put quotes round businessmen because the very name is a smoke screen: it can mean anyone who works to make a profit, so it means nothing. Financiers are those who operate with money, now on a scale and with a lack of conscience that casually ruins millions, destabilises countries and threatens whole cultures.
Such people are in the Lords – Michael Ashcroft is just the latest and most blatant example – because they have financed the Labour Party or the Tories. Industry and even conscientious finance give a person no more right to legislate than membership of any other profession: packing a parliament with those people is against both natural justice and common experience. As there is no profit to be made, they don’t attend much anyhow. The idea of giving a say in our schools to local industrialists is a Thatcherite idiocy (ancient Greek sense): do we really want schools to produce “human capital”, useful to industry or single-mindedly devoted to competition and profit? Universities, hospitals, theatres and so on are also subjected to this fraction of society.
I have not said much of this in the House of Lords over the years, because others have said it better than I could.
What I have said much of is foreign policy and world security. Here I have made a real nuisance of myself, and no doubt this is why I have been ejected. Over the years, I have raised these matters hundreds of times, always tending to say: wake up, the world has changed. Above all, the familiar United States, our once uniquely valued ally, has changed into a lobby-led hegemony: look at its present policies, at its usual practices, and recall that we are not bound to it in global servitude. Nor are we bound to it so that we may only half-join Europe.
I joined the Labour Party because of Anthony Eden’s aggression against Egypt in 1956, because of the sound of our bombs falling on a poor and defenceless people who were Arabs. I shall leave it to the same sound: week after week for years now, we have gone on and on, like a clockwork gravedigger, bombing and sanctioning Iraq. In 1956, the US saved our bacon by threatening to switch off our freedom of currency exchange. This time, we have not had the sense to try to save their bacon: indeed, the government prides itself on being able to act as a fig leaf for the casual sadism of American Middle East policy. Since 1956, too, the Israel that the whole world rightly and joyfully created for what was left of the Jews after Hitler, has been turned into a nuclear-armed aggressor, an occupying power among its neighbours and a torturer at home. It is US financial and military backing that made and still makes this possible.
History will certainly blame the Blair government for continuing Thatcher’s policies in general, but nowhere more than in the posture of servile assent to the by now wholly benighted US approach to the rest of the world. The words “We Americans stand taller than the rest: that is why we can see further” (Albright) and “Full-Spectrum Dominance 2010” (the Pentagon) are not just slogans: they are neat and correct formulations of current US intentions in the world. America leads Nato this way, in ex-Yugoslavia as elsewhere, while refusing to risk casualties itself. Year after year, the US threatens the minor states of Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea (three Muslim states and one east Asian Buddhist one) because of a wholly paranoid fear – the giant’s fear of the mouse.
All these actions and inactions are condemned by the UN and by virtually every other country in the world. Add the way the US has for decades blocked any increase in the capacity of the UN and the UN family of organisations to serve humanity, and the way it has refused to sign or ratify or observe countless arms control treaties. The way our present government applauds the Americans, and goes out on bombing sprees with them, and allows them to use our most secret intelligence-gathering assets as if they were ourselves, and prepares to back the revival of Reagan’s Star Wars, fills me with disgust and foreboding.
These actions increase the risk of general war and threaten the survival of mankind. Some hasten general environmental disaster. Many push ever lower the living standards of people already infinitely poorer than the Americans; many impose injustice where there was none. The rest of the world bristles and warns, but Tony Blair turns on Washington the kind and flattering smile that he inherited from his foreign policy adviser, Margaret Thatcher.
I have said some (not all) of this, hoping that reality would break in on a government that I was so glad to welcome and at first support. And now I have met my reward. What kind of message does it give to those who might in future be asked to take a working peerage? What does it tell the British people about the government’s intentions for a “reformed” Upper House?
A useful peer will come and vote:
But he will never rock the boat.