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Lords Diary: Lord Howell

Lords Diary: Lord Howell
4 min read

Lord Howell on reforming the Lords, the Civil Servce, and Britain's changing place in the world


Strange to see all the Lords faces in the same places after the political near-earthquake in December. Nothing, it seems, has changed. In the Commons there is now an in-built Government majority. In the Lords it’s an in-built anti-government majority, just as before.
So standby for a stream of amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and every other Bill in the pipeline, followed by almost certain Commons rejections, followed by the ping pong ritual night after night.
Lords reform must be coming sometime. But even if an elected Lords was already in place, it is worth noting that the 15-year tenure plan would still have left the Upper House completely out of sync. 
A revising second chamber is a good idea, particularly when its occupants can draw on even wider and more diverse outside connections, perhaps, than the MPs chosen through their party branches. But an opposing second Chamber is not so useful. We shall see which this turns out to be.

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Dominic Cummings’ reported ideas for civil service reform should be of great interest to the Lords, and they ought to be able to make a useful contribution. The place is stuffed with ex-high officials – Cabinet Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, ambassadors, governance experts. To some of the older ones the Cummings aims may sound familiar, since they mirror closely the objectives of what was called the ‘New Style of Government’ introduced in 1970. Then, as now, the aims were to bring Whitehall more fully into the new technological age, to break down inter-departmental barriers and to give the prime minister far more control over both strategy and ever-swelling departmental spending. 
The outcomes were mixed – and in many cases watered down or plain frustrated – not least by the Treasury, but also by Downing Street being overwhelmed by other events and losing interest. But there were also some positive legacies, even if they took a decade or so to mature.
It is said that that the collective memory these days in Whitehall is weak or non-existent. My plea to today’s would-be reformers is to glance back at accounts of this past period, which have all been documented in detail. At least it might help them from falling again into some of the traps we encountered back then.

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One welcome undertaking in the Gracious Speech, where again the Lords could usefully contribute, is to hold a review of security, defence and foreign policy to get a better view of Britain’s position and role in the world.

About time too. In fact it should have been undertaken 10 or 15 years ago when the digital age was already shifting the world order.
Had we done so we might have grasped a lot earlier, and long before Trump, that the old special relationship of the past 70 years with the USA needed reshaping. We might have seen sooner that much closer attention to Asia was essential, where most of the growth in consumer markets is going to be, in which we have to succeed to survive. 
And we might have grasped quicker that all kinds of new networks have grown across the planet, not necessarily between governments but between professions, interests, young people, business and trade in services and knowledge products in which Britain should be seeking the closest possible involvement – not least with the Commonwealth, the biggest network of all in which we are fortunate to be (although barely deserve to be) members.

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A straight discourtesy to the Queen was to exclude any mention of the Commonwealth, of which she is the head and to which she has devoted most of her reign, in either this Gracious Speech or the one before in October.
This may sound a minor omission, but it tells us clearly one thing – that the strategists and mandarins deep in Whitehall have simply not yet grasped the nature of Britain’s modern exceptionalism, new world role or potentialities in a shifting international order. Roll on the review. 

Lord Howell of Guilford is a Conservative peer

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Howell - A brilliant exploration of geopolitical conflict: Lord Howell reviews 'Border Wars'

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