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Lords Diary: Lord Howell

4 min read

The captains and the kings depart, the grief fades a little and all the ugly dilemmas resurface at speed. Inevitably at the top of the list come big spending, high debt, rapid inflation and a sinking pound (at least for the moment).

Interestingly the United Kingdom’s debt in relation to Gross Domestic Product is the second lowest amongst the G7 nations. But with the Chancellor’s latest support package and the energy price relief grand hand-out it still needs eye-watering sums to be borrowed to pay for it all.

A decade or so ago these sort of figures – £150 bn or more – would be simply in the realm of fantasy. But I notice now that economic commentators, especially on the BBC, talk about billions for this and that almost as though they were the smallest units of currency.

Just for the record, a billion pounds is ONE THOUSAND MILLION pounds. And now even trillions (a thousand billion) are getting a mention here and there, with at least one reference to a quadrillion. To misquote what United States Senator Everett Dirksen is alleged to have said, “soon we’ll be talking about real money”.

All this is very troubling for those who put sound finance first. And no doubt we’ll hear their concerns at the Party Conference. But one saving grace is, or ought to be, that the duration of the global forces that are driving energy prices skywards may, with luck and the right international strategies, be limited and begin fading sometime next year.

Curiously little policy attention has been paid to this overseas side of things – in other words to supply as well as demand for oil and gas – and to the world trends and policies which are at the root of it all. Ukraine and Russian nastiness make it all worse. But unless the underlying issues are addressed with massive and collective diplomatic effort, of which there has been little sign so far, these will lead to repeated impossible price spikes, persistent threats to national energy security and dangerous consequences all round, both political and social. The need to navigate all this without undermining the equally important long-term energy transition just adds to the complexities.

All this is very troubling for those who put sound finance first

One group that seems to be going to the roots of the problem is the Lords International Relations and Defence Committee. Its members are visiting Qatar, which is of a gigantic source of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and could be where part of our salvation lies.

Incredibly the Lords did not even have an international relations committee until about six years ago. Now the entire pattern of world power has shifted and the rules-based order which leaders tried to build after the Second World War – and again after the collapse of the Soviet Union – is facing a major setback everywhere, placing almost all the issues shaping our daily lives and problems squarely on this committee’s plate.

The future of the Commonwealth has had quite an airing in recent days, given Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s magnetic inspiration of the entire vast network (now 56 countries). The question of the 14 remaining “realms” keeps being raised. Much of the media is in a complete muddle about this. The desire of some to change their status is being interpreted as “leaving the Commonwealth”. In fact most of the Commonwealth have been independent republics all along. Whether these remaining ones chose to keep the United Kingdom monarch as their titular sovereign or switch to independence within the organisation, with the King as its head, as was his mother, makes hardly any difference at all.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is growing, with two more countries joining recently and several others in the wings. This is for reasons in today’s world with which some of our foreign policy experts have not yet caught up. The King is well adjusted to this evolution (and growth) of the world’s largest voluntary, non-treaty network of like-minded nations – and probably welcomes it. 

Lord Howell of Guildford is a Conservative peer

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