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Lords Diary – Lord Watson

Downing Street, March 2024: Veterans of Britain’s nuclear test programme hand in a petition | Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Lord Watson of Wyre Forest

Lord Watson of Wyre Forest

4 min read

From Oral Questions on nuclear test veterans, and eschewing tuna melt toasties – to witnessing a defeated politician deliver a speech that is a model of dignity

Here we are again, engaging in a Kafkaesque tango with the Ministry of Defence (MOD). During Oral Questions in the House of Lords, I seized my 90 seconds in the spotlight to champion our nuclear test veterans, whose scepticism towards the MOD’s transparency remains unassuaged. The crux of the dispute centres on what the state knew about the medical checks conducted on these veterans during the late-50s nuclear test programme.

This month, the department’s approach has been akin to a magician’s sleight of hand. While grandly announcing the release of 150 documents from the enigmatically named Merlin computer system at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, the government is concurrently, and somewhat clandestinely, attempting to reclassify thousands of documents within the national archives. Could these files contain the evidence needed by the veterans to substantiate claims of medical injuries? A growing chorus of veterans, lawyers, and former defence ministers seem to think so.

In a novel approach with my question, I aimed to aid the department – and, indeed, current and future ministers. To maintain public trust in the new £20bn warhead programme, we must address the seeds of mistrust sown by our first warhead programme concerning the nuclear test veterans’ medical records. Implicit in my question was a call to all peers: support the independent nuclear deterrent as the new Trident system takes shape. It’ll be far simpler if we can resolve the veterans’ issues first. I tossed out an olive branch; one can only hope it was spotted.

After undergoing cancer treatment last year, my weight has ballooned, prompting me to act this week to get back on track. I’ve banned tuna melt toasties at the Bishops’ Bar in the Lords. It’s a funny name for a bar, particularly as I’ve never actually spotted a bishop in there. One of my new rules is always opting for the stairs over the lift. The journey to my new office involves climbing 51 steps – a feat that initially left me breathless. I share this office with Lord Dave Watts, nearly 20 years my senior, who kindly offered to procure an oxygen mask for me after our first ascent together.

West Midlands delivered a result as startling as Aston Villa snatching a last-minute victory against Manchester City

Later, on the last couple of hours of local elections in West Yorkshire, I found myself door-knocking – slightly rusty but thoroughly invigorated by the enthusiasm of young campaigners. To show my appreciation, I phoned Gordon Brown and had him thank everyone for all that they do via speakerphone. The youngsters seemed delighted – or perhaps they were humouring a whimsical old Lord.

I was out canvassing with the effervescent local MP for Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater. Observing the reaction to Kim and the candidates in the mayoral race underscored how the charisma and personality of our representatives are increasingly swaying voting intentions. Gone are the days when academics pondered a mere two per cent incumbency advantage; Kim’s reception suggests this effect has substantially intensified. I ponder whether the spate of Conservative retirements might similarly bolster Labour’s chances at the upcoming general election.

As for the mayoral results, waiting for them on Saturday afternoon was more gripping than an episode of Football Focus. Sadiq Khan’s performance was reminiscent of West Bromwich Albion – a 2-0 lead that always leaves you fretting about a 3-2 defeat. Meanwhile, the West Midlands delivered a result as startling as Aston Villa snatching a last-minute victory against Manchester City. What a dramatic climax to our local election season, capped off by Sandwell – the borough I once represented as an MP – sealing the deal for new West Midlands mayor, Richard Parker. It was, indeed, Sandwell wot won it!

Defeated mayor Andy Street delivered a speech that will surely be studied as a model in speech-writing courses for years to come. Short, respectful, and dignified it left me thinking that Mr Street would make an excellent addition to parliament, whether in the Commons or the Lords. 

Lord Watson of Wyre Forest is a Labour peer

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