The diary of a 'Covid' peer, Baroness Stuart
From social distancing to finding common ground, there was certainly no disagreement in the Lords when it came to congratulating the departing Lord Speaker on his term of office
As I have only experienced the House of Lords at a time of social distancing and hybrid proceedings, I think of myself as a “Covid peer”. Happy to have secured a place in the Royal Gallery for the State Opening on 11 May, I now have to make sure I follow the procedures for lateral flow testing on the day.
In 2018 I became chair of Wilton Park, an executive agency of the Foreign Office. Prompted by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Tom Cargill, our chief executive, and the team searched our archives. The Duke attended Wilton Park’s 100th conference in 1968 and we discovered amazing footage of the event, which we’ve managed to digitalise. Wilton Park may be in its 75th year, but the concept of high level decision makers coming together for frank – and sometimes difficult – dialogue to find common solutions clearly has not changed. The one thing which has changed though is that these days we have a much better gender balance.
All the indicators point towards Die Gruenen becoming significant players in shaping the next German government after their elections in the autumn. We in the UK know little about their policies, apart from mistakenly assuming that they are like our Greens. With the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, coming to Glasgow, it seems a perfect opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relationships as well as learning a bit about each other.
Ken Clarke and I were sworn in on the same day – I thought I detected a sense of humour by those who organise the pairings
Back in 2015 I joined the Constitution Reform Group. A gathering of people from all political parties and none who took a critical look at our constitutional arrangements. We concluded that “something had to change” if the union of the United Kingdom was to endure. We did so after Scottish voters had rejected independence in the referendum in 2014 and before the 2016 Brexit vote. We continued our work and on Monday this week, three of us gave a presentation to the Foreign Press Association. People hold on to the curious notion that if only you write things down or pass a law you will create stability. A written constitution will no more resolve legitimate tensions of competing interests and ideologies than the “Ed Stone” did in the 2010 general election. You can write it down or chisel it in stone, but if it doesn’t reflect the current state of power and the majority wishes of the electorate, it won’t work.
The last of the current Lord Speaker’s lectures was a conversation between Lords Mandelson and Clarke. Ken Clarke and I were sworn in on the same day, and I thought I detected a sense of humour by those who organise the pairings. Reflecting on the last few years it is remarkable how well the collective decision to leave the EU has held together. For me, it was a choice between being a member state of something larger than the UK which demanded a supranational allegiance – or returning to being a nation state. For politicians like Ken, it was about the need to modernise. Back in the 1970s I would have agreed with him. Someone asked, would we want to join the EU again? For Peter Mandelson this question would only arise once we have become successful as a country outside the EU. We are changing and the EU has to change too. I found little to disagree with, with what they thought we had to do looking ahead. There was more common ground than I’d expected.
There was certainly no disagreement on our congratulating the Lord Speaker on his term of office. He navigated the House through a difficult period. His enduring legacy, however, will be his term as secretary of state for health, at a time when Aids began to emerge as a serious threat to the life. He displayed courage and foresight. We all wish him well.
Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston is a non-affiliated peer