Magazine article The Spectator

Robert Cranborne Is Sand in Both Leaders' Shoes

Magazine article The Spectator

Robert Cranborne Is Sand in Both Leaders' Shoes

Article excerpt

The most bizarre coalition in modern British politics was also the shortest-lived. Lord Cranborne may have compared himself to an ill-trained gundog, and he is a kinsman of Arthur Balfour's, but it was always hard to imagine him as Mr Blair's poodle. Yet a lot of Tory MPs thought that Robert Cranborne had sold out, and No. 10 may have assumed that it could rely on future compliance. If so, it was swiftly disillusioned by Lord Cranborne's letter in Wednesday's Telegraph, in which he was equally critical of Mr Blair's plans and his motives. Once again, Robert Cranborne had switched roles in an instant: turning from a log into a crocodile.

It would be an exaggeration to say that he is now the most trusted man in public life; that will not worry him. He has been thinking about Lords reform for 30 years, and has never been interested in defending the rights of hereditary peers. (Then again, surprisingly few hereditary peers are. The romance of ermine, Neo-Gothic and great names often works its magic on Tory academics, Tory commentators and on life peers, including many Labour ones, but rarely on the great names' current representatives.)

At one stage, Robert Cranborne used to argue that the composition of the Lords should be made truer to its origins. In the later Middle Ages, kings used to summon the magnates of the realm to Westminster, when the magnates were earls and barons. These days, few hereditaries would qualify as magnates; the new magnates are the chairman of ICI, the general secretary of the TUC et al. They should now receive the writ of summons.

It is fortunate that no one took any notice of that proposal. Under it, the House of Lords would have become a quasi-Mussolinian grand council, embodying the failed corporate collective wisdom of the Sixties and Seventies. Such an upper chamber would have been a formidable obstacle to Thatcherism- of which more below.

Lord Cranborne's views evolved. He concluded that the basic weaknesses in the modern constitution lay in the Commons; its untrammelled power and its incurable habit of responding to transient panics with thoughtless and ill-drafted legislation. In this, Robert Cranborne was reverting to family type. Once the future prime minister Salisbury had lost his battle against the Second Reform Bill, most political Cecils saw their task as helping to mitigate the evils whose prospect had inspired the antidemocrats of the 1860s in their opposition to Disraeli's Parliamentary coup.

Robert Cranborne's opinions hardened during his time as John Major's leader of the Lords. He watched secretaries of state assert their importance by demanding bill after bill; in one case, 18 for a single Queen's Speech. He saw the condition in which some of these bills would arrive in the House of Lords; any dog served a dinner like that would find it easy to persuade the RSPCA to prosecute its master. He also became aware of the excessive power of the Commons whips. By the end, the Major government was like a warship which had been almost totally destroyed by shellfire, bombs and torpedoes. But it would not sink, because the whips not only kept it afloat; right to the end, they were still able to enact legislation. The chief whip in charge of this life-support operation was Alastair Goodlad, an old friend of Robert Cranborne's. While admiring his friend's skills, Lord Cranborne also felt that there was something wrong with the system which made them possible. Britain should not be ruled by a whipocracy. …

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