Letters

Letters

A selection of Lord Lexden's letters this year to The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The New StatesmanThe Spectator and others. You can read letters from previous years in the menu to the left.

19/10/19 - Super Saturdays
The Times

Sir, Saturday sittings were a standard part of Commons life until 1861, but since then a special resolution has been needed to authorise them. There were 21 in the 20th century, almost all of them in its first decade when contentious Liberal legislation was fiercely resisted by the Tories. All but one of the four that have taken place in the past 80 years occurred at times of national crisis: the imminence of war on September 2,1939; the Suez crisis on November 3, 1956; and the Falklands invasion on  April 3, 1982.  On Saturday July 30, 1949, however, there was no drama: a collection of Bills were passed into law so that the summer recess could begin.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

10/09/19 - Police conduct in London and Wiltshire
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Allison Pearson’s review (October 9) of the Independent Office for Police Conduct’s hopeless report on blunders committed by senior Met officers during Operation Midland leads her to conclude, quite rightly, that “Priti Patel simply cannot allow this appalling whitewash to go unchallenged”. 

The only comments so far from the Home Office have come from her junior ministers, who have dealt very gently with the  IOPC. On  October 8, Baroness Williams of Trafford assured its critics in the Lords that “progress has been made and we expect that trajectory to continue”. There was no hint that the Government might take any action. Astonishingly, she told critics of Cressida Dick that “it is a matter for the Metropolitan Police to hold the Commissioner to account”.

At least the public figures traduced as child sex abusers by the Met have been freed from the slurs inflicted on them, thanks to the courageous  report by Sir Richard Henriques. Something similar is now needed to secure justice for Sir Edward Heath, who was the victim of police misconduct during Operation Conifer, when  Wiltshire’s chief constable  reportedly said he was “120 per cent certain” the former prime minister was guilty of child sex abuse. Seven unsubstantiated allegations were left open. Was this to save the chief constable’s face? 

Baroness Williams has repeatedly turned down calls for an independent inquiry, despite overwhelming support in the Lords. There is much work for Priti Patel to do.

Lord Lexden (Con)
London SW1

27/09/19 - Thomas Cook and the British Empire
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Thomas Cook was much more than “the world’s oldest” travel agent (Leading Article, September 23). It was one of the chief glories of the British Empire.

The firm’s brown mahogany offices, with whirring fans and brass tellers’ cages, were landmarks of every imperial city. Its huge flotilla of steamboats at Cairo took the Gordon relief expedition up the Nile in the autumn of 1884 at a cost of some £120,000 (nearly £14.5 million today). 

Mr Cook himself stood beside Sir Garnet Wolseley on the deck of the first ship as it departed. Even Queen Victoria entrusted her travel arrangements to the company.

In 1880 it began organising pilgrimages to Mecca. Its Eastern Princes’ Department once arranged a visit to Europe for an Indian prince with 200 servants, 20 chefs, 33 tigers, 10 elephants, 1,000 packing cases and a howitzer. In its imperial heyday nothing seemed beyond it. Is the final destruction of this once mighty firm the most poignant sign of Britain’s decline?

Lord Lexden
London SW1

27/09/19 - Conservative leaders and the constitution
The Times

Sir, Speaking in 1872 in Manchester (where the Tories are about to hold their conference), Benjamin Disraeli declared that “the programme of the Conservative Party is to maintain the constitution of the country”. He made a point of stressing that the monarch must be protected from “the sphere of human passions”. He praised the independent judiciary as one of the glories of the constitution.

Since then, the Tories have wavered only once: Andrew Bonar Law was attacked for endangering the constitutional order by backing Ulster’s armed resistance to Irish Home Rule before the First World War, but his aim was to secure an honourable Irish compromise based on partition. It is inconceivable that any other Tory leader would have dismissed a landmark constitutional judgment by the country’s highest court as “wrong” or denounced parliament for its “selfishness and cowardice”, as Boris Johnson did in the Commons on Wednesday. 

Lord Lexden
Conservative party historian

20/09/19 - Far-sighted Tories and Ireland in 1914
New Statesman

Robert Saunders provides a marvellous account of the volcanic political situation in 1914 (“Breaking the parliamentary machine”: lessons of the 1914 crisis, 6 September). But he misses the central point. The fiery rhetoric and the preparations for armed resistance in Ulster disguised  a massive retreat by the Unionists at Westminster. For nearly 30 years they had blocked Irish Home Rule. Most of them saw no reason why they should yield to Asquith what they had denied to Gladstone. But by 1914 the Unionist leaders, Bonar Law and Edward Carson, had accepted that opposition to a Dublin parliament had to end, partly because of the loss of the Lords veto.

Their militant behaviour in defence of Ulster distracted attention from the abandonment of Unionists in southern Ireland. More importantly, their aggressive tactics were essential to secure the exclusion from the Dublin parliament of the six counties that would become Northern Ireland, the only course that could preserve peace in Ireland.

Asquith came to the negotiating table in 1913. Bonar Law’s terms included acceptance of a reunited Ireland at some future point if the six counties voted for it. Tragically, Asquith turned down the compromise because of his dependence on the support of unyielding Irish Nationalist MPs. Nevertheless, it was Bonar Law’s formula that ultimately triumphed. Known today as the consent principle, it is the central element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Saunders allots a small part in the 1914 drama to the Primrose League which he describes as “a Unionist support group”. With some two million members, it was in fact the biggest mass party organisation that Britain had seen, as I attempted to show in my book, A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League, 1883-2004, published in 2010.

Alistair Lexden
Conservative Party historian
House of Lords

19/09/19 - Political prorogations
The Times

Sir, Lord Keen provided one or two historical examples of “nakedly political” uses of prorogation (“Judges warned to stay neutral”, Sep 18). The early 19th century is littered with them. In 1820, Lord Liverpool’s government hurriedly shut down parliament to stop an inquiry into George IV’s private life after the collapse of his efforts to get a divorce from Queen Caroline. There were loud shouts of “Shame! Shame!” and violent scenes in both Houses. In April 1831, William IV jumped in a carriage to prorogue in person to oblige his Whig government. Hurriedly putting the crown on his head in the robing room, he complained about the deafening noise. The Lord Chancellor explained: “It is only the Lords debating”. 

The conduct of Victorian minority governments anticipated Mr Johnson’s. Hopelessly outnumbered in the Commons, the Tory Lord Derby prorogued Parliament quite shamelessly for six months on two occasions in the 1850s and 1860s. The fact, however, remains that in the 20th century prorogation normally took place in conformity with the advice in 1903 of the constitutional expert Joseph Redlich: “It is always the responsible act of the cabinet, which must find its support in the approval of the majority of the House of Commons.”

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

10/09/19 - Is the Commons Speaker always unopposed at elections?
The Times

Sir, The Tories would not have breached “a long-standing parliamentary convention” if John Bercow had stood for re-election as Speaker and they had put up a candidate against him (report, Sep 9). In fact four of John Bercow’s predecessors since 1945, all of them drawn from the Tory ranks, were opposed by official candidates from other parties. Harry Hylton Foster in 1964 and Selwyn Lloyd at the two 1974 elections saw off challenges from both Labour and the Liberals; the other two from Labour alone. The most recent was Bernard Weatherill in 1987. The so-called convention came into existence only at the 1992 election.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

07/09/19 - Debunking Chamberlain myths
The Spectator

Sir: Bruce Anderson refers to Neville Chamberlain’s taste for Chateau Margaux (Drink, 31 August). But Chamberlain came nowhere near Mr Anderson’s remarkable consumption. Natural abstemiousness and recurrent gout confined him to an occasional glass, often to accompany his voracious reading of Shakespeare, Conrad, George Eliot and a host of other authors. He was also a fine writer, but his death just two months after resigning as Churchill’s right-hand man in September 1940 deprived the world of his account of his quest for peace.

Instead Churchill’s post-war memoirs became the authorised version, and Tim Bouverie, to whom Anderson refers, has reprised the familiar themes. The story will eventually be told in a responsible historical manner that does Chamberlain justice, and pays proper regard to his huge spending on defence. As Professor David Dilks, the leading authority on Chamberlain has shown, rearmament consumed some 50 per cent of GNP in his premiership. Eighty years ago this week Chamberlain took a united, re-armed nation to war in alliance with the self-governing Dominions, ensuring that during the years ahead Britain never stood alone, as it would have done if no agreement had been reached at Munich.

Alistair Lexden
(Author of Neville Chamberlain: Redressing the Balance, 2018))
House of Lords

05/09/19 - Follow Churchill
The Evening Standard

The Churchill government did not try to deselect Churchill in the Thirties [“‘Off with their heads’ is a hollow political threat”, September 2]. The moves to oust him were made by critics in his Epping constituency.

His official biographer, Martin Gilbert, writes: "All the local constituency officers denounced Churchill’s opposition to Chamberlain.”

However, the great man won them round, saying: “What is the use of sending members to Parliament to say things merely to give satisfaction to the government whips?”

That is what all MPs threatened with deselection today must tell their constituency associations.

Alistair Lexden

31/08/19 - Another sensational prorogation
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - The last time that prorogation had a dramatic influence on the nation’s affairs was in April 1831. The Tories introduced a motion in the Lords to try to stop Parliament being dissolved by the Whigs after their great Reform Bill had been defeated in the Commons.

William IV declared that he was prepared to go down to Westminster by hackney cab if necessary for an immediate prorogation ceremony. Arriving in a hastily summoned carriage, he put the crown on his head in the royal robing room to the accompaniment of deafening noise. The Lord Chancellor explained: “it is only the Lords debating.”

Will there be similar discord this time?

Lord Lexden
London SW1

24/08/19 - Is Parliament in danger of misusing its powers in the Brexit crisis?
The Times

Sir, Robert Tombs argues that “the role of parliament is to hold government to account, not to be the government”. It is a symptom of the gravity of the crisis we face that parliament should have to contemplate an enlargement of its historic role. Since 1689 sovereignty has rested explicitly in the Crown in parliament. How it should be exercised, and the constitutional balance maintained, rarely causes extreme difficulty. The last time that a serious dispute arose was in 1914. Asquith’s Liberal government could not get Irish home rule through a hung parliament without overruling the Lords or precipitating civil war in Ireland; the Tories insisted that an election must be held to resolve the issue. Complete deadlock ensued. 

On that occasion many believed that the Crown should intervene, an option which does not exist today(more’s the pity). Only parliament and the courts can now prevent an attempt by the executive to act as if it alone were sovereign.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

07/08/19 - The continuing Heath campaign
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Charles Moore (Comment, August 3) expresses sympathy and support for those of us who are battling in Parliament and the media to get justice for Sir Edward Heath.

The investigation into the allegations against him was utterly flawed. The chief constable of Wiltshire, Mike Veale, was not kept in his job after its conclusion in October 2017; though he found another one, he had to resign last year as a result of accusations of personal misconduct. He maintained that, if he had still been alive, Ted Heath would have been questioned under caution about seven of the allegations. Some, perhaps all, of these are thought to rest on the lies of Carl Beech. The Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire has called on the Government, which funded the investigation to the tune of £1 million, to establish an independent inquiry.

In the Lords, I have repeatedly pressed ministers for action, attracting unanimous support on all sides of the House. The Government has failed to give any serious reasons for its refusal. The new Home Secretary should review the decision urgently following Beech’s recent conviction.

Lord Lexden (Con)
London SW1

26/07/19 - Party and Nation
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Although, as Jeremy Black points out (Comment, July 25), Peel lost his snap election in 1835, it was the occasion of his famous Tamworth Manifesto in which he promised “just and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests—agricultural, manufacturing and commercial”.    

This was the first time that the modern Conservative Party had pledged itself to the cause of national unity, of which Mr Johnson is now the custodian.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

26/07/19 - The second biggest Cabinet purge in British history
The Times

Sir, Boris Johnson sacked 11 ministers at “perfunctory" meetings (“Johnson the Godfather takes his retribution in summer massacre”, Jul 25). Harold Macmillan parted with the seven victims of his Night of the Long Knives in July 1962 at “terribly difficult and emotional” interviews (one of them lasting more than an hour and a half) even though nearly all the casualties had told him that they wanted to retire during the preceding months. His famous wit did not desert him. Lord Kilmuir, axed as lord chancellor, protested that a even cook would have been given more notice. Macmillan replied that it was easier to find lord chancellors than cooks. Not to be outdone, Rab Butler quipped: “I feel my neck all the time to see if it is still there.”

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

08/07/19 - Boarding benefits
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - It is misleading to suggest that independent schools will only provide boarding places for children in care because of “mounting pressure” on them (report, July 4). In fact, they have always sought to work with local authorities to enable pupils who would benefit from a boarding education to gain places. 

Ambitious plans were made after the Second World War following Churchill’s declaration that he wanted to see 60 to 70 per cent of places filled “on the recommendation of the counties and the great cities”. By 1952 Middlesex alone was sponsoring over 500 places for children “whose domestic situation indicated a need for boarding”. Many former local authority-sponsored boarders today attest to the benefits, including my Labour friend in the Lords, Andrew Adonis.

However, by the Seventies most local authorities had turned their back on this way of giving children in need an excellent start in life. They also ceased to work  with the state’s own first-rate boarding schools. In 2001 I set up a committee so that the Independent Schools Council and the Local Government Association could work out ways of renewing partnership. But it proved impossible to rekindle the interest of local councils. Boarding schools will play their full part in the welcome new government initiative to overcome resistance among local councils.     

Indeed, independent schools want to go much further. They have offered to make up to 10,000 places a year available at a cost no greater than the state pays in the maintained sector. There exists today immense potential for co-operation if the new prime minister is interested.

Lord Lexden (Con)
General Secretary, Independent Schools Council 1997-2004
London SW1

02/07/19 - The truth about One Nation - yet again
The Times

Sir, The “One Nation stuff” that Clare Foges mentions (“Johnson may live to regret becoming PM”, Comment, Jul 1) was not started by Boris Johnson or Disraeli, though they have a certain amount in common. Speaking on December 4, 1924, Stanley Baldwin said: “we stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generation ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people at home which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world.” One wonders whether any leading Tory today is capable of striking the same powerful note of national reconciliation at a time when it is so badly needed.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

26/06//19 Ratting and re-ratting
The Spectator

Sir: It emerged last year that Michael Foot (Letters, 15 June) had ratted by taking money from the Soviets in return for information. It was of course Churchill who gloried in his flexibility when he left the Liberals and returned to the Tories in 1924: ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’ This is a quality which his biographer, Boris Johnson, also appears to possess, and we may well have cause to be glad of it.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords, London SW1

22/06/19 - The duplicity of Conservative MPs
The Times

Sir, Tory MPs certainly deserve their reputation as "the world's most duplicitous electorate" ("Threats and trickery as Team Boris tightened thumbscrews", Jun. 21). They gained it at the very first contest in 1965. The victorious Ted Heath compared notes with the defeated Reggie Maudling; they found that 45 MPs had pledged support to both of them. Airey Neave lulled Heath into false complacency in 1975 by telling everyone that Margaret Thatcher had no more than 70 backers when he was confident of 120. In November 1990 Bernard Ingham noted in his diary that Mrs Thatcher was safe as long as 15 per cent of her backers were not lying, but as he noted sourly afterwards "the whole lot lied."

There have been other dirty tricks too. In 2003 when 29 letters were needed to trigger a leadership contest, 19 forgeries were submitted, five on Carlton Club writing paper. Fortunately they were spotted.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian,
House of Lords

18/06/19 - Neville Chamberlain: a formidable politician
The Times

Dear Sir, Andrew Wigley (letter, Jun 17) errs in asserting that Neville Chamberlain lacked political skills. He dominated the Commons until the Norway debacle of May 1940 when he was unable to overcome the fierce criticisms created by Churchill’s mistakes. In 1938 he rebuffed Roosevelt because the United States was not prepared to make practical commitments to the peace of the world. Chamberlain’s efforts to enlist it in containing Japanese expansionism in the Far East had earlier been rebuffed. He said that “it was always best and safest to count on nothing from the Americans except words.”

Churchill’s criticisms of Chamberlain are often quoted; his praise is forgotten. In 1929, Churchill said: “He is one of our best men and he is a strong man.” In 1940, Churchill, as prime minister, expressed “feelings of the deepest respect and regard” for him.

Under Chamberlain spending on defence reached 50 per cent of gross national product. Yet the improvement of social conditions, the greatest passion of his life, was not neglected. Several million working men became entitled to paid holidays for the first time, and the universal pensions system, which he had introduced in 1925, was improved by making women eligible for payments at 60.

Lord Lexden
Author, Neville Chamberlain: Redressing the Balance (2018)

03/06/19 - Queen Victoria's sketches of her children
The Daily Telegraph

SIR – The drawings by Queen Victoria of her children that are to be displayed at the British Museum (report, May 27) represent only a small portion of her output. Dozens more fill a thick volume stamped “Sketches of the Royal Children by VR” in the Royal Archives. 

All show the deep affection she felt for her nine offspring. Believing that even “the prettiest child is frightful when undressed”, she decked them all out in colourful silks, trimmed bonnets and sashes, some of the clothing appearing on more than one infant in tribute to her thrift. The pictures were lovingly annotated. The caption under a delightful sketch of the three eldest reads: “Pussy with Bertie in the dresses they wore on little Alice’s christening day June 2 1843.” These sketches by a skilled amateur artist shatter the widespread view that Victoria was an uncaring parent.

She wrote in 1844: “They say no Sovereign was more loved than I am(I am bold enough to say),& this because of our domestic home.”

Lord Lexden
London SW1

24/05/19 - Mrs May and history
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Incumbent Tory Prime Ministers have departed involuntarily following parliamentary defeat (Sir Robert Peel over Irish policy in 1846), a sharp fall in parliamentary majority (Neville Chamberlain in 1940), broken health (Anthony Eden in 1957) and discontent among Tory MPs (Margaret Thatcher in 1990). 

Mrs May will be the first to be driven out by massive revolts in both Parliament and Cabinet. Can there be any lingering doubt  that she is the worst Tory Prime Minister ever?

Lord Lexden
London SW1

22/05/19 - Politicians and projectiles
The Times

Sir, Why should people who throw things at politicians have it all their own way (Hugo Rifkind, “Milkshake throwing isn’t as funny as it looks”, May 21)? Before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, elections were dominated by hustings, which evened things up a little. At High Wycombe in 1832, Disraeli picked up some of the lumps of pork that came his way and threw them back, scoring several hits. At Beverley in Yorkshire, “brave gentlemen on the hustings repulsed a series of sticks, the ladies having retired.” At Newark, however, a young Gladstone preferred discretion to valour, neatly dodging a hail of stones.

Without some means of protection, there must be a danger that more candidates will follow the example of John Prescott and punch their assailants.

Lord Lexden
Official historian, Conservative Party,
House of Lords

07/05/19 - A great man who was not a Tory
The Daily Telegraph

SIR -The great William Wilberforce would have been horrified by Professor Robert Tombs’s description of him as a Tory(Comment, May 1). When he arrived in the Commons in 1780, he declared that he would be “no party man”.

Independents then accounted for around a third of the House, and he was always among them, relishing attacks from both Whigs and Tories as opportunities for his much-praised oratory.

He said: “God has set before me two great objects: the reformation of manners and the abolition of the slave trade”.

Rudeness in the chamber and the campaign against modern slavery would have given him plenty of work to do if he had been in politics today.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

26/04/19 - The Conservative Party's greatest crisis ever
The Times

Sir, The Conservative Party is in greater turmoil today than ever before in its long history. Theresa May has completely lost its confidence both in and outside Parliament. The 1922 Committee, which determines how Tory leaders are elected, must respond to these unprecedented circumstances. It should revise the present arrangements, introduced after significant changes in 1998, under which the leader can be challenged annually if 15 per cent of Tory MPs write secret letters demanding a vote. Thirty per cent should become the threshold; challenges should be permitted whenever it is reached, with the disaffected making their names public (in the past letters have been forged). That will ensure that a disastrous leader cannot cling on for months without significant support. As Churchill said, leaders who fail must be poleaxed.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

11/04/19 - Prejudice against British India
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Chris Devine (Letters, April 8)  advises me to study the account of the “rapacious British exploitation of India”  by Shashi Tharoor.

It is hard, however, to agree that this controversial politician has written a definitive historical work. He regards Churchill as among “one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century, only fit to  stand in the company of Hitler, Mao and Stalin”.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

05/04/19 - Sir Robert Peel and Theresa May
The Times

Sir, Mrs May now “wants to secure Brexit with help from Labour” (report, Apr.3). The crucial vote on Sir Robert Peel’s  legislation to repeal the Corn Laws in February 1846  was carried with the help of 227 Liberals who came to the aid of 112 Peel supporters; 231 Tories voted against. Is history about to repeat itself so that the interests of the nation as a whole can again be served?

Ever since then, leading Tories have striven to avoid following Peel’s example. Rab Butler shied away from blocking Lord Home’s move for the premiership in order to get the job himself in October 1963 because “the story of Sir Robert Peel splitting the Tory Party was for me the supremely unforgettable political lesson of history”. Sir John Major has spoken of how he too was haunted by that lesson during the ferocious party battle over the Maastricht treaty in 1993. Is it now about to be set aside by the hapless Mrs May? When Peel resigned ,a huge crowd lined Whitehall and cheered him all the way to the Commons. That perhaps is more than Mrs May could expect.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

05/04/19 - Centenary of the Amritsar massacre
The Daily Telegraph

Sir - The Amritsar massacre of April 1919 will always remain a truly terrible stain on our imperial record.

Churchill condemned it as being “without parallel in the modern history of the British Empire”. Anita Anand (Features, March 28) endorses the demand for a British apology. Support for one was voiced in a recent debate in the Lords. The Government was right to resist it.

Historical apologies came into vogue in Britain during the Blair years. They should themselves now be consigned to history. Apologies for crimes and mistakes can only have weight and meaning when they come from their perpetrators or, in the case of a great public misdeed like the Amritsar massacre, by those in government at the time. Later generations must resist Left-wing pressure to accept a measure of guilt.

Anand is concerned that Udham Singh, the man who was hanged for avenging the massacre by killing a senior British official who condoned it, “is all but unknown” in Britain today. This year’s centenary provides an opportunity for ignorance to be replaced by an informed understanding of what British India was like in 1919. An incident of appalling brutality could take place in one city, while elsewhere in the vast sub-continent British men and women were working tirelessly for the public good.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

28/03/19 - The worst Prime Minister
The Spectator

Sir: Lord North deserves to be released by Mrs May from the ignominy of being ‘the worst prime minister in our history’. This hugely popular man dominated the Commons for 12 years, speaking regularly for two hours without notes. One discerning contemporary noted that: ‘ He attracted almost all the attention, being powerful, able, and fluent in debate. It was impossible to experience dullness in his company’. Like all the best Tories, he cut taxes and increased prosperity. The great paradox of the American War of Independence is that North did not want to fight it. He stayed in the premiership out of loyalty to his monarch, who knew the value of this remarkable and loveable man. One day an opponent complained, in the middle of a violent attack, that ‘the noble Lord is asleep’-- whereupon North, his eyes still shut, said: ‘I wish to God I were’.  He possessed all the qualities a prime minister needs, except luck and selfishness.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords

23/03/19 - Judging the House of Lords fairly
The Aberdeen Press and Journal

SIR, - Campbell Gunn makes some serious points in his critique of the unelected Lords(Press and Journal, March 19) and while there may be support  for an elected upper house as part of a new federal structure for the UK as a whole, Mr Gunn should acknowledge the value of the work done by the Lords currently.

The legislation that Parliament passes gets the line by line scrutiny that is essential in the Lords, not the Commons which lacks the time(and sometimes, it should be said, the inclination) to do that vital job. In my comparatively short time in the Lords, I have been repeatedly struck by the strength of the arguments made by the experts in technology, education, health, security, broadcasting—all the main subjects of the day(especially Europe!)—who are particularly well represented in our 180-strong group of independents or cross-benchers who help give the Lords its  special character of calm, measured debate not found elsewhere in our institutions.

Each year, some 2,000 amendments are made to improve draft laws, thanks to Lords. It is on that unglamorous but crucially important work that we spend the bulk of our time. So let’s debate the case for fundamental constitutional change, a question on which the Commons has not managed yet to agree, despite several attempts. But don’t knock us too hard. As a scrutinising and revising chamber, the Lords plays a significant role.

Alistair Lexden
Deputy Speaker
House of Lords

14/03/19 - The worst Government defeats in Parliament
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Tuesday’s vote was the fifth, not the fourth, largest defeat suffered by a government in the Commons.

In January 1855, a coalition under the Tory Lord Aberdeen lost a vote of confidence by 157 votes. In October 1924, Ramsay MacDonald’s  first Labour government lost two votes, by 161 and 166. Mrs May’s January defeat by 230 holds the Commons record. 

The worst parliamentary defeat ever occurred in the Lords on September 8 1893, when they threw out Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill by 419 to 41.

Lord Lexden (Con)
London SW1

13/03/19 - Letters from Queen Victoria go astray
The Times

Sir, The impending sale of Queen Victoria’s letter in reply to Tennyson, written in 1884 after the death of her haemophiliac son Leopold, will not reveal what was “previously unseen” (“Victoria’s grief-stricken letter to Tennyson”, Mar. 9). It was printed in full in Dear and Honoured Lady: The Correspondence of Queen Victoria and Alfred Tennyson,  published in 1969.  The book’s introduction states that the queen’s letters to her poet laureate “are preserved, through the generosity of the present Lord Tennyson, in the Tennyson Research Centre at the City Library at Lincoln”. Subsequently, the letters were sold individually, breaking up an important collection, which all historians of Victorian England will deplore.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

01/02/19 - How Churchill's father wooed Irish nationalists
TLS: The Times Literary Supplement

Sir,-- Christopher Cusack (In Brief, February 8) touches  on the political ramifications of the 1882 Maamtrasna murders, describing them as “a rallying point for Irish nationalists”. In October 1884 Parnell and his colleagues held up Commons business for four days while they went over the case in detail, drawing from Gladstone one of his most magnificent speeches in defence of his Irish ministers.

The debates set the scene for machinations centring on a rising Tory star, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston. As a senior minister in 1885 he made clear that he supported reopening the case in defiance of a collective cabinet decision. In a further debate instigated by Parnell on July 17, 1885 Churchill spoke scathingly of the way the Liberals had handled the case, leading to widespread speculation that an alliance was being forged between Tories and Irish Nationalists which could well be the prelude to a Tory offer of Home Rule.

The dramatic impact of the Maamtrasna case on party politics is explored in detail in The Governing Passion (1974) which I wrote with John Vincent.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords

01/03/19 - That's my Baby
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - It is hard to think of short, stout Queen Victoria dancing gracefully on stage, but the new ballet in which she is depicted with her adored, youngest daughter Beatrice, always referred to as Baby, will help make their extraordinarily close relationship much better known (Arts, February 25).

In 1884 Beatrice, then 27, fell in love with dashing Prince Henry of Battenberg. For six months the Queen refused to speak to her, passing notes with her orders for the day over the breakfast table. She wrote to her eldest daughter about her “horror and dislike of the most violent kind for the idea of my precious Baby marrying”. 

Charming Prince Henry won her round, leading her to believe “there is no kissing etc (which Baby dislikes)”.

After marrying Beatrice, he seems to have developed an interest in her elder sister, Princess Louise, who complained of his “attempted relations with her, which she had declined”. Some very complicated manoeuvres could have been introduced into this interesting new ballet.

Lord Lexden 
London SW1

19/02/19 - A great political philosopher
The Times

Sir, The many reasons for venerating William (Comment, Feb.14, and letters, Feb.15,16, & 18) include his insights into interwar politics. In the short story, “William the Prime Minister” (1930), the outlaws hold a mock election. William sets out his philosophy. “There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ‘em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keeping ‘em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want  to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ‘em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone  but themselves.” 

William, the Conservative candidate, is elected unanimously.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

08/02/19 - The mistaken critics of independent schools
The Spectator

Sir: Those who write about independent education rarely manage to stray beyond the 200-odd establishments they love to pillory as public schools, an antiquated term long since abandoned by all save their critics. This is perhaps because they have usually been educated at such places, or have taught in them. Alex Renton, like the books he reviews, presents a caricature of independent schools as a whole by repeating well-worn charges against the well-publicised few with their ‘faux-Gothic spires’ (‘Old school ties can’t last forever’, 2 February).   

The Independent Schools Council has some 1,300 members, varying in size from 50 to 1,700 pupils. Few possess lavishly equipped theatres or vast playing-fields. Just 68 have top-class athletic tracks. Most of them stand at the heart of their local communities from which their students mainly come, and work closely with their neighbouring state schools which often share their (usually limited) facilities. Half of them are non-selective. Fees vary greatly, with an average gap of some £2,000 per term between schools in the north and south of the country. More than a third of families pay reduced fees. Parents are well aware that diversity and openness are the independent sector’s most striking characteristics today. Will commentators with their obsessions about exclusivity ever wake up to reality?

Alistair Lexden
General Secretary, Independent Schools Council 1997-2004
House of Lords

07/02/19 - Brexit and the Belfast Agreement
The Daily Telegraph

SIR -Theresa May constantly insists that she is determined to protect the 1998 Belfast Agreement as the foundation of peace and  prosperity in Northern Ireland.

But my friends Lord Trimble (“Architect of Good Friday Agreement backs legal action to defend it against May’s plan”, report, February 5) and Lord Bew, the leading Irish historian, have shown that a backstop for an unlimited period  will undermine that Agreement with potentially disastrous consequences for both Ulster and the Irish Republic.

This is because the backstop will transfer responsibility for key issues, such as cross-border co-operation on agriculture, from the power-sharing institutions set up under Agreement to new EU bodies.  

At the same time Mrs May has abandoned the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, another product of the 1998 settlement, where discussions between Dublin and London ought to take place on all aspects of the relationships between the two countries. Things would never have come to this pass if the Stormont Assembly had remained in being. At the 1979 election, when devolution was also in abeyance, the Conservative Party put forward a plan for a halfway house so that democratic control over the  major public services could be restored, with legislative powers to follow later.

Next month will mark the fortieth anniversary of the murder of Airey Neave, the architect of the plan, to whom I was political adviser from 1977. Is it too much to hope that Mrs May could learn from his inspiring example?

Lord Lexden
London SW1

29/01/19 - The truth about Stanley Baldwin and appeasement
The Times

Sir, Max Hastings (Comment,  Jan. 29) rightly pays tribute to “the calming influence” exercised by  Stanley Baldwin, the first Tory leader to speak of “one nation”, who was often invoked by Sir John Major as an inspiration for his achievements(letter, Jan.30). But Honest Stan ought not to be “viewed with contempt because of his identification with appeasement”.  He should be praised for launching an ambitious rearmament programme in the teeth of widespread political opposition in an attempt to bring Hitler to heel—a mission not helped by Churchill’s habit of exaggerating German capabilities. Forty-one new RAF squadrons were commissioned in 1934, and another 39 the next year. Professor Philip Williamson’s deeply researched Stanley Baldwin: Conservative leadership and national values (1999) concludes that Baldwin “chose to plan for a possible war in the medium term (1939 and later) and  in the short term to build a deterrent air force, while seeking to tie Hitler down to negotiated agreements. It cannot be assumed that if Churchill had been in his position his actions—rather than his words—would have been much different”.

In his years of glory after 1939, Churchill encouraged people to view Baldwin with contempt, but in 1935 he described the prime minister who had brought him out of the political wilderness by making him chancellor in 1924, as “a statesman who has gathered a greater volume of confidence and goodwill than any other man I recollect in my long public career”. Baldwin is now rightly commemorated by a fine statute in his native Bewdley, unveiled last year.

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

24/01/19 - A gay landmark
TLS: The Times Literary Supplement

Sir, - F.W. Nunneley (Letters, January 18) regards Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) as the film in which the hero of my boyhood, Dirk Bogarde, first showed what a remarkable actor he was. But surely it was the earlier Victim (1961) which marked his transition from matinee idol to a new, glorious seriousness. At the end of the film a rising barrister with strong gay leanings played by Bogarde is confronted by his beautiful wife (Sylvia Sims) who asks him why he stopped seeing a young man who had committed suicide under pressure from blackmailers. “Alright—alright, you want to know, I’ll tell you. You won’t be content until I tell you, will you—until you’ve ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand—because I wanted him. Now what good has that done you?” The scriptwriter’s lines were embellished by Bogarde to increase their power and force. The scene, John Coldsteam writes in his magnificent biography (2004) of this complex, restless man, “was, and remains, the most important of his acting life”.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords

18/01/19 - The biggest ever Tory rebellion
The Daily Telegraph

SIR--Tuesday’s rebellion by 118 Tory MPs was not “the biggest on record” (article, January 16).

On  February 28 1846, Benjamin Disraeli’s fierce defence of agricultural protection and his vicious jibes at his party leader led 231 Tories to vote against Sir Robert Peel’s Corn Laws Bill. An observer wrote that Disraeli “ hacked and mangled Peel with unsparing severity, and positively tortured his victim.”

Lord Lexden
London SW1

17/01/19 - Record Government defeats in Commons and Lords
The Times

Sir, The Commons has never defeated a government by a larger margin. The majority of 166 against Ramsay MacDonald on October 8, 1924, the worst government defeat of the 20th century (following its two earlier defeats of 140 and 161), exceeded those which occurred in the 19th century. Nevertheless, Tuesday did involve “the biggest parliamentary defeat of a government in more than a century” (leading article, Jan 16). As a result of its massive inbuilt Tory majority, the House of Lords threw out Lloyd George’s People’s Budget by 295 votes on November 30, 1909. The biggest parliamentary defeat in history occurred on September 8, 1893 when the Lords rejected Gladstone’s second home rule bill  by 419 votes to 41.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

07/01/19 - Churchill talks to his father's ghost
The Daily Telegraph

SIR- In briefing the ghost of his father about the state of the country’s great institutions in 1947 (Comment, January 1), Winston Churchill has faint praise for the House of Lords, referring only to its Bishops who “make a lot of speeches”.  His father asks: “Are they better than they used to be?”

Winston speaks much more enthusiastically about the strength of the monarchy, buttressed by the Labour Party. “They even go to the parties at Buckingham Palace. Those who have very extreme principles wear sweaters.” Lord Randolph finds that “very sensible. I am glad all that dressing up has been done away with”.

But what he really wants to know is whether the House of Commons is doing its job well. Winston is surprisingly restrained, saying that he is “very much in favour” of the elected House. His father replies, “You had better be, Winston, because the will of the people must prevail”. 

It is not hard to guess what he would have thought of Brexit.

Yours faithfully

Lord Lexden
London SW1

07/01/19 - A federal UK post-Brexit?
The Spectator

Sir, How astonishing that the historian Robert Tombs (‘ Beyond Brexit’, 15 December) should think that the Lords might ‘at last be seriously reformed’ after more than a century of schemes that foundered in the Commons. MPs have an unthreatening upper house; they will never agree on substantial changes that would increase its power. They will leave the Lords to implement its own sensible plans to cut its numbers to 600 by bringing party strengths into line with those in the Commons over the next few years.

Those interested in radical Lords reform should study the detailed proposals for a federal constitution drawn up by an all-party group chaired by the Marquess of Salisbury, the current custodian of  a long family tradition of creative constitutional thinking. A member of the group, the distinguished former Clerk of the Commons, Lord Lisvane, has introduced a Bill which would completely recast the role of the upper house. Those seriously interested in finding a constitution fit for the post-Brexit world should turn to the Lisvane Bill.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords