There was great indignation this morning about a new job for Nick Clegg. Having been ejected by the voters of Sheffield Hallam at last year’s General Election he has been recruited by Facebook as their Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications. He will be paid a £1 million a year and move to California. It’s a lot of money – but I suspect he will provide the company with good value. A big part of his role will be to push the European Union to make the regulatory regime as advantageous as possible for his employer. Surely with Clegg’s experience and contacts he will prove a top notch lobbyist of the EU. With all its secrecy and complexity and its vast legal remit the EU is an organisation where lobbyists can thrive.
As Enoch Powell declared in 1982:
“The institutions of the EEC create an ever-expanding vested interest on the part of those who service them, to whom this becomes a livelihood and a way of life. Quite apart from politicians, there is the multitude of lobbyists, purporting to represent almost every interest with which the Common Market might interfere, who have thus gained an illimitable extension to the parasitical profession of go-betweens and know-somebody-who-knows-somebody else.”
The perfect milieu for Clegg. Whether he will enjoy the time he spends in Silicon Valley rather than Brussels is a bit more doubtful. A couple of years ago he wrote:
“I actually find the messianic Californian new-worldy-touchy-feely culture of Facebook a little grating.”
In any event some of those marching this morning for the EU referendum result to be overturned might quietly grumble to themselves that Clegg’s timing was less than helpful to their cause. “I want to hear talk of a new referendum in the post office queue, not the foyer of the Royal Opera,” declared the devoted Remainer pundit, Matthew Parris, this morning in The Times. Clegg has burnished his credentials as the ultimate “citizen of nowhere”, to use David Goodhart’s phrase. In seeking to build a popular revolt against Brexit the Remainers seek to extend their base beyond the metropolitan elite; somehow Clegg’s timing doesn’t help..
The news also reflects a wider malaise in British politics – the decline in the status of the House of Lords. Clegg, when he was Deputy Prime Minister, managed to secure lots more bottoms of mediocre Lib Dem functionaries on the red benches. But he has declined to join them himself. He has the excuse that he objects to its undemocratic nature. Senior politicians in the past, such as Michael Foot, have declined the chance of a peerage on the same grounds. Indeed in the case of Tony Benn fought vigorously to avoid being forced to join. However there is also the intrusive aspect that membership of the House of Lords involves in being required to publish financial interests. It is generally felt that this consideration put off David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Sir John Major from joining.
Sir Edward Heath didn’t accept a peerage either. But then he stayed on in the House of Commons until 2001 – sulking away magnificently for a full 16 years after being overthrown by Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader.
James Callaghan and Harold Wilson both stayed on as MPs for several years after leaving Downing Street – and then accepted peerages. Of course Margaret Thatcher also joined the House of Lords. It is hard to imagine any of them having instead opted to be press officers for some 1980s equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg.
Even those who are members don’t always make the most of it. For instance if Lord Hague has something interesting to say he will tend to save it up for his Telegraph column. Or Lord Finkelstein for his Times column.
The reform of the hereditary peers by the Blair Government has made matter worse. The expedient of the quota of hereditary peers being filled using by-elections with a tiny electorate has proved a bit of a joke. But like so many “temporary measures” introduced by politicians it has become rather a fixture, Cynicism over using peerages to reward donors to Party funds or to encourage MPs to retire so that someone can have their seat is not new – but has probably grown.
I would suggest that abolishing the tax free £300 a day daily attendance allowance which peers receive for “clocking in” should be abolished. That would help ensure that those who serve do so with the right motives.
The number of new peers created should be limited so that the size of the upper House can gradually diminish. But those that put through should be of higher calibre. Paul has suggested that future Conservative nominees include Eamonn Butler, Ruth Lea, Charles Moore and Roger Scruton.
Many academics and others favour drastic reform of the Lords. But I suspect this would make matters worse. I will not rehearse agan the well worn objection to an elected upper house – essentially that it would well and truly gum up the works.
While it might be diminished the House of Lords remains an important constitutional asset and should be handled with care. Perhaps if serving Prime Ministers and party leaders made more effort over appointments then why they become ex Prime Ministers and Party leaders they might find the prospect of serving there themselves more tempting. As it is there is a risk of a downward spiral. With the quality of debate declining the figures of greatest authority and experience have less and less wish to be part of it.