I was going through the dustbins outside the Houses of Parliament the other day, looking for more dirt on the government, when I became slowly aware that I was not the only one present. There was another man close to me carrying a placard which said simply: "Abolish the Other House". He walked up and down, saying nothing, merely displaying this curious message. The MPs who came and went took no notice of him (quite right, too - it is the over-riding duty of an MP to take no notice of the public) but after a while I became curious and wandered over to talk to him.
‘Abolish which other house?’ I said.
‘There's only one possible house it could be,’ he said indignantly. ‘How many other houses are there?’
‘Well, there's the House of Windsor,’ I said. ‘The House of Elliott. The House at Pooh Corner. The house that Jack built. The House of Fraser...’
‘All right, all right,’ he said. ‘Point taken. Suffice it to say, then, that I am in favour of the abolition of the House of Commons.’
‘But ...’ I gaped.
‘There is much talk of the abolition of the House of Lords,’ he said. ‘This may be a good idea. I do not know. But what I do know is that if you abolish the Lords, the Commons must go first.’
‘On what grounds ?’
‘On the grounds that the Lords is a far better chamber of debate, and a far more active seat of democracy. If you listen to a few debates in the Lords, you begin to realise that people are saying original things and bringing original thoughts to the discussion. and not just mouthing party dogma. Most of the business of the House of Commons, on the other hand, is as unthinking and as dogmatic as a fixed wrestling match. They have all the freedom of a set of programmed traffic lights. Nobody in the government dares agree with the opposition, and nobody in the opposition ever takes seriously the idea of approving of government action. It is all a waste of time. Abolish it, I say!’
‘So you think the principle of hereditary power is better than that of democratic election?’ I said.
‘You make the great mistake of thinking that hereditary power resides only in the Lords,’ he said. ‘Good heavens, the House of Commons is stuffed full of the sons of power. Winston Churchill MP.... What's-his-name Soames... David Faber MP...'
'David Faber? ' I said. ' Pardon me, but I don't remember anyone famous called Faber who might have fathered him.'
'David Faber is the grandson of Harold Macmillan,’ he said. ‘Though why he is related to one publisher called Macmillan and named after another one called Faber is beyond me.’
Do you ever get the feeling in some discussions that you have lost sight of both starting point and destination? I did then.
‘All right,’ I challenged him, ‘tell me where Mrs Thatcher fits into this hereditary pattern.’
‘Think of her son Mark,’ he said. ‘Why, thanks to her unofficial patronage, Mark was able to amass...’
‘Yes, yes,’ I said hastily, before he could utter any meaningful slander. ‘But look, if you abolish the House of Commons, who is going to run the country?’
‘You don't think the House of Commons actually runs the country, do you?’ he said, looking almost kindly upon me, as a distinguished visitor might look upon a simple-minded resident of a mental home. ‘You poor fellow. The House of Commons is just there as one of the many distractions put on by the government to divert attention from themselves. To say that the House of Commons runs the country is rather like saying that Question Time with David Dimbleby runs the BBC. No, no, the House of Commons is a soap opera in which all the characters are suffering from the same disability. "
‘You have heard of people with learning difficulties?’
‘The members of the Commons have the opposite.’
‘They all have the equally sad failing which I call: forgetting difficulties. Just as other people find it hard to get new things into their brains, MPs find it impossible to get old things out of their noddles. Watching the Labour Party get Clause 4 out of its bloodstream is a brave sight, but it does take a very long time. Next on the bill will be the amazing sight of the Tory Party attempting to get rid of privatisation, the dead duck of the Eighties. Trouble is, it isn't just people who are hereditary in Westminster - it's ideas as well. Most of the ideas in the Torty manifesto have got there through nepotism. They are very closely related to other Tory ideas, usually discredited and often dead. For instance...’
At this point both of us were seized by security police, beaten up and thrown out, which was a shame, as I would like to have heard more from one of the most original thinkers I have ever met at Westminster.
The Independent Thursday Dec 8 1994