Much of what I am about to say should appeal to democrats of all political persuasions. It will certainly appeal to liberals, with a big and a small 'L'. It may even ring a bell with a few conservatives who share the widespread concern about the erosion of democracy and the general climate of sleaze that has accompanied fifteen years of one-party rule.
Contrary to popular belief, we have always been something of a one-party state. It is almost a thousand years since we were last successfully invaded. We have never had a revolution. Our ruling class have proved remarkably adept at surviving the threat to their existence that democracy one appeared to pose.
The period of multi-party democracy that we enjoyed in the first eighty years of this century was the exception rather than the rule. The Conservative Party has ruled, either alone or in coalition, for one hundred and thirty years of the last two hundred years, including on one occasion for an unbroken period of twenty-three years and seven months. Contrary to what is sometime alleged, democracy in this country was not a gift from the Conservative Party. It was captured from the Tories after a long period of popular struggle. Even so, despite appearances democracy in Britain was always something of an illusion. Many of the ingredients of a one-party State survived the extension of t5he franchise. Indeed they have survived to this day.
Whichever party happens to be in charge of the House of Commons most of the commanding heights of our society have remained firmly in the hands of those who have traditionally ruled us. Most, but not all, of our newspapers - and increasingly our television - are in the hands of the friends of the ruling party. Our senior judges, bankers army officers, diplomats, civil servants are still mainly educated at the same handful of schools and universities and belong to the same gentlemen's clubs and freemasons lodges. I doubt whether anyone who is not a Conservative has ever been appointed, even by a Labour Government, to head any part of our intelligence services (although we do now have a woman in charge of MI5 - we must be grateful for small mercies).
Many of these people are, of course, professionals who would indignantly deny that their political affiliation would in any way affect their duty as public servants and I am sure, in many cases, that is true. I am equally certain that in many other cases it is untrue. It is a long time, however, since we have had an opportunity to put that proposition to the test. Certainly it is a matter of record that, on the two periods in my adult life when there has been a non-Conservative Government, the loyalty of many public servants to their class took precedence over their loyalty to the elected Government. Who now recalls the private army set up by General Sir Walter Walker in the mid-1970s, or the more sinister GB75 set up by Colonel David Sterling? It is fashionable nowadays to consider General Walker and Colonel Sterling as figures of fun, but General Walker had been commander of NATO Northern Europe and Colonel Sterling was the founder of the SAS. Who recalls long series of dirty tricks, apparently organised by servants of the State, run against Labour Ministers of such impeccable moderation as Merlyn Rees and Ted Short? I still have a copy of the forged Swiss bank account in Ted Short's name which was circulated in the mid-70s when he was Deputy Prime Minister and an economic crisis was in the process of being organised by some of those whose job it was to defend the national interest. No explanation has ever been forthcoming for that.
Who recalls the runs on sterling which invariably accompany the election of a non-Conservative Government? And then, the morning after the election, the Governor of the Bank of England's green Rolls Royce edges into Downing Street. He comes with a list of demands to the effect that the new Government should abandon key points in the election manifesto upon which it has just been elected, in return for which the City will call off the run on the pound. Harold Wilson has described in his memoirs his confrontations with the then Governor, Lord Cromer, after the 1964 Labour victory:
" …we had to listen night after night to demands that there should be immediate cuts in Government expenditure andparticularly in those parts … which related to social services. It was not long before we were being asked at pistol point …"
Something similar happened in 1974, and no doubt it will happen again soon after the next Labour Prime Minister moved into Downing Street, even though the programme on which he is likely to be elected is likely to be ever so moderate. It will, however, include a commitment to a national minimum wage and I have no doubt that the very modest re-distribution of wealth which that would entail will be high on the agenda at the new Prime Minister's first encounter with the Governor of the Bank.
In Parliament although control of the House of Commons sometimes changes hands, it is a matter of record that the House of Lords remains permanently and absolutely under the control of the friends of one political party. Although it is true that, in recent years, the Lords has played an honourable role in tempering the excesses of one party rule, it is equally true that there remains at the disposal of the Conservative Party a huge reserve of hereditary peers able and willing to vote through whatever wickedness their political masters require. Telegrams are sent out to the stately homes and castles. A running buffet is put on to keep them on the premises for the few hours necessary. The division bell rings. They totter through the lobbies and off they go again, never to be seen again until the next summons. That's what happened when Mrs. Thatcher decided to abolish local government in London and elsewhere, after the wrong side won the election and opinion polls indicated that they would go on winning. I don't know about you, but as a democrat I find particularly distasteful, the sight of hereditary peers being used to rid the country of politicians who are democratically elected. In Parliament we often receive delegations of foreigners, many of them from the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe and Asia, who have come to see the mother of Parliaments at work and to be lectured on the wonders of democracy. I sometimes wonder what they make of our House of Lords.
It is not only in the Lords that the hereditary principle is alive and well. Mr. Paul Channon is the third consecutive member of his family to represent Southend in Parliament. At least thirty members of the present Tory intake are the sons of previous Tory MPs and Ministers, and they are remarkably successful. Douglas Hurd, Douglas Hogg and Mark Lennox Boyd are sons of previous Tory MPs. David Heathcote Amery is the nephew of a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Don't let anyone tell you there is not a ruling class in this country. I will not make too much of this point, since it is true that we have come some distance from the days when it was claimed that a majority of Mr. Macmillan's cabinet were related to him. It is also true that the Thatcher years saw an influx of petit bourgeoisie who are by and large leaner and meaner that the gents of the old school.
What I am saying is this. First, that our ruling class is alive and well despite over a century of universal franchise. Second, that many of the democratic gains we have made in the last one hundred years are threatened. Third, that far from being in retreat, the one party state is consolidating all around us. Fourth, that rule by landed gentry has given way to rule by corporate interests - to recognise the truth of this one has only to run an eye down the register of members' interests or the list of donors to the Conservative Party (at least those who can be identified).
It has always been extremely difficult for any part which is not the Conservative Party to win an election ins this country and, despite the present disarray, it is getting more difficult. All institutions capable of offering resistance are being systematically stropped of power. The trade unions, which were responsible for many of the great social advances as still take for granted, have been neutered. Responsibility for the Health Service, for industrial redevelopment and for many of our public services has been taken from elected local government and handed over to unelected quangos. About one-fifth of all public spending is now accounted for in this way. In Sunderland, part of which I represent, the Tories no longer take local elections seriously. In the recent elections they didn't even bother to contest seven of the twenty-four seats. Why should they? They do not need to be elected when they can be appointed by central government to the quangos which now control so much of public spending. Sunderland is far from being the worst example. At Dartford in Kent, for instance, the five non-executive directors who are supposed to represent the public include the wife of the local Tory MP, a Conservative member of Sevenoaks District Council, the former Conservative Leader of Dartford District Council and the Chairwoman of the local Conservative Association. Clearly these are people not easily embarrassed. The next election could be our last chance to re-establish democracy in this country. If, as I believe is likely, a Labour government gets its fingertips - and it will only be fingertips - on power, we shall need to take a leaf out of Mrs. Thatcher's book. When she took office in 1979 she did not waste time indulging in ya-boo politics. She looked to see where her enemies were strongest and truck with deadly force. She truck deep behind our front line, at trade unions, at public housing and at local government, all with a view to damaging or even destroying the power base of her political enemies.
I believe that we should display the same resolve as Mrs. Thatcher. Not with a view to destroying the Conservative Party. On the contrary, I acknowledge that it represents a large and legitimate strand of political opinion in this country. Not one that appeals to me, but I have to accept that it exists and has a right to do so. What it does not have the right to do is to use - or abuse - its control of the machinery of state to manipulate the democratic process. The interests of the Conservative Party and those of the nation are not necessarily the same and it is time the two were disentangled. I am sure I speak for all of us, when I say that I wish to live in a healthy, multi-party democracy, where all the different political programmes contending for recognition are given an equal chance to set out their stall and where, in the event of victory, they do not find themselves the victim of sabotage by extra-parliamentary forces held in reserve by our ruling class for use in case they are temporarily let down by the electoral process. In short, I wish to create - to use a phrase fashionable in the City of London - a level playing field. That is the purpose of the programme which I will now set out for the first hundred days of my government.
My programme has several advantages. First, it will cost little, if any, public money. Indeed, it may even save some. Second, it should appeal to the middle ground and it cannot, therefore, be argued that it is too unpopular to implement. Thirdly, it is essential for the survival of any non-Conservative government. It is not a bit of intellectual self-indulgence to be carried out piecemeal once everything else has been attended to. It is about survival. It doesn't matter what your priority is - jobs, training, investment, education, the health service, environmental protection - there is not the slightest chance of making significant progress on any of these issues, unless you first address the power structure. That is what I shall now do.
The free flow of information is the life blood of democracy. How, therefore, can it be right for the friends of one political party to have control over most of what we see and read? Yet that has long been the situation as far as newspapers is concerned and, increasingly, it is becoming the case with television.
What I fear most is not political bias, but the steady growth of junk journalism. The trivialisation and demeaning of everything that is important in our lives and its consequent effect on the political process. A flat refusal to address what is going on in the real world in favour of a diet of crime, soap opera gossip and, in some cases, unadulterated hate. This has long been a feature of our most loathsome newspapers, but now it is extending to television. The disastrous Broadcasting Act has triggered a vicious ratings war in which standards that we once cherished are being progressively abandoned. Not even the BBC is immune as it plunges down-market in a desperate effort to compete with commercial rivals. Documentaries like 'First Tuesday' and 'This Week' have disappeared. 'World in Action' the last refuge for inquiring journalism in Mrs. Thatcher's Britain, is under pressure to move to a much later slot where it is likely to attract an audience of two million instead of the present seven to ten million. Even ITN's 'News at Ten' is not safe as the new masters press for its removal to a more obscure slot so that it can make way for an unending diet of bland American movies.
There is talk of new technology bringing ten, twenty, thirty, forty channels. It is said that we will have greater choice, but in fact we will have less. We are headed down the American road, forty channels with nothing worth watching on any of them. Out culture colonised by American junk television. Our domestic film and television industry destroyed. As to the effect all this will have on the minds of future generations and on our political culture, we can only speculate. Certain trends are already evidence. Our society is becoming increasingly atomized. People are losing the ability to think for themselves. Or to socialize with friends and neighbours. I recently read an article by a doctor who said that whenever he went to a home where the television was on continuously, he would walk up to it and switch it off and then ask the residents what they had been watching. Usually, he claimed, they couldn't tell him. I saw a recent survey which suggested that in the North of England nine percent of the population are watching more than eleven hours television per day - eleven hours a day. And that twenty-five percent had the television switched on for more than seven hours.
There are political consequences, too. It is a matter of record that the rise of television has lead to mind-numbing apathy and a reduction of involvement in the political process. Anyone who has ever tried to organise a public meeting or tried knocking up non-voters on election night will testify to that. Far from being an instrument of progress it is increasingly an instrument for the propagation of ignorance. In the long run there is a danger - I put it no higher - that with increasing g concentration of ownership and progressive abandonment of standards - television will become fertile ground for demagogues offering simple solutions to complex problems. One has only to look at Italy, which is now governed by a man who owns much of what Italians see and read for a clue as to where the future may lie unless the problem is faced.
In this country most of what we see and read is controlled by a handful of families and corporations. The concentration of newspaper ownership is unprecedented and increasing. One man, Rupert Murdoch, controls five national newspapers and has a fifty percent stake in satellite television which by the end of the century is expected to be in one home in two - and that is only a small part of what he owns world wide. Arguably, Mr. Murdoch has done more to help the one party state consolidate - and to demean the quality of political debate - than any other single figure. It is not widely appreciated, but among the rewards he has received for services to the ruling party, is an exemption from the regulation that requires that at least half his broadcasts are made within the EEC. This means he is free to buy off-the-peg junk movies from America, Australia and elsewhere. He spends little or nothing on production and can undermine his competitors in commercial television and the BBC who are obliged - and long may they remain so - to invest in domestic production.
Mr. Murdoch is only the biggest and most notorious of the British media barons. The Broadcasting Act has given rise to new ones. Commercial television is gradually coming under the sway of three men: Michael Green of Carlton, Gerry Robinson of Granada and Lord Hollick of Meridian. Mr. Green was donating money to the Tory party, even as he bid for the London television franchise. Recently he has acquired Central Television which also gives him thirty-six percent of Independent Television News, ownership of which was divided among regional television companies precisely with a view to keeping it independent. Mr. Robinson's Granada has recently taken over London Weekend and Meridian has taken over Anglia Television. All this has serious implications for the future of British television and it has already led to a dramatic decline in standards. What's more their appetite for acquisition is by no means sated. Already they are - together with David Montgomery (a former Murdoch editor) of Mirror Group newspapers - pressing the government to relax the regulations that limit cross-media ownership, that is to say newspaper companies acquiring television stations and vice versa. The odds are that this will have already have happened by the time the next government takes office.
The best hope of preserving our democracy lies in diversity. To achieve this certain obvious steps must be taken.
First, a piece of liberal anti-monopoly legislation limiting newspaper ownership to one daily and one Sunday per proprietor - and everything else must go on the market.
Secondly, a requirement that those who own our newspapers and television must be citizens of the EEC. This is not as revolutionary as it may appear. The United States has a similar requirement. It was this that obliged Mr. Murdoch to change his nationality from Australian to American. I doubt whether he could pull a stunt like that again.
Third, commercial television must be restored more or less to the boundaries that existed - and which worked so well - in the past. This would oblige Messrs. Green, Robinson and Lord Hollick to disgorge their recent acquisitions.
Four, either the maintenance or the restoration of strict limits on cross-media ownership.
Five, an extension to satellite television of the requirement that fifty percent of programmes must be produced within the EEC.
Six, a series of measures to extend diversification to regional newspapers and radio stations. In particular, a requirement that the same company cannot have a significant stake in more than one newspaper or radio station in a particular locality.
Seven, there must be a shake up of the boards of the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority with a view to placing on them persons committed to the lofty aims of the charters they are supposed to be upholding.
Eight, a statutory right of reply for newspapers designed to inject a minimum standard of integrity into British journalism.
These measures to restore urgently needed plurality to our media without which a democracy cannot function. By themselves, however, they will not be enough. I turn now to that other bastion of the one party state, the security services.
THE SECURITY SERVICES
It is a matter of record that our security services have since the day of their formation been out of control of any elected authority. Traditionally they have been run by people whose definition of the national interest is entirely different from what most of us would understand by that phrase. For much of this century at least a part of the security services appears to have been targeted against the political party that has formed the government for seventeen of the last forty-eight years. Since the Zinoviev letter, a succession of non-Conservative governments have been the victims of smear campaigns and black propaganda, apparently orchestrated from within the security apparatus - I mentioned the forged Swiss bank account in the name of Ted Short, but there are many other examples. We must be grateful to such refugees from the security services as Peter Wright and Cathy Massiter (and to Robbie Robison of the Cabinet Office) for a glimpse of what has been going on. Prime Ministers, who are nominally in charge of the security services, have been lied to or misled - as Jim Callaghan was - and even spied upon, as Harold Wilson was. As late as the mid-1980s, it is clear that F Branch of MI5 was targeted to a large extent against legitimate dissent rather than enemies of the realm. Lord Roy Jenkins, who as Home Secretary in the 1960s and 1970s, was supposed to be in charge of MI5 spoke recently of a monoculture within the service. I recently asked another former Labour Home Secretary if he had ever been informed by the security services of any of the several conspiracies by fringe members of the establishment to destabilise the elected government and the answer was "No". So what were the guardians of all we hold dear doing while Cecil King was trying to form his government of businessmen in 1968? Or when General Sir Walter Walker and Colonel David Sterling were raising their private armies to deal with the subversives they believed to be running the country? My guess is that they, or some at least, were involved.
Quite apart from any arguments about their political neutrality there is ample evidence that the public having not been receiving value for money from the security services. Witness the fact that a number of members, often educated at our finest public schools and universities, turned out to be spying for the Russians. Witness the fact that for much of the sixties and seventies our security services appear to have been paralysed by internal feuding.
I think it is time we sought value for the considerable sums of public money spent on our security services. We need also to be reassured that in future they are and will remain politically neutral. Finally, we need to be sure that they are properly accountable to Parliament.
To be fair, prompted by recent scandals, this government has gone further than any of its predecessors to bring the security service under control. For the first time their existence has been officially acknowledged. Oh wonder of wonders, we are actually allowed to know the names of those in charge. MI5 is now headed by a very sensible woman and there has been a clear out of what one former Tory Home Secretary described to me as "deadwood". In addition, a committee of parliamentarians is in the process of being established which will have responsibility of scrutinising the activities of the security services.
Before we get carried away, let me say at one that this committee leaves much to be desired. It is appointed, not by Parliament, but by the Prime Minister. It accounts, not to Parliament, but to the Prime Minister. The staff who will service the committee will come, not from Parliament but from the Cabinet Office. It will have none of the powers that select committees have to demand access to persons and papers or to require witnesses to give evidence on oath.
Finally, one might have expected with the end of the Cold War that there would be some scope for saving public money. Yet on the contrary, the security services appear to be expanding their activities into areas that were previously the preserve of the police. Just as the old 'Threat' is fading so a vast array of new threats appear to have been discovered as a justification for expansion. One has only to glance at the lavish new headquarters being built for MI5 and MI6 on either side of the Thames to realise that these are not organisations whose spending is subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as other government departments.
My government will take the following measures. The Intelligence Services Act will be amended to make the scrutiny committee a Select Committee of Parliament. That is to say it will be appointed by, accountable to and staffed by Parliament - and not the executive. Second, like other select committees, it will have power to interview witnesses on oath, to require the production of documents and witnesses as it sees fit. It will also have the right to sit in public. Third, its functions will include responsibility for interviewing candidates for the top jobs.
Among the committee's first tasks will be a review of the security apparatus with a view to ensuring that its functions are compatible with a modern democracy. I anticipate there will be some scope for savings here. I wonder, for example, whether it is strictly necessary to MI5 to continue, as it has done for many years, to vet all BBC employees above a certain grade. You will recall that some years ago that a Brigadier Ronnie Soneham was discovered in Room 105 at Broadcasting House, stamping upturned Christmas trees on the personal files of BBC employees who were thought to be unsound. At the time there was a considerable fuss and we were assured that Brigadier Stoneham had been moved on. Several years later, however, I was invited with a number of colleagues to lunch with the Chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey. Halfway through the lunch, the purpose of which was to bend our ear about the Broadcasting Act, I asked "Who works in Room 105 now Brigadier Stoneham has retired?" All around the table there was the sound of knives and forks hitting plates. Someone said they thought it was a Special Assistant to the Director of Personnel. "What's his name and what does he do?", I asked. Would you believe, we had the top brass of the BBC around the table and no one could tell me. "Tell you what" I said, "We're only two floors up, why don't I nip down and knock on the door?" They were horrified. In the end, they promised to write to me and eventually I received a letter saying that Brigadier Stoneham had been succeeded by a Mr. Michael Hodder, whose previous employment had been with the Ministry of Defence. While they were at pains to assure me that his job description was different from Brigadier Stoneham's it sounded remarkably similar.
I suspect that there is also an arrangement, formal or informal, between ITN and the security services. If so, it must be stopped. I turn now to those other guardians of the established order, the judiciary.
It is the function of judges in a free country to interpret the laws laid down by Parliament and to administer them without fear or favour. While many of Her Majesty's judges undoubtedly do their best to uphold this lofty ideal, it is apparent to the casual observer that many of them are hampered by their class background and by an undue deference to the State and its servants of which they are supposed to be independent. One has only to read the pronouncements of some judges and magistrates during the miners' strike or during the recent trials of police officers charged with perverting the course of justice to realise that some of our citizens are more equal than others before the law. It was Lord Denning who once said words to the effect that it was better to turn a blind eye to the odd miscarriage of justice in order to preserve public confidence in the judiciary. We must be grateful to Lord Denning. As so often he says aloud what other judges only whisper in the privacy of their gentlemen's clubs and freemasons lodges.
When the Conservative Party loses office it often falls back upon the courts in the hope that they can be persuaded to over-rule whatever has been decided at the ballot box. It is an unhappy fact, too, that large sums of money, the origins of which are not always clear, are made available by organisations such as the Freedom Association to finance trips to the High Court for rulings on government policy. Remember what happened when Labour won control of the Greater London Council on a programme which included a promise of large reductions in tube and bus fares? Before you could say "extremist" the Conservatives had been down to the High Court where they persuaded a judge, who probably hadn't set foot on a bus in many years, to declare the policy illegal. Thereafter, hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money had to be squandered on trips to the High Court to justify every dot and comma of GLC policy. By the end judges, probably Tories to a man, were even approving the budgets.
Be under no illusions. All this will start again if a Labour government attempts the merest re-distribution of wealth and power. It is, of course, entirely right in a democracy that the courts should be permitted to scrutinize decisions of the executive. It is, however, important not least for their own self-respect, that Her Majesty's judges are seen to be something more than the judicial wing of the Tory Party. I am under no illusions. It will take many years to change the narrow, male, bigoted upper middle class culture that prevails in the judiciary. We can make an early start, however.
First, a not very revolutionary measure (although I have no doubt that is how it will be perceiving): judges should retire at sixty-five and we should pay some attention to how we fill the vacancies. The present retirement age is seventy-five and that was only introduced after Lord Denning went on until he was eighty-five and was becoming an embarrassment.
Second, the pool from which judges are drawn should be widened. In particular an effort should be made to appoint more women. Of the ninety-five High Court judges only six are at present women. And of the twenty-nine Appeal Court judges, only one is a woman (and she is the daughter of a former High Court judge and the sister of a Lord Chancellor). And of the Law Lords, none is a woman. The present Lord Chancellor has, in teeth of bitter opposition, extended to solicitors the right of audience in the courts. In theory this means that solicitors are now eligible to become judges, but as with everything involving the law, progress has been slow.
Third, the method by which judges are chosen needs to be reviewed. This is an area that has long lain in darkness. AT present it is done by some mumbo jumbo in the Lord Chancellor's department. No one knows the precise qualifications. All we have to go on is the outcome. The present Lord Chancellor, God bless him, is proposing what in the closed world of the judiciary amounts almost to a bloody revolution. He is proposing to start advertising junior judicial vacancies. This is progress. It should be extended as swiftly as possible to all levels of the judiciary.
For the longer term we need to consider whether, as in some continental countries, a judicial career should be one of the options available to a young lawyer from an early stage of his or her career. Those who have so opted could then receive appropriate training from the outset. That is the only hope for a judiciary in which all our citizens can have confidence.
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
I know of no one who defend the present composition of the House of Lords. I cannot recall even Mrs. Thatcher's government ever attempting to justify the right of seven hundred or so hereditary peers to have a say in the government of this country. The only way the status quo can be maintained is by simply not talking about it and that, more or less, is how the unreformed House of Lords has survived for so long.
Realistic change is a choice between two options - outright abolition or the removal of hereditary peers. Anything in between will merely lead to a long, complex wrangle about what to replace it with. A reforming government, which might only have a small majority, could become bogged down for years in a constitutional battle which would distract it from other issues.
Besides which, any attempt to reform the upper house by, for example, introducing some form of election, would only diminish the authority of the lower chamber which we will have spent the previous sixteen years trying to recapture.
The other advantage of outright abolition is that it would relieve the pressure on office space in the Palace of Westminster.
Against this, it must be acknowledged that there is a role for a second chamber in revising legislation from the lower house. This is particularly so in a system dominated by two political parties whose members tend to vote, even on standing committees, along strict party lines.
In its first hundred days my government will confine itself to removing the voting rights of all hereditary peers. To sweeten the pill, bearing in mind that this change will have first to be approved by an unreformed House of Lords, I propose that existing hereditary peers should be granted life access to the club facilities of the Palace of Westminster, but that this privilege should not pass to their heirs.
We would then have a House dependent almost entirely upon prime ministerial patronage. What's more, even the life peers would be dominated overwhelmingly by Tory appointments. No doubt an incoming Labour regime would move swiftly to improve the balance, but we must me mindful that this might not be sufficient to ensure reasonable behaviour on the part of their lordships. The threat of total abolition must always, therefore, be a weapon held in reserve.
THE FUNDING OF POLITICAL PARTIES
No great mystery surrounds the funding of the Labour Party or for that matter the Liberals, or any of the smaller political parties represented in Parliament. By contrast, the funding of the Conservative Party is one of the great mysteries of British politics. No one, least of all most conservatives, knows where their money comes from. Students of such accounts as the Conservative Party makes available have been able to determine the origin of only about a quarter of the party's declared income. We have to rely on the occasional scandal for clues about the remainder. When, for example3, Mr. Asil Madir fled to Cyprus to avoid criminal proceedings, he left behind cheque stubs indicating that he had paid £440,000 into the Conservative Party without telling either his shareholders or his creditors. It has also emerged that a number of foreign millionaires have, for reasons that are not entirely clear, made huge undisclosed contributions to Tory Party funds. We know, too, that some of the money is or has been held in off-shore accounts for reasons we can only guess at. We know that there exists a network of front organisations through which money is channeled. We know that government Ministers, abroad on official business at the taxpayers' expense, have taken time off to tap up local millionaires on behalf of their party.
Less clear is what is given in return for this largesse. I think we can agree that there is a clear link between the honours system and donations to the Conservative Party - and, in years gone by, not only the Conservatives. As to the extent to which a donation to the Conservative Party buys access to Ministers, the avoidance of adverse decisions by the Monopolies Commission, favourable consideration of bids for the construction of, say, a dam in Malaysia, or a place on one of the myriad of quangos that now dominate so much of public life, we can only guess.It is time we created a level playing field in the funding of political parties. How can it be right in a democracy that one party should have access to massively more funds than any of its rivals? How can it be right that the source of most of those funds should be a closely guarded secret?
At my suggestion, the Home Affairs Select Committee recently investigated political funding. Unhappily, but predictably, it was not possible to persuade Conservative members of the committee to support any serious amendment to the status quo. I did, however, draft an amendment supported by the Labour members, which sets out a series of reforms which I hope will be attractive to democrats of all political persuasions. Our main recommendations were: first, that all donations to political parties over a given limit should be publicly disclosed. Second, that donations from foreign registered corporations or foreign nationals should be prohibited. Third, that strict overall national spending limits be imposed upon political parties during general election campaigns - along the lines of those already imposed at local level - in the hope that we can get back to issue driven, rather than money driven politics. Fourth, that the regulations covering political donations by trade unions be extended to corporate donations. Fifth, that directors of companies which have contributed to the funds of the ruling party should be disqualified from receiving honours for a period of several years; alternatively, that the award of honours be removed from the hands of serving politicians.
These are measures which I hope will go some way to reducing the sleaze factor in British public life which is undermining not only the present Government, but the political process itself.
FREEMASONS IN PUBLIC LIFE
A great deal of paranoia surrounds freemasonry and I have no wish to add to it. If grown men wish to dress up in aprons and swear strange oaths to each other, that is entirely a matter for them. I have no objection. Nor do I object to persons who are freemasons holding public office. What I cannot accept,. However, is that it can be right for an unknown number of our elected representatives and public servants to be members of a secret society one of the aims of which is mutual self-advancement. I find it particularly offensive where those public servants are concerned with either the impartial administration of the law or the award of contracts involving large sums of public money.
There are more than half a million freemasons in the United Kingdom, which must include a fair swathe of the male professional middle class. In Sunderland we have one thousand six hundred masons in twenty-nine lodges. The headquarters for County Durham is based conveniently fifty yards from the Civic Centre and I see from the handbook that we have a Civic Lodge with about sixty members. There is also a Justice Lodge based in Stockton, membership of which is presumably confined to those concerned with the impartial administration of justice.
Anyone who has been involved, as I have, in the study of alleged miscarriages of justice cannot have failed to notice that there are an uncommonly high number of freemasons in the police and at all levels of the judicial system, up to and including at least one Law Lord. I make no allegations. I simply repeat that nothing is more corrosive of public confidence than the knowledge that many of our public servants are members of a society whose members are sworn to secrecy by a series of blood-curdling oaths.
Two years ago I introduced a little Bill for this purpose. Although the Prime Minister told me that he supported the principle of disclosure, he was regrettably unable to find time for it in his programme of legislation. We must, therefore, await a change of government.
My Bill incidentally provoked an interesting little correspondence with Commander Higham, secretary of the Grand Lodge. He expressed indignation that I should be requiring freemasons to disclose, when the Labour Party did not publish its membership list. By way of response I offered to supply him with a list of all the Labour Party members in Sunderland in return for a list of all the masons in Sunderland. Since when there has been only silence.
Happily the solution is a simple one. It needs no bans or proscriptions. It simply involved a legal requirement that public servants or elected representatives who are members of a secret society be obliged publicly to declare. Once that is done the problem will melt away.
I am all too well aware that the half dozen measures I have discussed here tonight leave large swathes of territory still in enemy hands. I have said nothing about the City of London or about what Lord Boothby once referred to as "our caste system of education" - the public schools. These are issues for another day and there are no quick fixes available. Some may be disappointed, too, that I have said nothing about proportional representation. I will explain why.
It is, in my view, a practical rather than a moral issue. First, because there is nothing inherently more democratic about proportional representation. I understand why Liberals are so keen on it. They would be in government no matter which party won the election. After each election there would simply be a pause while the Liberal Party decided which of the main parties to appoint to government. Second, having fought so hard over the best part of two decades to recapture power, I would be reluctant top hand over to a coalition without first seeing if we could manage on our own. It is, as I say, essentially a practical question. If someone could persuade me that in the long term PR was the only way to dismantle the one-party state, then I could be convinced, but it is not for the first hundred days of my government.
Disparate and inadequate though they are, the measures I have suggested tonight have certain advantages. As I said at the outset, they will cost little or no public money.
They will be attractive to a majority of the electorate. They strike at the power base of the political forces that have subjugated this country for so much of our history. All that is required is the necessary political will.
There will, of course, be those who argue that all this is self-indulgence. That our great social ambitions should take priority. I disagree. On the contrary, I believe that a government that captures the House of Commons, but leaves the other commanding heights of our society in enemy hands will not survive long enough to rebuild our shattered social fabric. There is, to borrow a phrase from the architect of our downfall, no alternative.