It’s been reported that former prime minister Liz Truss has submitted at least four requests for people to be given peerages. Parliamentary peerage is a holdover from feudal times, developing out of the medieval system of baronage. Peers of the realm, while nominally granted their titles and privileges by the monarch, are generally approved by the PM. They are, or should, presumably be what political historian Peter Hennessy called ‘Good Chaps’.
Life peers, whose positions are non-hereditary, are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, our second and revising legislative chamber. There they examine and sometimes amend proposed parliamentary bills prior to enactment, though some rarely attend *cough* Lord Sugar *cough*. For this they receive allowances and expenses, subsided food and beverages in the many onsite bars and restaurants, the run of the parliamentary estate and, of course, fancy titles and costumes. Am suddenly remembering PPE-wrangler Michelle Mone swearing an oath in ermine, for some reason.
The Good Chaps
Like so much else in the UK’s political ‘system’, peer selection running fairly and reasonably depends on norms. On the ‘Good Chaps’ approach to decision-making. The right thing happens, reasonably ethically, not because it must but because there’s long been an understanding about it. It’s often said that we don’t have a constitution, but that’s not strictly true. We have an unwritten constitution: a salmagundi of statute and case law, key documents like Magna Carta and Bill of Rights, practices, and conventions. This leaves lots of gaps, and little is truly contemporary.
So there are modern times when bad things happen and there’s nothing concrete to guide us or to stop them. Some (ab)uses of power are limited inexactly if at all. If someone who is not a Good Chap decides to trumple [typo stays] norms like a Bullingdon in a committee room, there’s little that can be done.
Peerages can be suggested by political parties or the general public, and the House of Lords appointments commission has a role to play. But they’re ultimately waved through by the PM, who can also recommend peerages upon or after departing Downing Street. If Boris Johnson wants to stuff the Lords with an unprecedented number of people guaranteed to push a certain agenda, there’s no clear route to halting that. And it’s common for political party donors to be elevated; to the extent that it, too, is a norm. Though not perhaps one upheld by Good Chaps and Chapesses, per se.
No matter how much outrage it may cause for Truss to put people in the Lords for life, when she resigned after being leader for a vegetal 44 days – at least one peer for every 11 days – there’s no law against it. Nor is it out of bounds for one of those people to be her former SPecial ADviser and deputy chief of staff Ruth Porter. Porter is now managing director of FGS Global, “the strategic advisor for the stakeholder economy”, whatever that means. From 2010 to 2013, she was the communications director at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Lib-Dem-to-libertarian Truss is known to have started associating with the IEA in 2010, and is said to have spoken at more IEA events than any other politician.
The Institute of Economic Affairs
The IEA is a ‘think tank’, and a registered charity for the stated purposes of education. Think tanks conduct research and analyse policy, publish their findings, and work with public servants to advance their findings. They’re supported by private donations and/or public funds. As registered charities, they get tax breaks, have to publish some accounts, but don’t have to reveal their donors. The BBC has been widely criticised for giving the IEA a frequent platform on Question Time and other programmes, pushing agendas like NHS privatisation, when its funding is opaque and its stated aims are disingenuous.
The IEA has been substantially supported by American interests. Its known funders include gambling, tobacco, and fossil fuel corporations. It once published a magazine for A-Level students which denied climate change science and promoted privatisation of the NHS. It shilled the “positive social impacts” of gambling. Follow the money (if you can). openDemocracy uncovered financial support from US-based climate change deniers to the IEA and other UK ‘charities’.
The IEA website states that it’s “independent of any political party or group, and is entirely funded by voluntary donations from individuals, companies and foundations”. But openDemocracy has demonstrated that the ‘think tank’ is closely connected to the Conservative Party. Its staff has long had easy access to the party, including orchestrating meetings between the then-Brexit minister and special interest groups. It was revealed in January that the IEA met with dozens of MPs leading up to Truss’s leadership win. Indeed, her connections with the ‘charity’ go back a long way.
Truss and the IEA do have a lot in common. Both are fervently pro-‘free markets’, anti-government. (Why might someone who wants minimal government involvement in society want to run a government?). The IEA was influential during the Thatcher era, and it and other pro-Brexit think tanks with Tufton Street, Westminster addresses did a great deal to bring about the Brexit we’re now learning to live with. The IEA claims a dozen or more members of what was Johnson’s Cabinet, including Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Priti Patel, as “alumni of IEA initiatives”.
The public-purse-funded European Research Group (ERG) of Europhobic Conservatives, which includes Truss, is well known. What’s less known is that in 2011 Truss founded the Free Enterprise Group (FEG) of MPs, for which administrative support was supplied by … the IEA. The FEG was termed the ‘parliamentary wing’ of the IEA. It’s responsible for the notorious book Britannia Unchained, which accused British people of being “the worst idlers in the world”. In a 2012 interview, now-deputy prime minister, lord chancellor, and bullying-inquiry-subject Demonic Raab [typo stays] said the “talented and hard-working have nothing to fear”. Hmmm.
The FEG was rebranded last year as the Free Market Forum, is supported by 60 MPs and six peers, and is “a project of the Institute of Economic Affairs and IEA Forum”. So charitable much education very public good. It sets out its purpose as follows: “We encourage free market thinking, changing hearts and minds of the unpersuaded and providing intellectual firepower and a public platform to proponents of classical liberalism … we examine and expound the importance of markets in organising human affairs and solving complex problems.”
It’s a bit of a nightmare
I know it seems a long time ago already – Truss has already “relaunched” herself and largely vanished again since then – but cast your mind back to September and October 2022. Truss and fellow IEA alumnus Chancellor Kwarteng wasted no time after getting into pole position in the government. They gathered up everything they’d ever learned at ‘educational charity’ the IEA and hurled it at the world’s sixth-largest economy. They announced sweeping tax cuts and huge spending increases aimed at boosting economic growth. The markets had a meltdown, investors sold off government bonds, the pound flatlined, and the Bank of England had to intervene to protect a run on pension funds.
As openDemocracy put it: “The IEA’s long game had finally paid off. Truss and Kwarteng’s rise to the top of the Conservative Party was the culmination of years of grafting behind the scenes. Their budget read like the think tank’s wish list – deregulation, check; tax breaks for the rich and corporations, check; promises to crack down on unions; check.” The entire Mini-Budget Misadventure is estimated to have cost our already struggling country, weakened by years of pointless and deadly austerity, and the joint impacts of Covid-19 and corporate greed, £30bn plus reputational costs, civil service overtime, and other unquantified impacts.
This isn’t ancient history. The impacts on mortgages alone are far-reaching and life-changing. Here are two out of who-knows-how-many examples from North Wales. A young couple, expecting a baby, attempted to move to a less poky house. They had a firm buyer and it was all going swimmingly. Thanks to Kwartruss, the buyer’s mortgage payments tripled in a day and they had to drop out. An older couple, ready to retire, put their flat-above-a-beloved-local-shop and the shop itself on the market. Within two weeks they had the perfect buyer, who even wanted to take over the shop and keep it going. Overnight, thanks to Kwartruss, the buyer withdrew because it was no longer financially viable for them. There hasn’t been a potential buyer since.
Looking at Truss’s known peerage wish list again, we have: Ruth Porter (ex-IEA). There’s Mark Littlewood, director general of the IEA and Truss’s longtime mentor/co-conspirator/whatever. Aside from helping to engineer, and crowing about, the Kwartruss Mini-Budget Boogaloo – at least until it all went horribly wrong – and other Not Good Chap business, Littlewood was caught on camera in 2018 offering potential American IEA donors access to government ministers. He was trying to bring in more cash to create ‘research’ to promote a free trade Hard Brexit. Then there’s Jon Moynihan OBE, who sits on the board of trustees of … go on, have a guess. You’ll never guess. He chaired the Vote Leave finance committee and Vote Leave’s campaign committee.
Speaking of Vote Leave, we also have Matthew Elliott. He’s basically the King of Tufton Street. He and his wife Sarah connected “senior members of the Leave campaign and groups pushing a libertarian free-market ideology from offices in Westminster’s Tufton Street to major US libertarian lobbyists and funders. Collectively, the network aims to use Brexit as an opportunity to slash regulations in the UK, paving the way for a wide-ranging US-UK free-trade deal that could have disastrous consequences for the environment,” as per this piece in the Ecologist which you really should read. Of course, the government isn’t pushing deregulation at all, I don’t know what they’re on about. Oh, wait.
Between them, these four people have done more than most to bring US-style clean slate libertarian late stage vulture capitalism to the UK and stake it in the very heart of our not-sure-it-is-actually democratic system. Austerity is another story, but Brexit and ‘free market’ forces – socialism for them, feral capitalism for the rest of us – have brought a great many citizens to their knees. Food banks are now used by 3% of UK families. ‘Market manipulation‘ is being allowed to give us some of the highest energy bills in the world. A ‘free market’ approach to water has given us waters we can’t swim in, but Brexit means we may not long access water data. Brexit has helped to fuel the highest food inflation in 45 years due to an exodus of small EU exporters from the UK market.
No more Chaps and Chapesses
There should be consequences for idealogues who cost a country and its citizens so very much. Instead, if Truss has her way, they will be rewarded with yet more power over us, to help shape our laws – directly this time. To bring the venal delusions of climate change denial into our unelected, unaccountable second chamber. And we will pay them out of our own pockets for this. We will subsidise some of their meals, and the drinks they use to toast themselves.
I won the Welsh Office prize for the best result in constitutional and administrative law in my first year at Cardiff law school. I’ll never forget a final exam question: “The House of Lords should be retained. Argue this position and state your reasons.” I rattled off a load of guff I didn’t really believe, things like, “There is a wealth of wisdom and experience for the nation to draw on”. Later I worked with or met souls like the glorious Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, Alf Dubbs (like me, a childhood resident of Cheadle Hulme, but as a refugee), Helena Kennedy, and Shami Chakrabarti (mind like a laser, heart of a lion).
They changed my mind about the House of Lords, for a time. But if the peerage prizes bunged at their profit-obsessed, destructive cronies by Johnson and Truss go through, when we already have the son of a KGB spy and a purveyor of knickers on the lam wrapped in ermines? You know, I think the ‘peerage’ may finally have had its day.
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