22 March 2024

The Left’s confected outrage corrodes debate


You probably saw the typhoon of outrage this week when Carmen Smith, a one-time Plaid Cymru European Parliament candidate, was introduced to the House of Lords as Baroness Smith of Llanfaes. Lady Smith celebrated her 28th birthday last week – she is the youngest person ever ennobled under the Life Peerages Act 1958and has never been a legislator. Her highest position within her party was acting Chief of Staff for the 13-strong Plaid Cymru group in the Senedd. But what is particularly strange about the whole affair was the anger, or lack thereof, surrounding it. 

To describe the reaction as ‘muted’ would be a clanging understatement – quite the opposite of the fury engendered by Boris Johnson nominating his 30-year-old former adviser Charlotte Owen for a peerage. While social media festered with the most outlandish and intrusive personal accusations about Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge, the introduction of Baroness Smith has largely slipped past. There was criticism, of course, that she was too young, too inexperienced. Predictably, some fixated on her appearance. All unpleasant, all unacceptable, but a different order of magnitude from the knee-jerk anti-Tory reaction Baroness Owen faced.

This quietude is particularly strange, as Smith does not even support the idea of the House of Lords (from which she may now claim a daily allowance of £342 tax-free). She told The Times ‘places like the Lords aren’t very inclusive. We had peers of the realm when we were going into battle on horseback… I don’t see the point now’. Setting aside that quirky interpretation of history, she has said explicitly, ‘I don’t believe in unelected chambers anywhere in the world’.

She is not the only member of the House of Lords who would rather it was not there. And she is very welcome to accept institutions as they exist and use them while they endure, while believing in reform. Smith has argued that she will speak up for the people of Wales, as Plaid’s only other peer, Lord Wigley, is retiring from the upper house, but she also wants to affect change from within.

‘I want to go in there and shake things up’, she confirmed. ‘I don’t want to become part of the establishment’.

This was not an argument which seemed to hold water earlier this week when the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, defended his membership of the male-only Garrick Club. On Tuesday, he told the House of Commons Liaison Committee, ‘if you believe profoundly in reform of an institution, by and large it’s easier to do if you join it to make the change from within rather than chuck rocks from the outside’.

The following day, he resigned his membership.

For what it’s worth, I think Case should have stuck to his guns and said he was a member of a men-only social organisation but it had no impact on his professional life nor did it suggest for a moment he ever had exhibited nor would exhibit sexual prejudice as a civil servant. Alternatively, he should never have sought membership of the Garrick in the first place: as far as I am aware, they are not so short of applicants that they roam the streets of the West End press-ganging likely lads. His feart attitude of a half-hearted defence followed within hours by abject surrender was the worst of all possible worlds. It is peculiar, though, that we regard membership of a club in some ways as more important and telling than being in the legislature.

The truth is that many progressives seized a cloak of moral outrage, against privilege, connections and prejudice, to attack Baroness Owen and Case, but were really motivated by political dislike. That is not an unacceptable or discreditable motivation – debate begins with disagreement – but it should be honest and plain, rather than hidden behind the smug-smiling mask of virtue.

If Baroness Owen has no place in the House of Lords, nor does Baroness Smith. I happen to think both do, and that the House as currently constituted contains plenty of party workhorses who are there to bolster the political process and provide it with footsoldiers. But you cannot have it both ways. Owen cannot be a revolting and beyond-the-Pale example of unearned cronyism if Smith is a bright, capable young woman who will be a breath of fresh air.

This is not Smith’s fault. She expressed sympathy for her fellow Baroness: ‘I haven’t met Charlotte, but it was deeply unfair and sexist she got so much flak and gossip’. That says it all, really: ‘unfair and sexist’.

Let’s have a robust political culture, and certainly debate should not be constrained because of hurt feelings, but on one thing we must insist. Be honest. Say what you mean, and stand by it. Hiding behind a veil of pretended virtue is corrosive and cowardly.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.