Viscount Ridley: I’m not enough of a party animal for the Commons

Hereditary peer, classical liberal and climate realist, Paul Nizinskyj speaks to Matt Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, about Tony Benn, eurocrats and the future of the House of Lords.

Sunday InterviewI should probably declare an interest here. As well as being a member of Parliament Street I also wear hats for Conservatives for Liberty and the Friends of the Hereditary Peerage. So, as a libertarian and sitting hereditary peer, Matt Ridley is more or less my ideal politician. Elected to the House of Lords following the death of Robert Shirley, 13th Earl Ferrers in 2012, Ridley stands out among his 91 hereditary peers as something of a radical, which is not a common attribute among the generally more conservative nobility.

Another radical viscount, however, was the recently departed Tony Benn – otherwise known as Anthony Wedgewood Benn and, between 1960 and 1963, the 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Their similarities end there, however, as Benn’s radical socialism and Ridley’s classical liberalism could not have been further apart. Which is a shame, Ridley says, given Benn’s ideological pedigree.

“I was fascinated that his uncle, Ernest Benn, was a strong libertarian and a very influential one,” he says. “But Ernest and Tony Benn’s father, William, went in completely different directions. In those days, being a Liberal meant being a liberal, but after the Second World War, one joined the Labour part and became a socialist while the other became a passionate advocate of (Frédéric) Bastiat, (John Stuart) Mill and (Richard) Cobden, writing biographies of these people.

“It’s a fascinating personification of the different roads taken by Liberalism. In the 19th century, we were well to the left, against the state in social and political affairs. But, in the 1880s, there were reverses and people began to say they liked the state because it could do things for them and the free market perspective died out. From then on, the only people involved in free markets were social conservatives.”

But this social and economic liberalism is beginning to re-emerge in the Conservative Party, he says, particularly amongst younger members. “I think that’s due for a re-alignment as the Conservative Party is becoming more and more a Gladstonian Liberal Party. The gay marriage debate was terribly interesting. Those of us who still had parents were ashamed to admit to them that we were for it but very proud to admit this to our children.”

If he is crystal clear about his ideological convictions, however, Ridley seems, like many of us, less certain about the House of Lords – its composition, its future and even his role within it. On the one hand, hereditary privilege does not sit easily with his utilitarian liberalism but on the other, he rules out the possibility of elected senators and the further creation of life peerages as disastrous and entrenching party patronage, respectively. While admitting hereditary peers lack a certain Machiavellian ambition and are generally less open to corruption, his lack of enthusiasm for the preservation of the hereditary element reflects the general uncertainty which has delayed reform of the House for more than 100 years.

“My view is that the House of Lords half-reformed in 1999 and part of the deal for half-reforming it was that there would be a small hereditary element left and the intention was that it would be a temporary thing. Nobody expected the 92 to last as long as they have. But, given that the continued existence of the 92 is an evolutionary accident of reform, I was only too happy to have a crack at it as I’m not enough of a party animal to get into the House of Commons.

“The extent to which we 92 behave in any consistent manner at all is not very great – we are more maverick and unpredictable than the people who get put in power by their party leaders and are often wealthy enough not to mind if we lose our jobs. That’s not enough justification to be put in Parliament but I’ve always argued for a somewhat random element of the House of Lords which should reinforce the jury system with an element of lottery. Election would be a disaster as it would pit two Houses against each other and the House of Lords would be full up with people like those in the House of Commons. What I’m recommending is that, instead of 92 hereditary peers, there should be 92 people picked out of the phone book. But having a few hereditary legislators is a smaller crime against democracy than having a hereditary head of state so, if you think that’s acceptable, it makes sense.”

Moving on to an altogether different set of unelected politicians, Ridley seems slightly surprised by my assumption he would vote to leave the European Union in the planned 2017 referendum, should it go ahead. “It’s interesting you should think that.” he says. “It will depend on negotiations before then but, in principle, I think this country has much better prospects being an outward looking, free trading, country than being shackled to an increasingly bureaucratic and top-down group in Europe. It will take a pretty heroic piece of reform to shake me off that position.”

Ridley’s euroscepticism is not merely economic, however, as he also believes in Parliament as the supreme instrument of the people’s will that should not be compromised by a cabal of unelected bureaucrats working against their interests. Which, incidentally, is another thing he has in common with the late Viscount Stansgate. “Those are the features of Bennery I rather admired,” he says. “If that went with his uncle’s libertarianism, he would have been pin up for me.”