Tuesday, May 26, 2015

War, Peace, and Trustee Representation

The Imperial War Museum is on the south bank of the Thames, just a few tube stops away from Parliament. It was established in the 1920s in the wake of the Great War--the war that was supposed to end all wars. Inside, the wars of the United Kingdom of the 20th century are documented--from World War I and II, Korea, the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The museum is comprehensive in terms of the British perspective, including exhibits devoted the costs of war on civilians and on the home front. I felt that was particularly nice. If I had a quibble, it was the fact that in emphasizing British participation, the broader perspective is lost. That said, I guess a Brit might thing the Yank perspective dominates our American war museums.

The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask
Becoming a father changes you in ways you can't really anticipate. I grew up playing strategic war games--starting with board games and eventually moving to the computer. In that sense, I had a rather antiseptic and patriotic view of war. Visiting the Imperial War Museum and seeing it through the eyes of a father of two young children gave me a totally different perspective. I'm not ashamed to admit it: Seeing the gas masks made to protect infants and young children brought tears to my eyes. And seeing the twisted girders from the World Trade Center brought me immediately back to the horrors of that particular day. Leaving the museum, I wondered how and if we could ever rid our race of this propensity to kill one another. I really wish I could raise my daughters in a more peaceful world were they could focus on developing their potential instead of living in fear.

So, I was bummed out before our next meeting, which was with Lord David Puttnam, who is a member of the House of Lords. I have always viewed the House of Lords with a heavy dose of American skepticism: It is a politically weak chamber filled with a bunch of folks who do really don't do much work and add little to the legislative process. The chamber, I felt, was basically honorific and substantively lacking.

Wreckage from the World Trade Center
Lord Puttnam surprised me because he articulately defended the chamber with reasoned arguments. First, Lord Puttnam himself was appointed as Life Peer in 1997. He himself was not a member of the landed gentry and made his own way in the world as a rather famous and talented film producer. Puttnam passionately argued that the Lords has three important functions as a perfecting chamber, as in initiator of legislation in its own right, and the chamber which makes sure that legislation does not conflict with existing statutory or European Union commitments. Further, he called the Lords a chamber of "experts" who, because of their varied life experiences, are best able to make legislation fit practical circumstances in the real world.

Perhaps most importantly, the Lords are the best at handling lobbyists. As he noted, some of the better lobbyists spend a good deal of time lobbying the House of Lords--not because they can buy members with campaign cash (they, of course, do not stand for election and do not have constituencies) but because they can make arguments for why particular legislation will not work to people who will understand the case practically. Further, as well experienced members, the Lords are not easily fooled by lobbyists because they are well-equipped to detect nonsense.

Lord Puttnam was incredibly gracious with his time. It is also clear he's one of the enormously active members of the chamber--and he helped dispel some common misconceptions about the chamber that I, and perhaps many, Americans have.

Lord Puttnam and my class at Millbank House

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