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John McFall: I'd like the House of Lords to be considered the best think tank in the country

Lord McFall photographed for Holyrood by Baldo Sciacca

John McFall: I'd like the House of Lords to be considered the best think tank in the country

There’s a photograph taken in 2010 of a local newspaper billboard announcing that John McFall is retiring from politics. The family of McFall, now Lord McFall of Alcluith, regularly send it to him on his mobile phone, just to gently remind him that retirement never really happened.

McFall served as the Labour MP for Dumbarton and then West Dunbartonshire for 23 years before standing down at the 2010 general election, but was almost immediately elevated to the Lords by Gordon Brown in recognition of the forensic work McFall had done as chair of the Treasury Select Committee following the banking crisis.

It’s fair to say that McFall is not your stereotypical idea of a member of the House of Lords. Brought up on a Dumbarton housing estate rather than a landed estate, the son of a school caretaker, ‘Johnny the Jannie’, and a mother who ran a local newsagent’s shop, he is fiercely proud of his working-class roots and says people that know him can’t believe that “a wee fellow from the Bellsmyre estate” is now Lord Speaker. 

“I was out in the garden, just after going into the Lords and two young lads who lived in special needs housing just down the road passed as I was cutting the grass,” he tells me. “They came across and one of them says, ‘Hey John, do we need to call you Lord now?’ To which the other one said – and don’t print the expletives, Mandy – ‘Don’t be so effing daft’. That’s how it is. I’m just me, no airs and graces. I wouldn’t get away with it, even if I tried.”

McFall left school at 15 with no qualifications and worked for the council and then in a factory before returning to education at night school in his 20s, encouraged by his wife, Joan. He went on to graduate with a degree in chemistry then studied for an English and philosophy degree through the Open University, and also holds a Masters in Business Administration.

McFall taught chemistry and maths in secondary schools before becoming a head teacher. And coincidentally, and as a measure of how small Scotland really can be, former Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, was one of his pupils.

He credits his family and his local community for keeping him grounded and, in his typical self-deprecating manner, laughs when he tells me that he was actually on the train to Glasgow when No 10 called to let him know that Brown, then prime minister, wanted to put him in the Lords but the “hubbub” on the train meant he couldn’t hear who was calling, so told them to phone back.

“I suppose it’s not every day that you get a call from Downing Street, and you tell them to call back, but I just couldn’t hear so ended up getting the actual news standing in Central Station once my train got in.”

McFall was elected in 1987 and after 10 years as an opposition MP, he served as a whip and a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government. As parliamentary under secretary of state for Northern Ireland, he played a part in the Northern Irish peace process and also worked with George Robertson, then shadow secretary of state for Scotland, on paving the way for Scottish devolution.

But it was when he was appointed chair of the powerful Treasury Select Committee in 2001 that he really came to the fore and earned plaudits for his grilling of the so-called ‘fat-cat bankers’ and investment chiefs following the financial crash and scandals like the one which engulfed split-cap investment trusts. 

At the time, nothing suggested McFall was remotely qualified to take on the financial titans — he was not an economist and had never worked in the City. But the former head of Aberdeen Asset Management, Martin Gilbert, described his time in front of McFall as chairman of the Treasury Select Committee as one of the “worst days” of his life but also as “one of the best things that has ever happened to me”.

The then governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told him: “If you hadn’t asked those tough questions, we would never have got under the surface of this.” Deputy governor of the bank at the time, Sir John Gieve, was accused by McFall of being “asleep in the back shop while there was a mugging out front” and the then Financial Services Authority’s chairman, Sir Callum McCarthy, was accused by McFall, in one particularly bruising committee session, of “crawling into your den and not answering anything”.

And Northern Rock’s risk committee director, Sir Derek Wanless, was told in no uncertain terms, “you were not doing your job”.

McFall says he was speaking up “for the little guy”, the people who had put their trust and their money into the hands of people who ultimately didn’t act in their interests.

“When they [the bankers] came before us, there was a view from them that ‘hey, wait a minute, we work in the financial industry, we are the ones that provide the golden goose, the cash, that we’re above all this’. And I’m looking at them and I’m thinking, ‘well, I’m getting letters from people, for example, this young woman who put £25,000 into a trust for her mother’s care and six months later, it was worth £25’.

“And it was that kind of injustice that motivated me to challenge people like the bankers that really thought they were above all of it. It’s interesting with reference to Martin Gilbert because, as you know, he has said that appearing before the select committee and myself was the worst day of his life. But it was also the best day of his life. And what Martin did was that when we had had our session, I said, ‘look, we’re not going to forget about this, because this is now on the table, so, try and do something about it.’

“And to be fair to him, he came to see me and said, ‘what can we do?’ And although, I don’t know the exact figure now, but say it was something like £800m had been lost, he got a fund together to try and do something about that. Now if everybody had worked at it as assiduously as Martin, to try and make amends, there would have been much more in that pot and more people would have benefitted.

“But the whole industry didn’t respond to it. He did. And that deserves some recognition. That was an example of him and I being miles apart at the start. He was in the financial services industry, I was in politics. I saw the financial services industry as full of confident, arrogant, whatevers, and he saw politicians as narrow minded, you know, just trying to get a headline, whatevers, but we came together for the common good.

“And the common good was to try and do something for people who, you know, had really suffered. That was an important point and that’s how I have always seen my role, bringing people together for the collective good.”

McFall has been a Labour man all his life but with so many in his party believing that an unelected body such as the House of Lords is an anachronism in a modern democracy, I wonder if, despite his current lofty position in the Lords, he had ever shared that sentiment.

“I think I can fairly say this, that while I probably didn’t necessarily agree with the principle of an unelected body, I was younger, and MPs are largely ignorant of what the House of Lords does. And I was in that category as well.

“But I’ll tell you, what gave me an inkling about the value of the Lords was when I was on the Scottish front bench with George Robertson, that was ‘90 to ‘96, and right up to the general election, and I was also the home affairs spokesperson. So, I was in committee work a hell of a lot and if you like, it was like being an amateur lawyer trying to piece laws and evidence together.

“What I used to do on the big issues that we were looking at, I would come along to the House of Lords, and I would listen to their debates, whether it be the law lords like David Hope or others, and I got an appreciation of what was going on so, if you like, that gave me a structural framework for the work of the Lords and so I appreciated, through that limited experience, the depth of experience that was here.

“And when Gordon Brown asked me, given the economic background and the fact that there was still an urgency about doing things and correcting things around the financial crash, I took it on.

“Six months in and I was appointed to the Parliamentary Commission for Banking Standards, an independent body set up by the Prime Minister and comprising members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Some Lords included Nigel Lawson, the former Chancellor, myself and the former head of the Civil Service.

“We were to look at the issue of the culture in banking and to give recommendations for new legislation.

“It was envisaged that we’d sit for six months but we sat for two years.

“At the end of the day, a new banking act was introduced. And the House of Lords secured amendments to the bill which the government didn’t want in, so it was a great example of an independent body jointly working with the House of Commons and the Lords and getting necessary legislation into place.

“It proved to me, if ever it was needed, the value of a second chamber. The need for scrutiny of legislation is hugely important.”

*****************

McFall’s election as Lord Speaker last year, when he replaced Lord Fowler, came after he had served for five years as senior deputy speaker when he gave evidence to the McCormick Commission on Parliamentary Reform established by the then presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, Ken Macintosh. And basically, he made two points about the importance of separation between parliament and government and the importance of committees to be free to interrogate and scrutinise without fear nor favour.

“You can’t underestimate the need for good law. And it needs to be well scrutinised. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be in my position from afar to say that the Scottish Parliament should have a second chamber, but I think you should start with a first step of asking, how do we better scrutinise our legislation and see where that ends up? 

“If you look at the work that this house has done, and without going into anything too controversial, or too deep on it, but say, with the prorogation of parliament, the environment bill, the policing crime bill, there’s been extensive scrutiny and debate here, really in-depth stuff, and Mandy, the difference between the House of Lords and House of Commons is that in the House of Commons, they have what they call a guillotine, and it was introduced during the Labour government in 2004, but in the Lords, we don’t have that time limit imposed in terms of length of scrutiny. So, we can look at things in greater depth.

“And you’ve got people like, for example, the former Lord Justices of England and Wales, you’ve got Lord Hope, formerly of the Supreme Court , and only two weeks ago, I had the President of the Supreme Court giving a lecture, a Lord Speaker lecture, on democracy, the rule of law, society, and so on. The expertise across all disciplines that is in here is immense and we need people to be much more aware of that.

“I would like the House of Lords to be considered the best think tank in the country. Because you’ve got people like, for example, the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, you know, he can give you a deeper appreciation of constitutional history. You’ve got Lord Stern, for example, former chief economist at the World Bank who’s leading on climate change.

“You’ve got Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, and you’ve got various former chiefs of defence. And when we had the Ukraine issue start a number of months ago, I brought George Robertson in to give a Lord Speaker lecture on NATO and the Atlantic Alliance in the future. So that deep thinking, also long-term thinking, Mandy, is so important because I think politics today is largely characterised by short-term thinking, you know, it’s what’s happening today and tomorrow.

“But there’s long-term thinking that’s got to go on, for example, looking at Ukraine and future food shortages. I’ve just been reading a book, by Tim Lang, on food and the future and the implications for supply chains with globalisation and, whatever else, not least, climate change.

“Big issues that matter to us all. And what happens at times of crises like this is that there’s a cursory look at these issues. I would like the House of Lords to get things on the national agenda, and to have a resonance on the national agenda for it because politics is all about good governance. And good governance is there for the sake of society, it is needed in people’s lives to make their lives better. It is as simple as that; it is nothing more complicated.

“The way I look at it is that when I was an MP, I gave my opinion. Why? Because I was elected and it was dead important for me to stand up and give an opinion, so what happens when I come to the House of Lords? I am asked for my opinion. It’s a subtle, psychological difference, but the common thing is having a life that is purposeful and can make a difference. That’s the important thing.

“Democracy, or lack of, is a word often mentioned in relation to the House of Lords, but in accepting the sovereignty of the House of Commons – and that is important – this can be looked at from a different angle, as the House of Lords encouraging democracy, because democracy is all about good law. It’s all about engaging with communities and society and making people’s lives better.

“So, if there’s an encouragement from this end to the House of Commons, then we can all be serving the interests of democracy. And the thing about the House of Lords is, there’s a whole range of people in here. And there’s actually more varied experience in here than you would get in the House of Commons.”

Does he think it’s a miss for the SNP refusing to send any of its members to be represented in the House of Lords?

“I do. I do think it’s a miss. Because if we’re interested in better governance, and engagement with citizens, then we’ve got to listen to all views, and it’d be good to hear those different views.

“I would also say there’s nothing to be fearful about in terms of coming into the House of Lords. I mean, Tanni Grey-Thompson was interviewed, I think, on a podcast just a couple of weeks ago, and she said, this is a very respectful place, and voices are properly listened to. Lord Bird, you know, the founder of the Big Issue, he comes in, and he said to me, the House of Lords is great because you can get your voice heard and it comes across in a temperate environment.

“I am older, right, but I suppose when I was younger, I got a second chance to learn and to be educated, and if you like, I made the transition from a black and white world to a grey world. A questioning world. And the older I get, the more complexity I see to issues today, and the need for more understanding, and a need for not just hearing but listening, too.

“And I suppose I would say that the older I get, the more I’m astounded with the level of my own ignorance.

“I view myself as very fortunate in life. I think if you look at social mobility, whatever you want to call it, all the indices are going the wrong way at the moment, and I could be a bit of an exception to that. But I was fortuitous, brought up in the type of environment where there was a real sense of community, where mutual respect, common good, aspiration were there, and it was a relatively poor community, but it had that collective aspiration and there was also a moral framework in which we were all operating in as well.

“That’s not to put rose-tinted spectacles on it, because we know what can happen, but there was a core issue there, that you belonged, and mutual benefit was important. And that’s stayed with me.

“You know, I think now of my father, who was a very quiet, modest, but caring and also an interesting individual. He was the school janitor, very much behind the scenes, but his interest was managing the school football team and giving those boys a chance.

“And just this weekend, my cousin phoned me and said that her daughter had been in the hairdressers, and she was sitting beside some fellow of my age, and they got chatting and he produced out of his pocket a wee photograph of him and his football team, and there was my father, John the Jannie, the manager of the team, in that photograph.

“Another person met me a few months ago and said that her brother was in a care home, somewhere down south, and he’s got dementia. The only person he remembers and talks about is John the Jannie. That’s something, making a mark on someone’s life, being remembered. That really is something to have a legacy like that, like John the Jannie.”  

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