A Conversation with Lord John Alderdice

Imagine getting to have dinner in London’s Houses of Parliament with a member of the House of Lords. And not just any dinner or any politician — but dinner in the exclusive Peers’ Dining Room with Lord John Alderdice, who was instrumental in helping sort out the Irish “Troubles” and is deeply steeped in the Palestine/Israel challenge and other violent political conflicts. What would you talk about? The answer: lots.

Lord John Alderdice and Rick Steves

My head was spinning, as portraits of literal “bigwigs” hovered over similarly weighty dinner conversations that were being capped with nice glasses of port all around. A few minutes earlier, Lord Alderdice and I had been alone in the Chamber of the House of Lords, where statues representing the nobles who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 (ceding certain rights to nobility) look down on the proceedings. They serve as a powerful reminder of almost a thousand years of heritage, and the ongoing struggle to empower the people to create a good and representative government.

With that appetizer, and thinking about today’s political environment, I asked Lord Alderdice a few questions over dinner. My notes are a jumble, but here are a few scraps that seasoned our meal with thought-provoking new insights:

While the US Senate (the closest thing we have to the Lords) has lost much of its civility, Lord Alderdice said he still finds the House of Lords as civil as ever.

I told Lord Alderdice (who’s appointed for life) that he’s blessed not to have to raise money and go up for re-election. He explained the rationale and value of having one chamber that didn’t need to be elected (providing an advisory body that can give honest opinions, rather than sway in the direction of populist political winds). He also clarified that money for those who do need to run is not a major issue in British politics. A candidate cannot buy TV or radio ads (print and billboards are OK). And, in part because British lawmakers can see how money in politics has been so damaging to democracy in the USA, there’s no discussion about loosening up these restrictions.

I was curious about Lord Alderdice’s take on Brexit. He said it’s nothing very new to have difficulties in the relationship between Britain and continental Europe. King Henry VIII breaking away from the Pope nearly 500 years ago (the English Reformation) is not unlike Brexit’s break from the EU today.

And what about President Trump — what does his election say about the United States’ role in the world? Globally, Lord Alderdice sees a loss of confidence in the democratic process. That concerns him. Lord Alderdice, who likes to consider international relations as if they were relations between individuals, sees the USA’s relationship to the family of nations like an adolescent on steroids, while Britain is the older kid on the block — it has been around a long, long time and is heavily influenced by that history. Lord Alderdice’s take is that Trump represents something in the body politic of the USA. His election caught everyone off-guard because we’re not good at listening to each other. People on the left get into their narrow point of view and refuse to really hear the concerns of people on the right. (Like America’s liberal bubble, Britain has its equivalent, which he calls “the cosmopolitan 20 percent.”)

I asked about Germany subsidizing Europe and shoring up the euro currency. Lord Alderdice sees Germany’s generosity as a way of paying reparations —  motivated by its guilt after its role in WWII, and especially the Holocaust.

I enjoyed Lord Alderdice’s thoughts about the separation of Church and state: He said that although the Queen is the head of the Church of England, if she or the Prime Minister closed a speech by saying, “God bless Britain,” it would sound strange. Conversely, if the President of USA — who leads a country with a constitutional separation of Church and state — didn’t say, “God bless America,” it would sound strange.

I asked him about lessons from his work resolving the Troubles in Ireland, and how those might be applied to the Middle East. He explained his viewpoint that understanding relations between large groups is the big challenge for those working for peace. In Ireland, the IRA has learned they accomplish more without violence. Palestine is slowly learning this, as well. In the West, we need to keep the conversation going — and to understand that when you refuse to work with Fatah, you get Hamas, and when you refuse to work with Hamas, you get ISIS.

Some countries will forever be at odds. But if you keep the conversation going, you can maintain the peace. Then, one day (like with France and Germany), peace becomes the norm. But in the meantime…you keep talking.

Saying goodnight to Lord Alderdice and turning in our security badges, I looked up at the face on the clock atop the tower known as Big Ben. The minute hand is twice as tall as I am. It’s so big, you can see it moving.