Defending the indefensible: the case for the House of Lords

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The British constitution is unwritten, anachronistic and illogical: but it works. Taking it apart is likely to produce the same result as permitting an enthusiastic child to disassemble an antique clock “to see what makes it tick”.

We will almost certainly end up with a jumble of parts on the floor that can never be put together again.

The 1997 Labour government of Tony Blair was undoubtedly acting on a manifesto commitment when it endeavoured to remove all hereditary peers from the House of Lords, ending with the compromise of 1999 which left 92 of them in place.

(For students of the bizarre, incidentally, little currently matches the hereditary peer by-elections that are now held when one of those 92 decides to retire or is called to an even higher place.)

It then appears to have been a mere whim that led The People’s Tony later to propose the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor, and the removal of the law lords from the House of Lords to a newly created Supreme Court.

tony-blair

The latter duly came to pass but abolition of the Lord Chancellorship proved to fall into the category of “too hard”, leaving this ancient and greatest office of State in the hands today of the comically unqualified Liz Truss.

That distant thrum you may detect is almost certainly my fellow Newcastle RGS alumnus Lord Chancellor Eldon turning in his grave.

 
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Prior to the “reforms” of 1999 the House of Lords had over 1,300 members. Today it has 810 but paradoxically there are complaints that it is more crowded than ever, because most of those 1,300 never bothered to turn up.

These were the “backwoodsmen” – hereditary peers whose attendance could only be guaranteed if a Bill came forward to abolish hunting, shooting, fishing or the great public schools.

It may all have seemed a bit barmy, but that chamber played its role of challenging the executive rather well. Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, for example, endured more than 170 defeats in the House of Lords compared with just four in the House of Commons.

And while those backwoodsmen gave the place an enormous and permanent theoretical Conservative majority, the Lords exercised their powers with caution, respecting the convention that they did not vote down Bills based on manifesto commitments or other flagship legislation when Labour was in office.

What a splendid mix of ingredients those 800-odd hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons provided to the old House of Lords. The descendants (legitimate and otherwise) of kings, plus those of landowners, generals, admirals, viceroys, Prime Ministers, Commons Speakers, newspaper owners, scientists, academics – even the odd trade union leader.

To this was added, from 1958, a biannual sprinkle of new life peers, created in the New Year and Birthday honours as a mark of true distinction, whether in politics, diplomacy, charity, academia or the arts.

A House of Lords so constituted could pretty much guarantee to be able to draw on the expertise of a true authority on almost any subject it considered, as well as the finest legal minds in the country.

But what now? Peerages have not been awarded in honours lists this century, except through the decidedly dishonourable vehicle of those “honours” lists of cronies issued on dissolutions and Prime Ministerial resignations.

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They have become explicitly political appointments, of party hacks expected to toe the party line.

Such individuals do not have the reservations felt within the old House about their anomalous position, generating an arms race of increasing peerage creations to ensure that the elected Government can get its business through the House.

As a result, I find myself hearing with increasing frequency from Lord This and Baroness That and wondering plaintively, “Who?”

Who on Earth are these people and what have they done to deserve their elevation?

The only answer to the present overcrowding that our finest minds can come up with, apparently, is to encourage some of their number to retire, and to winnow out those who do not contribute – by which they seem to mean speaking in debates.

A solution less conducive to productivity would be hard to imagine than encouraging 810 people all to have something to say in every debate, even on subjects of which they know little.

Yet even today, although it may be a shadow of the hereditary-dominated House, the Lords continues to function pretty effectively. Anyone who bothers to attend a Lords debate, or watch one on Parliament TV, will find that their quality is remarkably high. The place still has the capacity to inform, and to improve legislation.

What’s more, it currently comes much closer to fulfilling the role of an effective opposition to the executive than the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

Given that my personal preference for re-admitting all the expelled hereditary peers seems unlikely to come to pass, I make a plea for many fewer and much better creations. We need lords who are honourable and knowledgeable, and who deserve to be honoured. Bring creations back into the regular honours system, as the highest mark of public esteem. Encourage the Queen to create some fresh hereditary peers outside her own family, and allow those of first creation to sit in the House.

Stop promoting superannuated MPs, special advisers and chums of the Prime Minister to the Lords. Just stop it. Now. Do not even think that this might be a handy way to dispose of the 50 MPs whose constituencies are slated to disappear from the House of Commons.

Over time, if we stop stuffing it with failed politicians, a House that currently works quite well, against all the odds, will surely become even better.

Who knows, the day may come when I am not the only person in the UK feeling that if a choice has to be made on where to cut costs by abolishing a chamber in Parliament, we might just about be able to manage without the Commons.

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