Gerald Warner: Overhauling the Lords would bring a plague on both Houses
HOUSE of Lords “reform” is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with the political system and the lack of principle of the scoundrels who control it.
The destruction of one of our two Parliamentary chambers has been tossed, like a bun to bears, to the Liberal Democrats, now pursuing a scorched-earth policy on the eve of their own electoral dissolution.
There are still commentators who write, apparently without conscious irony, sentences beginning “The Prime Minister believes…” Such ingenuousness deprives them of authority. David Cameron does not believe in anything, never has and never will, apart from his own entitlement to rule. In that, he is the true Heir of Blair. To remain in office (though not in power or he would not need to make such concessions) he has devolved authority over the constitution to the Liberal Democrats, the one party devoid of any mandate for constitutional tinkering since its massive rebuff by the electorate in the AV referendum.
There is no need to reform the House of Lords, beyond punishing miscreants with expulsion and improving the calibre of those admitted. The chamber that urgently needs reform is the House of Commons, yet it presumes to interfere with its less reprehensible neighbour.
It is time the asinine criticisms of the Upper House were dismissed for the nonsense they are. The 92 surviving hereditary peers are not an “affront” to democracy but a safeguard of that fast evaporating entity. Their admission is not controlled by party gate-keepers and they are their own men. If the public is so offended by the hereditary principle, why have millions recently bawled themselves hoarse in celebration of 60 years of hereditary rule? Hereditary and life peers are not “legislators”: they are members of a revising chamber which patiently translates the dog’s breakfasts sent up from the Commons into coherent law. Nor is there any objection to appointees – provided they are worthy candidates. It is they who bring medical, scientific, intellectual, business, etc, expertise to the Upper House. That would be lost once it was peopled by failed MPs, local councillors and special advisers drawn from party B Lists.
“No other country has an upper chamber like Britain’s,” moan the Guardianistas. They should get out more. The Irish Senate has 60 members, 11 appointed by the prime minister, six elected by the graduates of the country’s two elite universities and 43 elected by members of the lower house, local councillors and similar apparatchiks. In Belgium, only 40 of the 71 senators are directly elected. In France all 321 senators are elected by 150,000 officials, the so-called “grands electeurs.” The notion that Britain has anything to learn from those cosy cabins of cronyism is absurd. Yet that is the purpose behind Lords “reform”: not to enhance democracy but to sterilise it.
The Lords, from a Government point of view, is ill-disciplined. Under Clegg’s proposals the “senators” would pass through the same sieve of party selection as MPs, guaranteeing the eradication of all mavericks, independents and people of principle, producing lobby fodder entrenched for 15 years. Where is the accountability in a 15-year mandate – longer than many life peers survive to sit – especially when they would not be allowed to stand again? A once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the voters, then you can defy their wishes ever after – it could be a template for a politician-friendly House of Commons.
Of course it could all go pear-shaped for the “reformers”. A senator with 200,000 constituents will inevitably consider his mandate superior to an MP with 70,000. The new chamber could oust the Commons; there is no statutory entrenchment which could prevent that happening. As Lord Reid said last week, the political dynamic is irresistible. It is likely the Commons is doing to itself what Labour did to its prospects by embracing devolution. A Senate boasting an electoral mandate could bulldoze its way to power as a legislative force, at the expense of the Commons – which would be amusing to watch. The one good thing about revolutions is watching Girondins being guillotined.
Since the fatal regime of the Great Charlatan Blair there has been an irresponsible tendency to regard the constitution as a train set to be played with. The present mixed composition of the House of Lords embodies a principle extolled by philosophers from Aristotle to Edmund Burke. The aesthetics of the constitution are important too. The ermine and pomp reflect the evolutionary character of our constitution: to destroy it would be an act of national deracination. The dignified part of the constitution, in Bagehot’s terms, makes an important contribution to the continuity and stability of the nation. It is not broken and should not be mended.