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Abolish the reformed Lords? No, re-reform it


‘We also want to abolish the House of Lords. Having been degraded by successive party leaders who have stuffed it full of cronies, it is not fit for purpose in the 21st century and must be replaced with an elected chamber.’ 

– Nigel Farage, November 21, 2019

UNDERSTANDABLY people are annoyed at the votes in the Lords against Brexit, against the largest democratically expressed will of the British electorate, in a house stuffed with EU lobbyists by the Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg, and May administrations.

This annoyance has led to calls for the abolition of the chamber as anti-democratic, to which Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party are responding in the run-up to the general election on December 12.

This would be the second tinkering, however, and an attempt to repair the damage done to the constitution by the Labour government at the end of the 20th century.

Back then, Tony Blair enshrined his assault with the House of Lords Act 1999, claiming the authority of Labour’s 1997 election manifesto, in which was stated: ‘The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute.’ 

It wasn’t effectively stated why the Lords must be reformed nor why hereditary peers must lose their rights.

One reason given was because there was an in-built ‘Tory’ majority in the chamber. This was despite the Lords throwing out 116 Bills put forward by Margaret Thatcher’s administration in the last year of her premiership. 

Nor was it spelled out how the Law Lords had frequently taken the side of common sense and justice against a politically-favoured line. Nor how the Lords Spiritual, although sitting as Anglicans, had often spoken for other denominations and religions.

The ‘reform’ was basically at such a low level of rationality and argument that, had it been put up at a first-year undergraduate tutorial in a course on Government and Politics, it would have been torn to shreds by a halfway competent tutor as puerile.

The question of ‘reform’ was also taken by many as being a first step towards subverting the rule of law by eliminating the Law Lords and their neutrality, and their replacement by a political European-style ‘Supreme Court’ seemingly administering a concept of law based on the Code Napoléon rather than the Common Law. And, more seriously, towards the abolition or neutering of the monarchy in a covert republicanism.

Thus imperilled would be the constitutional safeguards against a political party with a large overbearing majority in the House of Commons – as Blair had after the 1997 election – moving to make its rule permanent.

Since the Liberals enacted the Parliament Act 1911, the Lords was treated as a revising and reviewing chamber, although the government of the day did frequently use it to introduce non-contentious Bills. The 1911 Act prevented the Lords from interfering with money Bills, enabling the Government to get its budgets passed.

By the time of the 1997 election, the Lords was perhaps the most effective revising second chamber in the world.

It had, because of the hereditary principle, some very eclectic expertises among its members. One peer had been a stockman on an Australian cattle farm. Another had been a bus driver, and the 31st Countess of Mar is perhaps the world’s leading authority on organophosphate poisoning after having been infected with chronic fatigue syndrome through sheep-dip.

Among the questions raised about the suggested ‘reforms’ were the ones still raising their heads now: an unelected chamber; a chamber stuffed with political cronies, placemen, sponsors, and paybacks for favours done; unwieldy numbers; a chamber in the pockets of foreign interests and lobbyists.

Perhaps the most pertinent for today’s political climate is the unelected chamber argument, and the calls for its abolition. But there needs to be some cool-headed thought given to what would come after abolition. 

A single-chamber parliament would be a disaster, as worldwide experience with such governing bodies has demonstrated. So what would the Lords replaced by? The usual default answer is an elected senate.

This produces problems of its own, not least the democratic accountability argument in a different form – specifically as ‘who speaks for the people?’ and ‘who has the democratic mandate?’ 

There would be the questions of how often and for what constituencies the elections to such a senate would take place. And a democratically-elected senate can legitimately claim in a stand-off with the Commons that it has the people’s voice.

Furthermore, the money Bill provisions of the 1911 Act would fail, because why should an elected chamber not have its say in how taxpayers’ cash is spent? This could produce a log-jam of legislative Bills, which would hamper sorting out critical financial matters.

This is why more sensible heads at the time of Blair’s assault were taking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it’ approach.

Blair’s reform saw off the Law Lords, but what about the Lords Spiritual in an elected second chamber? How would they be chosen, how often, and for which religions? Should they remain the same 26 bishops of the established Church of England? And what about the Moderator of the established (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland? And what about senior clerical figures for other major representative religions?

So what can be done now? Well, Blair’s genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so there needs to be a revision, or reform, of the reform.

The most sensible suggestion I have seen so far is the purely pragmatic one. Keep the Lords as it is as a revising and reviewing chamber, like it was before the 1999 Act. Limit the numbers of sitting peers to say, 200. Let the peers and peeresses keep their titles and treat the peerage as its own electorate.

At general elections, or at another periodicity, the peerage –

life peers and hereditaries – would elect its representative number. And ensure that this is a continuing electoral process, not like what happened to the Irish peerage election in the 19th century, which was of the ‘one man, one vote, once’ type.

So a person could be honoured – yes, even political cronies, yes-men, lobbyists, et alios – by being made a lord or lady: They would thereby get a title and a vote

There would not be any actual conflict between the two houses, and the answer to the question ‘who speaks for the people?’ would be what it is now – supposedly the House of Commons.

So, where now? We need to get somewhere beyond the unseemly world of the past few years. Perhaps Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party manifesto might offer a way?

And how about advocating the repeal of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 that has caused so much chaos this year? And then, perhaps, we could review the expensive, divisive, and wasteful devolution? 

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David Rosser-Owen
David Rosser-Owen
David Rosser Owen is a writer, freelance journalist and editor. He is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and sometime British Army officer.

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