LAST week I wrote about the constitutional brakes which, in theory, restrain the government of the day. Today I will examine the House of Lords in more detail.
Our constitution is not like America’s cleanly defined and divided powers but is an ancient mix of deference, custom, tradition and compromise which are unified in the Sovereign, but also widely distributed. Accumulated wisdom rather than ‘perfect’ design.
The House of Lords is the upper chamber of Parliament, the seat of authority which gives legitimacy to the power exercised by the lower chamber, the House of Commons. Originally it comprised exclusively hereditary peers but it has been incrementally reformed to include a wider selection of members from differing backgrounds. It floated along for many years serenely, watching and scrutinising, until Tony Blair introduced a set of radical reforms leading to a sleazy scandal.
The role of the Lords is to be the calm, deliberative chamber which debates issues from a perspective best summed up by Burke as considering ‘the dead, the living and the unborn’, or a guardian against the excesses of untamed democracy much like the Electoral College in America. Hereditary peers are especially important as they, via noble seats, represent the land. They owe allegiance to a long dead monarch, not to the current administration. Furthermore, they ensure continuity as they must do on their estates which, to survive, must be run with the future in mind without destroying their past – the eternal problem of good governance.
New Labour wanted to be seen as modern and dynamic. So what better than to abolish some dusty arcane figures for whom voters cared little but would make the path for Blair’s modernising agenda much smoother, consolidating power in No 10?
By abolishing most of the hereditary peers, Blair removed the naturally conservative – both party and philosophical – element. Instead, he packed the chamber with his political apparatchiks. The effect was twofold: firstly, the once proudly independent Lords became a lapdog; secondly, the Prime Minister assumed vastly expanded powers of patronage. A recipe for scandal.
And come scandal did. The ‘cash for coronets’ affair was an extremely serious matter, escalating to a full criminal investigation by the police, though no charges were brought. The Honours (Prevention of Abuse) Act 1925 renders illegal the trading of honours for monetary donations. Yet several men who had made sizeable donations to New Labour were to be ennobled until the press got wind of the plan, forcing the appointments committee to halt their consideration.
The supine nature of the Lords in checking the current government’s actions and consecutive Conservative leaders installing their own cronies have presented a fork in the road.
Do we carry on pretending the chamber works, or do we reform and reassert Lordly authority, safeguarding the chamber and its role for future generations?
The first proposed solution, a directly elected second chamber, is a non-starter, as is a quota-driven appointments system. We must set parameters for reform, for example conditions attached to being a member such as attendance, speeches and select committee work. If one wishes for the privilege but not the associated duties, go elsewhere. The House should be no larger than 814 – the total number of hereditary peerages in 2020 – of mixed composition. The aim would be quality not quantity.
Simon Heffer has written about creating a class of peerages which ennoble the holder but do not entitle him or her to a seat in the chamber. In fact, this situation already exists: all the peers expelled in 1999 under Blair’s reforms occupy this limbo position.
I propose that this new solution is worth considering: the Prime Minister nominates a group of worthy candidates; the appointments committee reviews them; the House of Lords debates the shortlist produced by the committee and votes for a number; the final candidates are considered and ennobled by the Monarch.
Each of these stages already exists in independence, but stringing them together disperses the power of patronage from any one base. Hereditary peers already elect new members from shortlists. It would help to stop purely political and unworthy appointments being pushed through.
Overall, the longer we do nothing and allow the House to continue as it is, bloated and supine, the stronger grow the arguments for total abolition. Conservatism is about change for the right reasons, slow and sure reforms. To reform now would continue this long tradition for incremental change of the Lords.