Why have a House of Lords if there’s not a single lord left in it? Think Seanad

The last thing we need is a second chamber filled with yet more professional politicos.
If there are no lords left in the House of Lords, what will it be called? – Why have a House of Lords if there are no lords in it?

By Charles Moore

06 Jan 2012

Dr Johnson said that “most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things”, and that was 250 years before Nick Clegg tried to reform the British constitution.

Last year, Mr Clegg failed to persuade the British people, in a referendum, that the Alternative Vote system was the answer to their political ills. This year, he hopes to persuade both Houses of Parliament to invent a new House of Lords. He thinks the present House is “an affront to the principles of openness which underpin a modern democracy”.

Actually, there is a close relationship between electoral reform and the reformed second chamber, because one of the key provisions of the Clegg White Paper is that the new House of Lords… but stop a moment!
Will it actually be called the House of Lords?

Mr Clegg is said to favour the idea because it gives a sense of “continuity”. Others point out that after the transition period, there will be no lords in it. It will no more be a House of actual Lords than that south London disco, the Ministry of Sound, is an actual government ministry. Since continuity is not what one wants if one is getting rid of an “affront”, the critics say, the new thing should be called the Senate. The doubts about the name indicate the doubts about the project…

Anyway, as I was saying, the Clegg plan for our new model democracy insists that the elected members, 80 per cent of the (working title) “House of Lords”, would be chosen by the single transferable vote
(STV) in multi-member constituencies. If there is one thing that the Liberal Democrats really, really want out of their time in coalition, it is a perpetual blocking power over any government by majority. STV would achieve this. From their point of view, that is fair enough, but one wonders whether it is a good idea to alter the entire basis of our centuries-old second chamber just to give more of a look-in to a party that currently holds only 57 seats in the House of Commons.

No one asks what general principle should apply in constitutional reform. I would suggest borrowing a famous one from the field of medical ethics: “First, do no harm.” Right now, we are struggling with the effects of ill-digested constitutional reform in relation to devolution, human rights and the European Union, change that has not observed that principle. Do we really need more of it?

It is obvious that, if one were starting from scratch today, one would not create the present House of Lords. But this is true, too, of the Monarchy, and even, when one thinks about it, of the House of Commons.
We are not starting from scratch, luckily. The most important thing about successful institutions is that they exist. This is what the political theorists call “prescription”. As Enoch Powell put it, when he combined with Michael Foot in 1969 to see off the then plan for Lords reform, normal people are better than highly educated ones at recognising the power of the sentence: “It has long been so, and it works.”

True, the modern House of Lords is not a thing of beauty. The previous attempt to make it more “21st century” made it worse. By getting rid of all but 92 hereditary peers and replacing them with hundreds of political appointees (some of whom, it turned out, had paid the Labour Party for the privilege), Tony Blair weakened the independence and fair-mindedness of the place. His setting up of a goody-goody appointments commission failed to prevent corruption on an almost Lloyd George scale. The post-Blair House of Lords is physically overcrowded and too partisan, almost an ermine slum.

But it still does fairly well the job it is asked to do. Large numbers of mostly decent, thoughtful, experienced people work hard to revise laws passed by the more powerful, more political, hastier, elected House of Commons. Mr Clegg’s White Paper admits this. “The House of Lords,” it agrees, “has a reputation for the careful consideration of legislation.” It emphasises that there should be no change in its functions. It never explains why, if the job is being done well, and is not changing, all the people doing it should be replaced.

We all nod solemnly when anyone says that pretty much anything should be more democratic, but the reformers in the House of Commons find it hard to understand that the Lords is not a replica of what the Commons is. If it were elected, that is the way it would tend. The funny thing is that, if this happens, the MPs who pushed for the reform will be the first to complain. They will hate a struggle for popular legitimacy between the two Houses. They could avoid such a fight if only they stopped agitating about the Lords and concentrated on making the Commons the proper law-making body it has almost ceased to be.

As MPs and peers focus on the details, one starts to hear more murmurs of unease. Even those who say they want reform find they like the features of the very thing they are trying to abolish. This week, for example, it came out that the joint committee of Lords and Commons on reform does not like the Clegg idea of a new chamber with only 300 members (currently there are nearly 800, though only half are active).
They have spotted that almost all of these 300 will be professional politicians, full time, fully paid, drugged up with allowances. They know people do not like that, and they think it would be better if members of the new House had a wider acquaintance with life. So they propose 450 members, part-time, and paid only when they turn up. A good idea – but that is what, in the existing House of Lords, we already have!

Similarly, there is a lot of humming and hawing about how “faith”
might be represented, since the Clegg plan reduces the 26 Church of England bishops in the Lords to the same number as Jesus’s Apostles.
No one can quite work out how wider faith representation might be apportioned. Gradually, an unspoken thought dawns on those concerned:
in the Lords, the Anglican bishops are hospitable to the worries of other churches and faiths. Any other form of representation would become too factional. The best way to do it is the way it is done already.

What will actually happen? The Coalition Agreement pledges the Government to come forward with legislation. It does not pledge it to legislate. I wouldn’t be surprised if this fine distinction becomes important. Tories are puzzled that Mr Clegg has chosen this subject, because Lords reform is famously hard to enact. Consensus is essential, both morally and in terms of parliamentary time, and consensus is not there. As the thing rolls forward, people will look at the proposed constituencies, voting systems, names, numbers, transitional arrangements, appointment of ministers etc, and they will not, when they get down to it, agree. As Tony Blair, always more convincing as a cynic than an idealist, put it in his memoirs last year, “There’s a huge head of steam behind it now, though I still somehow doubt it will actually happen.”

Why, then, is David Cameron giving so much rope on this dangerous subject to Mr Clegg? If asked, he would say that he is bound to do so by the terms of the Coalition. But he is a hard-headed fellow, and he may not grieve if, with all that rope, his Deputy Prime Minister hangs himself.