Lords Reform: How not to do it

There is a story about a French énarque — a graduate of the French École Nationale d’Administration.  The énarques form the Prætorian Guard of the French government service.  A junior official put a proposal to the énarque who replied: “We can’t possibly use it.  It may work perfectly well in practice, but in theoretical terms it’s nonsense”.

That, I think, is the problem with the House of Lords.  Of course you can’t justify, in this day and age, a legislative chamber with hereditary selection, or even selection by appointment.  It defies the zeitgeist of the times.  It’s anti-democratic.  It’s almost preposterous.  In theoretical terms, it’s nonsense.

And yet curiously it works, and, I would argue, works rather better than any of the elective models that have been proposed.  The Upper House does indeed study legislation in detail — often with more care than is taken in Another Place.  It does stand its ground and defeat the government, much more often than the Commons does.  And often it seems to reflect the mood of the country better than the elected members of the Commons.

It also brings together a group of largely mature and experienced people with detailed knowledge of many of the subjects with which the law constantly deals.  Business, education, law, healthcare.  Compare that with a new House of Lords stuffed with retired party hacks.  It might become a rest home for former ministers (and perhaps MEPs), but it’s difficult to see that as an improvement.

Given the proposed 15 year term-of-office, one can see the whole place becoming utterly geriatric.  And while candidates will be selected by the Parties for Party lists, there will be no further accountability because no one will be standing for re-election.

Conservatives (and I mean here conservatives with a small “c”, not members of the Conservative Party, many of whom seem to have little idea what the word means any more) should be very wary of change for the sake of change, and still more of the Blair concept of “modernisation”, which has been described as “alternation for the sake of novelty”.  Conservatives are not opposed to change per se, but they do have an instinct and a duty to be very sure that any proposed change is a significant improvement on the status quo, or else they should have nothing to do with it.

In this case, there has been no serious attempt to make the case that the proposal on the table is a real improvement.  There have been merely quasi-religio-philosophical appeals to an abstract concept of democracy, as though the primacy of an elected Commons were not enough.

Worst of all is the impression — or the fact — that the proposal is driven by grubby party deals rather than by any sense of principle.  Nick Clegg is prepared to vandalise the British Constitution merely as a tool of party management. He says that it’s wrong for unelected legislators to be involved in making our laws in Westminster (although apparently it’s OK in Brussels).

I am delighted that many Conservatives (big “C” this time) have seen through it.  In the Commons, the “sensibles”, as they rightly call themselves, are determined to oppose the measure.  Former Conservative ministers, now Peers, have added their voice.  Let’s hope they get their way.  The British Constitution matters more than a temporary Coalition agreement.

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6 Responses to Lords Reform: How not to do it

  1. Yes, but do the sums.
    The entire Labour Party, the LibDems and the rump of the Conservatives make up a massive majority over 100 (right thinking) rebels. Mr Clegg, basing his arguments on Europe, knows he is right. Mr Cameron loves being PM.
    Of course the House of Lords ought to be left alone. It is doing all right at the moment.
    But that isn’t what always happens is it.

  2. Charles Wardrop says:

    The country is in very serious trouble on many fronts, but, like strutting on the world stage or giving time to marital laws or to tinkerings with the UK and Scottish constitutional arrangements or attending sporting finals, our Great and Good political leaders prefer piffling disputations like this.

    Instead, they should be getting our troops out of Afghanistan and our nation out of the EU in intelligent fashion and working realistically on getting us out of the money debts incurred on our behalf by their rebarbative predecessors. Reducing taxes, however, might stimulate business and industry as well as increasing revenue. Such are the important issues affecting the people.

    The country needs drastic changes at the top, perhaps more than at any time in living memory.
    The present political leadership and its priorities are dud!

  3. Neil Craig says:

    I can’t say I see any evidence that the Lords “works” in any particularly outstanding manner. Could you give an example of something significant it has achieved in the last 50 years?

    I think that the only way in which it woeks is that it gives the illusion of there being a 2nd chamber to restrain the enthusiasms & generally undemocratic nature of the Commons without the inconvenience of it actually doing so.

    • Delays bad legislation. Amends bad legislation. Undertakes serious debates on points the Commons skidded over. Of course it doesn’t do major new inititives, because that’s not its job (or within its powers). Which is why I can’t see the merit of electing it.

  4. Hmmm. So the government pulled it. Wise move? Or forced climb-down?

    • Neil Craig says:

      Certainly forced. Possibly wise.

      So will they now go for a referendum? Both Redwood and Carswell writing online have said that was their objection. Personally I would call for a multi-option, probably 2 round referendum, which would give the people the real choice, which is difficult to disagree with. Perhaps people would vote the current option as one of the finalists and then choose it. If so, so be it.

      I note there was no specific instance where the Lords could be shown to have delayed or improved bad legislation (of which there is no shortage). I feel that does tend to confirm my point that its role is cosmetic.

      Just heard Nick Soames saying that Lords reform would be dreadful because it would be impossible to run a country with a bi-cameral legislature. One would think a senior MP would know how most of the world is run.

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