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.