We don’t need to be lorded over by experts
Nick Clegg’s proposed reform of the Lords will achieve the feat of making these ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny’ even more tyrannical.
The excitement is difficult to miss. There’s a buzz, a democratic fizz in the air. In pubs and bars, community ‘hubs’ and shopping centres, people just can’t stop talking about it. That ‘it’ is, of course, the very real possibility that the UK will have a mainly elected House of Lords. I feel electrified just typing those words, ‘mainly elected’. After over a hundred years since Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government first promised it, we the people are finally getting the power we have been demanding, a second chamber ‘constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis’, as Lloyd George put it back in those heady pre-World War days.
Except, of course, there is no excitement. And there is certainly no popular demand. What there is is an issue - in this case, the reform of the House of Lords - pushed high up the legislative agenda by the office politics of Westminster. For the UK’s Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, plans for an elected House of Lords appear to be born of pragmatism rather than principle: to appease the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. For their part, Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem party seem to be hoping that House of Lords reform, a long cherished ambition, will show that their time in government hasn’t been entirely without a distinctly Lib Dem achievement. And then, beneath government ranks, there is a rancorous sea of MPs from all parties who see defeating a vote on the Lords reform bill, due to go before the Commons on Tuesday, as a chance to accelerate the break-up of the coalition.
It is a shoddy, unedifying display of party-political insularity. But what makes it worse is that these reforms will have serious consequences for British politics.
As it stands, the House of Lords consists of over 800 members, a sizable number of whom don’t actually bother attending or voting much at all. Of these 800, the vast majority are politically appointed life peers, with the remainder made up of 91 hereditary peers and 25 Anglican bishops and archbishops. The reforms will halve the number of lords to 400, and, more importantly, replace the current lot with new members elected from giant constituencies through a form of proportional representation. Each of these new members will serve a fixed, non-renewable 15-year term. Why 15 years, and not 10 or 20, is unclear, as is much of the other arbitrary detail.
The main problem with this plan rests on the idea of an elected second chamber. It is not particularly revelatory to say that the UK’s elected first chamber suffers from a profound crisis of legitimacy. After all, it is dominated by parties that not only lack the social constituencies that once provided them with a measure of authority and direction, but which also repeatedly fail to inspire roughly a third of the British electorate to vote at all. And in a representative parliamentary democracy, parties which increasingly represent nobody are going to experience the party-political equivalent of existential doubt. Hence the emergence of the professional politician, for whom politics is all simply a career rather than a vocation.
By introducing an elected second chamber, the crisis of legitimacy of the first chamber, its descent into narrow careerism, will be exacerbated. If the Commons struggles to muster a democratic mandate as it stands, that situation will only worsen if the Lords gains its own pseudo-democratic, counter mandate, its own semblance of demos-derived authority. Because no matter how tenuously, and how distantly, that authority is conjured up, there is little doubt that the Lords, if the reforms go through, will be emboldened. Or will become more ‘aggressive’, as one lord in favour of the reforms put it. Indeed, such has been the concern over the effect on the authority of the Commons that the Tories have been forced to state that the Parliament Act, which says that the Lords cannot reject the same legislation twice, will continue to prevail after any proposed reform.
This bizarre doubling, and dispersal, of democratic authority repeats at the level of the voter, too. Not only would we be able to vote for people and parties whom we want to see implement a certain vision of the future of society; we would also, simultaneously, be able to vote for other people who could potentially prevent those people and parties from implementing that vision. We will be asked to vote for both political actors and political naysayers.
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For supporters of Lords reform, empowering the upper house is a good thing. As they see it, we currently live under a system that tends towards elective tyranny. That is, a party gets in with a decent majority, and then, with the party whips to the fore, it proceeds to compel its MPs to pass legislation, regardless of its merits. An emboldened House of Lords would help put a stop to this. The unstoppable will of a partisan Commons would meet the immovable object of Lordly integrity.
This is one way of looking at it. Yet, underpinning this celebration of the House of Lords, in both its current and proposed forms, is a distrust of people, a suspicion that the will of the electorate, as manifest in those we choose to elect us, could lead us astray were it not for the occasional intervention of the Lords. Which is a pretty repellent, quasi-aristocratic sentiment. In the words of one commentator, one often finds that ‘the expertise in the upper house is palpably superior to anything that can be mustered by MPs’. Or, as The Economist described the argument, ‘the Lords’ wisdom and non-partisanship improve the British polity’. That is, the Lords are wiser than us, they possess more expertise than us; they can, in short, correct our mistakes. Which is precisely what they do when they pore over Commons legislation, amending this and blocking that. This amounts to a check on our democratic will, the empowerment of a petty tyranny of experts and wise old heads
In a sense, the favour in which the Lords finds itself is understandable. As the current stock of party politicians has plummeted, so that of the non-partisan Lords has, in part, risen. But the principle of self-government, of being able to live in a society free of the ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny’, as Thomas Paine described the Lords, is too important to be let out with the bath water, even if the plug was claimed on expenses. And that is what we ought to argue for: the House of Lords doesn’t need reforming, it needs abolishing.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.