The real scandal of the House of Lords
The latest lobbying and lords scandal shows that the upper chamber doesn't need reform – it needs abolition.
Perhaps if you were emerging from a 20-year coma this weekend, the sight of newspapers and TV programmes laying bare shady ‘cash for…’ shenanigans in the Houses of Parliament might well have been a surprise. ‘Crikey’, you might have thought as it emerged that Tory MP Patrick Mercer had been paid £4,000 by a lobbying firm (undercover journalists for the Telegraph and BBC Panorama) to ask questions in parliament advocating Fiji’s readmission into the Commonwealth. ‘Blimey’, you might have said aloud as it then emerged that three peers had likewise shown their willingness to exercise their influence on behalf of a solar energy firm (undercover journalists from The Sunday Times) in return for a bit of spending money. ‘Bloody hell’, you might then have remarked, when it dawned on you that parliament must be swimming with as many undercover journalists posing as lobbyists as actual lobbyists. Sadly, for the fully conscious, the ‘news’ of yet another lobbying scandal was not revelatory. It was coma-inducing.
The weary response testifies to the fact that we’ve been here countless times before, something that UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg acknowledged when he called it lobbying’s ‘groundhog day’. What Clegg did not acknowledge, however, was the role of the political class as a whole in this endless cycle of sleaze and promises of reform.
By this, I don’t mean the dubious actions of certain politicians themselves. No, what is barely remarked upon is the political class’s obsession with sleaze, which in turn has invited the media to go endlessly trawling for dirt. This is why ever since New Labour promised to ‘clean up politics’ and ‘reform party funding to end sleaze’ in its 1997 General Election manifesto – an ostensible response to the cash-for-questions scandal that had engulfed the Tory government in 1994 – we have been witness to an ever unfolding catalogue of political scandal.
There was the £1million donation from then Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone in 1997 in return for relaxing a ban on tobacco advertising in motor sport; there was the 2006 cash-for-honours scandal; the 2009 cash-for-amendments scandal involving a motley crew of Lords; and the cash-for-something-else-nefarious scandal of early 2010, in which Labour ministers Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt were filmed offering to help a lobbying firm in return for a bit of wonga. And of course there was the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. In short, the political class, having made an explicit issue of politicians’ behaviour over the past 15 or so years, has virtually invited the press to make an equally explicit issue of their misbehaviour. And this they’ve done with so much enthusiasm that we now have a situation where journalists from several different organisations are simultaneously engaged in separate but almost identical lobbying stings.
There’s no doubt that the journalists from The Sunday Times, the Telegraph and BBC Panorama, succeeded by managing to snag themselves a few loose-lipped parliamentarians. (Incredibly, Ulster Unionist peer Lord Laird displayed impressive gullibility by managing to fall prey to the Telegraph/BBC Panorama and The Sunday Times scams.). And despite the peers pleading either innocence or that they were scamming the scammers, there is something more than a little remiss about Lords being paid to affect legislation in a particular way.
Yet, just as predictable as the scandal itself, has been the ‘reform the Lords’ response. The Guardian’s editorial, for instance, calls for a mechanism by which we can get rid of bad peers. Otherwise, ‘we are left with lifetime legislators whom there is no means of getting rid of, and should not be surprised if they sometimes fail to come up to the mark’. The Sunday Times complains that there are simply too many of the politically appointed bluffers sat on the red leather benches. We need to ‘slash’ the ‘vast numbers’ of appointees who, lacking the independent financial means of good old aristocratic peers, are naturally inclined to seek remuneration from other sources. Clegg, whose Lib Dem party has long been obsessed with Lords reform, promised to force a statutory register of lobbyists into law. ‘The political system has long been crying out for head-to-toe reform’, he said.
The proposals for Lords reform are numerous, but they are all underpinned by the same assumption: that we need a House of Lord. And it’s because of this assumption that the real scandal amid all the fake lobbying is missed. That is, the House of Lords, the upper chamber, is not a fundamentally necessary institution merely in need of a few tweaks here and there to restore it to its former disinterested, aristocratic glory; rather, it is a fundamentally corrupt and corrupting institution. After all, it exists as an unelected, unaccountable check on the will of the elected and the accountable sat in the Commons. It is empowered to amend legislation drawn up and passed by those we have chosen to represent us. And as such, it exists in order to corrupt the will of the commons, the people. The difference between an old fart with a sense of mission or an old fart with a pay check from a fake lobbying firm is neither here nor there compared to the fact that the old fart feels entitled to exercise such undemocratic power.
In that sense, it doesn’t really matter whether Lord Mackenzie or Lord Laird might decide to lobby for changes to legislation because they have been paid or because they feel really strongly about solar panels. What matters is the fact that they are in a position to do so, ‘assuming and asserting indefeasible, irrevokable rights and authority, wholly independent of the Nation’, as Tom Paine put it in The Rights of Man. This is the real scandal underlying the ostensible scandal of lobbied lords: the continued existence of this remanent of ‘aristocratic tyranny’.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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