The real House of Lords scandal? That it still exists!
Never mind a few dodgy Tory peers – the Lords itself is a corruption of democracy.
The Sunday Times reports that the Conservative Party allegedly grants seats in the UK House of Lords as a reward for large donations. In response, the outraged opposition parties (and disaffected Tory lords) have cried ‘political corruption!’, prompting the Metropolitan Police to look into the scandal.
Of course there is political corruption in the House of Lords. But it is about much more than an alleged ‘£3million club’ of former Tory Party treasurers being offered peerages after giving the party that much each.
The very existence of the unelected, unaccountable Lords is a political corruption of democracy. The upper house exists only to stymie and thwart the will of the elected House of Commons. The Lords is not just undemocratic, but also inherently anti-democratic. What we need is not a police investigation, but a political upheaval to abolish the Lords.
This is not a question of ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ peers. They are all unelected appointees, elevated into the Lords by a system of patronage, nominated by political parties in return for services rendered.
These peerages handed out by all the major parties are not mere baubles, like other honours. They give peers the power to interfere in the system of government, to try to amend or halt legislation passed by elected MPs in the Commons. The Lords showed its true colours through its long campaign to try to overturn Brexit, defying the will of 17.4million Leave voters. As one Remainer baroness said, the unelected peers were best placed to usurp democracy in this way, having ‘no constituents to fear’.
Explicitly selling peerages has been illegal since 1925, when the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act was passed in response to the scandal of Liberal prime minister David Lloyd-George brazenly offering to make dodgy capitalists peers in return for donations of more than £50,000. The last major police investigation was 15 years ago, during the ‘cash for honours’ scandal that engulfed Tony Blair’s New Labour government.
Nobody has ever actually been convicted of selling peerages under this law. Such blatant and vulgar corruption is unnecessary. Governments and parties can simply use the normal rules of political patronage to appoint former, failed and sometimes fraudulent politicians and other pals to sit in the splendour of the House of Lords, enjoying expenses and served by lackeys while corrupting the democratic process.
There are now around 800 sitting members of the House of Lords – more than at any time since Blair removed most hereditary peers in 2000. It is the second-largest legislative body in the world, after the National People’s Congress of Communist China – and it is about as democratic as that authoritarian assembly.
Critics complain that the obscenely swollen size of the Lords means there are too many ‘passenger’ peers, taking the money but not attending debates, sitting on committees or voting in the House. Like much criticism of the Lords, this misses the point. It is not the passengers who are the big problem, but rather those hard-working peers who are actively trying to put the brakes on what an elected government can do. They are the ones threatening to drive democracy off a cliff.
The House of Lords in its entirety is the leftover rubbish of the Middle Ages that has no place in a 21st-century democracy. But then it had no place in a 17th-century pre-democracy, either. That was why Oliver Cromwell’s revolutionary Commons voted to abolish the Lords in 1649, as ‘useless and dangerous to the people of England’.
The upper house was restored along with the monarchy after 1660. It has been a danger to the advance of democracy ever since, in the long struggle between the Lords, the Commons and the people. In the 19th century the Lords’ attempts to block reform acts expanding the right to vote sparked some of the worst riots in British history. The power struggle between Commons and Lords over the 1909 ‘people’s budget’ caused the gravest constitutional crisis of the 20th century. And already in the 21st century, the Lords’ sustained campaign to defy the democratic vote for Brexit showed that the historic question of ‘who rules?’ is still yet to be finally settled.
One major difference today is that the most enthusiastic supporters of the Lords now come not from the old Tory aristocracy, but from the new left-liberal elites. With Johnson’s Conservatives having a big elected majority of MPs in the Commons, but only a minority of appointed peers, the Remainer-dominated House of Lords has become, in the words of Labour’s house journal, the New Statesman, ‘the left’s new best friend’.
After all, why should the misnamed Liberal Democrats worry about having only a dozen MPs, when they have no fewer than 84 unelected peers swanning about in the Lords? Even Labour’s left-wing former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, spent his time in charge not campaigning against the Lords, but whining about why some of his nominations for peerages – including arch-Remainer former speaker John Bercow – had been knocked back by the Appointments Committee.
What we need is not a police probe into the appointment of a few Tory peers, but a political campaign to kick all of them out and pull the whole corrupt house down. The Conservatives were elected in 2019 promising to set up a democracy commission within a year, to review everything from the royal prerogative to the courts, including ‘the role of the House of Lords’. Almost two years later, there is still no sign of that. Boris can blame the pandemic, of course. But there is a sickness at the heart of the body politic that seems to make any government incapable of ridding us of the Lords.
A referendum on abolishing the House of Lords would be a big next step forward in the post-Brexit process of democratic renewal. Let us deny any unelected Lord the right to interfere with democracy. In return, as I have suggested before, we will give the privileged peers back the one right that is currently denied them – the precious democratic right to queue up and vote to elect our government in a General Election, alongside the rest of us plebs.
Mick Hume is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What they’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins.
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