House of Lords reform: end it, don’t mend it

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‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is generally a sound rule for democratic institutions, as with most things in life. So why on earth the mantra is applied to our second chamber I do not know.

The House of Lords used to encapsulate everything odious about Britain, especially its entrenched elites. Gone mercifully are the days when aristocrats could dictate policy in taxation and spending. Yet work is still to be done. There remains a rut of about 90 hereditary peers and offensively, in one of the most irreligious societies on earth, 26 Church of England bishops — placing us comfortably amongst Burkina Faso, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia in the democratic premier league. Though I confess to a soft spot for Archbishop Rowan Williams (his voice is ready-made for audiobooks, no?) the good nature of these men (exclusively men, of course) is not a price worth paying for our inclusion with Iran as the only other country to let unelected clerics make the laws we must obey.

In 1997 most inherited seats were rescinded in favour of appointed peerages. This prerogative has been used and abused by Prime Ministers for blatant patronage, packing it full of dodgy donors and personal cronies, exerting a massive corrupting influence throughout the highest echelons of business and politics. The ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal that dogged Blair’s last days in office poisoned his legacy almost as much as Iraq. The reforms merely changed the Lords from an aristocratic institution to one predominantly inhabited by the nouveau riche. As it is constituted today its members are either born into it, or they have bought into it. It remains a tool of the privileged, ‘perhaps the most potent symbol of a closed society’ says our Deputy PM. Quite so. The Lords is a ridiculous anachronism that cannot be made good. It has long been indefensible in theory; it is also defunct in practice.

Cue Nick Clegg’s proposal to transform the Lords into an 80% elected Senate of 300 strong. There are clear merits to such a plan. In austerity-ridden times, not the least of these is cost; last year the 800 peers billed us £150 million for their upkeep. By more than halving its size, we’d be able to return a big chunk of that to the taxpayer. But why stop there? Do we really want a bicameral legislature; that is a divided legislature where the upper house reviews and competes with the lower one. A second elected chamber would inject into Westminster the kind of deadlock and sluggishness that characterises America’s imperfect democracy. Such a dispersal of power between two bodies of equal legitimacy would lead to a paralysis of much the same fashion that confronted Lloyd George a century ago when he tried to pass the ‘People’s Budget’. Two chambers. Two mandates. Twice the carnage.

Many sincere liberals contend that we need the Lords in some form due to its role revising, improving and challenging legislation from the Commons that would otherwise pass unimpeded. The concern is understandable, but surely we can dismiss it? We have a strong, independent judiciary — ensuring the government can’t do anything illegal. We have a free press that is hardly deferential to those in power. And we have a strong civil society; experts and interest groups are unafraid to petition those in power and the electorate, if necessary, can boot them out when the time comes. New Zealand, Sweden and several US states all manage just fine without a second chamber. So can we.

Abolition of the House of Lords would complete the centuries-old business of bringing unelected parliamentary interests to heel. The current upper house is simply an embarrassment and proposals to augment it would undermine the efficient, unitary nature of our system. Ministers should not overlook the simple, yet radical, solution at hand.

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