What seems to have taken a back seat in this whole Lords debate, so far as I’m aware, is the role of political parties in the proposed Lords reforms. Lord Salisbury mentioned it today – hurrah: sensible fellow. It seems to me that this is the real problem with these proposals.
The principle of heredity is, probably rightly, seen as outdated and oligarchic. Life peers mitigated this. As their lordships are arguing, the Lords is a body for scrutinising, not legislating, and it’s surely important to keep party politics to a minimum – indeed the traditional looseness of party ties in the Lords is one of its best features, despite the Labour Party’s packing the Lords with political appointments.
A partially elected House of Lords would not increase democracy; it would merely increase the hold of parties over us. How many of us voted for our local MPs and MEPs on their own merit? How much do we know about our representatives – how effective, intelligent and honest they are? How many of us instead voted for them because they were a particular party candidate? We should not be surprised that so many are found wanting, if we don’t bother to examine who goes into Parliament properly. Parties, like corporations, allow individual responsibility to be gobbled by ‘the good of the party’, ‘the party line’ etc. What’s happening in banking at the moment is a symptom of the same disease. Party politics also allows utter mediocrity to get into Parliament, something which was really highlighted to me when I, aged 14, went to a debate including Tessa Jowell, whose stupidity shocked me, and whose subsequent success in politics has been very depressing. The only reason she got into Parliament and then the government was her being a Labour apparatchik (and, more shaming, a woman, to help fill a quota).
Elected members to the upper house would be indirectly elected, from party lists. This is sub even America. In fact, all these changes appear to be part of our long-running and deeply unhealthy obsession with America. We’ve taken our chief justices out of the Lords and sat them in a Supreme Court. Agh – since we already have a High Court, why couldn’t we call it the Highest Court or (I prefer) the Most High Court, to avoid confusion with and imitation of the Yanks. No doubt this reformed upper house would be called the Senate. Agh again. Might as well keep it as the House of Lords – there’s really no problem with nomenclature. After all, we call vacations ‘holidays’ even though there’s nothing holy about them. The whole idea of an American-style Senate is ridiculous. It works in America because America is federal. We are not. Besides, the American political system is out of date.
The Americans took our political system from the eighteenth century and ‘improved’ it. But our system is outdated enough. Our world has changed: adversarial, party politics is far too teenage to face our impending colossal problems. The electorate has a low opinion of MPs, which, considering the classroom-style slanging matches in the Commons, is hardly surprising. Let’s take a more mature approach, and keep the spirit of the Lords as it is instead of trying to infantilise it to match the Commons’ juvenility.
Appointments of venerable experts to the Lords as life peers has been a thoroughly good idea. Let’s have also, instead of ‘elected’ representatives, the general public in there on a jury-service-style basis. If we trust members of the public chosen at random to determine the freedom of a man’s life, then surely we can trust them to govern the country in which they themselves have a interest. Of course, this would mean making sure that the civil service continued to be the impartial, expert researchers that they are, and that the frightening stories of outsourcing reported in the Private Eye are untrue rumours. Anyone, with enough information, can make a reasonable decision.
In the meantime, if there are too many Lords, or if some are not turning up enough to warrant their being there, we don’t need any statutes passed to sort this out. The Lords are all summoned by the Queen. She can un-summon them, too.