The House of Lords, with its absurd titles and potential for abuses, is an affront to democracy, writes Brian Wilson
Many years ago, I was shown a salutary picture of Davie Kirkwood, one of the original Red Clydesiders, hero of the Glasgow Rent Strikes and the son of a Parkhead labourer. It was taken in 1951, he had just been installed as Baron Kirkwood of Bearsden and was attired in the ermined robes. The significance of the picture lay in the haunted look on his face, which cried out: “I know I shouldn’t be doing this and dearly wish nobody could see me.” Four years later, mortality had prevailed.
Maybe that picture had something to do with it, but I have never found reason to doubt that the House of Lords is a place best steered clear of by anyone who has entered public life with a view to creating a more egalitarian society or socially just world.
No matter the rationalisations, the system is mocking them just as surely as it belittled the life’s work of Davie Kirkwood. Occasional reforms have not altered the fact that the House of Lords represents a class structure which, at its heart, embodies denial of democracy as the constitutional basis of our society. The clue is in the name.
Of course, the place accommodates plenty good people who see themselves as doing a decent and necessary job. I know and respect quite a few of them. But the fundamental affront to democracy which they help to perpetuate by being part of it is far more significant than any transient contribution to the cause of good governance.
The history of individuals who claim to be going to the Lords only in order to work for its destruction is now so prolonged as to be preposterous. I have seen few signs over the years that the queue waiting to enter is composed of restless reformers submitting heroically to the requirement to conform to something they actually deplore.
Indeed, in the course of Ed Miliband’s catastrophic leadership of the Labour Party, a low point was the refusal to support the Lords reforms which had been advanced by the Liberal Democrats as part of the coalition deal. In return, Nick Clegg and co would have facilitated implementation of boundary changes, perceived to be to Labour’s disadvantage.
This deserves to become a textbook lesson in the pitfalls of opportunism. The reforms, which were substantial and progressive, collapsed and Labour suffered humiliation unrelieved by old boundaries. Perhaps a principled stand would have attracted greater respect, and maybe even votes, while ensuring a permanent democratic advance?
It would be counter-intuitive to expect the current government to have any interest in Lords reform. Indeed, the Prime Minister has given strong indications in that direction in the context of confirming that he intends to top up the number of Tory peers in order to restore a majority in the Lords.
As long as membership consists of a random and ever-expanding rag-bag of appointees, that is fair enough. As a tenuous link with the democratic principle, nobody can argue against the numbers in the Lords reflecting, rather than contradicting, the will of the people, as expressed through the ballot box.
But even as David Cameron issues his list of appointees, he must be aware of perpetuating a farce that enjoys diminishing levels of public tolerance and exceptionally high levels of popular contempt. There are dangers. As a modern politician with an inevitable eye to his place in history, is there any good reason for Mr Cameron to reject the intuitive and become a reformer?
It is not as if he is preserving some semi-mystical, sub-monarchical institution based on the hereditary principle – a concept that might have appealed to some of his predecessors who were obliged to defend the peerage as beneath only the monarchy in “the apex of the pyramid of precedence”, as the text-books have it.
That has been largely taken care of both by the Tories’ own legislation of 1958 which ended the creation of hereditary peerages (with a blip during the Thatcher era) and the reforms started by Labour in 1997 which were, sadly and mysteriously, not followed through. More than ever, behind the tinsel, this is now a House of patronage which, as it turns out, is not much more attractive than heredity.
There are plenty ways for prime ministers to dispense patronage other than by making its beneficiaries members for life of a legislative chamber. Indeed, in any “list” system of elected membership, it is largely in the hands of the party machines to decide who is in and out. It is the type of patronage which a seat in the Lords conveys that is unique and offensive. I am wholly in favour of a second, revising chamber. It just does not need to be an appointed one with open-ended membership, absurd titles and an endless potential for abuses. There is nothing in these statements which could not be subscribed to from any political perspective including that of the present government.
Defenders of the House of Lords, who consist mainly of its members, point to the knowledge and experience that it contains. Not all of that comes from crossbenchers but, insofar as it does, it should be possible to find some device to retain it. Having some part of an Upper House nominated by a diverse range of interests would be a lot better than what exists at present. For starters, they wouldn’t be there for life.
The case of John Sewel confirms one aspect of why the current set-up is ridiculous. He was made a Scottish Office minister in 1997 and did a good job. By definition, that was a time-limited engagement which ran out when devolution was implemented. In no other calling or country would this short-term role have involved a lifetime contract. The place is littered with people who were ministers for ten minutes but legislators (if they bother to turn up) for life. That is bizarre.
With the whole constitutional future of the United Kingdom up for grabs, it would be extraordinary if the House of Lords sailed regally onwards without its role and make-up being considered as part of the mix.
Meanwhile, David Cameron might reasonably wonder what quality within it he is committed to conserving.