Monkey business in the House of Baboons
I am afraid that Tony Blair is right. Last night’s votes on House of Lords reform were a travesty. Ask the Commons to fashion a new assembly and they suggest a House of Commons. Ask the Lords and they suggest a House of Lords. Ask a baboon and it will burp and suggest a House of Baboons.
There is absolutely no point in having a second chamber of party politicians second-guessing a first chamber of party politicians. Of course MPs want one. As retirement beckons, they hope to be in the whips’ good books for party list selection. The greater the favour, the farther up the list they will be and the more likely of election. That is how people become peers now. As John Major once said, if the answer to the second chamber question is more politicians, the question was wrong.
The only justification for a second chamber is to add value to the first. It must complement, not supplement, it. National election, whether by single-member constituencies or party lists, will merely replicate the present access. A bunch of career politicians will still ingratiate themselves with the party hierarchy to stand a chance of nomination and election. Such reform is meaningless.
Parties may be a necessity in a governing chamber. The more reason to avoid them in a revising chamber. As the constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor shouts from the rooftops, a second chamber must have different representation from the first, and that representation must “have less validity or it will threaten a fundamental principle of parliamentary rule”, that ministers are accountable to the first chamber. In other words, the House of Lords must be distinctive and weak. To be so it cannot be directly elected on the same basis as the Commons.
I am “afraid” Mr Blair is right because of all advocates of appointment, he must be the least convincing. He has been as shameless as James I. He was personally committed to a “fully elected House of Lords”. He signed the manifesto pledge of “a democratic and representative” second chamber. Yet no sooner does he sniff the trough of power than he plunges straight in. He packs the Lords with friends, sycophants and bought peerages. By and large this has worked. At present a House stuffed with statesmen and soldiers dare not even discuss the impending war. Imagine such a chamber in America: it would be in continuous session.
Mr Blair set up a commission to reform the House of Lords. He appointed Lord Wakeham as a trusty to chair it and then disregarded his advice when he proposed some elected peers. Government archives are said to creak with arm-twisting notes and memos. This month Mr Blair again disclosed his opposition to election. He embarrassed Cabinet colleagues and invited them to humiliate him in return. They have done so. Even poodles can forget on which lamppost they should pee.
Now we have a fine old mess. One House of Parliament wants to stay as it is, and the other wants 60 per cent of the action. The Commons want to be Lords and the Lords want to stay Lords. They cannot decide how to divide up the loot. On just one thing they appear agreed, there is no room for outsiders.
The trouble for the reformers is that the word appointment is now discredited in this context. A new edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary would define it as: “noun: product of patronage, cronyism, sleaze or bribery, as in ‘Downing Street appointment’ . . .” There is nothing bad, or necessarily undemocratic in appointment if it can only escape the clammy hand of patronage. At present Downing Street’s fingerprints cover every job in the public sector, from the House of Lords to select committees, quangos, commissions, regulators and even the “parastatal” BBC. No sooner was Mr Blair in office than he produced “Lord Levy’s list” of peers. To be One of Us — derided by Labour in the Thatcher years — is still a requisite for high office.
House of Lords reform offers one tiny window of opportunity to free a corner of the constitution from “Made in Downing Street”. With reform now returning to the corridors of a joint committee, last night’s impasse should be the opportunity for something fresh.
The bases for legitimacy in the old, unreformed, House of Lords were territoriality and occupation, the landed barons, the Church of England and the Law. They owed a distinct accountability. They were not beholden to the Government of the day. They brought wealth, the professions and the provinces into Parliament in a manner distinct from the Commons. Their wielding of political power was eventually outdated. But they steered Britain to democratic maturity in the 19th century without a lurch to revolution or civil war. They separated power and served the country well.
Second chambers in most democracies retain elements of both these principles. Some go for indirect election, of mayors, governors and local grandees based on regions or provinces. Others, such as Ireland, allow nomination by occupational groups. The US Senate goes further and reflects the nation as a federation of semi-autonomous entities. It guards the partial sovereignty of local government and protects geographical minorities against the tyranny of the majority. It separates and pluralises power. Above all, it appears to work. Americans have no wish restlessly to change it, as we do our constitution.
I have toyed with every mechanism by which a ballot might yield a second chamber of a different character from that dominated by existing political parties. In centralist Britain this will not work. Elections to a House of Lords would be pallid versions of those to the Commons, like European elections. Hardly anyone would vote. Parties would choose peers.
The job of reform is not to discover a weak system of election but a strong system of appointment, by pluralist nomination. As de Tocqueville pointed out, democracy consists in more than direct election. It lies in tiers of representation, in active participation, in societies, professions, churches as well as political factions. One such institution should be the House of Lords.
The Leader of the Commons, Robin Cook, is wrong to claim that democracy depends on direct election. Every democracy is riddled with processes and jobs not based directly on a ballot. In his present job, Mr Cook was not elected. The Prime Minister is not directly elected, nor are the leaders of Scotland or Wales or of most British local councils. Nor are the heads of the agencies and commissions that run half of Britain. Appointment rather than election to positions of power is hardly taboo. And the House of Lords will have little power.
I would look for answers in history. A new second chamber should be based on the same mix of territoriality and profession as the old. A Commission of Summons under the Crown, not Downing Street, should secure an assembly composed of two halves. One half would be indirectly elected from the councils of Britain’s cities and counties, by whatever means they locally devise. The other half would be nominated from the leaders of specific interest groups and professions, however the commission so chose. Such a basis would yield politicians and administrators alongside others. Members would sit for a fixed term, and be dismissed for non-attendance.
Mr Blair is believed to be not averse to some such procedure. (He would have vastly helped his cause over the past week had he spelt it out.) A chamber with this composition would be no real threat to the Commons. It would be a senior and dignified estate of the realm, reflecting groups and interests largely unrepresented in Parliament at present. It would contain a structural bias against the metropolis and central government, meeting John Stuart Mill’s dictum that a second chamber must “act as a centre of resistance to the predominant power in the constitution”.
I have little hope of success. The predominant power in the constitution is never going to create a centre of resistance to itself. That is why the choices voted on by Parliament last night ran the gamut from Tweedledum to Tweedledee. They were in reality nothing to do with constitutional reform. They were nothing to do with widening representative democracy or curbing executive power. They were a ramp, a politicians’ closed shop, the Establishment playing at what it most enjoys, the game of patronage. My mildly pluralist thorn in the side of the State is more than the game or its players can stand.