Elections are not the only way to bring honour to the Lords

The Upper Chamber desperately needs reform. But its replacement should truly represent Britain
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The Independent Culture
THE NEW Britons love their gongs as fervently as the most dogged upholders of tradition. An acquaintance who has achieved a modest degree of public prominence asked me last week, "If you were going to the Lords, which title would you pick?" The dilemma had obviously been on his mind for some time. He had joined those who, at a certain stage in their lives, look at the House of Lords thinking not, "Blimey, I thought he'd been dead for years," but "Come to think of it, I could look quite good in ermine too."

New Labour's list of working peers, announced this week, will feature a number of thoroughly modern Labour Lords such as Melvyn Bragg and Planet 24's Waheed Alli, who are both tough meritocrats in their professional life and thoroughly loyal to the party in their political one.

Richard Branson turned out to be too much of an irritation. It does seem a touch harsh to excise such from the Tory nominations for knighthoods someone who has created wealth, while elevating to the Lords Norman Lamont, the chancellor who poured carloads of sterling down the drain trying to prop up the pound before its ignominious ERM exit. Perhaps this was an in-joke in Downing Street: Mr Lamont's handling of the crisis made a significant contribution to Mr Blair's election chances.

But it is hard to get too worked up about the exclusion of Mr Branson or the actor and SNP supporter Sean Connery. Politics seized the reins of patronage from the monarchy long ago. It is a chance for governments to create a Great and Good that reflects its own ideas of greatness and goodness, while delivering discreet snubs to those hopefuls who do not.

The fate of the Lords reform should exercise us a lot more than whether Mr Branson and Mr Connery get knighthoods this year, next year, some time or never, because the shape of a second chamber affects democracy - and thus all of us - and not just the egos of the disowned. Hereditary peerages will go and rightly so. Any doubts on the matter are dispelled by listening to the arguments from their defenders.

The Daily Telegraph letters columns in the past week have offered appeals more ludicrous than Private Eye could ever have concocted as a parody. "I hope that Labour's proposals take into account the position of the hereditary Earl Marshal," writes a concerned reader. "It should be unthinkable that after hundreds of years the Fitzalan-Howard family, with the Duke of Norfolk at its head, should unceremoniously not be permitted a seat."

It may indeed be an unpalatable prospect for the Fitzalan-Howards. On the great scale of unthinkables however, the end of their hereditary right to act as chief corset-tightener at the Opening of Parliament comes pretty low down on my list.

Lord Cranborne, the Tory leader in the Lords lamented: "We are the fuzzy- wuzzies but they have the Maxim gun and we have not." This mesmerizing blend of political incorrectness, arcane colonialist reference, dose of bathos and the improbable vision of today's scion of the Cecil family as a Sudanese warrior, gives a good indication of why his time is up.

But the enjoyable spectacle of the hereditary peers being thanked for their services and dismissed, should not blind us to the more important question of what sort of second chamber we want to result from this historical rout.

The raison d'etre of the House of Lords is contained in its ultimate prerogative: to prevent any parliament from sitting for longer than five years and thus prevent an elected parliament suspending elections. This reflects its wider purpose, namely, to check the tendency of executives to become elective dictatorships, to revise legislation and to send back the imperfect parts of bills that have been badly drafted. The Lords should also act as an early warning system, alerting us that the executive is over-reaching itself and riding roughshod over legitimate criticism and advice.

All of these circumstances are as likely to arise under Labour governments as Tory ones. A reformed House of Lords should be so constituted as to check these dangers.

As usual when the British have to find a blueprint for change, the instinctive reply is that we should find a foreign model - usually some form of elected second chamber - and copy it. But an elected second chamber would not serve us well. It works best in America, where a radical separation of powers was enforced from the Founding Fathers onwards. But it is practical and useful reform we are after in Britain.

The American model only works because it is in tandem with a presidential system. The presidency assumes, de facto, many powers (such as the ability to commit troops) that are not clarified in the separation of powers. European models are imperfect - the German Bundestag acts as such an assiduous block on government action that vital reforms are throttled. The French senate is a supine body, in thrall to the Napoleonic power of the president.

There are more ways of creating representative bodies than to vote them into existence. A second chamber should give the kind of people who do not want to become professional politicians the chance to scrutinize the performance of those who do.

The Reform Act of 1832 was successful in building democracy into the constitution, but it sidelined other forms of representation. Now is the time to restore them. We need a second chamber that reflects national life in its broadest sense. And its composition should not allow political parties to wrest control of selection procedures and channel those elected under them to the will of respective party machines.

Why not take a slice of opinion through the country the other way? I should like to see an Upper House that is strongly regional in its make- up and contains representatives of the professions and business, as well as butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, social entrepreneurs, child- minders, leaders of local ethnic communities, representatives from the non-established churches, voluntary workers and the police.

It would be a real People's Chamber, consisting of members nominated in their communities and selected by an independent commission. I am far more enthusiastic about an Upper House we can be bothered to argue about than about another arena dominated by electoral machines over which we have scant control.

The life peer system should be abandoned to allow those nominated to sit for a fixed period. Lord Alli may seem to us now, to be more of a denim peer than an ermine one. But even New Labour's gilded youth will grow old one day.

They will have entrenched positions to defend and old alliances to reward. Try as they might, they will become more like the people they were so anxious to replace. A seat on the board of British democracy should be for a maximum of 10 years - not a job for life.