How I learned to love the illogical House of Lords

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I first began to study the tribal anthropology of the Peer people I regarded the Lords as irrelevant. They were one of those endearing eccentricities which make the British constitution so interesting to Americans and lesser breeds without the Westminster system, but infuriating for those of us who like government to be predictable and rational. At best I saw them as the geriatric ward of the constitution - but nothing of any relevance.

Two years on and my views have changed. After living in the Lords for a long period in order to talk to them, to enjoy their elderly gentlemen's club and to take their photographs, I now see them differently. We're destroying something which can't be justified rationally, but which works well, to replace it with something we have not thought through, and that may not work at all. As we do so, we not only put paid to a charming lifestyle but run the risk of creating a mess, destroying something which I, for one, will see go with real regret.

The Lords are based on the hereditary principle. The hereditaries keep it going with their long tradition of unpaid public service done out of duty rather than for money, fame or prospect of promotion to power. No- one can defend the principle of inheriting a seat in Parliament from one of Charles II's pimps or Lloyd George's cash'n'carry peerages, but it's one of those things like fox hunting. Totally unjustifiable once raised. Yet are they really worth raising in the first place? Haven't we got better things to do?

Unfortunately, Labour saw the issue of abolition as providing a nice radical touch in our very conservative manifesto. It rallies the faithful by doling them a nice dollop of class war, and a class enemy. Indeed, the only one we're allowed these days. It fits in with our modernising image and programme. So without thinking it through, we promised abolition. This brought us up against the problem which has put the Labour party off acting before. Should it be elected, in which case it must clash with the first chamber? Or should it be appointed, in which case it simply reflects the wishes of the government of the day and becomes the biggest patronage pot in history.

These two problems are closely interconnected and the hereditaries are central to both issues. They do an enormous amount of valuable public service pretty well free of charge. Pay peanuts, get Peers. Hereditaries are wealthy in that they own the country, with a few exceptions such as Lord Monkswell, a former engineering employee, or Lord Calverley, a Bradford policemen who took early retirement after working out that his pension and his daily Lords' attendance allowance would allow him to live, only now to face the loss of his new job.

But the Life peers are mostly high earners, most of whom are reluctant to be kept hanging round for votes at unpredictable times when they've got a serious job outside. Businessmen can entertain clients there, but can hardly do the rest of their job. So any alternative provision is going to have to make it much more worth while for members to actually do the work. The new second chamber will - and should - cost far more.

More important, the hereditaries are the only base for any real critique of executive power. They're not predictable as their attendances fluctuate. They comprise over half of the Crossbenchers, who make up their minds on the debate. No government, Labour or Tory, can count on their support in the way it can count on pretty well everything else in a constitution which is really what government can get away with. In our elective dictatorship they are the only real check. We certainly should have some ability somewhere to say "hang on" and make government stop and think. Yet it is difficult to conceive what else could do this.

Without bothering to think all this out, we've sleepwalked to our present situation. The Bill will pass. The legislative programme hasn't been disrupted. The hereditaries, or most of them, will go, and we've not even considered letting them stay to speak, but not vote. Making things up as we go along, we arrive at a messy interim House, with 92 hereditaries to carry on, possibly for ever, for in matters constitutional rien ne dure comme le provisoir.

Meanwhile, a pressure cooker Royal Commission, whose Westminster sessions conclude next week, will come up with alternatives. I hold out no great hope for the process because it is considering the wrong issue. A great gulf exists between government, people - those with the mentality of power - and constitutional troublemakers - who think irritants in oysters produce pearls.

The governmentalists want a subordinate second chamber to hand polish legislation coming up from below and to give government the chance to incorporate its own minute second thoughts: an enormous amount of very boring and detailed work. The stirers want the second chamber to have the ability to say "hang on a minute", and to be made up of a set of people who haven't climbed the career ladder that makes the professional politicians in the Commons so easily manageable, and who are and drawn from a wider body of experience and backgrounds. This needn't necessarily extend as far as the Lords do, given the numbers of drug addicts and dealers, debtors, former prisoners, and big time fiddlers among the peerage; but it should embrace people who want a cat fight election.

Given a different kind of membership - some elected, some appointed, some nominated - the Lords could share the work of a Commons that's presently so overloaded it can't do its own job properly. That argument needs to be fought out and thought out. My guess is that a Royal Commission made up overwhelmingly of government chaps won't do it. So we're likely to finish up with some safely subordinate, tame, body with no satisfactory role of its own and few functions. Except as the French polishers of the constitution.

If either of those two things - a nominated second chamber staggering on, or a weak replacement - happens, as one or other must, then the driving out of the boarders by the day-boys taking over the school is no great gain to government and a substantial loss to life, giving us more to regret than just my own sentimental thoughts on the passage of a lifestyle and of a people who may have been eccentric, prejudiced, sometimes even bone idle and pretty dire, but at least they made politics more interesting than it can ever be again.

Austin Mitchell's book `Farewell My Lords' is published this week by Politico's