A week ago hereditary peers could be described as a waste of space. "We haven't said they're all hopeless, but quite a few of them are," quipped Baroness Jay, the Leader of the Lords and the minister charged with reform of the upper house. At the time, some might have thought her a little uncharitable towards a venerable institution destined for extinction. But now, thanks to the rallying influence of William Hague, those hopeless Lords can now be recast as "abusing their power" and as an "affront to democracy".
As far as the issue is concerned, some of the Lords' arguments have much to be said for them. For example, the "closed" list system prevents a voter choosing between party hacks and the representative he wants. If an open list system were used instead, some power might shift from the party control-freak to the voter. But the pros and cons of closed lists were thoroughly aired last summer, and then were resolved in the Commons. While it is legitimate for the House of Lords to ask the Government to think again on the issue, it cannot be in order for an undemocratic body to stymie an attempt to make the European Parliament more accountable.
Why, then, have the backwoodsmen chosen to fight for this issue? It seems that William Hague, with so few party members in the Commons and desperate to find some way to oppose the Government, has rallied his men to the second chamber. He has called the Lords' actions a "triumph for common sense and democracy". The Conservative leader could hardly have used a more unfortunate phrase: the hereditary peers have little sense of what is common, and, as they have shown this week, rather less of democracy.
Of course, they will lose the fight to keep their hereditary rights, but they could at least have kept their reputation intact. Now history will have to record in its final chapter on the House of Lords that when they were given notice to quit, its tenants behaved like squatters who decided to trash the premises before the new occupants could take possession.
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