Lords, bishops and Michelangelo Wakeham
Sunday 24 January 1999
Often enough have I found myself in this predicament in the past. But Lords reform is one of the few constituents of Mr Tony Blair's constitutional package that can be considered more or less independently of Mr Ashdown or his successor. It depends on the Commons, where Mr Blair has an impregnable majority; on the Lords, where the hereditary peers are still in a majority; and on the Royal Commission which is to be chaired by Lord Wakeham.
The Mr Worldly Wisemen assumed the chairman would be Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary. Indeed, his future role was presented as an established fact. It did not seem at all unreasonable. Lord Butler has always appeared to see his task as that of helping the prime minister of the day successfully to surmount life's little difficulties. He it was who, in Mr John Major's time, gave Mr Neil Hamilton a clean bill of health, and sent Mr Jonathan Aitken on his way without a stain on his Old Etonian tie. In these and other helpful dispensations, he was doing no more than following the equally helpful precedents set by Lord Armstrong, who had turned the post into that of Margaret Thatcher's Poo-bah, though he did not like her much.
At all events, the head of the commission is to be someone else. It was the other Lord Butler - RA, not the former Sir Robin - who called politics the art of the possible. If that is so, Lord Wakeham is Michelangelo.
In all the recent talk about his past history, no one, as far as I could see, accurately recalled his role in the Fall of Thatcher. Before the first ballot he said to Mr Kenneth Clarke and Mr John Gummer that, if she did not win outright, she could not go forward to a second ballot. She duly failed to win outright, falling four votes short of the 15 per cent "surcharge" required by the rules. But she decided to contest the second ballot none the less and asked Lord Wakeham to be her campaign manager. Despite his initial opinion he agreed but, after a few inquiries, reported to her that he could not assemble a team. She then saw that fatal procession of ministers and, with his full agreement - even encouragement - tearfully withdrew from the contest. Make of this what you will.
The Royal Commission, we should note, is something the Government has tacked on to its plans. There was nothing about it in the manifesto. This promised a joint committee of both Houses to consider the future after the legislative functions of the hereditary peers had been abolished. The committee is still to be established after the commission has reported on or before 31 December. It has already been announced, though no one seems to have paid any attention, that Mr Gerald Kaufman is to be Lord Wakeham's deputy. The commission is supposed to consider and recommend on functions and powers as well as on composition. Accordingly Lord Wakeham, Mr Kaufman and their new chums are going to have their work cut out.
The White Paper already gives a good deal of guidance to them about what the Government will and will not put up with. For instance, Mr Blair clearly favours a mixed composition, partly appointed, partly elected. The bishops are to stay. This we already knew, though there was a film on Newsnight the other evening, as ignorant as it was tendentious, which predicted they would not. Not only are they to stay: the number of religious representatives is, like the loaves and the fishes, to be multiplied. The document suggests that standard bearers for other than Christian faiths ought to end up in the Lords, the Senate or whatever it is going to be called, and that the Church of Scotland ought to be represented also because it is the established church of Scotland.
Yet the White Paper goes on to state that the bishops (most of them chosen on a rota basis) are where they are not because the Church of England is established but for different historical reasons. This is all very well: but why, in that case, has the Church in Wales had no representation in the Lords since its disestablishment in 1920? I ask both out of curiosity and as a confirmed member of that communion. Indeed, the then bishop of St David's once placed his hand gingerly on my heavily Brylcreemed head. Justice for the Church in Wales!
In the meantime, let us have a look at the interim House. It is to consist of the following categories. I have, I may say, worked them out for myself and for the benefit of the readers of this newspaper. The White Paper, though quite a distinguished document in its way despite being got up typographically like a building society brochure, does not set them out clearly:
The bishops; existing life peers, including the Law Lords; new life peers appointed by Mr Blair; new life peers appointed by the other party leaders, over whose appointment Mr Blair will, how-ever, exercise no veto (which is an innovation); new life peers, the so-called "people's peers", appointed by a new independent Appointments Commission, which will also vet all other peerages and over whose appointments Mr Blair will likewise exercise no veto; as I once predicted, those of the existing nine hereditary peers of first creation (including Lord Snowdon) who opt to receive life peerages; and 91 representative hereditary peers, "Cranborne's Finest".
Let us end our investigations with this last category. Why 91? Why not 50 or 100? The reason is that the Cranborne conspirators took one-tenths of the existing 750 hereditary peers for possible preservation, a kind of decimation in reverse - for under that Roman procedure a tenth of the captives were killed rather than preserved. To the 75 lucky ones are added 16 of what are described as "hereditary office holders". All these (including, presumably, the mysterious hereditary office holders) are to be chosen "by an electoral college based on the separate established groupings" in the Lords. I should have thought this was a matter which the hereditary peers, as an already clearly defined body, could have been allowed to decide for themselves, without the interposition either of an electoral college or of other groups in the House.
There is no promise, as far as I can see, that Cranborne's Finest will in due course be converted into life peers, as the hereditary peers of first creation are to be. That possibility cannot, however, be far from the minds of some of them. The excluded hereditary peers will, under the Lords Bill, be able to stand for and vote in elections to the Commons, which is only fair. I still think, however, it is a bit mean not to allow them even to have lunch in the Lords any longer. That, after all, was the reason why many of them bothered to turn up at all.
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