Archbishop warns of 'majoritarian tyranny' in elected House of Lords

  • @jerometaylor

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken out against the House of Lords becoming an entirely elected chamber.

In a speech this evening, Rowan Williams said he supported reform but warned that “popular election should not be the sole or necessarily the dominant factor in the composition of the chamber”.

He defended the current make up of Britain’s second legislative house arguing that there is currently “a significant level of expertise on legal, scientific, sociological and international matters – not to mention significant representation from the whole range of faith communities – which may be relevant to the making of sound and fair legislation.”

But he expressed concern that a Lords which was entirely filled with politicians elected on party tickets risked verging towards a “majoritarian tyranny” that could trample over the voices of minorities. “The second chamber stands for the acknowledgement that someone needs to keep an eye on the wider picture that can be held by a single elected chamber alone,” he said.

His comments, delivered at Royal Holloway’s annual Magna Carta lecture, come at a time of intense debate over what shape Britain’s upper legislative house should take.

Church figures are particularly concerned that their historical presence in the Lords will be significantly reduced. Earlier this year the House of Lords reform committee published its draft bill in which it recommended reducing the current crop of 26 so-called Lords Spiritual who sit in the upper house to just 12. It also suggested a quota of faith leaders from other religious congregations should have a guaranteed presence. But the most significant recommendation is to have more than 90 percent of the Lords fully elected.

Faith communities are not the only groups to have expressed concern about such an approach. Scientists and doctors have also warned that few of the experts in their field who currently sit in the Lords would be represented if they had to rely on being elected.

Dr Williams announced his intended retirement earlier this year and the search to find a successor to head up the Church of England is currently underway. His speech last night also included criticism of the media, who many in church circles believe have been unfairly critical of Dr Williams during his tenure.

“In a social context where mass opinion is easily mobilised by way of the media, this can help reinforce panics about this or that minority group when it seems that scapegoats are desirable,” he said. “We see this sometimes when, for example, everyone who might conceivable be associated with a potential terrorist threat is assumed to be guilty, or when every asylum seeker is assumed to be fraudulent.”