Beware, Mr Blair, of creating a new form of patronage

Political Commentary
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EVEN before the Staffordshire by- election and his respectful reception in the United States, Mr Tony Blair was only the second Leader of the Opposition of recent times to be regarded as the next Prime Minister. The first was Harold Wilson. Margaret Thatcher was certainly not looked upon in this way: it was widely believed, not least by women Conservatives, that being a woman would tell against her. The Tories thought they had made a terrible mistake in choosing Edward Heath instead of Reginald Maud- ling: when he won the election, most of them were as surprised as Wilson.

Unlike Wilson before 1964, Mr Blair has not promised a technological revolution or, indeed, a revolution of any description. Reading his speeches as assiduously as I do - for like Wilson, but unlike his four immediate predecessors, he is a great one for set speeches - I find it difficult to summarise what precisely it is that he has promised. There is one exception: constitutional reform.

True, the proposals for regional assemblies have unravelled like a woolly jumper after the cat has been at it. The exact nature of devolution for Scotland and Wales has yet to be explained fully. With electoral reform we are not promised reform exactly but a referendum on it: Mr Blair says he has "never been persuaded that, under proportional representation, we can avoid a situation where small parties end up wielding disproportionate power". On the Bill of Rights, we now know we shall have not a comprehensive statute of our own but a short Act incorporating the European Convention into our law.

Over the House of Lords, however, Mr Blair has maintained his position in all its radicalism. Here there has been no qualification or dilution. The voting rights of the hereditary peers in the Upper House are to be abolished, and that is that. In fact there was a newspaper story last week saying this would be the incoming government's first action. Why, Mr Tony Benn at his most fierce, at that disastrous Blackpool conference of 1980, would have approved. Ms Patricia Hewitt, who on that dreadful occasion was more ferocious still, could hardly have withheld her commendation either.

Even the concession which Mr Blair was prepared to make (or so I had been told by his closest constitutional adviser) finds no place in his latest thoughts, in the John Smith lecture of 7 February. It was supposed to be that hereditary peers of first creation, of whom there are a dozen including Lords Whitelaw and Tonypandy, would retain their voting rights. The only concession Mr Blair is prepared to make is that some of that small number of hereditary peers who "participate regularly" and "make a positive contribution" may be turned into life peers.

This is all admirably clear, as far as it goes. Even so, questions remain unanswered. Mr Blair talks about the hereditary peers who not only "use the House of Lords as a drinking and dining club" but also vote. They are to be deprived of the latter privilege. Are they to be stripped of the former as well, and forced to spend all their time instead in White's, Pratt's and the Turf Club? It does not appear so. That would certainly be a cruel and unusual punishment - like chucking old age pensioners out of the reading-room of a public library and into the cold. But, if the hereditary peers are not excluded from the precincts of the House, can they be excluded from the chamber itself? And, if they are admitted to the chamber, what or who is to prevent them chipping in with their two penn'orth, even if they cannot vote at the end of it?

These questions can all be answered. As Mr Blair says: "We are masters of our rules and procedure." But he does not answer them in his Smith lecture.

So far, attempts by Dr Brian Mawhinney and the Fogey Press to make our flesh creep have signally failed in their object. Dr Mawhinney tried to bring in the Queen and the Royal Family, though in a hesitant sort of way, like a boxer trying out an experimental punch in the gym. Certainly Her Majesty was distressed by the Abolition of Titles Bill. This was introduced by the late Labour backbencher Emrys Hughes in 1968. She attempted unsuccessfully to have it withdrawn - though the measure eventually collapsed in the normal way of parliamentary business. Mr Blair does not propose to abolish titles. Lords and ladies can carry on. But she may well take the view that whatever touches the hereditary peerage also touches her and her family. If she does, she will not find that public sympathy is on her side. She will be told to mind her own business.

No, the criticism of Mr Blair's proposals should come not from the Conservative Party or the Queen but from his own side. He is set to create the greatest quango in the kingdom, an Upper House depending wholly on government patronage, exercised through the creation of life peers. He does not, to be fair to him, want this to be the final position. He admits he is divided in his mind between an Upper House based solely on election and one based partly on election and partly on patronage, which he quaintly calls "merit".

Anyone paying a visit to the Lords, as I sometimes do, will find that merit is in distinctly short supply. It is like a Sunset Home for aged party hacks, of whom most were only vaguely recognised even when they were in the Commons and held office. Or it is like a short visit to Purgatory, to a political departure lounge. "Good heavens, is that really Bob Mellish? I thought he was dead." Anyway, let Mr Blair speak for himself:

"Whatever the final balance between election and merit, it is impossible to justify doing nothing about a manifest constitutional unfairness, namely, membership of the legislature on the basis of birth. Surely we should first make the House of Lords a genuine body of the distinguished and meritorious - with a better, more open and independent means of establishing membership - and then debate how we incorporate democratic accountability."

I have read that last sentence several times and still do not know what it means: presumably that, to begin with, life peers should be chosen by some different system from straight - or, rather, crooked - No 10 patronage and that, as a second stage, elections should be brought in. We have been here before. The Parliament (No 2) Bill 1968 proposed a division between speaking and voting peers. It was the child of an alliance between RHS Crossman and Lord Carrington. It died because of a breakdown between the two front benches brought about by a Lords rejection of the Rhodesia Sanctions Order, and also because of a backbench partnership between Mr Enoch Powell and Mr Michael Foot.

But I do not believe history will quite repeat itself on this occasion. I think Mr Blair really will abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and that we shall then have four or five years of acrimonious argument about what to do next, while the Lords are packed by No 10.