What was the most shocking thing about former Deputy Speaker of the Lords John Sewel’s conduct in the last few days? Was it the moment that he was caught on film, released by the Sun on Sunday, saying that he’d quite like an Asian prostitute to join him and his powder-snorting female companions, because, ‘They sort of look innocent but you know they’re whores. That’s a nice combination, isn’t it?’ Was it the moment he addressed his expenses in conversation with the women; ‘£200 a day?’ they exclaim, and he replies, ‘It’s not for lunch, lovey darling, it’s paying for this’? Or was it, perhaps, something a little more mundane: the article he’d published on the Huffington Post a few days prior, which praised the House of Lords for having ‘come a long way since 2010 in improving its regulation of its Members and punishing the small number who misbehave’? Having appointed himself as policeman of the peerage, Sewel truly is a spectacularly ironic case of how the mighty hath fallen.
I can’t help but feel there’s one immoral act of Sewel’s we haven’t addressed enough: the fact that he accepted a peerage, and joined the House of Lords, in the first place.
There have been several attempts for a reformed, democratically elected, House of Lords in recent years. In 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, had support for his “ambitious” bill dropped by his Conservative coalition partners and allegedly “shelved” until September 2012 but no further action was taken towards it. In November 2014, Ed Miliband announced a similar plan to “make the second chamber of Parliament truly a senate of the regions and nations of our whole country.” but this plan was also scrapped before the election.
Clearly the government and opposition hold the view that reforming the Lords to suit contemporary democratic standards would be unpopular amongst the 'small c' conservative electorate but the evidence points to the contrary. In 2012, Nick Clegg's Lords reform campaign received a boost, which historically proved to be fruitless, when a YouGov poll commissioned by Unlock Democracy found that 69% of voters support a reformed House of Lords and the largest number (33%) supported it being fully elected.
The 'cash for honours' scandal saw 11 peers appointed ostensibly as a result of donating vast amounts of money to the Labour Party. This is a practice comparable to the venal system of 'nobility of the robe' during the French Enlightenment, wherein the thirteen parliaments and lower courts of power were controlled by individuals who had paid to attain hereditary positions of nobility. The French revolutionary government abolished this way to attaining power in 1790 and the French haven't had one akin to it since.
This leads me question why 670 out of 783 of members still life peers in the UK and more significantly; why aren't we electing them to their seats?
Sewel’s hypocrisy may be obvious, but the democratic hypocrisy we commit by retaining unelected peers in our Parliament is something that we’re in grave danger of overlooking. The reason that he didn’t deserve to take a deciding role in our governance has nothing to do with whether or not he takes cocaine, or pays for sex workers, or fiddles his expenses to high heaven. That’s because the reason that he didn’t deserve to take a deciding role in our governance is because nobody elected him – or his contemporaries – to the House of Lords in the first place.
Boris Corovic is political editor of the International TimesReuse content