Monday 27 February 2006
Bruce Anderson: The best House of Lords was the one we had
Tories should be wary of Blair's consultation offers, especially on the constitution
Yet he now wants to have another go at the House of Lords, and would like help. His motives are self-evident. He has no idea what to do about the Lords - he never did - and he wishes to spread the blame. If the Tories agree to be consulted, the PM reckons that they would be estopped from inflicting the castigation and mockery which he deserves. If they are wise, the Tories will refuse his blandishments and call the police.
Though complex, the future of the House of Lords is a second-order problem. The primary weakness is in the House of Commons. The Commons has become demoralised, ineffective and disrespected, which helps to explain voter apathy. It appears to have become a mere legislative sausage factory, although given the abominable quality of the legislative sausage, that metaphor is unfair to real sausage makers. If their products were as bad, they would have been closed down long ago. The Commons does not even give proper scrutiny to European legislation, most of which is pure e-coli sausage.
The Blair Government has made the sausage factory even less hygenic because most of its legislation is so ill thought-out; House of Lords reform was only one example. The short title of the average Blair Bill ought to read: "A Bill to ensure good headlines tomorrow, and sod the longer term." But Mr Blair is not wholly to blame. For the past few decades, the Commons has been a printing works for the ukases of elective dictatorship.
That explains a recent Tory tendency: Aristocrats for Lords reform. In order to create a second chamber which could compensate for the Commons' supineness in challenging the executive, Lords Carrington, Onslow, Salisbury - his grandfather took the same view - and others have come to believe in a radical reform which would more or less eliminate the hereditaries while introducing a large elected element in order to give the new House legitimacy.
Robert Salisbury thinks that the House of Lords should be half nominated and half elected. The nominees would be great persons appointed by independent bodies. The elections should take place at staggered intervals during the Commons mid-term, and those elected should only be allowed one 15-year term. The aim would be to produce peers who could not be bribed by the party managers.
In this, however, his Lordship ignores both the power of party hackery and the reluctance of the British to vote, which helps to explain why other elected bodies are so much worse than the Commons. It would be impossible to ensure that an elected Lords did not become a second-rate Commons: the most humiliating fate for a once-great institution since the decline of the Venetian Republic.
There is an even more basic objection to Lord Salisbury's proposals. He takes it for granted that an elective dictatorship is a bad thing. Is that necessarily so? Without it, we would not have had the benefits of Thatcherism. If Robert Salisbury's House of Lords had been sitting in 1979, its members would have been suffused by the conventional wisdom of earlier generations. Lord Reith said that the best form of government was dictatorship tempered by assassination. If we substitute elective dictatorship tempered by assassination at the ballot box, we have a system with more virtues than flaws.
But if the secondary question of the Lords is of limited relevance to the Commons, how should it be answered? Let us start by describing a desirable House of Lords. It should have ethos and tradition; most of its members should be independent-minded. Its debates should be less partisan and more thoughtful than in the other place, so an infusion of expertise would help. This is an old country and even among city-dwellers, much sentiment is rooted in the land. So the Lords should represent land and history.
It should be able to make life awkward for governments, both in its debates and its division lobbies. It should have power to block minor legislation, such as the absurd fox-hunting Bill. It should not hesitate to obstruct senseless proposals, as over ID cards. But it would be a subordinate House. On major issues, the government should prevail, within a reasonable time. Given that, the Lords does not require democratic legitimacy.
So how do we construct such a House? Fortunately, there is no need to do so. Until the Blair reforms it existed and a very short Bill could restore the status quo ante 1997. That would be a much more sensible use of opposition time than participating in Tony Blair's fraudulent consultation.
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