The Sketch: Peers: indefensible, but defend them we must

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The Independent Online

"The status quo is not an option." How many times have we heard that? And how often has it turned out to be the start of a powerful, coherent story with a wise moral and a happy ending? Never, is the answer. A Tale of Two Cities? Behold, A Man? Die Hard III? Hamlet? Have any of our heroes been impelled to begin their journey by realising that "the status quo is not an option"?

Jack Straw is back with his heroic proposals to defy the status quo and reform the House of Lords. Many have tried. The proposals litter the corridors of power. The only cheerful note in Jack's Stravian statement concerned the fate of the previous attempt to gain consensus for reform: "In a free vote, every single option was voted down." (Some cheers. A bark.)

The Sketch argues that the status quo is a perfectly good option, and probably the best available.

The Lords reads legislation that the Commons hasn't time to (hundreds of clauses get passed by our MPs without their ever being read out in public). It defies the Government on certain occasions, but has done so less frequently than Tory lords defied the Tory government.

People who find the status quo intolerable have difficulty saying why. Everything they want it to do, it does already. The composition of the House of Lords is, of course, indefensible. But attacks on it are equally indefensible. The whole subject is beyond reason, beyond definition, beyond rational construction. The only thing that can be said about the chamber is that it works better than the House of Commons.

A more rational composition would please those who suffer from the mania so common in the political class - that they can redesign institutions. This confidence is misplaced.

The voting proposals are so complicated that even to understand them is unBritish enough to be an act of treason. At bottom, they depend on party lists. That's all many of us need to know. Helmut Kohl lost his seat in the election but got back in by virtue of heading up his party's list. We did an ad at the time: "What do you call a leader you can't vote out of office? In Germany they call him Chancellor." And why this pious cry for more democracy in the Lords? The most powerful political body in Europe - the European Commission - is wholly undemocratic, and the only democratic element in the European Union (the Parliament) is powerless. By contrast, the only democratic element of the House of Lords is the hereditary peerage.

We do have the pleasure of "a train wreck" to look forward to, as the Leader of the House promised us. That's what we rubberneckers in the gallery want.

PS: A Tory MP asked the Prime Minister about Abu Hamza. The MP's name is Hands. There is no tasteful joke that can be made about this, but I offer the raw materials to be used in the privacy of your own home.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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