The Sketch: The Lords works so well it is an affront to government

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's been repeated a bit recently, but you may have missed that remark of Lord Salisbury's in the later 19th century: "What do we need change for; aren't things bad enough as they are?"

Never was Cloudy Day Conservatism so well expressed. The principle can't quite be applied to reform of the House of Lords because that particular chamber does perfectly well as it is. It does so well that change would undoubtedly mean decay.

Support hose and Zimmer frames not withstanding, the Lords expresses the genius of the British constitution. The chamber has no rules, regulations or code of conduct to tell them how to behave. They have a culture instead. And because the place is less political than the Commons it's a good deal more courteous, informative, modest, factual and sensible.

Nonetheless, Tony Blair is determined on reform and so is the Leader of the House, Jack Straw. Why? They find the lack of democracy unacceptable. As we know, the Prime Minister says he believes democracy to be a "universal human value". It's bilge, but he had to invade Iraq to prove it was bilge.

The place is doubtless a sitting affront to any government. There is no party majority up there. No government majority, think of it! Of course, that's why the place is so valuable and of course it's why the Government wants to reform it. As a curtain raiser to the Bill to come, they debated a joint committee's report on themselves. It's going to be debated in the Commons this afternoon.

Jack Straw is determined to do something in his tenure as Leader. He wants half the Lords to be elected. I bet he doesn't pull it off. Lord Cunningham produced the deftest argument against it. "If the Lords acquire an electoral mandate, their role will change, codified or not." This idea must cause serious emotional disorder in the Commons. Elected peers "would not be clones who would accept the status quo. That does not accord with the reality of political life," Cunningham said. A semi-elected Lords would have enough democratic legitimacy to demand more powers for itself; or more to the point, start exercising the powers it already has.

The Commons is being invited to approve this report today. It is a thundering vindication of the rights of the Upper House in theory and in practice, and represents an all-party consensus that things are fine as they are. It's hard to see why a reform-minded government should be so enthusiastic about it. Doubtless we shall be told. Whether we understand is a different matter.