Normally in Britain, thorny issues relating to policy are obscured by frenzied claims about scandalous behaviour. Debates about political judgements move quickly to questions about whether those making the decisions are corrupt.
As the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, noted at the weekend, British politics are the least corrupt in the world and yet voters are convinced that sleaze is worse than ever. It is an easy and lazy reflex action to declare knowingly, "I don't trust the lot of them". There are many such knowing declarations being made at the moment in the unelected media and beyond. Those that see scandal around every corner should reflect on whether they would prefer an end to democratic politics, as they seem to despise those that are elected. In doing so they should look to the Middle East and remember that the alternative to resolving disputes through the unavoidably devious manoeuvrings of elected politicians is the use of violent force.
But one oddity about the current so-called scandal involving "cash for honours" is that the complex issues have not been obscured. Indeed they have moved too quickly to the fore of the argument. The pattern of the argument goes like this: some of the most generous donors to political parties have been given peerages, therefore it is necessary to reform the House of Lords, turning it into an at least partly elected second chamber.
For once, an alleged scandal has led to renewed focus on an area of policy. There is no issue more complex than reform of the House of Lords. Reforms have been tried many times and each attempt has failed to make headway. Even the current Government's significant abolition of the hereditary peers contained a convoluted concession in which some of those that had inherited a peerage remained in place.
The solution had a Python-esque silliness to it: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Abolition of Hereditary Peers (except some of them) Bill. Attempts at more sweeping reforms got nowhere."
Now, suddenly and for all the wrong reasons, reform of the Lords is back in fashion. Tony Blair and, let us not forget, the Conservative Party are in trouble over giving peerages to those that have donated large sums. Therefore it is deemed inevitable or desirable that the Lords should be transformed. Help! The police are investigating. Let's reform the Lords. Again Monty Python springs to mind.
Constitutional reform is challenging at the best of times, but when a revolution is undertaken to get politicians out of some short-term difficulties there will be even more trouble ahead.
Mr Blair is being dragged on to this terrain with the same level of enthusiasm as a kid being told he will have to retake his Maths GCSE. He has been there before, was not excited then and is even less thrilled now. At a recent Downing Street press conference, Mr Blair was asked about his apparent conversion to a more elected House of Lords. He told the questioner not to bank on his conversion, adding ambiguously: "The more I look into this issue the more questions are raised. I have come to no conclusions yet."
The limits of Mr Blair's interests can be seen most clearly in his appointment of Jack Straw as Leader of the Commons with a brief to address Lords reform. When Mr Blair is reluctant to act, and yet feels compelled to do so, he calls for the services of Mr Straw. It was Mr Straw who ensured the Freedom of Information Act was not as wide-ranging as some had hoped. Mr Straw was also in charge of the arrangements for a referendum on electoral reform. Mr Straw was happy to arrange that no referendum took place at all.
It would be unfair to deduce from this that Mr Straw is an unswerving conservative in relation to the constitution, but his focus has always been on the primacy of the Commons. It was Mr Straw who urged Mr Blair to have a vote on the eve of war against Iraq. Mr Blair was much less keen. Mr Straw has written long essays about the decline in the reporting of the Commons and wonders even now whether media interest can be reignited (I doubt it).
But on the Lords Mr Straw shares Mr Blair's caution. Later this year he will probably come forward with proposals for a partly elected second chamber, but has shown no great enthusiasm for such a move in the past. If Mr Blair had sought innovation for the Lords with a genuine excitement, Mr Straw would not have been appointed to his current post. Together they will do the least that is necessary in a way that they hope will defuse the separate crisis in relation to party funding.
In which case, why act at all? On many fronts, Mr Blair's conservatism is a source of continued frustration, but when it comes to the House of Lords his caution is well founded. Those that seek change continue to debate how to bring it about and explore what seems like a thousand different options, each of them flawed. There are calls for a wholly elected second chamber, partially elected, a chamber with more powers and one with less - and that is just the debate within the Labour party.
In such a febrile context the former senior cabinet minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe, has come to the rescue. He has intervened like a head teacher in an unruly playground. In an article for the Journal of Legislative Studies he instructs everyone to calm down and poses a question that is rarely asked: if it ain't broke, why fix it?
In the article, one that should be compulsory reading for those wishing to embark on further reform, Lord Howe points out that changes in recent years have already had a radical impact. There is no longer an in-built majority for the Conservative Party. The majority of members are independent or independent-minded. He describes the experience of speaking in the Lords as constructively testing: "When I speak in today's Lords chamber, with the built-in Tory (and hereditary) majority removed, I am very conscious of the presence of an unpompous, and generally rather expert, jury of men and women mainly sitting on the crossbenches. One has the feeling that, more even than most of the rest of the House, they embody the largely non-partisan instincts of the great bulk of our population. I feel as though I am addressing a national jury."
With good cause and much evidence, he argues that a diversity and range of independent-minded members are less likely as a result of elections. A second elected chamber risks both greater subservience to the party machine and gridlock as it claims greater legitimacy.
The funding of political parties must be addressed urgently now that potential donors will not risk the odium that falls on anyone in Britain who takes part in politics. For all its obvious problems, state funding is the neatest solution. The prospects for the Lords must be considered as an entirely separate issue. A rushed reform instigated without genuine enthusiasm by Mr Blair and Mr Straw will fuel the dangerous disillusionment with politics rather than alleviate it.Reuse content