Nick Clegg may open himself up to charges of opportunism if he attempts to use the issue of Fred Goodwin's knighthood to spur reform of the House of Lords. But if anything constructive can be wrung from the charade of one person held humiliatingly accountable for the failures of the many, it would be worth the risk. Indeed, any opportunity to give constitutional reform the attention it deserves should be grabbed with both hands.
As much as anything, the debacle over Mr Goodwin reveals a gross inconsistency. While this newspaper would argue that the former banker should not have been made a scapegoat by stripping him of his gong, it is nonetheless right that such an option is available. Meanwhile, peers of the realm not only honoured by the state, but given power to affect its government, face no such censure. A life peer is exactly that. Regardless of their conduct – one need think no further than the prison sentences of, say, Lord Archer, or Lord Black – there is no mechanism by which to remove them. Suspended, yes; expelled, no. Somewhat bizarrely, they cannot even resign. This must change.
The Deputy Prime Minister's plans for reforming the Upper House, including measures for expulsion and resignation, are therefore to be welcomed. The question, however, is whether Mr Clegg's efforts will be any more successful than all those that have gone before.
It is true that the constitutional reform Bill, to be in included in the Queen's Speech this spring, is set to dominate the coming parliamentary programme. It is also true that the Prime Minister has committed to support the plan. But there are whispers in Westminster that David Cameron's backing may not prove as wholehearted as his promises suggest. And, given his last-minute politicking over the other Liberal Democrat priority – the alternative vote referendum – it is not unduly cynical to wonder if Mr Cameron may baulk at allowing as dry an issue as Lords reform to take up so much parliamentary time.
Given the fracas over Mr Goodwin, such vacillation would be a fine chance wasted. Mr Clegg proposes a slimmed-down upper chamber with 80 per cent of its members elected, the rest appointed, and all sitting for a single term. It is a sensible plan that deserves support. After a hundred years of attempts at reform, it is a disgrace that there are still 90 hereditary peers voting on British laws. That the majority of the other 700 members of the Lords are government appointments is little better, entrenching a system of patronage and cronyism that is wholly unacceptable in the open society Britain purports to be. Unsurprisingly, efforts to change the status quo have struggled in the face of peers' unwillingness to vote for their own disenfranchisement. The Goodwin fiasco must concentrate minds both inside and outside Parliament and bring the anachronism to an end.
There is another lesson, too, in Mr Goodwin's recent dishonour. Maintaining that Fred the Shred should have kept his knighthood is one thing, supporting his receiving it in the first place quite another. There is much to be said for a system whereby extraordinary contributions to society can be publicly recognised. Recipients might reasonably include philanthropists, fundraisers, volunteers, even civil servants. It is hard to see how those who run banks, manage football teams, or present television programmes qualify. Put simply, they should not. Such people are already both recognised and rewarded.
That Mr Goodwin's humiliation has been so unedifying a spectacle is even more reason to put it to good use. Only the pruning of our sprawling and discredited honours system, and the hauling of the House of Lords into the modern world, will do.