Leading Article: Send the lords a-leaping and head for the Senate

Related Topics
Suppose just for a moment that, among all the other zesty things Tony Blair did within days of taking office, he had said: "No more knighthoods." Suppose he had dropped the whole rickety, deference-ridden Christmas tree of gongs and baubles. In the Young Country, nobody would be called officially Sir or Lady. All former Tory ministers and ex-permanent secretaries would be, well, former Tory ministers and ex-permanent secretaries.

Ludicrous, of course. He would have to consult the Queen, who would never have agreed. It was not in the manifesto. It would voluntarily surrender an important lever of patronage. But, above all, it would have "implications". The entire Establishment wing of voluntary activity would be up in arms. What about CBEs, OBEs, the imperial orders allegedly democratised by the previous government? What, above all, about titles in general? If no Sirs, what about Lords? And if no Dames and knightly-spouse Ladies, what about Lady peers? Which brings us to the weekend's announcement that legislation is being drawn up to reform the House of Lords.

It has often been argued, both by opponents of reform and by some of its supporters, such as this newspaper, that changing the House of Lords cannot be separated from other aspects of modernising our democracy. Opponents argue, in the way of true conservatives everywhere, and as Enver Hoxha did when he warned against the slightest deviation from the strict path of Stalinism in Albania, that it will all end "in a bucket of crabs".

Our argument has always been, on the contrary, that if one part of the undemocratic encrustations of our system is swept away, then the illogic of other parts will be exposed. Eventually, the dominos of deference will fall. But there are dangers in proceeding piecemeal, which seems to be how the Government is approaching the most ambitious programme of constitutional reform since 1832. We pointed out recently that it was not ideal to have Roy Jenkins discussing the finer points of proportional representation for the Commons in isolation from consideration of the future of the second chamber. But both the possibility of electoral reform and the certainty of House of Lords reform are part of a wider picture still, and will have implications for a range of issues, some of which have not even begun to be discussed.

Now is the time to broaden the terms of debate about where we might, as a nation increasingly assertive of its democratic rights, be headed. Because there will be "implications" for, among other things, the honours system and the monarchy.

The debate will not be led by Mr Blair, who has added the title "conservative radical" to the list of oxymorons by which he may be described ("liberal authoritarian" and "principled opportunist" are others). Apart from strengthening No 10 and the spin doctorate, and appointing a series of "task forces", he has left the structure and nomenclature of government surprisingly intact. To take a minor example of how this conservatism has cut across the attempted "rebranding" of Britain, it cannot have helped Geoffrey Robinson in his travails that he has been lumbered with the antique title of Paymaster General.

Nor does it help Mr Blair stake a larger claim to modernity for him to reduce Lords reform simply to the removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Upper House. It may be true that if you ask a focus group whether men (mainly) should have a role in drafting legislation because their father had a title, they would say No. Whereas, if you ask them what they think about the House of Lords, they would probably say it is a good thing, if they have an opinion at all.

The Government needs to say more about what a reformed second chamber would be like, and how it will, if not affect the price of milk, at least enhance democracy for all. That point was underlined by the official briefing that Mr Blair has set a deadline of 1999 for the hereditaries to go. The linking of democratic reform to what Stephen Jay Gould called the "precisely arbitrary countdown" to the new millennium throws into sharper relief the contrast between New Labour's conservatism and its radicalism.

We cannot go into the next century with a House of Lords which has simply been stripped of peers who owe their ermine to accident of birth, leaving an unreformed assortment of political appointees deposited like sediment by layers of patronage in the past, plus bishops and judges.

It needs to be said now that, if a mere number is to have any significance at all in secular Britain, that in the 21st century we should have a democracy in which sovereignty lies with the people, equal in respect. We should not have Lords, Ladies or Sirs. And we should have a Senate or Upper House which is largely elected.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Children shouldn’t even know the word 'diet' — obesity and lack of body confidence are symptoms of the same cause

Natasha Devon
Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West and Jay-Z at the Tidal launch event in New York  

Tidal: An overpriced music streaming service that only benefits the super-rich members of a messianic-like cult? Where do I sign up??

Michael Segalov
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat