That's all, folks

Richard Hoggart, the key thinker of his generation on class and culture, demolishes the arguments for retaining the House of Lords. What's more, its abolition should sound the death knell of other outmoded institutions

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HAVING REACHED an age at which several friends and acquaintances have been offered peerages, I take modest pleasure in noting the reasons they give for accepting or rejecting.

Roughly half refuse, saying firmly that they radically oppose a House where hereditary lords can vote. It is, they add, profoundly undemocratic, a remnant of the Age of Deference. To support it is to exhibit nostalgia for a sentimentally glorified past.

They will therefore not accept any political body which is not democratically elected. Anything else would smuggle in yet another form of unwarranted privilege. Not only must the voting rights of hereditary peers go; life peers are out also since they are not popularly chosen - are all too often placemen and women of the Prime Minister of the day.

The acceptors take another tack. To begin with, they invoke professional loyalty (though that is more and more easily invoked by those who take a "K", a knighthood - "I took it as a tribute to all our corporate achievements"). Then, two sharper justifications: "I disapprove of the Lords. I accepted so as to speed the departure of the hereditary peers and after that of the life peers." The witty acceptor, now dead, explained: " I took it because it's the only honour the Queen doesn't confer." Which didn't make clear why he was willing to have any honour. I suspect he would have grasped, say, the Order of Merit and bowed before the monarch.

The strongest argument for the present system is: "The House of Lords has much changed, especially since the addition of the life peers. They can now do a good job in examining major issues, at length, carefully and often very intelligently without looking over their shoulders at their constituents or, perhaps, their chief whip. They can, and sometimes do, make the Commons think again."

Quite a good line that, and far better than the defences put up by the hereditary peers themselves. Most of those have been so ludicrous that they undermined their own defences. One lord of the western shires spoke so flutingly and self-confidently on Radio 4 a few weeks ago about his kin's contribution to the care of the land that a stranger might have thought that we had no untitled farmers, and that all today's peers were at least the equal of Coke of Norfolk.

And they were all, we were told, independent to a degree that a Prime Minister's nominees could not be. Lord Richard in this week's debates shot that down in one sentence, ending, "Independent, yes ... in all things right up to the point at which they, virtually all, independently vote Conservative."

FOR ME, the main inescapable elements in the argument are that the hereditary peers' votes must go. They are by now a grotesque anomaly. The argument that they should not go until a substitute form has been found is a smokescreen. The present PM may well appoint no more life peers until a royal commission, now to be set up, has reported. The delaying tactics of these peers, now refusing to leave their seats, irresistibly recall Shakespeare's wilful Barnadine, refusing to leave his cell for execution until he was good and ready.

Second: do we need a second chamber? If so, for what purposes? And third, how should it be constituted?

I have already quoted some reasons why a second chamber may be a good thing, but that argument inevitably reflects back on the Commons. Can't a fully democratic House, elected by universal suffrage, be trusted to do its business properly and well? Isn't it deeply undemocratic to have such a House elected and then to insist on the need for a sort-of-corrective back-stop to its ways of working?

In some ways, yes, one has to answer. Yet one also has to say that there are, by public election, some stupid and some venal MPs, some cowards desperate only to placate their electors, some petty or major crooks out chiefly to milk the system for all it can deliver. Yes, again, comes the response, but those people are in a minority and their presence is one of the prices to be willingly paid to preserve democratic choice.

One can go further and more effectively. It is the sign of a working democracy that an elected first chamber can sometimes think better than the popular will and can pass laws which the majority in the land would not, given a straight choice, wish to have. We know that a majority are in favour of the return of the death penalty and against anti-racism legislation. We have both, to the credit of the Houses of Parliament; we would have had neither if decisions had been made by referendum.

This, incidentally, throws a curious light on Mr Hague's recent referendum on the single European currency. How far will he go with his postal appeal to "the people as a whole"? Will he end by accepting "the people's choice"? Here, and on the death penalty?

The point, and it is both crucially important and almost always fearfully avoided, is: sometimes the popular will is wrong-headed, and truly democratic, not populist, Parliament will ignore that common will and do better, be more humane and civilised than the majority would wish. Inertia, laziness, usually regarded as the disease of democracies, can help Parliament along there, become a useful braking instrument. That is perhaps a pity, but until many more of us are decently educated, it can be a useful tool.

Coleridge was unambiguous here, but who listens to him nowadays? Democracy, he asserted, was a quality, a style that forms a "healthy life-blood" of societies. It is not the ruling government itself; if it were we would have demagoguery, decision-making by head-counting. Referendums, populism, and not democracy.

THAT ARGUMENT, that an elected parliament can sometimes do better than "the people" as a whole, supports Coleridge's claim, and may, to some extent, weaken the case for an additional chamber. But it is in play only intermittently and at times when even Parliament is ethically outraged. It does not weaken the general case for a useful second chamber.

Here we come upon the last-ditch stand of those who believe that democracy must always mean popular universal election of representatives; that the members of any second chamber must be elected also. To which the answer rightly given is: you have that already in the House of Commons. Then the saving subtleties begin: "Let's have a second chamber elected regionally" (this by a political scientist). That's only a minor modification of today's constituency electorates.

Or let's have a second chamber composed of elected representatives of a multitude of new kinds of constituencies: trade unionists, local councillors, local industrialists, important members of voluntary bodies, old and young, women and men, and so on. The early Independent Television Authority tried that sort of system more than 40 years ago and laid a massive curate's egg.

None of that would work in the needed way, in the sense of providing informed and independent checks and balances on the Commons. If you think that to provide such a check without some form of election is unacceptably "undemocratic", then you will totally refuse to take a further step. That is: to oppose a royal commission to look at how a body representing all the main areas of intellect, imagination, thought and responsibility in the nation may be composed - by peer selection - so as to provide consistently well-nourished debates (Matthew Arnold's fresh stream of thought and feeling on our common life).

It would be axiomatic that such a body would not have the final word, that they were not decision makers; that each member would serve for a limited term (say, five years); that each member would be the equivalent of a "cross-bencher" (they are the best current model); and that neither the prime minister of the day nor any member of the government would have a say in their selection; nor any self-promoting old nags.

And the next step? The end of the monarchy? Yes; it too is past its time. A revised second chamber; a bill of rights; and a president. It is easy to think of four or five countries which have chosen presidents well, maturely: people with civilised dignity. True, at present we would be likely to choose some clapped-out politician or even aristocrat. So perhaps on this we should wait a while, until we are clear enough in our own minds to make that further change.

Richard Hoggart announced himself as the country's most radical thinker on class and culture with the publication, in 1957, of 'The Uses of Literacy'. It has remained in print ever since. His most recent book is 'The Way We Live Now'.

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