What is the House of Lords FOR?
Conservative Home are running an excellent Comment series this week on House of Lords reform; Tim Montgomerie being of the view that the status quo must be preserved. But those Conservatives who support the status quo appear to be confusing it with the status quo ante: they have not addressed the reality that Tony Blair changed the Chamber irrevocably. The House of Lords is no longer largely composed of non-partisan experts, cuddly cross-benchers and independently-minded hereditary peers who patriotically place loyalty to their country above ephemeral tribal politics: it is now a corporatist entity, appointed by the prime minister of the day and rubber-stamped by a committee appointed by, err... the government of the day. In order to better reflect the outcome of each general election, a prime minister now has no choice but to bung another 100-or-so in, otherwise legislating gets a little jammed up. Blair appointed his statist supporters and quangocrats, and Cameron will need to do the same. We are already at 829 members (though only around 400 turn out every day): we are heading for an Upper House of 1000 members, while simultaneously reducing the Commons from 650 to 600.
So the status quo rock is as untenable as a PR-elected hard place. The proposal to make the House of Lords an elected chamber – whether 80 or 100 per cent – is a certain recipe for future strife. Not least because Nick Clegg’s proposal is that they be elected by STV and remain in office for 15 years. Where else on the planet are elected politicians insulated from their electorate for a decade-and-a-half? How does an 80-per-cent elected chamber constitute a ‘resolution of issues’? What is the ‘democratic legitimacy’ of the remaining 20 per cent, especially the bishops? What is the democratic legitimacy of the entire 100 per cent if members may only be judged by their electorate every 15 years?
It is bizarre to seek to move towards a fully-elected chamber seemingly before establishing the function and purpose of that chamber. If it is to remain a revising chamber, providing scrutiny and expertise, why is the judgement of the people the favoured mechanism for establishing those who make the wisest scrutineers? Plato observed that philosophers are ‘very odd birds, not to say thoroughly vicious; whilst even those who look the best of them are reduced...to complete uselessness as members of society’. In short, the wisest scrutineers are not necessarily going to be recognised by most people and may certainly not have popular appeal. Have the Prime Minister and his Deputy forgotten their philosophy? Is not Plato’s simile of the Ship informing deliberations? While the partially deaf and myopic captain (the people) is quarrelling with his crew (competing politicians) over how to navigate and who should be at the helm, none of them has any genuine skill in navigation. One faction of the crew is able to take control of the ship by killing their rivals and drugging the captain. They then turn the ship into a pleasure cruise and admire the seamanship of whomever is able to control the captain.
Democratic politics has not changed. But the true navigator, with his expert knowledge of the seasons, winds and stars, is completely ignored and considered useless by the crew, who do not understand the means or purposes of the art of navigation. Nick Clegg is proposing that out of the chaos, sophistry and corruption of the democratic process, the mob will eschew their short-term carnal pleasures, see through the political rhetoric and recognise the navigator’s skills for the good of the state.
This was not so in ancient Greece and it is not so now. The philosopher then as now is not inclined to beg others to allow him to rule. For, like the navigator, he is concerned with truth and not (like the crew-politicians) with the statisfaction of his immediate personal pleasures or with the acquisition of power. Those who seek to rule are concerned with seducing the people in order to gain and retain power, which leads to conflict and distrust: those who seek to scrutinise, reflect and guide are concerned with the pursuit of wisdom and truth for the long-term good of the state. Thus their lordships should value their independence from petty issues of party politics.
The case had not been made for an elected Upper House, which would become a highly-politicised chamber crammed with even more ‘professional’ politicians. The Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has made the point that these proposals merit a referendum (yes, another one), and he referred to the proposed reforms as ‘dog's dinner’ (he meant ‘breakfast’). Not only would a house elected by PR assert a greater democratic legitimacy than one elected by FPTP, but experience shows (in Scotland, Wales and London) that demands for incremental gains in competences would surely follow. And one has to wonder at the legitimacy of a bill which is whipped through Parliament, even with the threat of using the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords.
Let us first focus on the purpose of the House of Lords: everything else should then fall into place.