To what conceivable question is 450 more elected politicians a rational answer? That is the conundrum which comes inescapably to my mind as I contemplate the government’s proposed Lords reform Bill.
And if you answer that the question to which it is the answer is “how is the House of Lords to be made more ‘democratic’,” I have to ask, what on earth do you mean by “democratic”? It’s an interesting word, democratic. It doesn’t, for instance, necessarily mean representative, in the sense of representing, or being in tune with, public opinion. Time and again, the Lords over the years have spoken for the people against the Commons, because the Lords, being largely independent of the government machine, have been more able to express what the people actually wanted than the Commons, whose members mostly have to vote as the whips tell them to vote or risk the loss of their political careers. Of course the Lords are not directly “accountable” to the electorate in the same sense that an elected politician is. But as the splendid Betty Boothroyd — who was Speaker of the House of Commons in the era when the Speaker was still someone we all respected — put it, “nor are the monarchy, the judiciary, the chiefs of the armed services, the Prime Minister, his deputy Mr Clegg or – let us face it – the Cabinet directly accountable”.
How would our political system be improved by giving vastly more power to the existing party machines? A freely elected politician rather than an appointed one sounds like a wonderful thing; but how will you get to be one of these wondrous creatures? You will have to be appointed as a candidate, that’s how. This new reformed chamber will be “elected” by proportional representation: that means that it is the powers that be in the political establishment who will decide on the list of candidates to be elected, that is, on who actually gets to stand for office in the first place. Only then will we get a say; we will “choose” someone we have never heard of, someone from whom we are entirely remote or, more likely, we will stay at home. That’s how elections to the European Parliament unfold. Do you really FEEL democratically represented in the European Parliament? Of course you don’t: this isn’t a democratic institution at all, but a pseudo-democratic Potemkin village, just as the supposedly reformed House of Lords will be.
I repeat: it won’t be a freely elected House at all: it will be pre-selected by the political establishment against which the House of Lords we actually have is a frequently splendid counterbalance. It may be the case that the present Lords is appointed in a number of ways (including the political, but encompassing also an on the whole well-conducted selection of those who have made in some way an outstandingly distinguished contribution to the national life): but once appointed, no political party has any further control of a peer’s speaking or voting: peers are free to do what they actually do rather well: use their considerable collective experience (as I say, they include senior physicians, jurists, civil servants, economists, soldiers, religious leaders, and others as well as senior politicians) to revise legislation. And to quote Baroness Boothroyd again, “I … ask in the simplest and most mundane terms that I can command: in what way would the nation benefit and parliamentary proceedings be enhanced by the abolition of this House of experts and experience, and its replacement by a senate of paid politicians?”
I return to the question with which I began: To what conceivable question is 450 more elected politicians a rational answer? The answer actually is that it is the question of how on earth the Liberals can go into the next election able to say to their core voters that they have actually achieved something radical by going into coalition with the old enemy: in other words, how are they to avoid being electorally wiped out (so far as I am concerned, a consummation devoutly to be wished)? It was put rather well (as well as amusingly; Lords speeches are so much less boring than Commons ones) by Lord (Michael) Forsyth of Drumlean:
I wonder whether your Lordships remember the Austin Allegro. The Austin Allegro was probably the worst car ever built. It was completely unreliable, it had a totally underpowered engine, and its big selling feature was that it had a square steering wheel. This car was designed by the management for political reasons. They ignored the people who knew about cars and design and it was meant to save British Leyland. It was the management’s answer. In fact, they were so convinced that it would save the company that it was nicknamed the “flying pig”.
I do not know whether noble Lords can see the parallel that I am drawing here, but it seems to me that this Bill… has many similarities to the Austin Allegro in so far as the Deputy Prime Minister believes it will save the Liberal Party at the next election. It was conceived for political reasons and without any recognition of the needs of the consumer and the customer — in this case the wider electorate.
That, surely, is the point. This is a Bill for which there is neither support nor even the vaguest interest among the electorate. The government claims that it is being attempted in the name of “democracy”: but doesn’t, or shouldn’t, democracy have something at least to do with responding to the genuine concerns of the people? The fact is that, as Michael Forsyth so perceptively puts it, the Bill “was conceived for political reasons and without any recognition of the needs of the … wider electorate”. It is an utterly cynical operation, encompassed solely for the purposes of the short-term political interests of those concerned. Cameron wants to save the coalition. Clegg wants to save his bacon. And to achieve these very narrow goals, legislation is proposed which would sweep away our parliamentary constitution as it has evolved over 500 years (for, make no mistake, it would also have a profound effect on the powers and operation of the Commons, too).
I return to the ringing denunciation of what is proposed by that great Parliamentarian, Betty Boothroyd: “Never in my experience has an institution at the heart of the British constitution been marked down for destruction on such spurious grounds. Never in all my years in public life has the bicameral role of our Parliament been so wantonly put at risk by such disregard of the nation’s best interests.”
We are told by the experts that this legislative farrago may well not surmount the parliamentary obstacles which stand in its way. I devoutly pray that they are right.