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Lords To Get Novel Concept Of “Democracy” – Slowly :: The Slant / UK News
May 20th
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Politics/Current Affairs

Lords To Get Novel Concept Of “Democracy” – Slowly

Friday, February 9th, 2007 at 10:29 by Bob Westwood

The latest chapter in the sorry saga that is House of Lords Reform (the This Time It’s Personal amendment) is unfolding.  Jack Straw’s current plan is to get rid of all the Lords’ remaining hereditary peers, and 605 life peers (after first offering them “voluntary redundancy” payments, according to “The Independent”).  The House of Commons leader is thought to want a hybrid upper chamber – half elected, half appointed.

Former Labour MP Tony Benn famously once said the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go there. (I’ve never visited the place myself, but I’ve always thought the views of a statesman who risked all in the early 1960s to avoid inheriting the title of Viscount Stansgate so he could keep on representing his constituents might be worth taking seriously.)

Just how far this government admires the Upper House is open to question.  On the one hand it is determined to modernise (! - an interesting buzz-word I’ll come back to later) it; on the other hand it seems keen to keep open its option of sending people there who are conveniently both supportive and rich.  But however the Lords is reformed, the final package will fall way short of that goal we all know and love, namely that thing called Democracy.  Or, if you like, a fully-elected second chamber, like they have in America…and Italy…and Australia….and practically everywhere else, really.

Before I hear the familiar Daily Telegraph-flavoured call of “That wouldn’t work in Britain, dear boy”, let me point out three things. 

First, if it’s good enough for the States, it’s surely good enough for us here in Blighty.  It works there - it can work here.  And please, no more of that tired old excuse “People don’t want to elect yet more politicians!”  However the public feel about voting, they don’t much like the alternative – of people being appointed to power and privilege without doing something to deserve it – any more.  Being a bit more positive about our democratic institutions and heritage never hurt anyone.

Second, apart from Canada, no other Western democracy has an unelected upper house – hardly a distinction to be proud of. 

Third, a fully elected upper house is officially (at least) on the cards here anyway.  In 1911 the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith promised it in the Parliament Act, which abolished the unelected Lords’ power to screw up the programme of the Commons-based elected government.  Unfortunately, Herbie then went bananas, and decided a House of Lords that had had its teeth pulled would be OK for the time being.

Ninety-six years on, it seems the typically British habit of piece-by-piece, barely noticeable reform will prevail once again.  The experience of the last few years is enough to bear this out.

The last bout of reform in 1999 saw all but 92 hereditary peers – finally – kicked out.  Fair enough: on the cusp of a new century you could hardly argue that being a descendant of someone King Charles II once had sex with is good enough to hand you a place in Parliament.  However, the exact purpose of keeping those 92 hangers-on was never properly explained. (Were they all good at karaoke, or something?) Then, in 2003, the Commons mysteriously voted to reject all remaining options for Lords reform, including (get this) that of doing nothing. (How does that work?  Answers on a postcard, please.) 

Today, the most radical option the former firebrand radical Jack Straw can come up with is a half-elected, half-appointed House of Lords.

That, to New Labour, is an example of “modernisation”.  This word has cropped up several times over the past 10 years.  The government has been especially keen to tell Britain (well, specifically, any unions or interest groups that criticise them) how and why we have to “modernise”.  However, as comedian Mark Steel has rightly pointed out, this call is always going to ring a bit hollow if it comes from the Palace of Westminster.  Don’t forget: this is an institution where, before they let you in as an MP, you have to swear a medieval oath to an eccentric old woman in a funny hat. (Even Tory MP Douglas Hogg was intelligent enough to wonder out loud what loyalty to Mrs Windsor had to do with serving his constituents.)

Doesn’t it make you feel proud to be British?

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6 Comments on “Lords To Get Novel Concept Of “Democracy” – Slowly”

  1. DannyMackay Says:

    There is nothing wrong with our piecemeal step by step very gradual reform process in this country. It has given us democracy, an NHS and a rich country.

    an interesting such reform might be allowing MPs to vote on best preference as is proposed for the Lords reform vote (otherwise they will just reject everything again).

    Could this happen with new policies (vote for a preference on sentancing for rape - vote for a preference on how many troops to send afghanistan)?

    I guess it will live or die on its merits. Much as the Lords should have done two decades agao when they voted for the poll tax.

  2. Stephen Ball Says:

    We rarely hear when the Lords go along with an unpopular bill, but damn I’ve been relieved when they’ve shot down some stinkers recently. On quite a few occasions now, I’ve been delighted that they’re around.

    On the other hand, I don’t want all those Bishops to even be in the building…

  3. Sharon Says:

    It’s interesting to see that the present Government, having appointed Party faithful, or even (perhaps) sold places in the House, is now determined to remove what has, at times, seemed the only Democratic part of Westminster.

    OK, so the House of Lords & hereditary peerages is an anachronism, but at least they’ve stood against some of the dafter, more draconian, or just plain ill-thought legislation proposed in recent years.

    Gradual reform is probably better than chucking out the baby with the bathwater, specially if there are no really well thought through alternatives to hand.

  4. DannyMackay Says:

    Sharon - hear hear.

    The pre 1997 system was ludicrous - Labour struggled to get things through but the tories could pass anything they liked because of a born (literally) majority. (the poll tax was the last straw)

    That was changed by the recent reforms that saw lots of the old hereditary (mostly tory) lords got rid of - and replaced with appointed lords.

    And because the appointment system means every party can appointed (sell) peerages - it has led to a finely balanced upper house that actually works - with no majority for any party - and thus the scrutiny should work when the tories win power again (probably in the next election, possible as soon as November).


    Now that it works for the first time in hundreds of years, one would think this was hardly the time to go changing it wholsale again.

  5. RJ Barker Says:

    I love the Lords and really don’t want them to change. This is entirely because I believe they still wear wigs at all times*.

    *They do, don’t they?

  6. Eliza E. Lanyard Says:

    They don’t wear wigs all the time, but they do wear capes with bits of dead things on quite often.

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