Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scrap the House of Lords

No other democratic country has one. Simply because there is no justification for such a huge, unelected second chamber in the 21st century.

The new scandal surrounding corrupt lords has reignited the debate about reforming the decrepit House of Lords. After Tony Blair's 1999 'reforms', which simply replaced some hereditary peers with trusted ones conveniently handpicked by himself personally, the second house is now even less accountable. Allegations of corruption in the Lords are becoming a regular feature of British political life. Remember that no-one in the House of Lords can resign, even if they wanted to.

And yet, the reluctance to scrap something that is clearly redundant and anachronistic is staggering across the whole political spectrum. Significant chunks of the left, as usual, are terrified of defying the status quo, even in the face of overwhelming public opinion opposing it. Today, a certain paper writes that "a wholly elected chamber would be a mistake", and that's the Independent. They don't explain why, but nevermind. And that's in the face of an enormous unelected mammoth of toffs of a various kind who have as much connection with the real world as Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

The House of Lords isn't working. According to official sources, the yearly costs of the second chamber have been increasing relentlessly. In 2006, the House of Lords was costing the taxpayer £68 million, a massive increase on the comparatively puny £16m in 1991. And that's for a place which, in the words of The Earl of Halsbury "is not three-quarters empty; it is over 90 per cent; empty".

To give you an extent of the dysfunctional fairyland we are talking about, in Britain there are people having a direct say over legislation who are still known as Lords Spiritual, Dukes and Baronesses. Theirs is a detached world of flattery, ancient baronies and chivalry. Like Anthony Sampson once wrote, "[The Lords] still delight in the rituals of addressing each other as 'my noble friend'. At big debates ageing peers still fiddle with the built-in hearing aids or go to sleep though nowadays a flunkey wakes up the sleepers before a minister speaks lest they be seen snoring on television". The typical pro-Lords stance is that they don't really have a say in public life. If that was true then, why keep it? But the reality is that this comical, make-believe world still performs a serious legislative function. They can crucially delay legislation (like they did with the repeal of Section 28) or affect the outcome altogether.

No-one has ever explained why the House of Lords has to be so massive. The current count stops at 743. The German Bundestrat features 69 members, while the US Senate has 100. The Senate of France includes 343, and the Spanish one 264. But nevermind that; what in the name of goodness can justify such a fat feast in the British second house? And why on earth are they unelected? What is the usual crap about "the need to avoid more professional politicians"?

Because you'd have thought that's, for better or for worse, the nature of democracy. Professional politicians. Not a bunch of unelected big wigs preserved in aspic and trapped in spider's webs. At odds like they wouldn't manage to be even if they tried, with a contemporary world having debates about stem cell research, climate change, the role of digital communication, i-Phones and globalisation.

Until the whole legislative function becomes the prerogative of fully-elected, fully-accountable bodies, Britain will not be able to call itself a serious democracy.

1 comment:

James Dowden said...

The problem with abolishing the House of Lords is that the Commons is so deficient as a legislature. There are two key problems with the Commons:
1) The executive is not separate from it, and therefore cannot be held to account
2) The lack of regional members (as in the Welsh Assembly) creates a tyranny of the majority.

With a directly-elected PM and the D'Hondt method, the Lords would indeed be redundant.