Like, I suspect, most Spectator readers, I saw no need for Lords reform in the first place. The old chamber functioned perfectly well, as even Labour was forced to admit. But the party took the view that, while it might work in practice, it didn’t work in theory. The hereditary principle, Tony Blair declared, had no place in modern politics: a strange argument, striking as it does directly against the monarchy and indirectly against all property. And so, with no very clear idea of what they wanted, ministers blundered into the current settlement: an appointments system which disproportionately elevates toadies, public-sector groupies and quangocrats.
From Labour’s point of view, fair enough. These are precisely the sorts of people lefties like to see running things. The odd thing is that many Tories continue to defend the status quo. Having argued themselves into an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mindset before the disfranchisement of the hereditaries, they remain stuck in that mindset even though, by their own logic, the system is now broke.
The great strength of the old House of Lords was its independence. Hereditary peers owed their place neither to the government of the day nor to the electorate. They were therefore able to vote against headline-grabbing legislation, despite the transient public demand for it. This is the essential argument for bicameralism, even in more assertively democratic states than ours. When Thomas Jefferson returned from Paris, he is supposed to have visited George Washington over breakfast to ask why a republic needed a second chamber. ‘Why have you just poured your tea into your saucer?’ asked Washington. ‘To cool it,’ Jefferson replied. ‘Even so,’ said the president.
Until recently, the House of Lords discharged its primary function admirably, blocking a good deal of panicky and illiberal legislation for which, on reflection, there was no real appetite. But, as its composition has changed, so has its outlook.
Some of the new appointees are conscientious and independent, of course. But many have spent a lifetime swimming in the ocean of public subsidy. They sit on committees. They draw up strategy papers. They liaise with stakeholders. They spend a surprising amount of time on the Eurostar to Brussels. And their first instinct, faced with almost any problem, is to firehose money at it.
As a consequence, independent-minded people are less likely to want ‘a K or a big P’ these days. The cash-for-honours affair has, alas, splattered the ermine of even the most guiltless peers. Accepting a title nowadays carries something close to stigma. The louder they talk of their honours, the faster we count our spoons.
As the red benches fill with placemen, the chamber becomes an extension of the party system. If you think I’m being unfair, watch how peers vote next month on the proposal for a referendum on the European constitution (now called the Lisbon Treaty).
The European Union (Amendment) Bill is about as clear a case as you could ask for of where a second chamber ought to assert itself. It was guillotined in the House of Commons, in defiance of the convention that constitutional Bills should never be subjected to time limitation orders. The late publication of an English text meant that not a single MP could have read the draft from cover to cover before voting. And there is no question that the public wants a referendum. Ten constituencies were allowed to vote in sample plebiscites organised by ‘I Want a Referendum’. Eighty-eight per cent of voters in these seats, on a higher turnout than for local or European elections, voted in favour of a national poll.
Bagehot, Dicey and Erskine May would surely agree that here is a textbook example of where the Upper House ought to ask the Lower to think again. For six decades, the House of Lords has operated under the Salisbury convention, whereby it does not seek to frustrate manifesto measures. But the Salisbury convention cuts both ways: when something was promised by the governing party — indeed, by all three parties: 638 out of 646 MPs — there is surely an obligation on the Lords to uphold the promises that others have broken; an argument first advanced by this magazine. Doing so would quell the doubts of all those who are uncomfortable with the clientism inherent in the current dispensation, magnificently vindicating the Lords’ existence.
The early signs, though, are not encouraging. Although the Tory leader, Lord Strathclyde, is behaving impeccably, Labour peers are being told to damn their principles and stick to their party. Liberal Democrats — who one might have expected to stop digging after the fiasco of their split in the Commons — are taking out their shovels again and proposing to burrow further, this time switching to an outright vote against the referendum. And even among the Conservative and cross-bench peers, some of those on Brussels pensions are wavering.
Such manoeuvring represents everything that people dislike about politics: the elevation of partisan calculation over principle, the gap between government and the governed, the contempt for public opinion, the ease with which pledges are abandoned. The Lords are supposed to be an antidote to all these things. That is why people put up with them. If they instead become part of the problem, their legitimacy will evaporate.
‘Lemmings led by lapdogs’, remarked Lord Pearson of Rannoch, then a Conservative peer but who now takes the UKIP whip, when the Tory hereditaries were bussed in to vote down a referendum on Maastricht in 1993. He could see what they couldn’t: that, by their votes, they had alienated their natural constituency and hastened their abolition. History may be about to repeat itself.
Last month, Jack Straw suggested replacing the Lords with a 400-strong senate. In all parties, and among voters at large, there is a preference for an elected Upper House. But few people feel especially strongly about the issue. As long as the Lords are seen to be carrying out their duties properly, they will be left unmolested. But if they ostentatiously flick two liver-spotted fingers at the electorate, the mood will turn.
‘If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change,’ said the third Viscount Falkland. Quite so. But if the House of Lords won’t stand up for the country against a low alliance of party politicians, the case for change will become overwhelming.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 5, 2008