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.