I see that the most boring conversation in the nation is back. The one even worse than people in the country telling you that the only real difficulty in getting to their part of Gloucestershire/Norfolk/the Orkneys is the drive out of London. I refer to, of course, the reform of the House of Lords.
The debate is perennial because there is no good answer to it. The ‘cash for peerages’ scandal comes around every few years because it is unsolvable. If you don’t offer inducements for political donations then what sane person would give millions of pounds to a political party? Besides which, all the constitutional alternatives are worse. The only sensible argument I ever heard of for reform of the Upper House was the one Roger Scruton came up with while defending the presence of the hereditary peers. Roger’s rather ingenious argument was that the hereditaries were in some ways the most representative parliamentarians of the lot. For the average politician in both Houses is — as I have observed before — unlike the rest of our species. They tend to be thrusting, ambitious folk, full of plans, if not vision. Such people do not remotely represent the breadth of us, the general public. For example, only by having a hereditary element in our democracy can we ensure that there is representation in parliament for people who are not especially interested in politics, would like to have as little as possible to do with it or who would prefer to pursue other quixotic interests.
By the logic of this argument, it would make sense for both chambers to be entirely hereditary. But I digress. Lords reform is one of the world’s least interesting debates, not just because it is insoluble but because it keeps missing the deeper point. Which is that nobody in either House has very much power anyway.
For some time I have pondered why it is that one now tends to slightly look down on people when they enter either House. In the case of the Lords it is obvious. The place still has a select group of genuinely distinguished people. But in the main it is filled with former Liberal Democrat councillors and completely unremarkable people who couldn’t make it as MPs. Sayeeda Warsi, for instance, remains a one-woman walking argument for reform of the Upper House.
With the House of Commons the situation is more complex. Why, for instance, did Rory Stewart seem to become diminished when he became an MP? Prior to entering the Commons, he was a rather interesting, rip-roaring figure who traversed far-off places and could recite Ezra Pound at you until you asked him to stop. But he entered the Commons and suddenly he became a less interesting, indeed less influential figure than he had been beforehand. Surely this wasn’t always the case?
One possible reason is the fact that the MPs and the Lords are not really in power. This becomes clearer the more you look into it. I knew Owen Paterson a little, especially during the time when he was a superb secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Like everyone else who ever met her, I admired, indeed adored, his late wife Rose. They were what Kurt Vonnegut describes as a duprass couple, two lovebirds who formed a single unit. Watching Owen’s torture in parliament last week was watching a man crushed by a bureaucracy which never had any care, let alone any pity, either for him or for Rose.
Because the striking thing about the whole treatment of Paterson was not just the botched defence and cowardly U-turn of Boris Johnson’s government. Nor was it the baying, crowing behaviour of Labour MPs who only days earlier had been talking of civility in politics. It was the fact that all of this came from a wretched official who sits above parliament. On this occasion the official is one Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards. But it could have been any other functionary. It had been no use Paterson complaining that Stone had not listened to his evidence before condemning him. It was no use complaining that the process had not been run in a judicial manner. For Stone is not a judge. She is just one of the many functionaries who stands above our legislative chambers. Stone is a graduate of Loughborough University, where she gained a masters in ‘women’s studies’. It would be hard to imagine a CV less illustrious than hers.
But she worked her way up the system through various quangos and charities, and now she stands over all MPs and can condemn them like a monarch of old. Who gave such an unqualified bureaucrat such authority over the whole Commons?
The same question may be asked in the Lords. Earlier this year, all members of the Upper House were put through something called ‘Valuing Everyone’ training. This was a day in which every member of the Upper House was reprogrammed to think afresh about sex and so-called ‘racial bias’. A number of peers complained that this was a disgraceful attempt to influence the whole House. A bolder few held out and refused to take part in the ‘training’. But the blob of bureaucrats who actually sit above the Lords sat on them one by one.
Someone called Lucy Scott-Moncrieff led the way, threatening to take away peers’ rights. This included removing peers’ access to the House of Lords library. Meaning recalcitrant peers could still vote on legislation but could not inform themselves on it. Even the most robust and eminent peers eventually gave in. But who permitted this inept process? Who permitted an entire legislative chamber to be reprogrammed or instructed in any direction at all? No one we elected, that is for certain. The House of Lords gave in to the unelected retraining just as the Commons must give in to the judgments of unelected non-judges.
Ask why our Houses are in such bad order and the answer in part lies there. This country voted to ‘take back control’ from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We did not do so simply in order to hand it over to unelected bureaucrats at home.