Elected Lords: An Opportunity to Recover a Lost Tradition?

Posted on November 15, 2010

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The House of Lords Chamber in the late 19th century.

A draft Bill to complete the reform of the House of Lords is currently being worked on by an all-party parliamentary group. Many of a conservative bent view the prospect of Lords reform with horror as the final nail in the coffin of an ancient British (or English) Constitution. Those of a more progressive persuasion see the not-particularly-thrilling prospect of more electioneering as a victory for the nebulous value of ‘change’. Yet interestingly it has not really been asked if there might be a way to reconcile the desire of conservatives to preserve important balances within the Constitution, with the thirst of progressives for elected Lords?

The biggest change to the House of Lords in its long history was perhaps not the ill-wrought reforms of the last government, but rather the consequences of the Parliament Act 1911, which gave the House of Commons power to pass legislation without the consent of the upper House in certain circumstances and effectively abolished the power of the Lords to reject legislation. This firmly established the House of Commons as the senior chamber, perhaps indeed the sole chamber which really mattered. At the same time it greatly increased the legislative capability of the Prime Minister who already enjoyed an almost unfettered executive power by virtue of advising the Sovereign on the use of his or her prerogative powers.

Whilst the reforms of the previous government were regretted by some, they did not in fact alter the nature of the House. Peers remained as they had long been, at least since the demise of dominant territorial magnates – ennobled elders with places obtained through patronage. The only difference, with the ejection of most hereditary peers, is that, in most cases, titles now revert to the Crown earlier than previously. Whilst it may be difficult to think of John Prescott in the same league as His Grace The Duke of Norfolk, the changes are, constitutionally speaking, largely of appearance. The House of Lords remains, fundamentally, a chamber of aristocrats in the classical sense, even if one of their former privileges – the right to pass their seat on in the family line – has been suppressed.

Whatever the views of those who regret the reforms, it is ever more clear, as the years go by, that a full complement of hereditary peers is never likely to be restored. Yet, the prospect of electing the Lords may offer an opportunity to increase the power and prestige of the upper House. In contemporary terms, democratic election is the fulcrum of power. How could the restrictions and limitations imposed by the 1911 Parliament Act be justified if the Lords were elected with a democratic mandate to fulfil? How then could an elected Commons continue to justify its supremacy over an equally elected Lords?

Many worry that, should this happen, the Lords would end up stocked with professional politicians of the sort who all-too-frequently clutter the Commons. This need not necessarily happen if certain safeguards were introduced to ensure that only a higher calibre of individual might serve in the upper House. A minimum age requirement, long – or even life – terms, and a return to an arrangement whereby Lords are not formally paid for their time, would all help ensure that the inexperienced, sycophants interested only in toeing the party line, and the unscrupulous in search of financial gain, would be in effect excluded.

If we must have an elected upper House, why not make the best of it and take the loss of one tradition as an opportunity to recover another, namely a truly bicameral legislature and a House of Lords prepared to challenge the ‘tyranny of the majority’ exercised by the Commons?

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Posted in: British Politics