The House of Lords: Reform and Relativism

Posted on February 22, 2012

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The running saga of proposed reform of the House of Lord has once again come under the spotlight of political and media attention. Last week a number of newspapers, The Times among them, reported that a bill providing for an elected second chamber would be included in the Queen’s Speech. After botched ‘reform’ under Blair’s premiership little further change has occurred. Numbers of Life Peers, effectively appointed by party leaders, have notably increased. At the last election there seemed to be consensus between the leaderships of the three major political parties that there should be further reform involving an element of election. The coalition agreement allowed for a committee to assess the best type of reform.

House of Lords Chamber*

This Blog has written previously of such reform. It argued that, should safeguards be implemented, a second-chamber of good repute might appear. As things stand, however, such safeguards are unlikely to be effected. Detractors argue that an elected second chamber would fill with second-rate politicians, some of them incapable of election to the House of Commons. (A number of the appointed Life Peers of today appear to be of this sort.) It seems most unlikely that any envisaged reform would result in a chamber of independent-minded individuals.

The debate brings to mind a more generalised approach to change. Many writers, academics and politicians constantly call for change in given spheres of life. Academics press the supposed benefits of such change. Many politicians and pundits, on the other hand, seem inclined to change merely for the sake of innovation, offering little in the way of substantive argument. The essential claim amounts to this: ‘The present mode of doing things is outdated and inappropriate. Change must occur for the sake of modernisation and relevance.’

Politicians have a natural urge to demonstrate that they are taking action. If reform is not initiated they are failing in their duty to the electorate. The notion that things suitable in the past must change because of the passing of time is fundamentally relativistic. There may well be educational methods that are archaic, but what we need is serious study of their merits and drawbacks as well as of the likely benefits of new approaches.

In the case of the House of Lords some do provide reasons that go beyond the rhetoric of a general need for change in a supposedly anachronistic institution. They argue that what we have is undemocratic and unaccountable. The merits of that argument may be left for another occasion. Many of those seeking reform, however, seem to be leaping into the dark propelled by the contemporary force of mere relativism. It is unfortunate that not a few in posts of real authority share that shallow outlook.

*Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v1.0.

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