In my last post I was writing about how I’m not adverse to a u-turn. Well here comes one of my own, and it relates to the House of Lords.
To a degree I’ve changed my mind, I was quite taken with the concept of a HoL that was elected, on a County, Unitary or Metropolitan basis with the number of representatives for each territory being based on the population therein. So we’d see say six reps for London and two for Cornwall, etc. I was also supportive of a policy whereby these people would be elected without a party machinery (there would be no party memberships and no whipping) for a term that ran for five years starting more of less in the middle of the term for the HoC. Therefore under this model we’d be electing our Lords about now as it is somewhere around the middle of this government’s term.
The reason I supported this was not because I though the model was particularly good, but because I didn’t think it was as bad as the model we currently have. However Clegg’s plan very definitely sees people elected on party lines. Do we really need another layer of politicians elected with whips and party machinery behind him? Will it not just end up in naked competition between the two Houses?
Supporters of the old system (before Labour removed the hereditary peers) point out, quite reasonably, that the system has served us perfectly well for many hundreds of years, and looking over the history of Parliament it is hard to argue against that with any great success, but the hereditary peers reflect a system which is feudal and hardly in keeping with what a modern country should be. Many supporters of the old system would concede this point and counter with their own that will go along the line of a basically sound, if fragile system, which more or less did what we wanted it to, and to tamper with it could have unforeseen consequences, similar to removing a component from a delicate ecosystem.
By keeping career politicians diluted in the upper chamber the effects of party politics can be mollified somewhat, I get that, but I’m just not comfortable with some guy who is there because their antecedents happened to own a nice house and a horse in France when that bloke Norman came over. Now those hereditary peers were possibly perfectly nice people, perhaps perfectly competent, but in a democracy I just don’t think it is proper for these people to be making law without accountability.
The same goes for the Lords Spiritual. At a time of falling church attendance figures I don’t see what relevance these people have any more. Especially as they only represent one cult. I don’t think religion has a place in the decision process about law. Religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on morals or ethics, indeed all religions engage in activity and promote dogma that I find immoral and unethical, and as they hold a place in the establishment I find myself wondering how much of their input is focused on not what is right but what best protects their interests. That in effect makes them a fourth party, a fourth party that has influence despite never garnering a vote in their life.
The life peerages I have less problem with. I can see how that would work, people who are hugely respected, qualified and experienced in their fields overseeing the passage of laws drawn up by people who are not. An upper chamber with retired barristers and judges, diplomats, military types, teachers, doctors, architects, accountants, farmers and a whole host of other real jobs with real knowledge sounds great. The problem being is that alongside those we’ve also got people who loaned a few quid to this party or were a front bencher for that party and were so popular that they got slung out on their ear by the electorate only to find themselves given a nice red cloak and kept in a cushy job. Political appointments for life can only lead to cronyism and surely that is just as bad as an appointment because your father had it?
Our system ain’t perfect, but do we want to run the risk of upsetting it in an attempt to make it better? There are those that want us to go into Syria and get rid of the nutter there. That’s all very well, but what comes along in his place? Will they be speaking for the poor sods getting their arses shot off? Perhaps we’re better not getting involved, leaving it alone. The same could also be true of the Lords. The unfortunate thing being that as soon as the hereditary peers were shipped out, the genie was out of the bottle. We’re now being forced to tinker, the old system was outdated, the current system just isn’t working, so like Fr. Ted Crilly and his raffle prize car, we keep trying to knock the dents out.
What’s the alternative?
We could do away with the Lords and bring in the whole electorate in a pseudo-Swiss style with referenda. Very expensive will come the call. Yes, this is true, and people will soon get fed up with schlepping down to the polling station every time a Bill passes through the Commons. Perhaps it will lead to fewer laws being proposed, not a bad thing at all in my book. But it is a very blunt instrument, in the ideal world those experienced and knowledgeable Lords will refer a Bill back to the Commons with ‘we see what you’re trying to do there, but it won’t work because of A, B and C, so try this, that and the other’, you can’t do that with a referendum, it is either Hell Yeah or God No. This is one of the reasons Cameron’s talk of something other than a straight In/Out referendum is nonsense, you just can’t get that degree of subtlety in a referendum.
I really don’t know what the answer is, and the more I think about it, the more I think the old system, as flawed as it was, was the best we were going to get.
One thing I do know is that Clegg’s plan is arsegravy of the highest order, and magically manages to collect the worst of all worlds into one indigestible package, and I think he’ll be lucky if his pressing the matter doesn’t end up in a general election that sees his party wiped out.