Wednesday 10 June 2009

The End Of The Peerage Show

What is the House of Lords? Who are they? What do they do? Please send your entry, using your skill and judgement and no more than 100 words to the Cabinet Office, 10 Downing Street, postcode withheld on security grounds. Both the Government and their pilot fish of advisers and lobbyists are still paddling around trying to make sense of the constitutional muddle they have created in the last few years. They want the new system to be staffed by reliable and like minded people who will deliver the message and not intrude on the smooth and co-ordinated course of executive action. The suggestion of cronyism is fiercely rejected. The trouble is that the elements of the British Constitution, and indeed the old Empire, were born of rampant favouritism and its consequences.

Cronies of the Crown and Cabinet, placemen, purchasers; sundry royals, their spouses, offspring and the luckier bastards; a few public servants and war leaders who could not be ignored; and the occasional oddity, have been the basis of recruitment to the House of Lords ever since The King of Scotland, James VI, stumbled onto the throne of England in 1603 as King James I by the grace of the homicidal tendencies of his Welsh Tudor and French Plantagenet predecessors. The remnant of the hereditary peerage still left can offer a history with enough blood and guts to make even Steven Spielberg blench. Now the House of Lords is lost to them, perhaps they should try to cash in and appeal to the growing youth market in gruesome celebrity.

In the old days most of them had style, which is more than can be said for some of the rum coves ennobled in recent decades. Labour’s actions have exchanged merely the municipal for the magnates, the suits for the sycophants, and added a higher proportion of the risible and the rogues. The rich can still buy their way in, as did the landed magnates of the past. In modern times the House of Lords has people who once had power and have lost it and whose awareness of the ordinary business of getting and spending is remote. The realities they represent are limited in scope and narrow in interest.

Even those put into the Lords to speak for interest groups or minorities come from those groups, limited in number, which are the largest, the noisiest, and who tend to have a power base in urban areas with marginal constituencies. Others are left to rot. There is a risk that the House of Lords, once the bastion of the landed class and rural interest, may have no connection with the countryside at all. Our food supply will be entirely in the hands of the big manufacturers, the major supermarkets, and an air and road based distribution system that is oil dependent, to keep the party funded.

Essentially, what is the Second Chamber for? If there is broad agreement about this, and the functions can be clearly established, then one can proceed to methods of recruitment that serve those needs as well as possible. If the debate on the basic questions is incoherent then it will be difficult to have arrangements for the membership that make much sense. The trouble is that the question cannot be asked without taking account of the other institutions of government. The issue of who should be Head of State, a Royal mustering blood and tradition, or a burnt out politician shoehorned in to do a greeter’s job; is one matter. Will the next Labour Government run Prescott for President?

The real problems lie in the inability of the House of Commons to fulfil its proper role, the atrophy of its representative nature, and its inability to control the increasing waywardness and arrogance of the various administrative entities that both legislate and administer. Looking at the present situation, it seems that because the Government is unable to address the issue of a full and effective reorganisation of the House of Commons beyond tinkering with timetables and committees. Consequently, it cannot make a proper job of reforming the House of Lords and has settled for putting in a few of its own people and establishment side kicks to try to keep a low key show on the road until either the next asteroid impact or when the European Union re-invents itself.

Academics and the more learned journalists have been quick to remind us of the ancient Athenian system of drawing lots. This has its virtues, especially for computer hackers. There are other, more political solutions. If we are to be saddled with regional councils, based on antique middle 20th Century boundaries that have no relation to modern Britain, as a means avoiding the inconveniences to others of giving England its own parliament or standing committee of the House of Commons, perhaps the House of Lords could be a Grand Committee of all the devolved assemblies, councils and parliaments of the islands, and such like. Alternatively, it could be a committee composed of members of the European Parliament for the United Kingdom. Either would have a small logic related to the developing structural framework of governmental and executive institutions, and would have the benefit of economising on full time politicians.

There is an electoral option beyond the Government’s proposals. The present parliamentary constituency is a very old-fashioned notion based on the premise that the great majority of the electorate live and work in the same district and enjoy a bond of community and common loyalty. The difficulty is that if it is assumed that there should be an arithmetical parity between constituencies and this does not relate to the apparent geography of communities, the result is ugly and almost inexplicable compromises in drawing the boundaries.

In today’s world this assumption of community simply is laughable, and together with our present electoral system has produced gross and damaging distortions in the body politic for a long time. For the Second Chamber elections each voter could be asked to define or choose their chosen primary group for the purpose of casting a vote for the Second Chamber. Any primary group, either established or voluntary, would have an elected member of the House of Lords for every hundred and fifty thousand voters on its section of the register.

Once we had University M.P.’s. It is unlikely they would return, but who would be the first Lord for a football fan club? There are better ideas for a primary group (ferret fanciers?), but the priority should be that the electoral arrangement for the second chamber should compensate for the failures inherent in that for the Commons and able to operate on broader terms.

If full election by the people on the basis of interest and functioning identity is too scary for the Government then there is a simple solution. The old peerage lasted for almost one millennium. The Government should call another peerage into being to redress the balance of the old, and call it the Third Millennium Peerage. In Vanbrugh’s play “The Relapse”, Lord Foppington claimed to have paid £10,000 for his title of Baron in 1696. What an equivalent price today is arguable, and a new scale will have to be devised. My personal figure for modern times suggests £10 million for a Baronage rising to £50 million for a Dukedom.

At least money would talk. Any takers?


  1. It is now a sanctified and holy place for Labour residue of excrement.

  2. One of your best yet - a masterly demonstration of inventio, dispositio and elocutio!

    I particularly liked the antithetical alliteration in the third paragraph - worthy of W S Gilbert at his best.

    And I agree wholeheartedly about the danger of breaking the links between the countryside and the legislature; urbanise the Lords and you open the door to agribusiness or worse.