Roll of Dishonour

An appointed House of Lords is just as bad as an hereditary one

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th July 1997.

This government glories in returning power to the people. Its publication of the devolution white papers last week began, we were told, one of greatest renunciations of political power ever contemplated. All that stands in the way of this joyful revolution is the House of Lords, whose hereditary peers have twice defeated the Referendums Bill. But, ever valiant, Tony Blair will ensure that nothing be allowed to stand in the way of the popular will: he will appoint some new life peers to confront the despotic dukes.

His uncompromising rebuttal of the spawn of royal bastards and murderous turncoats will be praised as another nail in the coffin of unaccountable authority and another great blow for people power. The arguments against the voting rights of hereditary peers have been well-made and well-received, and there are few people in Britain who would not be glad to see the back of them. But might we not be missing something?

If the power of hereditary peers is illegitimate because it has never been subjected to democratic consent, then the same formula surely applies to the power of appointed peers. Why are the voting rights of Lord Wyatt and Lord Archer or, for that matter, Lord Simon and Lord Rogers, any more legitimate than those of the Duke of Rutland? To hand power back to the people, Tony Blair will appoint a new clutch of legislators over whom we have absolutely no control.

The government claims that its “ultimate objective is an elected second chamber” – but not in this term of office. Instead it is planning to appoint at least 60, possibly as many as 700, new life peers, which is not exactly a step towards winding up the existing institution. Once hereditary peers have been stripped of some of their powers (and even these now seem to be negotiable), the wider reform of the House of Lords looks likely to be quietly dumped. A second chamber controlled by appointees is simply too convenient to discard.

The government’s convenience is our loss. People who could scarcely have done more to demonstrate their contempt for democratic processes are set to rule over us. As chairman of BP, Lord Simon (now Minister for Trade and Cooperation in Europe) was one of the most influential members of the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT). Meeting in secret, taking pains to avoid public scrutiny, the ERT helped draft both the Single European Act and some of EC?s most portentous directives. If William Hague ever wins an election, Lord Parkinson will help to tell us how to behave, even though no sane person would ever vote for him again. Did ANYONE outside government welcome the endowment of the noble Lords Saatchi, Gummer, Hanson or Stirling, or Dame Shirley Porter?

With a few striking exceptions, appointments to the House of Lords amount to a monumental roll of dishonour. Life peerages are handed to people who have performed “political services” (stuffing their party’s pockets), “services to wealth creation” (stuffing their own pockets), or “public services” (stuffing the rest of us). When hereditary peers have been stripped of their voting rights, the gigantic, politically-appointed quango which remains is likely to regard its power over the life of the nation as doubly legitimate.

So how should we replace it? Should we encourage the government to establish an elected second house as quickly as possible? This carries the danger of constructing a rival decision- making body, rather than an effective revising chamber. If a second chamber is to perform as a corrective to the excesses of power, might it not be appropriate to fill it with the utterly powerless, those who would never be chosen by a party machine or for a grace and favour appointment? Ordinary citizens could, like members of a jury, be selected at random. We might even discover a socially-useful role for the Lottery: a booby prize of a year’s attendance in the upper house, which, like the obligations of JG Frazer’s sacrifical kings, would be recognized not as a privilege but as a terrible duty.

But do we even need a revising body? Charter 88 suggests that a more democratic second chamber may be a poor substitute for reform of the first. If it introduced proportional representation, placed more power in the hands of backbenchers and prevented the whips from appointing select committees, the House of Commons might cease to make the sort of perverse decisions which a second chamber needs to review.

However we choose to replace it, the House of Lords has got to go. Hereditary or appointed, peers are an incubus on the back of our body politic. If this government is serious about devolution of any kind, it will not hesitate to shake them off. Until that time, its promises of democratic reform can be judged as shallow machinations rather than genuine deliverance.