When democracy isn’t always the answer

Lord Winston speaking in the House of Lords Picture: BBC Parliament

Sometimes we can get muddled between what is fair and what works. We put the principle of fairness ahead of the practicality of what works, and this is what is happening over House of Lords reform.

Democracy over everything is the cry – and, most of the time, that is a pretty solid basis on which to work, at least when considering the way we are governed.

But the House of Lords is not actually about government, not really anyway. The Lords is a revising chamber and, actually, it is a damn good one too.

It works and one of the reasons it works is precisely because it is not an elected chamber. There are many brilliant, thoughtful and non-partisan members of the House of Lords who would never dream of standing for election to an upper chamber but who feel privileged to serve in the Lords – and, for the most part, they do their job well.

The plans for Lords reform will politicise the second chamber to an extent that it has never been before.

Yes, there are many party peers there at the moment – but, largely, their party allegiances have faded over time because they don’t have to worry about career advancement or personal ambition. They have done all they are going to do in politics so they approach their job in a mature and generally impartial fashion.

They are impartial, not in a purely political sense (they could never throw off their political backgrounds completely), but from a legislative point of view and that is exactly what is required.

The House of Lords does not have primacy over our main elected chamber. If it keeps obstructing the progress of a Bill, it will eventually be overruled. All it can do is revise, change, amend and delay, and it does this well. It takes bad legislation and makes it better – which is exactly what you want with a second chamber. It can launch legislation but rarely does so and hardly ever with anything contentious.

The plans for Lords reform, however well-meaning in principle, will change completely the nature of our democracy because they will create a politically driven second chamber.

Inevitably, that will challenge the primacy of the Commons because the make-up of the second chamber will be different and it will be entirely political.

We will then be into an American style of politics where the elected leaders of the country often find themselves unable to get anything done because the upper house has a different political make-up.

Imagine how Tony Blair would have fared had he arrived in Downing Street with his massive majority in 1997 to find that the House of Lords was still dominated by the Tories and he had no hope of changing the make-up of the second chamber for several years? He could have – and probably would have – been thwarted on every move he tried to make, including devolution.

Yes, the hereditary principle makes no sense (but in truth most of those have gone now) and it may seem idiosyncratic to have bishops in the Lords too – but, somehow, it works. All these old heads, some from political backgrounds, some from the arts, from business, from the church, actually do what they are supposed to do – they consider and improve legislation.

Do we really want to replace them with a group of second-rate career politicians who are not good enough to get themselves elected to the Commons? Because that is what is going to happen.

The offer of a 15-year term in the second chamber at Westminster is going to attract all sorts of political has-beens and (to repeat Boris Johnson’s accurate phrase) never-wozzers.

We will get political time-servers who are only there for their own comfort and pomposity.

The irony is that, at a time when more and more people are bemoaning the lack of those with real experience of life outside politics in our democratic institutions, we want to create something which will encourage even more political careerists to come forward.

The House of Commons used to be home to all sorts of people who knew life, real life, outside politics. There were doctors and former soldiers, farmers, academics and former factory workers – people who not only knew something of life outside politics but who brought that to bear on their work in the chamber.

But, more than that, they knew that life – and their service to their constituents – was more important than obeying the party whip all the time. As a result, they were more independent and better MPs than many of the current breed who owe everything they have to the party machines.

Those public servants may have disappeared largely (there are one or two left, but not many) from the Commons and, indeed, from Holyrood, but they are still there in the Lords.

And yet what do we want to do? Get rid of them there too and replace them with more party apparatchiks and machine politicians.

The ultimate irony is, though, that this is being done in the name of democracy. What seems to be being missed is that it will diminish our democracy. We believe that everything democratic must be better than the alternative, every time. But sometimes, it isn’t.

Why do I think I know? Well, for several years I reported, on and off, on the House of Lords for the Press Association while working at Westminster. I spent more time in that chamber than most people outside their Lordships themselves.

When I wasn’t in the Lords I was in the Commons, so I know, to a limited extent, what goes on in both houses.

Sometimes the House of Lords was baffling, soporific and behind-the-times. Some peers drifted in and out of debates but, generally, the discussions were deep, analytical and – most important of all – almost entirely non-partisan. There were some brilliant minds there. The late Liberal peer Lord Russell (son of Bertrand Russell) made some of the most brilliant contributions I ever heard, in either House.

He would almost certainly have never stood for election to a second chamber nor, probably, would medical expert Lord Winston, arts champion Lord Bragg or London Olympics organiser Lord Coe – each of whom has brought their own invaluable experience to bear on debates and legislation.

Everyone knows that bumble-bees shouldn’t fly but somehow they do. The House of Lords is like that, in a way. It shouldn’t work because it is not democratic, it is full of party appointees and hereditaries – in short, it is unfair.

But it does work. It works very well and we are in danger of getting rid of something that works and replacing it with something which will change our political system forever – and not for the better – just because we believe democracy is the answer to everything.

The Lords is a revising chamber. It is not our prime legislative forum. So let it do its job because it is doing its job very well indeed.

Despite claims to the contrary, it really ain’t broke, so there is no need to fix it.

  • Opprobrium

    What utter tosh! Daddy knows best so just you not worry your silly little heads about it because  you wouldn’t understand it anyway. It doesn’t represent me because I didn’t give it the authority to represent me, and if you’re going to claim to represent me, then you’d better damn well ask me what I think, not tell me what I think. 

    • SNPmsp

      Oh don’t be so silly. Of course it represents you, whether you like it or not, until either you leave the country or the HoL changes. You may find the former course of action particularly attractive ……………………….

      • Lanarkian

        If you are really an MSP, then get back to work and stop surfing the internet.  
        Quite why the political careerists in Holyrood are preferable to those in Westminster is beyond me though – seems to me that independence would just allow us to replace one set of numpties who want to run the country with another set of numpties who want to run the country. No thanks.

        • Georgie_Kent

           They may still be numpties but fewer and closer. Yes please!

          • Lanarkian

            🙂 – well, when you put it like that….

             They may be thieves and rogues, but at least they’ll be ‘our’ thieves and rogues.

          • Fatmaria

            And elected thieves and rogues.

  • bellebrise

    A republican by sentiment, I found myself agreeing with much of this, up to the point where Hamish says “…the hereditary principle makes no sense…”

    Actually the hereditary principle whereby landed gentry became members of the Lords by birth makes a lot of sense even though that was never the intention back in the year Dot when Lord Balbloggo was knighted on the field of battle.
    The hereditary members of the Lords come from the land.  Their wealth, their living, their future is in the land.   They will always tend to vote for what is best for the land.  They are beholden to no-one.  Unlike the political appointees and wealthy plutocrats rewarded for political donations, the hereditary peers can ignore political affiliations.  Unlike the rich who can move their wealth around the world and go with it, the Lords have nowhere to go.  Their wealth is here and they have to stay here to take care of it.  As a by-product almost, they take care for the rest of the country as well.
    We need to restore the Lords to a hereditary arrangement not continue to undo it.  Once the counterweight of the Lords is lost, then we can look forward to a political majority in both the Commons and Lords pushing through whatever legislation is flavour of the month, untrammelled by common sense or lordly intervention.

    • Iain Fraser

       We don’t vote either for a Prime Minister or a First Minister – the parties foist their choice upon us.  Perhaps we have a greater acceptance of untidiness – we’re not oppressed, there’s no ideal system

  • Maidmarrion

    825 of the blighters – all on £300  per day attendance money plus subsidised food and drink thats almost 200 more than the  elected chamber.

    A third of that would be too many and lets face it recently most have been “blessed” along party political lines and some were useless when in post at the HoC.

  • Fatmaria

    This Macdonell guy is a parody, right?

  • Are we …

  • M N Saleem

    The bottom line is quite interesting that House of Lords actually cannot do any thing if commons are not interested. 

  • Bostonite52

    I actually agree with him. I am an American and know firsthand the downsides of our highly politicized system.