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.