Michael Gove famously said during the EU referendum campaign: “People have had enough of experts”. His words, though much-derided, reflect a popular sense that our politics has moved away from democratically-accountable government, driven largely by supranational institutions and treaties, and populated by appointed ‘experts’ to whom we must defer without any means of influencing their decisions.
To this transnational class of epistocrats has been added, at the domestic level, a parallel species of quangocrat touted as ‘independent’ and similarly unresponsive to electoral pressure. Resentment toward this ecosystem of insiders has been growing for years, if not decades. In our country, Farage and his Brexit Party have now made it their mission to burn this whole edifice down.
This may be politically resonant, but is it wise? One persuasive argument for remaining in the EU is that the complexity and interdependence of modern nation states cannot be mastered at speed by elected non-specialists. That the effective management of the modern world needs a grasp of often highly technical matters that takes years to acquire, and some policy areas need serious expertise as well as a degree of insulation from MPs who believe, Boris-like, that any issue can be adequately grasped with a few hours of cramming and a bon mot or two.
Some areas of government are too abstruse to make it into the general political discourse – the scandal of hygiene standards in manufacturing, say, or rules governing the import of consumer goods – while remaining immensely important overall. The failure of UK MPs to get to grips with the detail of pretty much all such areas since the EU referendum has been painfully obvious.
This is the core of the pro-EU view that it is better to agree this stuff together with the rest of the club, then leave the system in the hands of experienced professional civil servants while we get on with our daily lives. It’s an argument that has some merit, especially when compared to the blundering attempts of our MPs to cram technical subjects in a few hours in order to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions.
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In this view, public resentment of experts is self-evidently foolish and destructive and should simply be ignored. But this view is only half right. The public as a whole welcomes expertise, serious statesmanship and long-term thinking in public life and is unhappy not with experts but with their lack of accountability. No-one really disputes that if we do ever leave the EU we will need our institutional memory, and our experts, more than ever. A Faragist destruction of our governing institutions would cause a loss of this institutional memory that we can ill afford, given its already etiolated state after decades of outsourcing policy to Brussels. So, given that we need them, how can we make our experts more accountable, and prevent populism from throwing experience, expertise, long-term thinking and other important babies out with the ‘metropolitan elite’ bathwater? My proposal is that this should be the role of the House of Lords.
Whatever its faults, the hereditary House of Lords did supply some long-term thinking in our public life. But since Blair’s reforms it has become both an extension of party politics and a form of reward for good behaviour in the ecology of ‘experts’ that populates public life. Both these developments are to the detriment both of democratic accountability and long-term thinking.
We should abolish the system of appointed hereditary peers that so typifies the ‘insiders’ club’ feeling of modern politics and instead invite experts to run for election to the Lords. This would be on a long electoral cycle (let’s say ten years) with a recall mechanism in extremis and specific responsibility for taking the long view on key policy areas where expertise is needed and party politics a source of harm.
Areas of policy that might benefit from being managed in this way include (in no particular order) healthcare, education, consumer standards and international trade. Education and healthcare in particular suffer from being treated by all sides as a political football. They are subjected to interminable ‘reforms’ by MPs thinking in electoral cycles rather than the long term, and desperate for impact with no regard for the millions whose daily jobs are turned upside down by the latest eye-catching initiative. And international trade and product standards are (as the Brexit negotiations have amply demonstrated) too technical for the brief to be grasped on a short timescale by elected non-experts.
Under this system, rather than having (for example) an education secretary in situ for a year or two, fiddling with policy for the sake of looking busy, we could have subject experts with hands-on experience, such as Katherine Birbalsingh or Amanda Spielman, standing for the Lords on a ten-year education ticket, long enough to see the results of any decisions taken and be held accountable for them. We could see a Lords education candidate for child-centred ‘skills’ education debate a Lords candidate keen on knowledge-and-discipline-first, with the electorate able to make the decision. Alongside this critical function of managing areas of policy for the long term, our elected expert Lords could then continue their role scrutinising legislation, as at present.
This transformation would at a stroke rid us of our increasingly unpopular ‘crony’ Lords, create more space for long-term thinking in key policy areas, and make the experts we need more democratically accountable. It would move some areas of policymaking away from short-term party politics and more toward a blend of long-termism and direct democracy. In doing so it could balance the need for experts in modern government with the equally pressing need to respond to a general public sense of democratic deficit, and thus maybe yet save us all from Faragism.