Boris Johnson’s much trailed resignation honours list has provoked unaccustomed fury, including from those usually happy to join in the ritual forelock-tugging which goes with the publication of Britain’s too frequent lists of preferment. This is not just because the former prime minister and notions of honour make strange bedfellows. The outrage has been triggered by Johnson’s plan to create 20 new peers in the already over-stuffed House of Lords.
Most newspapers regularly fill pages cataloguing those who have been awarded “honours”. Yet this time The Times, still the house journal of the free-thinking establishment,fired off a leader, “House of Cronies”, backed up with a trenchant op-ed by Alice Thomson headed “Slimeballs and Toadies have no place in the Lords.”
Complaints are centred on the alleged poor quality of the latest names to be given a paid seat for life in the law-making of this country. This is to quarrel with symptoms while ignoring the malignancy of an institution which shames our nation. To those patriots who protest that at least we are not corrupt in this country, I retort “but we have the House of Lords.” Elevation to the Lords has been routinely abused by successive prime ministers, not to recruit the brightest and best to our legislature, but for pay-offs, personal favours and to clear deadwood out of the way. The prime ministers know what a dirty business it is from their own experience handing out peerages and the flagrant lobbying they are subjected to by those who want one. The system’s putrescence is evident in the fact that not one of our extant ex-prime ministers – Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss – has yet chosen to avail themselves of the seat on the red benches which would be theirs, pretty much by right.
The near automaticity of elevation to the Lords for those who have served in cabinet, unless they have been tainted by some types of personal scandal but not others, is a relatively recent innovation, as is promotion to the upper house for backbench Commons veterans bed-blocking juicy constituencies. When Harold Macmillan was awarded a peerage in the mid-1980s, 20 years after he retired as prime minister, I went to the Lords to get reaction from Alec Douglas-Home, who had followed him into Number 10. Sir Alec, the double ermined hereditary and life peer, clearly thought there was something rum about Macmillan’s promotion because his first words to me were “is this some kind of joke?”
Abolishing the Lords, and replacing it with a new, working, democratically accountable, chamber should not be about the people who are in it now or about those slated to join them soon. I know many members of the Lords personally, from all political parties and none, and I have the highest respect for some of them. It is no longer common practice to make people peers just because they may be exceptional human beings. The more demotic idea of “people’s peers” has also been abandoned. Technically a peerage is no longer an honour like a knighthood, damehood or OBE. Peerages have been reduced to the perks of political hackery in the gift of party leaders. Non-aligned and cross-bench peers are just ballast in the same system of patronage. There is no effective scrutiny of nominations; party leaders have set the precedent of overriding the reservations of the House of Lords Appointments Committee by elevating the likes of Tom Watson, Peter Cruddas and Evgeny Lebedev.
There are still some remarkable people in the Lords. Martyn Rees, Melvyn Bragg, Robert Winston and John Browne would feature on my list of favourites, along with Val Amos and Tanni Grey Thompson. But while I would listen to them eagerly on their areas of expertise and exceptional experience, I cannot see why they should have a platform to meddle in all the laws of the land. Losing their seats in the Lords would not deprive such eminent people of their voices in public debate.
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One cynical peer told me that you only have to listen to the actual debates to be disabused of the oft-voiced excuse that the Lords discuss the matters of the day at a level far elevated above the Commons. Even if the Lords and Ladies did possess the wisdom of Solomon and the eloquence of Pericles, why should the taxpayer be funding TED talks for the amusement of those of the eight hundred members turning up to collect their daily £300? For sure nobody outside the Palace of Westminster is listening.
If not the Lords, there is still a need for a second chamber to review and revise the laws passed often in haste by the more powerful, partisan and democratically accountable lower house. The other advanced western democracies in the G7 have bicameral systems too. But it is more than a century since the Americans introduced popular elections for the US Senate. And if Britain is becoming more like Italy, as The Economist recently bemoaned, the Italians have at least recently carried out radical surgery to make their upper house smaller and more accountable.
Almost all – 99% – of readers backed a straw poll in The Times for Lords reform. Everyone seems to think the game is up, yet somehow it never is. When I gave a talk to a group of Tory peers a few years ago, the most pressing concern was what sort of redundancy pay-off they would get. Other parties including Labour and the Liberal Democrats are theoretically committed to getting rid of the Lords in its present form, though this has not stopped their adherents scrambling for peerages. Norman Fowler, a former Lords speaker, points out that peers have already backed a proposal by Lord Burns for a 500 hundred strong senate, elected on a regional basis with a further 100 chosen by an appointments commission because of their “distinction”.
I’ve already argued against patronage and peerages for “distinction”. Direct election would inevitably place the Lords in competition with MPs. But so would the suggestion from Lord Salisbury, who crafted the compromise with New Labour which wittily left the hereditaries the only elected members of the Lords, albeit by only their peers. He has floated the idea of co-opting members from regional assemblies and parliaments.
My own proposal would be to have a body of no more than 300, appointed from party lists on the basis of national percentage share of votes at general elections. To provide stability outside the Commons’ electoral turnover, only one third of the seats would be replaced at each election and each member would serve a single term of three electoral cycles. This would be for a maximum of 15 years, and should act as a disincentive for the ruling party to call early polls. Pay would be similar to an MP’s and those put into the job would most likely be diligent political servants, like the drudges currently quietly appointed alongside the cronies because someone has to do the work.
If Rishi Sunak really wants to restore “integrity, professionalism and integrity at every level of government”, he should block any resignation honours from Johnson and Truss and foreswear any future use of patronage himself. He will not because the Conservative party wants the money – £3m of donations is reported to be the going rate for a baronage. The other parties aren’t much better. They should each commit to radical reform of the Lords in their next manifestos. Such constitutional reform may be drudgery or of little interest to voters, but it is also essential to stop the fabric of fairness, accountability and justice in our democracy from rotting away.
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