I felt shame at the way we abolished the Lordsby Anthony Barnett / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
On 11th november some centuries of tradition came to an end. How many centuries-ah how many! Estimates vary. The Guardian said 600 years; a government minister 200 years. It was 800 years for those who trace the power of the Lords to the year when his barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. It was 300, according to constitutional experts who saw the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 as the beginning of the compromise between inherited and secular power which is now drawing to a close. More realistically, it was just 88 years since the Parliament Act of 1911 gave the elected Commons decisive supremacy and permitted the Lords the right only to delay legislation. In its preamble, that act described itself as a temporary measure. It foresaw “a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis.” Since then the hereditary Lords have clung on with varying degrees of honour and dishonour, but without legitimacy.
Now they have gone. But it has not been done in a decent and honourable way. When an old member of the family dies it is important to give them a good funeral. This is not simply a matter of what they may or may not deserve. The living need to bury the dead. To put them behind us demands saluting the life they led. It is even more important to mark the departure of an old predecessor with all due ceremony if you have committed euthanasia. You must share, explain and take responsibility for this act, or the victim will haunt you thereafter.
The spirit of the Lords lingers on. Their worst aspects-unfairness, privilege, centralisation, lack of democracy -continue still, despite the fact that no one any longer will have the right by birth to sit in the legislature and use its subsidised facilities. While the best aspects of the hereditaries-their eccentricity, independence, rootedness and authority-have been diminished by the manner of their dismissal. Britain remains a long way from enjoying a second chamber based on the popular consent foreseen in 1911. Instead we have another variation on the theme of a temporary House of Lords. This time it is composed, in the main, of so-called “life peers.” Mostly, these were pensioned-off politicians given the title of Lord for the rest of their lifetime. The first time I went to have tea there, ten years ago, I thought I had crossed the Styx, as the frail and shrunken forms of half-famous figures I thought of as long dead tottered past, like ghosts.
The life peers continue. Appointed by prime ministers, they make up what must be the most undemocratic legislative chamber in the world outside the diminishing universe of communist regimes. Today, however, they have been modernised. Tony Blair has recruited a swathe of younger followers of New Labour to work the comforts of the red leather. The filmmaker David Puttnam, the architect Richard Rogers, the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, good democrats and private republicans all, together with many of their friends, now vote at the government’s call.
Meanwhile, like a smell from the past, 92 of the hereditaries also remain. For Blair agreed to a rotten compromise. If the hereditaries would co-operate with the legislation which fulfilled Labour’s election promise to abolish them, they would not be completely abolished after all. They could elect 92 from among their own number to carry on until a completely new second chamber is agreed.
Which will be when? This is what is called “a good question.” The government has established a Royal Commission headed by a notorious Conservative fixer, the life peer Lord Wakeham, to report back by January 1999. The commission was packed with a good many duds and has-beens. It is said that it will propose that the new body be four fifths appointed and one fifth elected. Already this is being presented as a defiant endorsement of democracy in the face of the prime minister’s desire to see an entirely appointed second chamber. In fact, such an outcome-if this is what the commission proposes-would suit Blair perfectly well and anyway could take a long time to achieve. (If it ever happens at all.)
I have long opposed the existence of the House of Lords. I also think that Labour was right to proceed with a two-stage approach: getting rid of the hereditaries before finalising the shape of the new house. The hereditaries, who are overwhelmingly reactionary, should have no place in legislating how they are to be replaced. But at the same time the principles of their replacement should have been made clear in advance. We should have been able to celebrate the historic November of their departure as a step towards the creation of a more democratic Britain, in which popular sovereignty could finally make its claim upon parliament, as promised in 1911. Instead, as the outgoing hereditaries took endless, hypocritical pleasure in pointing out (and who can blame them?) they are being replaced by even less democratic arrangements. At least they had some independence from governments.
I gave evidence to the Royal Commission on the first day of its public hearings last July. I defended a proposal I had made, with Peter Carty, in a Demos pamphlet. We suggested that a democratic second chamber could include members selected at random from the electorate, like a British jury. They should include 50 per cent women and be drawn proportionately from the regions. We called it the “Athenian Option” because when ancient Athens chose its male jurors to help rule the city, it combined the principle of random selection with that of proportionality, by ensuring that those chosen by lot came equally from each of its 12 tribes.
We did not propose that today’s jurors should be legislators of a modern state. This is the task of our elected representatives. We merely suggested that they could help to scrutinise legislation according to clear criteria. Who better to help to ensure, for example, that the law is written in clear language? This, by the way, is a radical proposal in Britain, where legislation is opaque to the point of being incomprehensible to MPs themselves. Experiments with citizens’ juries and deliberative assemblies have shown that, given time and support, members of the public can be at least as wise as politicians. Inclusion of members of the public would also help to overcome the alienation of voters from politics.
But the terms of reference given to the commission were set to ensure that it would focus on technicalities. It was obliged to take “particular account of the present nature of the constitutional settlement.” In plain English, this meant that it was forbidden to propose that anything of importance could be challenged. It will doubtless recommend a mechanism for ensuring better representation of various minorities, but it will propose that such correction is undertaken from above. In this way it will preserve the spirit of the old regime.
Giving evidence before the commissioners was an uncomfortable experience. They had to appear to listen. The point of the exercise was to seem to have heard all sides of the argument. Na?vely, I had thought it would be challenging, even intimidating to talk to nine men and three women who wanted to test arguments and understand your point of view. It was merely weird. For 30 minutes Peter Carty and I sat at the focal point of a public platform, while in front of us 12 men and women who had but the slightest interest in what we were saying sat stiff, impassive and mournful. (Read how uninterested they were on www.lords-reform.org.uk.) Blair’s Royal Commission on the Lords was, it seemed, its undertakers.
What will take its place? The social fibres of Great Britain’s empire state have been hollowed out over the past 50 years. It was not difficult for Blair to dismantle the facades of its past greatness. Just like the hereditary Lords who snivelled over their last free glasses of champagne on Thursday 11th November before retiring into the night, there was no resistance left. But I, who have long waited for this moment, felt shame. There was no public celebration. There was no speech from the prime minister on this historic day. He failed to raise a glass even to the best of the past and to the one or two hereditary peers who had attempted to put the public interest before that of their class. He refused to share with us the prospects for improvement which their Lordships’ demise now opens up. Instead the whole thing felt like a mean-spirited stamping-out of what was anyway a pathetically weak source of resistance to prime ministerial autocracy. Britain was the first European country to replace a monarch’s divine right to rule with parliamentary government. Now, out of the ruins of the parliamentary system, a shape emerges. It seems all too familiar: L’?tat, c’est Blair.