Clegg’s calamitous contrivance for House of Lords reform
And now Nick Clegg – still licking his wounds from the humiliating wholesale rejection of AV and the realisation that his much-vaunted ‘progressive majority’ is actually a regressive minority – has announced that he intends to deliver an elected second chamber by 2015.
And David Cameron – in an astonishing about-face from his pre-election assurance that Lords reform as a ‘third-term priority’ – has decided to support his deputy, saying:
“In a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply. The House of Lords performs its work well but lacks sufficient democratic authority. The House of Lords and its existing members have served the country with distinction. However, reform of the House of Lords has been on the agenda for more than 100 years and many Governments have considered the complex issues which surround it but full reform has not yet been achieved. This Government is committed to resolving these issues so that progress can be made.”This is such blatant politicking demonstrating such a crude grasp of constitutional principles that we are precariously close to a Conservative prime minister making an argument for the abolition of the Monarchy. 'La Reine le veult', proclaims the Royal Assent in Norman French. With what ‘democratic authority’, Prime Minister? If ‘those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply’, when will Her Majesty be standing for election? Might Gordon Brown be standing against her? The quest to ‘resolve these issues’ is a thoroughly Whiggish obsession: the ‘tensions’ between the inconsistencies and the mutual exclusions in the Constitution are a reflection of our history and the embodiment of our traditions. One cannot simply ‘resolve’ them without revolution.
The draft bill makes an interesting and thoroughly depressing read. It is as though Mr Clegg has abandoned his own reforming principles and accepted a contrivance which will satisfy neither his own party nor his Conservative partners, not to mention HM Loyal Opposition. The proposal to make the House of Lords an elected chamber – whether 80 or 100 per cent – is a certain recipe for future strife. Not least because Nick Clegg’s proposal is that they be elected by proportional representation (STV) and remain in office for 15 years. Where else on the planet are elected politicians insulated from their electorate for a decade-and-a-half? How does an 80-per-cent elected chamber constitute a ‘resolution of issues’? What is the ‘democratic legitimacy’ of the remaining 20 per cent, especially the bishops? What is the democratic legitimacy of the entire 100 per cent if members may only be judged by their electorate every 15 years?
It is bizarre to seek to move towards a fully-elected chamber seemingly before establishing the function and purpose of that chamber. If it is to remain a revising chamber, providing scrutiny and expertise, why is the judgement of the people the favoured mechanism for establishing those who make the wisest scrutineers? Plato observed that philosophers are ‘very odd birds, not to say thoroughly vicious; whilst even those who look the best of them are reduced...to complete uselessness as members of society’. In short, the wisest scrutineers are not necessarily going to be recognised by most people and may certainly not have popular appeal. Have the Prime Minister and his Deputy forgotten their philosophy? Is not Plato’s simile of the Ship informing deliberations? While the partially deaf and myopic captain (the people) is quarrelling with his crew (competing politicians) over how to navigate and who should be at the helm, none of them has any genuine skill in navigation. One faction of the crew is able to take control of the ship by killing their rivals and drugging the captain. They then turn the ship into a pleasure cruise and admire the seamanship of whomever is able to control the captain. Democratic politics has not changed. But the true navigator, with his expert knowledge of the seasons, winds and stars, is completely ignored and considered useless by the crew, who do not understand the means or purposes of the art of navigation. Nick Clegg is proposing that out of the chaos, sophistry and corruption of the democratic process, the mob will eschew their short-term carnal pleasures, see through the political rhetoric and recognise the navigator’s skills for the good of the state.
This was not so in ancient Greece and it is not so now. The philosopher then as now is not inclined to beg others to allow him to rule. For, like the navigator, he is concerned with truth and not (like the crew-politicians) with the statisfaction of his immediate personal pleasures or with the acquisition of power. Those who seek to rule are concerned with seducing the people in order to gain and retain power, which leads to conflict and distrust: those who seek to scrutinise, reflect and guide are concerned with the pursuit of wisdom and truth for the long-term good of the state. Thus their lordships should value their independence from petty issues of party politics.
The case had not been made for an elected Upper House, which would become a highly-politicised chamber crammed with even more ‘professional’ politicians. The Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has made the point that these proposals merit a referendum (yes, another one), and he referred to the proposed reforms as ‘dog's dinner’ (he meant ‘breakfast’). Not only would a house elected by PR assert a greater democratic legitimacy than one elected by FPTP, but experience shows (in Scotland, Wales and London) that demands for incremental gains in competences would surely follow. And one has to wonder at the legitimacy of a bill which is whipped through Parliament, even with the threat of using the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords.
There are, however, two aspects of this draft reform bill which all Tory-inclined Conservatives might support: i) the reduction of the membership from the present 789 to 300 (for what need a Lords revising chamber bigger than the Commons legislature?); and ii) the retention of 12 bishops of the Established Church.
This later point has sent the BHA and the NSS into predictable fits of apoplexy, since 12 bishops out of 300 is actually a proportional increase in their influence from the present 26 out of 789. And the shift from 3 to 4 per cent is not insignificant when you consider that this is a chamber with political authority expressed through voting divisions in which the lords spiritual sometimes take a particular moral view: each time a bill is won or lost by a handful of votes, and the lords spiritual have decisively cast their lots, the humanists, secularists and atheists will be reminding us that the continuing presence of the bishops is ‘an affront to democracy and antithetical to the aims of a fairer and more egalitarian parliament’.
Just as a ship’s navigator should not be deflected and distracted by the vicissitudes and ephemeral desires of the crew, so it is not for the shepherd to have to concern himself with making popular appeals to the sheep. Let us first focus on the purpose of the House of Lords: everything else will then fall into place.