Those who call for the abolition of the House of Lords should be careful what they wish for. It could be worse. If Boris Johnson and his chums are in charge of designing its replacement, that replacement all but certainly would be worse.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the House of Lords be retained. Only that we should exercise great caution when undertaking such significant reform. For all the deficiencies and defects identified by Tommy Sheppard and countless more that we are all aware of, the House of Lords does serve a purpose. Cost is a minor issue. The main reason for objecting to the House of Lords is as a matter of principle. Like the monarchy, of which it is an extension, the House of Lords represents unwarranted power, unearned privilege and unsavoury patronage. It is a most British of institutions. For that reason alone, I would wish to see it gone.
But there are such things as working peers, many of whom do valuable work scrutinising legislation. That can only be a good thing. The House of Lords can function as a check on the already excessive power of the executive. That is an excellent thing. That it doesn’t function perfectly or even adequately is not sufficient reason to discard what little benefit the House of Lords provides.
Ask yourself why Boris Johnson would be considering reform. Ask yourself whether it is in his interests to lessen scrutiny and remove checks on the power of the executive. The power of the British Prime Minister. His power.
If reform of the House of Lords is controlled or even significantly influenced by established power, that reform will tend to benefit established power. That is how power becomes and remains established. Before demanding the abolition of the House of Lords, first demand that the process is taken completely out of the hands of politicians. How that is achieved is less important than that the effort is made.
Consider also what is to replace the House of Lords when it is abolished. If your vision of this replacement is in any way similar to what those politicians might have favoured, think again. Be mindful of what purpose the new upper chamber is to serve. Avoid the taint of partisan prejudice and ingrained habits of thought as you formulate ideas. The second chamber must no more serve a particular ideology than established power. The second chamber should serve only democracy.
Those old habits of thinking are evident in calls for an elected upper house. What would this achieve other than to replicate the combative, disputatious and often puerile tribalism which, together with the arcane rules and farcical ceremonial, makes the proceedings of the House of Commons such an unedifying spectacle?
My personal preference is a Chamber of Delegates made up of individuals coopted from qualifying organisations. This model need not be limited in size. Using modern communication technology, it could be dispersed. It would get away from party politics and bring a wealth of expertise to augment the democratic process. Direct elections are not the only way to ensure democracy. Indeed, it may well be argued that the current model of representative democracy has become seriously corrupted. An upper chamber freed from the baleful influence of party politics could be transformative as the lower chamber came under an entirely novel set of pressures from above.
By all means, abolish the House of Lords. But be both cautious and imaginative about it.
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