The future of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber has been the subject of debate for as long as I can remember – now a very long time.
The discussion is now being reopened with media revelations that some of the 800 members – who the British call peers – show up for no other reason than to register their presence in order to qualify for their fee. Naturally, they also claim travel and other expenses for doing so. One peer, according to a newspaper article today, left a taxi running outside while he dashed inside just to sign in to register for his fee. Other peers, the same article notes, show up occasionally but never, or hardly ever, speak during the debates. One is Lord Paul, one of Britain’s richest men, who has voted six times out of a possible 102 and is reported to have made no contributions to debates, either in the chamber or in committee.
One member, Lord Tyler, presumably one of those of a more industrious nature, described the House of Lords as “the best day-care centre for the elderly in London”.
As one editorial pointed out today, “If the House of Lords did not exist, nobody would think of inventing such an anachronism”.
I agree. So why has it never been reformed?
One might ask why anything that plainly doesn’t work properly for the past three-quarters of a century has not been reformed, from the railway system – which has the highest train fares in the industrial world – to the National Health Service – which is perennially on its uppers. Both of these institutions, the former nationalised and then de-nationalised – the latter founded in my childhood and foundering ever since, have been the subject of public debate over the course of my lifetime.
But then, so has the monarchy, which, if it can’t be blamed for the inefficiencies of the railways, is at least symbolically responsible for us being saddled with their Lordships, many of them retired politicians and civil servants who were ritualistically rewarded with their ‘elevations’.
There, in the latter part of that sentence, lies the problem. The ‘village’ that has grown around the Palace of Westminster makes sure that it takes care of its elders. I bet they still have their own post office. The Lords represents the highest honour in an honours system that promotes corruption almost by design, even if it is of the less toxic jobs-for-the-boys variety. No government, no matter how reform-minded, wishes to relinquish the power to bestow such rewards on its own kind, especially as kicking them into the ‘other place’ from the Commons often represents a handy means to get rid of incompetents and troublemakers.
Reforming the Lords is one of those issues that we, the British voters, are told is immense in its complexity, and that doing so would bring few definable advantages. “The system works!” we are told. Well it might, from time to time, but most of its ranking members don’t.
Protecting the ‘system’ is, of course, nonsense, if that which is being protected is responsible for making decisions that affect the lives of the voters.
Somewhere in the mustering files of the Home Office I’ll bet there’s a plan, perhaps several plans, for that very purpose. I have no idea what such plans propose – a 100-seat upper house along the lines of the United States Senate, or merely a pared-down version of what we have today – but if Britain is prepared, even anxious, to jump through thousands of fiery hoops, and then suffer a thousand cuts as well to quit the European Union, then it should not be beyond the wit of our elected politicians to modernise the upper chamber.
So, drag out those plans, dust them off, and let’s get on with it. If I’m wrong, and such papers do not exist, then form a judicial commission to do the job.
As it happens, I like some of Britain’s residual anachronisms. Although at heart a republican, though far from an ardent one, I will argue – not altogether too convincingly, I admit – that getting rid of an institution that defines 1,000 years of our history might be a reform too far. I still even enjoy watching, if I happen to be in the area, the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. And while neither the family the guards are ostensibly guarding, nor the scarlet-coated guardsmen themselves, are doing anything terribly useful, neither are doing any great harm – even if Jeremy Corbyn thinks they are.
The House of Lords in its present form is theoretically useful and occasionally is, but the antics of its members do great harm, both to the public purse, and to the already tarnished reputation of the political class that nurtures it.
It should be replaced, as a matter of democratic principle, by a democratically elected body. Of course!
So, off to the Tower with the lot of them, I say. There, a few might be usefully employed looking after the ravens or guarding the crown jewels – although admittedly that would take care of no more than a handful of them.
The other 750 should simply be pensioned off, strictly in the figurative sense, just as millions of old geezers like me have been. There must be a host of charities that could use their expertise – pro bono, of course.
In the final analysis, I can write whatever I like, as nothing is likely to happen in my lifetime, or perhaps well beyond that in a country that clings to its anachronisms much as a drowning sailor clutches at a life-raft.
Still, one might as well, from time to time, let off a little steam.
Off with their heads!