Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Lords Reform

The fact that Lords reform is the most intractable question in British politics is slightly puzzling. The pre-amble to the Parliament Act 1911, the act which first circumscribed the powers of the House of Lords, affirms “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.” A century later, most Lords sit as a matter of appointment rather than birth; yet, the question of reform still lingers, and nor is it likely to go away until the composition of the House of Lords even begins to reflect the democratic principles that are taken as given in all advanced liberal democracies.

Though electing the House of Lords would unquestionably be in line with our democratic values, the quagmire that is Lords reform highlights an important truth: values and principles do not necessarily make for good government. Currently, the Lords acts as a repository of knowledge and expertise. Though many Peers were appointed based on how much money they donated to the Labour Party, the House of Lords still contains hundreds of people appointed due to eminence in their respective fields. This makes the Lords particularly effective at doing the things that the House of Commons either does not have the technical expertise to carry out, such as the work of the Lords Science and Technology Committee, or work that is not considered especially glamorous, such as scrutiny of EU legislation. How these functions could be retained with an elected chamber is difficult to see. Electioneering requires a different skill set, and attracts a different sort of person than those who currently inhabit the Lords. The likelihood is that an elected second chamber would simply replicate the functions of the Commons.

The trade off between pragmatism and principles is not new; almost every difficult political problem involves something like it. But Lords Reform is special because it is a question that is fundamental to the British constitution – by who and how our laws are made. We tend to think, in these matters at least, that principle should triumph: It is better to be a man of principle than unprincipled, and in the most important matters, principles should be followed.

Schumpeter - Political theorist
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I am not so sure. Any reasonably adult moral outlook, which surely encompasses politics, as well as broader ethical life, cannot be enumerated by a short and pithy set of aphoristic principals. Lords reform does, I think, essentially boil down to a choice between democracy and elitism in our law making. When the people make their own laws they are autonomous, free and have the power to make their own destiny. When elites make the laws, you get better laws. The truth of the matter is that a good polity has great deal of both, which is pretty much what we have now. We already accept that monetary policy is determined by professional economists in the Bank of England, and that the detail of most policy and legislation is worked out by civil servants. It seems appropriate to me that the two houses of our legislature should represent a marriage of popular sovereignty, and elite rule – Government by the people tempered by government for the people.  

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