All The More Reason

It is 2007, by the way.
February 7, 2007, 10:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Conservative peer, Lord Mowbray, died last month. When the government took away the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords in 1998, he was one of the 92 peers – nominated and elected by his aristocratic brethren – to receive a stay of execution.

The retention of these hereditary peers, which turned a potential annihilation into a mere decimation, formed part of a slightly unsavoury back-room deal between Conservative peers and Labour whips. The former, led by Lord Salisbury, were worried that the removal of their reactionary bulwark would leave the Ancient Constitution unguarded and ripe for socialist – or, worse still, clumsy- violation; the latter were, in turn, fearful that their party’s manifesto commitment to abolish the hereditary peers would be frustrated by a hitherto absent rafter of noble turkeys turning up in their hundreds to gobble their opposition to an Act of Christmas. Ninety two pieces of ermine was the price accepted by Conservative grandees for calling off the troops. This hereditary rearguard was mandated to stay “temporarily”, until such time as a coherent plan for House of Lords reform could be put into action.

The House of Lords, like a black hole, has the capacity to distort time. The first attempt at reform took place in the Parliament Act of 1911 which, in a celebrated piece of historical understatement, declares in its preamble that ‘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.’ Almost one hundred years later, this government – now on its third House of Lords White Paper – is unable to decide whether or not a Second Chamber ‘constituted on a popular basis’ is even one of the options for reform it wishes to consider .

A similar tear in the fabric of time has also meant that, nearly ten years after they were spared the axe, the ‘temporary’ noble stop-gaps (absent Lord Mowbray and a few of his fellow ex-peers) are still in place. More ludicrous still, each time one of their number shuffles off to take his seat on the red bench in the sky, a ‘by-election’ must take place to replenish the dwindling bank of blue blood. The death of Lord Mowbray means that the geriatric caucus of hereditary peers will once again have to stir itself to vote for the resurrection of one of its (upper) class of 1998. To its shame, Betfair is yet to open a book on the race, but early indications are that Earl Cathcart is eager to avenge his defeat in the last contest of March 2005, when he narrowly lost out to Rupert Charles Ponsonby de Mauley, the 7th Baron de Mauley (I’m not making this up). Earl Alexander of Tunis, who received zero votes in the last election, is yet to confirm his candidacy.

Whilst this feudal sideshow plays itself out, the elected representatives of The Other Place are to make yet another effort to fashion a Second Chamber that is both legitimate and effective. As ever, the composition of the upper house poses the main obstacle to consensus. Even if his own suggested solution is a hound’s hors d’oeuvre, Jack Straw’s admirable attempt to create a novel system of voting which takes MPs’ second preferences into account may be enough to swing the will of the Commons behind one proportion, most likely one of the majority elected options. One wonders whether, if the government had swung its own will behind a fully elected option, this question could have been resolved in a more timely fashion. Instead, we have endured the worst of all possible worlds: a lingering rump of crusty, fusty aristocrats sitting alongside a no less illegitimate  collection of party donors and clapped-out politicians. Even if one of the latter, David Steel, now thinks that this motley brew of anachronism and cronyism could make good legislation, it could never make a good legislature.

Michael P


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