Sacred Cows

The House of Lords

Abolition of the Lords is the one policy which unites Nigel Farage and Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A Scottish courtier called George Hay became an Earl in 1633 to celebrate the coronation of Charles I as King of Scots, which was nice as most people on these occasions have to make do with a souvenir mug.

The unfortunate 1st Earl of Kinnoull didn’t have much time to enjoy his title as he died the following year, but the gift came in handy nearly four centuries later in 2015 when a farmer and barrister called Charles Hay decided that he fancied a seat in Parliament.

Not for Charles the hard slog round the constituency party selection committees, or the leafleting, the doorstepping, the barely hygienic kissing of babies, and the interviews with perky and annoying local radio presenters.

No, the 15th Earl of Kinnoull appealed instead to a tiny electorate of 28 crossbench hereditary peers. He noted in his election address that his London home was conveniently close to the House of Lords, and that was enough to sweep him to victory on a tidal wave of 12 votes.

The Lords makes Last of The Summer Wine look like a model of diversity

As it happens, Lord Kinnoull has been a hard-working member of the house. And if he hadn’t been an earl, he might still have found a seat. He could have tried giving a lot of money to the Conservative party, like Lord Spencer of Alresford. Or perhaps rescuing Labour from a bit of a fix, like Baroness Chakrabarti.

Being descended from a former prime minister also helps: Baldwins, Balfours, Attlees, Asquiths, Lloyd Georges, Peels, Wellingtons, and Salisburys have all found room on the red benches. As last year did the prime minister’s brother, Baron Johnson of Marylebone.

No wonder that the Lords, who answer to nobody but themselves or their party, are hopelessly unrepresentative of the country at large. Only 28 per cent of peers are women. The median age of the upper house is 72, compared with 40 in the wider UK.

Nearly two thirds of peers are aged between sixty and eighty, although the fresh-faced and vigorous under-40s are not forgotten. There are three of them. The Lords makes Last of The Summer Wine look like a model of diversity.

Looking at this mixture of political patronage and accident of birth, it’s hard to disagree with the verdict of Quentin Letts, parliamentary sketchwriter of The Times, who wrote last year: “Today’s Lords is a racket, a stink-pit, a parade of vain non-entities to match the I’m A Celebrity jungle.”

And yet their Lordships are still there, evading all modern attempts at political reform. Rather nimbly, too, for their age. They have been partly protected by governments, which like to have attractive baubles to hand out to supporters, but there is a certain affection for the Lords as part of the heritage industry. 

The state opening of Parliament is certainly a magnificent piece of theatre. The peers turn out in their bright red robes, trimmed with ermine. Before the curtain goes up, the cellars are searched for a modern Guy Fawkes. A junior minister is held hostage in Buckingham Palace, presumably in case Parliament decides to kidnap Her Majesty.

The UK has a thriving system of select committees. Why does it also need the Lords?

Yeoman warders line the aisle, and the Lord Privy Seal parades majestically with the Cap of Maintenance (while everybody else in the country asks Alexa what a Cap of Maintenance might be when it’s at home). It’s hard to remember that this is government, and not an amateur production of Iolanthe.

Apart from costume drama, the main function of the modern Lords is to revise legislation from the House of Commons, but is that still necessary? Not every country seems to think so.

Every year the Legatum Institute think tank publishes a Prosperity Index of the world’s best-governed nations. Denmark came top this year, and has a single chamber parliament. Norway was second. Also a single chamber. In fact, of the leading ten countries only three — Switzerland, Holland and Germany — bother with two chambers.

New Zealand, seventh in the Legatum table, abolished its second chamber in 1950. Detailed scrutiny of laws has been carried out since then by select committees. The UK has a thriving system of select committees. Why does it also need the Lords?

These select committees can take evidence from any expert they choose to summon, so we don’t need the much-vaunted experience of peers who’ve enjoyed distinguished careers outside politics.

The 1649 Rump Parliament had the right idea when it closed down the Lords because it was “useless”

Nor, as is sometimes suggested, do speeches in the Lords reach soaring heights of rhetoric and learning that are unmatched by their stumbling, tongue-tied colleagues next door. You can often hear better speeches — and equally as informative — during Westminister Hall debates in the Commons.

Supporters of the Lords don’t hide its faults — even retiring Lord Speaker Norman Fowler says the chamber is too big at around 800 members — but insist that it can be reformed.

Yet it was the last big reform — when the Blair government cut the number of hereditary peers — which left the current dog’s dinner. Further attempts at change have run into the same problem: an elected Lords would be a more powerful rival to the House of Commons. In the last Parliament, the government was defeated 89 times in the upper house. If the Lords could really flex its creaking aged muscles, would the government ever get anything done?

No, the Rump Parliament had the right idea in 1649 when it closed down the Lords because the upper house was “useless”. And Charles II was wrong to unleash it again in 1657.

That well-known radical Winston Churchill called for the abolition of the Lords as far back as 1910, when he described the chamber as “a lingering relic of the feudal order” (a bit rich, you might think, coming from a duke’s grandson) filled with “old doddering peers, cute financial magnates, clever wire pullers, big brewers with bulbous noses”.

Let’s be fair. There is one thing in the Lords favour: it brings unity across the political divide. Abolition is the one policy which unites Nigel Farage and Labour’s Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

It’s time to put their Lordships into forced retirement, although we’ll be generous and let them keep those ermine robes. They should fetch a bob or two on eBay.

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