Picture credit: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Three cheers for peers of mature years

Removing some of the wisest and most experienced voices in the House would be destructive and wrong

One of the familiar performative rituals of a British electoral campaign, along with hustings, misleading bar graphs, and oversized rosettes, is to make grand promises on constitutional reform. Perhaps no institution is so frequently targeted for public denunciation as the House of Lords, which has committed, in the eyes of politicians, the unpardonable sin of working so excellently in practice but so poorly in ideologues’ theories of government. The Coalition in 2012 had a plan to elect the Lords; it went nowhere. More recently, Gordon Brown declared, and Labour tepidly endorsed, a plan to abolish the Lords entirely and create a Senate. Then, Labour floated the idea of flooding the chamber with new peers, talk of which subsided (presumably because someone informed them of the Salisbury Convention). Now, Labour’s manifesto contains the more modest promise to introduce an age limit of 80 for the upper chamber.

It is possible this promise will prove as effervescent as the many other suggestions put forward over the years for Lords reform. Yet, given Labour’s almost certainly enormous working majority would give it the power to implement such a policy at the expense of very little political capital, there is a real risk it might actually come to pass. This would be a grave error.

While once Bagehot declared that the greatest cure for admiration of the House of Lords was to observe the House of Lords, the modern Lords is, as almost all Westminster observers agree, the best-functioning institution in government. Legislation rushed through the Commons by a majority whipped into shape is given careful scrutiny on the red benches. Peers with no need to pursue the cursus honorum have the independence to speak their conscience without fear of censure. The mix of elder statesmen, faith leaders (not only the Lords Spiritual but peers from the Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, and Hindu communities), former judges, and crossbench experts provides a formidable check on government. In a system where the Commons and the Government operate as one, it is frequent, to quote Christopher Forsyth, that “the survival of democracy depends upon the independence of the House of Lords.”

Labour, having seen the Lords resist Conservative mismanagement of the ship of state in the past years, can hardly disagree. Yet, they still demand change. Edmund Burke long ago spotted the danger of those whose pursuit of “abstract perfection” blinded them to the fact that the science of government was a supremely practical one. In the cause of abstraction, they would tear down “an old and beneficent government” simply because “its forms do not quadrate with their theories”. 

To their credit, Labour, by rejecting Brown’s conclusions, have accepted the place of the Lords in their manifesto. Perhaps they have realised that the Lords, far from being anti-democratic, can and do fit into a deliberative, representative democratic theory, founded on (to quote Burke again) the ‘practical science’ of government.. However with the proposed age limit, Labour still cling to two abstractions divorced from the practical sciences and founded entirely in the world of a priori theorising. 

The first of these is a desperate desire to reduce the size of the House of Lords. This is prompted by some feeling that Britain should have a smaller legislature, some embarrassment that Parliament is behind only the rubberstamp Chinese legislature in its size. There is a perennial desperate desire to remove peers by crude means, such as the (awfully drafted) House of Lords Act 2014’s methods of automatic removal for non-attendance. The age limit is meant to be a way to prune the ermine ranks periodically. 

The problem is that the reason this change to the edifice of the constitution is being done is simply because abstract theory says the chamber should be smaller, because other countries have smaller chambers. It requires complete ignorance of the practical science behind a large Lords: the Lords is, at its best, a part-time chamber of revising experts. The genius of a deliberative, dignified second chamber is that, for each of the wildly diverse issues which the sovereign legislature must consider, someone with valuable experience can be found to contribute. Thus, in a debate on proposed funding changes for research, the presence of peers like esteemed scientist and physician Professor the Lord Winston is invaluable, but in a debate on revising the rules of appellate jurisdiction, a different set of peers is needed. The entire point of a part-time chamber is that the composition on the benches and in the committees shifts as peers attend those debates and proceedings to which they can contribute. The implication of the size-obsessives — that the Palace of Westminster is so full of peers that it’s harder to get a seat on the red benches than on the Central Line — is risible. The practical science of government, and the data of experience, show that a large and variable Lords is a great benefit to the nation. Destroying this for an abstraction, for the sake of seeming more “normal” is constitutional vandalism.

The other abstraction driving the proposed retirement age is the idea that legislators over the age of eighty are wizened creatures on the verge of senility, past their point of contribution to the legislative process. This is a theory that discards the wisdom and experience of some of the best peers in favour of a broad punishment that condemns people not by their individual condition, but rather by their attainment in years. Given that judges may only begin contributing to the upper house after their retirement, this bright line age rule would strip the House of the legal experience of, say, the Baroness Butler-Sloss, who at age ninety contributes more than many young MPs do to the legislative process. Worse yet, it would deprive the House of witnesses to history — would Labour really want debates on refugees to miss the contributions of the Lord Dubs (91), who came to Britain on the Kindertransport? Should the bioethics expertise of the Baroness Deech (81) be disregarded? Lord Craig of Radley, former chief of the Air Staff, is still contributing to the House, aged 94. Should this experience be disregarded? 

It would be an act of self-sabotage to remove from deliberation the wisest and most experienced voices in the House

As Burke noted, the practical science of creating a prosperous commonwealth depends on enormous experience — “more experience than any person can gain in his whole life”. The combined experience of the eldest peers is an asset. If senility is really the concern, then a neutral test should be applied; there are certainly MPs without a tenth of the sense that the peers already mentioned bring to the table. It would be an act of self-sabotage to remove from deliberation the wisest and most experienced voices in the House. 

There is room for reform of the Lords, as there is room for reform of the Commons, of the Government, and of virtually every institution in public life. Yet, the reform of the great edifices of the constitution must be done with care, rather than, to once again quote a certain Irish Whig, give in to the “unprincipled facility of changing the state as often and as much and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashion.” Labour’s malleable Lords policy, based on just such floating fancies, risks weakening the strongest and best institution in Britain’s constitutional framework. 

Labour’s promise to the voters is sensible, adult, mature governance, in response to the foolish antics that have defined the past few Conservative prime ministers. If the party wishes to truly live up to this promise, it will not do something as unsensible, childish, and immature as to tinker with the Lords in response to a passing fancy.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover