Recently, the House of Lords underwent a major reform, and most of the
hereditary peers lost their seats in the House. There had been calls for
many years to reform the Upper House, even to scrap it entirely. I believe
that there is great room for improvement on what has been done.
Democracy is one of the best methods which people have worked out for
governing large societies. Sometimes the word "democratic" is misused to
mean "good". Democracy is very flawed. It is far from good, but it is
better than most of the realistic alternatives. The House of Commons is
elected by the people of the country, and the elected MPs must act to
please those people, or else lose their jobs. If everyone in the nation
votes entirely selfishly, as they probably do, then the people elected will
in theory carry out the wishes of most of the population, which is fair
However, the vested interest for a career politician is not most in
governing the nation particularly well, but in gaining power, staying in
power, and keeping a job. To this end, these people group together in
political parties, and spend much of their time making sure that they are
not ousted from power and influence, by others who want the same things.
The media spend far more time reporting who is trying to wield power, and
who the winners and losers of this competition might be, rather than
analysing the effects of policies. The word "politics" has more to do with
behind-the-scenes-manoeuvres, and competition for power, than to do with
ascertaining the best way to run a nation.
The policies which a government chooses are massively influenced by what
that government believes will please voters, and out-manoeuvre rivals.
This is bad for a nation. A perfect government would think entirely of
what is good for the people, and would never seriously consider
implementing a policy which would harm the nation, but save the image of
the government. We live in a very imperfect world.
Governments are often accused of "inconsistency". It is taken as a sign of
weakness and incompetence ever to change one's mind. Margaret Thatcher was
the Prime Minister of a very powerful government, and under her rule, the
legislation for the "Poll Tax" was drawn up. At first, many people, myself
included, thought that this new method of taxation seemed refreshingly
radical, and fair and practical. If anything, it seemed rather socialist,
rather than conservative. As time went by, however, details of this
proposed legislation became clear, and it was obvious to just about
everyone, that this was a tax which would never work. However, rather than
redraft the legislation, in the light of the reasonable criticism it was
getting, the government chose to preserve its image of strength, and it
attempted to hammer through this flawed bill, and thanks to the power of
the Conservative Party of the day, it succeeded in getting the bill through
The Lords then showed its value. After much more sensible debate,
which had far more to do with the effect of the legislation on Britain, and
far less to do with the government's image and grip on power, the bill was
returned to the Commons. The Lords had refused to act as a rubber-stamp,
and had shown the people that there were educated and informed people
working in Westminster, who could and would seek to prevent such flawed
legislation's being passed.
This, then, was the good side of The Lords. The Upper House is there to
curb the excesses of the Commons. Precisely because the Commons will
inevitably be concerned with who is in power rather than how best to
govern, we have a second house, which will reject the bills which are born
of the follies of power-politics.
Later, however, the Lords showed its bad side.
The Poll Tax, though it was still doomed in the long-term, eventually got
passed by the Lords, after a "three line whip". The Conservative Party
made every effort to see that every person it could get to support it,
would turn up and vote in the Upper Chamber, and save the government's
face. Peers, who seldom if ever turned up to Westminster, were rounded up
from the furthest corners of our fair realm, and driven in to vote for
Thatcher's flagship bill. Many of these men and women were hereditary
peers, and the public perception was that such people would always favour
the Conservative Party.
The Upper House had shamed itself. It showed us all that party
politics could stop it from doing its job. This issue was the saving of
the Conservative Party, not the good of the nation. This was one of many
occasions which gave ammunition to those who argued that the principal of
hereditary peerages was bad and should be abolished.
In fact, not only is the hereditary principle a good one, but actually
everyone and his cat supports it. How would you like it if the state
prevented you from giving your children anything? A very major motivating
factor in people's lives is the desire to give one's children a good life.
We all want our children to be healthy, happy, rich, successful, secure.
To this end, parents everywhere save money for the future, give their
children treats and presents, and many helps in life. This is perfectly
natural, and contributes enormously to the wealth and success of a
society. To complain that a peer has his peerage as a "mere accident of
birth" is to complain that a person born in Britain to British parents
gets to be a British subject as a "mere accident of birth."
As far as the House of Lords is concerned, the great benefit of the
hereditary principal is that a person who has fought to gain power will
fight to keep it, and will be willing to make all sorts of pernicious
alliances to keep it, whereas man who has inherited a seat in the Lords
does not fear losing his seat, and so is not nearly so prone to such
vices. Many of the hereditary peers stayed away from the Upper House,
having insufficient interest to keep them there. Many would turn up and
address the house on certain matters on which they were expert, and then
not turn up again for many months, or even years.
Justice must be seen to be done, however, and it is true that many people
saw the Upper House as being populated entirely by representatives of a
small sector of British society: elderly, male, upper class. It was
thought that these people would serve the interests of their type, at the
expense of others. That these people were biased towards old age is
true, although I see far more wisdom in deferring to the opinions of the
old, experienced and wise, rather than the young, naive, and ignorant.
True, some young people are wise, but older people have had the chance to
prove their wisdom. The male bias existed too, but it does in all
establishments of government, and is not unique to the Lords. Men are
more interested in acquiring wealth, status, and power, and will try
harder to get them. The only way to get equal numbers of women in, would
be to impose some artificial system which ensured this. Such a system
would undoubtedly do far more harm that the tiny benefit to be gained from
having more women in Westminster. That the lords were upper class was
perhaps the most serious aspect of the bias. It must be remembered,
however, that rich people who have become rich by their own efforts are
far less charitable than those born to riches. If one wanted a parliament
biased against the poorest people in a country, then one would recruit
entirely from the ranks of the nouveau riche: those who have most to lose
from policies which help the masses. A man secure in his wealth, who
knows that he was lucky to get it, is far more likely to feel sympathy for
I believe that there is wisdom in the expression "if it ain't broke, don't
fix it". There was so much about the Upper House which was good, that it
would be foolish to change everything. I have acknowledged, however, that
there were problems with the House as it was. Now for my proposals.
No member of the House of Lords should be allowed to join a political
In the first three years of his rule, Tony Blair appointed 209 peers. This is
frankly disgraceful. Any prime minister is bound to be massively biased
towards appointing peers who support his party, or who will be ineffective
in supporting the opposition. Also, people wanting to become peers will
have a way of achieving this: corrupting the government. A prime
minister who appoints peers will be obliged to elevate people to the Lords
when he "owes them one", while other appointees will "owe him one". This
back-stage dealing is not in the interest of the nation.
No lord should ever be subject to a "three line whip". Three line whips
compel members to turn up and vote in accordance with the wishes of their
political party. Lords should be independent of such things; therefore,
they should not be allowed to join political parties. The Upper Chamber
is there to bring wisdom to parliamentary proceedings, and to make it more
likely that the decisions made in Westminster would be in the interests of
the people, and not those of the political parties in the Lower House.
This ability is clearly hampered by the simple fact that peers are members
of political parties themselves.
How, then, should peers be appointed? Given that the hereditary principal
is good, but imperfect for recruiting all of the Upper House, a
substantial proportion of the Upper House should be hereditary. The rest
should be appointed not by the prime minister, nor by anyone connected
with any political party. They should be appointed by the head of state,
the monarch, and the monarch should be advised in this by an independent
group of advisors, subject to scrutiny.
The quality of debate in the Upper Chamber has always been higher than
that in the Lower. The Upper House should be populated by educated and
intelligent people. Some of these might be people who have excelled in
some field or another, perhaps in business, science, academia, or charity. People who have
in the past donated substantial funds to political parties would disqualify themselves
by this. People who become successful in business and the like are
people who strive to succeed, not in order to get a peerage, but for
some other reason of their own. I see no need to represent every type of
person in the Upper House. To do so would require the appointment of a
certain quota of stupid people, to reflect that many people in Britain are
stupid. Those advising the monarch should seek to recruit the best people
for the job, however, they would be fairly criticised if all their
appointees were strikingly similar.
Some people suggest that the Upper House should be elected. The main reason for having an upper house is to fight against the flaws of democracy. This cannot work if the upper house is elected as well as the lower. It is truly a ridiculous idea. Furthermore, one only has to look to places like the United States of America, where the upper house is elected, to see that most of the people who get elected are the sons of former members of that same house, and near enough all of them are stinking rich. If you want to get away from an upper house biased towards rich men who are related to other members, and who band together along party lines for the sake of their positions, then you must not support an elected upper house.
A healthy amount of randomness, and some bias away from the upper
classes, might be brought about by the appointment of peers who will
start new hereditary lines. These new lines would start with people from
a variety of backgrounds, including working class.
So now I have stated my opinions, and have put forward two major
proposals, which I'm very sure about, and a minor one, which might require
more thinking about.
1. No member of the House of Lords may be a member of a political party.
2. Lords are to be appointed by the head of state, advised by an
3. New hereditary lines should be created, from among British subjects of
My feeling is that the right proportion of heredity to non-hereditary
("life") peers is probably around 1:1 (half).
I look forward to critiques of what I have written.