Constitutional Matters



Intentions at Westminster

Baroness Jay of Paddington Airs Her Views Again

The Daily Telegraph of 14th October 1998 published another attempt by Lady Jay to justify the Government's determination to eliminate the protection provided to the Constitution by the House of Lords, the second chamber of the British Parliament.

The noble lady, Lord Callaghan's daughter, leads the work of the Government in the Upper House and will lead the Government's efforts to neutralise its independence. (We examined her wish to have life peers "stripped of their aristocratic titles", and her professed keenness "to remove the elitism of the names used in the Upper Chamber", in the August issue of Baronage, and there paid especial attention to her meretricious imputation that the life peers have merit while the hereditary peers have none.) Here we shall look at her new gospel, sloganised as "Hereditary Peers are Illegitimate", and comment on it paragraph by paragraph. (Three unimportant sentences have been omitted without altering the sense of the text.) Then we shall review its fundamental flaws as they were identified in the correspondence columns of The Daily Telegraph.

Today the House of Lords will begin a
two-day debate on its own future.
With
the strong support of the large majority
of people in Britain
, the Government is
committed to modernising the Lords,
reforming
the anachronism of hereditary
peers
and examining further reform in the
longer term.
For the Lords to be revived
as an important element of parliamentary
democracy in Britain, modernisation is
vital.

Much of the work of the House of Lords
is impressive. New figures show that in
1997-98, the House sat on average for six
and a half hours every day, not including
committee and judicial work.
Many of
the speeches in the Lords are erudite and
acute.
The workload of the House ~
including debating and examining
legislation, holding the Government to
account in oral and written questions,
and considering the issues of the day,
such as its debate on Kosovo this week ~
is increasing.

Yet the House of Lords does not carry
the legitimacy it should
as a second
parliamentary chamber because of its
composition, which, uniquely among
fully fledged modern democracies
anywhere in the world, has inheritance
as a qualification for membership.

The role of a second chamber is crucial.
Most advanced democracies see the need:
the US Senate, the Canadian Senate, the
German Bundesrat, the French Senate and
the Irish Senate are all notable examples.
But for these and other second chambers
to play that important role
they need to
be sure of their legitimacy in a modern
democracy. The House of Lords is not ~
because of the hereditary peers.

The right of hereditary peers to sit and
vote in the House of Lords is wrong in
principle,
and wrong in practice. It is
profoundly undemocratic
that the only
justification for some people being able
to decide on the laws that govern our
country is an accident of birth.
The
presence of hereditary peers gives an
automatic, permanent majority to one
party. This is wrong.

But it is profoundly undemocratic, too,
for
the Lords to be blocking the
democratically expressed will
of the
people of Britain. They made clear they
wanted a new government with a new
approach and new policies when they
voted for New Labour in the election last
year ~ new policies on schools, on
hospitals, on crime, on jobs, on the
economy.. The general run of polls since
then demonstrates clearly that they are
content with their decision. It is a settled
view.
Yet it is something that, in 30 votes
since the election, the Lords ~ with its
in-built Conservative majority ~ has tried
to frustrate.

We made clear our intent in our election
manifesto
, when we explicitly pledged
ourselves to reform. We will legislate to
end the ability of hereditary peers to sit
and to vote in the House of Lords ~
though, significantly, even after the
removal of the hereditaries, the
Conservatives will still command a
majority in the Lords.

This radical reform, which will at a stroke
fundamentally improve and enhance the
standing and legitimacy of the Lords
and
will in itself be a major step towards its
revival, is part of our comprehensive
programme of constitutional change for
the renewal of the fabric of Britain's
democracy for the new Millennium.

Some Conservative peers are now
warning that they will try to derail the
Government's entire legislative
programme if we press ahead with Lords
reform. The Conservatives are deeply split
over the issue,
veering wildly between
defending the hereditary peers to the last
ditch and realising that defending the
indefensible is hardly in line with the
attempts to modernise their party.

While the views of the Opposition do
matter in the Lords, which is based on
consensus not conflict, on Lords reform
the Conservatives are behaving as though
they are still in government: that their
view ~ whatever it may be ~ will be
paramount. The reality is different.
Though their majority means that they
can carry the day in the Lords, they
cannot do so overall.
To do so would be a
constitutional outrage
, and would devalue
the legitimacy of the Lords to what would
be an unsustainable level.
We will carry
through what the people of Britain voted
for.

In addition to our plans to legislate over
the hereditary peers, we will bring forward
our proposals on longer-term reform.
It
will then be clear that the Opposition's
claim that there is nothing beyond
abolition of the hereditaries' right to sit
and vote is false.
We have worked
through these issues, in detail, in Cabinet
sub-committee. We will not replace the
current Lords with a mirror image in New
Labour's favour, but we do intend to see a
fair balance in the House of Lords, a
second chamber fit for the 21st century ~
not the 19th. It may be frustrating for the
Conservatives ~ and even The Daily
Telegraph
~ to have to wait until then.
But
Lords reform is serious, and we will
not approach it in a manner that is not
thought through
.

Britain needs a second chamber to
parliament. It is vital to British democracy
that there is a check on a government
with a large Commons majority ~ any
government, including our New Labour
Government. But for this key role to be
enacted,
parliamentary legitimacy is a
prerequisite ~ and as it currently stands,
the House of Lords does not have it.
Modernising the House of Lords will
provide it. ~ and in modernising the
Lords, we will revive the Lords.
That is
the Government's reform objective. That
is what I am determined to achieve. That
is what we will achieve.

There is no evidence to show that a "large majority of people in Britain" favours "reforming the anachronism of hereditary peers". It is true that reform of the House of Lords appeared in the last Labour Party manifesto, but as less than half the electorate voted for the Labour Party this cannot be claimed as a "large majority".
An anachronism is a feature that is inconsistent with chronology. (If the noble lady takes up knitting to reinforce her Jacobin chic, that is an anachronism.) That the hereditary peers assist the House of Lords to work so effectively as a second chamber well illustrates that the hereditary peerage is not an anachronism.
Revived? The House of Lords is very much alive and, in its accomplishment, as "modern" as it need be.
"Many of the speeches in the Lords are erudite and acute." Those who listen to the proceedings in both Houses, or who read speeches from both Houses in Hansard, may form opinions consistently unfavourable to the House of Commons and then question why the noble lady and the Government she represents should be so enthusiastic about "reforming" the House of Lords.
Here, either the noble lady really does not understand what she is saying, or, regrettably, she is posturing, as a politician on the hustings, careless of meaning. Of course the House of Lords is legitimate. It has been legitimate for centuries. Hereditary peers know this. Life peers such as Lady Jay should perhaps attend an appropriate course on English history before being handed their coronets.
This charge of illegitimacy cannot be proven true merely by repeating it.
If hereditary peers assist the work of Parliament at the wish of the People, how can it be wrong in principle? (It is the People's Parliament, you know, Lady Jay, not the Government's and not yours. We suggest you read our brief explanation of how the People exercise sovereignty.)
In practice this is quite untrue. The Conservative Party may claim today to be the largest party in the House of Lords, but there is no majority over the remainder of the House. Moreover, if such a majority did exist it would be neither automatic nor necessarily permanent.
Are the Lords "blocking the democratically expressed will of the people of Britain"? We had not noticed. We thought they were doing a good job ~ pointing out the silly bits in badly-drafted bills, indicating where the Government was acting against the obvious wishes of the People, setting standards of quality in behaviour and speech, etc.
And now the noble lady is posturing.
Yes, it is something! The House of Lords sought to ask the Government to think again ~ because what the Government sought to do was either against the will of the people (as in the reduction of the age of homosexual consent), or the Government was arrogantly determined to be silly (as with the fourth-year fees at Scottish universities). And asking Governments occasionally to think again is not something Governments like.
The Labour Party's manifesto did not make clear its intentions for the House of Lords. It left them murky, as they are still, and as they appear likely to remain for a substantial time to come.

"This radical reform" ~ how brave this sounds!!! And how novel!!! Yet it is only a repeat of what Cromwell tried to do (to "modernise") and failed to do.

The standing of the House of Lords tends to be rather higher, in the view of the electorate, than that of the House of Commons, and its legitimacy is unquestioned by the larger majority of the electorate.

As for "the renewal of the fabric of Britain's democracy for the new Millennium" ~ we cannot comment because we do not know what it means.

There are Conservatives with differing views on what modifications might improve the operation of the House of Lords as a second chamber. These differences reflect the views of the electorate, as the members of the House of Lords so often do (and more faithfully so than the members of the House of Commons). But those who hold the differing views cannot be described as "veering wildly" (well, anyway, not by any seaman's daughter who knows what veering is).

"... a constitutional outrage ..."??? (This is a bit thick, my lady. If you should force your revolutionary views through in defiance of the majority of the British people, then that would be "a constitutional outrage"! )

Something over 40% of the British people voted for the Labour Party at the last election. A majority voted against it. The "people of Britain" did not vote for any constitutional change that would enhance the already too substantial powers of the Prime Minister and those who surround him ~ as Lady Jay's plans are intended to do. And in a recent poll, only 11% voted for a straight abolition of the hereditary peers' rights.

So there is something beyond abolition of the rights of hereditary peers, is there? But it was said earlier that the election manifesto made the intentions clear, and they cannot have been clear, not really, if they are still secret, in Cabinet sub-committee. Or have we misunderstood?

Did Lord Richard, Lady Jay's colleague and immediate predecessor as Leader of the House of Lords and the minister responsible for its reform, also misunderstand? Just before he was replaced by Lady Jay he confessed, on the subject of the reform, "I have no idea what the Prime Minister's views are." Did the Prime Minister have any practical ideas then? Does he have any now?

"Lords reform is serious," says Lady Jay, "and we will not approach it in a manner that is not thought through." On the evidence presented here, the Government is approaching reform in exactly this manner ~ flippant, ill-prepared, emotional and dogmatic.

So this is the plan ~ legitimise, modernise, revive ~ the three thoughtless stooges, three faudulent catchwords for a fraudulent programme. But the House of Lords is lawful, effective and alive. There may indeed be a case for amending its procedures and enhancing its powers, but this farrago of nonsense is not it.

We have an electoral system which for many decades has offered only two major parties for our choice, plus a minor one that usually collects a significant share of the vote but an insignificant share of the seats in the House of Commons.

Let us now imagine an election in which one of these major parties (the Pinks) publishes a manifesto that promises lower taxes, higher welfare spending, an end to all war, a totally clean environment, a twenty-hour working week with hourly payrates doubled, and the modernisation of the BBC. The manifesto of the other major party (the Violets) promises blood, toil, tears and sweat, pay restraint, increased defence spending, and the continued independence of the BBC. The minor party (the Primroses) promises a bit of this and a bit of that and better education.

The Pinks collect 45% of the vote, the Violets 40%, and the Primroses 15%. This produces a working majority of 150 seats for the Pinks in the House of Commons. "This magnificent result, this landslide victory," announces the Pinks' leader, "is the verdict of the British people." The next day he says, "The Mandate of the British people has given us this huge power to do what we promised we would do. We shall sell the BBC to Murdoch."

"Oh, no!" is the collective gasp of the British people. "We didn't vote for that. We voted for lower taxes, higher welfare spending, no more war, nuclear-free zones, shorter working hours and more pay. The only practical alternative was blood, toil, tears and sweat ~ and we'd had enough of that."

"Aha," says the new leader, "but the Murdoch deal was in the manifesto. The vast majority of the British people voted for it. So stop moaning about the voting figures. Look at the number of our seats. This is modern democracy."

And that is what we hear for the next four years. The minority of the electorate who voted for the Government are described always as the majority, the Government's power is "the verdict of the majority" ~ and whatever the Government wishes to do is "the will of the vast majority of the British people".

Such blatant dishonesty, such brazen arrogance, such brutal perversion of a fairly simple truth, have together combined to diminish the public esteem of elected politicians to a level far below their fantasies. Hence, in part, their envy of and hatred for those who play a role in Parliament and yet do not lie to justify their legislative privileges, are modestly reticent in their rare media appearances, and are candid about their qualifications for Parliament ~ the hereditary peers. And hence, in part, the intuitive fear among the electorate that if the hereditary peers disappear, there will be no one left to represent the ordinary people.

Some of this came across well in letters to the Editor of The Daily Telegraph.

Anthony Walker noted that the peers ~

....... do not have to bow to a Political Master nor pander to an electorate. They are, therefore, more likely to be independent thinkers.......

Paul Hardman commented ~

The Lords have a record of common sense towards badly drafted legislation. All too often it is the hereditary peers who display the most sense.

Adrian Weale wrote ~

A quick glance at a list of life peers offers a frightening insight into the likely calibre of the Lords without the hereditary peers. The reality is that outside the ranks of the superannuated politicians, the majority of life peers are the beneficiaries of patronage, favours, cronyism and implicit corruption through financial dealings with political parties: no more a qualification for a role in the legislature than heredity.

Some correspondents thought very little of the intellectual quality of Lady Jay's arguments. Richard Graves thanked The Daily Telegraph for giving her a platform and made a strong point ~

Intellectual incoherence and spiritual poverty are so much easier to appreciate when one sees them laid out in black and white. So the House of Lords is "undemocratic", is it? But most of us have never lived or wanted to live in a "pure" or "extreme" form of democracy, which Aristotle rightly attacked as one of the very worst and most dangerous forms of government.

Wynn Weldon offered a similar view ~

At what point did the Lords become "illegitimate"? And since when has "democracy" been a code of morals? I fear the baroness has succumbed to that Great American Fallacy which would have us believe that democracy is an end rather than a means.

....... and signed off with an admonition ~

Not so much humbug, m'lady.

Campbell Gordon considered Lady Jay's confidence in overseas systems misplaced ~

The Canadian Senate should play an important role and has the right to block legislation from the House of Commons entirely. Yet it rarely does so, precisely because its members, who are appointed by the prime minister, completely lack legitimacy. Most Canadians would like it abolished entirely or radically reformed. In spite of its powers it is ineffective in comparison with the House of Lords.

This perspective on one of the institutions Lady Jay suggests she would like to copy was complemented by an observation and some difficult questions from Mrs John Buckland ~

In all the public statements concerning the House of Lords, we have never had a convincing reason why it should be abolished. Does it not do its job? Is it corrupt? Self-seeking? Actually biased? It is hard to think of any other organisation whose abolition could be sought without hard evidence of wrong-doing or incompetence (and plenty that survive despite evidence of both).

But, obviously, Mrs Buckland may have missed Lady Jay's point. The incompetence of the House of Lords is not feared. It is the highly professional competence of the House of Lords that is the thorn in the Government's side. That alone is sufficient to damn it, but now, with the turn of the century almost upon us, Lady Jay is able to add that the House of Lords is insufficiently modern to be the fabric of democratic Britain's new Millenium Dome (or something like that).

Much of the criticism of Lady Jay's case came from correspondents who emphasised that they were not politically active, and made this obvious with very straight comment. Susan Bridge described herself as "a 44-year-old housewife and mother" and wrote ~

An offspring of a Conservative is not necessarily a Conservative. The same can be said for any other political leaning. We have Law Lords, Spiritual Lords, Industrial Lords, Supermarket Lords. To balance these "chosen" Lords, why not "random" Lords? [Return, if wished, to the paragraph by paragraph comments.]

Why not? Answers sent by e-mail to reform@baronage.co.uk will be published.

Several commentators in columns, letters and e-mail noted (unfairly???) that Lady Jay is in the House of Lords because she is the daughter of a prime minister and the ex-wife of an ambassador who owed his diplomatic career to his wife's relationship with her father. She should thus, it was suggested by many, be accounted an hereditary peer or at least a peer by heredity. James Young commented ~

The first Lady Jay is essentially no different from the 14th Earl of Home (at least he, when he was called Sir Alec, did get elected). Who does this latter-day Leveller think she is? Who elected you baroness, Baroness?

Linda Purse, also, was less than impressed ~

Lady Jay seems to be under the impression that hereditary peers are not in the Lords from a sense of duty or obligation, but are merely there for the status. The statement says more about the reasons she accepted an honour than about hereditary peers.

Harold Taylor feared for the future, taking the theme of Lady Jay as an omen ~

If the illegitimacy of the hereditary principle is the issue, contrary to all history, how long before the Islington Jacobins issue a manifesto which opines that: "The right of an hereditary monarch to be sovereign within our constitution is wrong in principle and wrong in practice, and should be reformed"?

And Beryl Goldsmith summed it up neatly ~

It is all there. The essential tenets of old and new Labour: envy, greed, malice, unbelievable arrogance and familiar hypocrisy.




Lady Jay on the abolition of the titles of life peers
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How the British people exercise their Sovereignty

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