Let us, as Lord Cranborne appears to have done, and as in 1626
Chief Justice Crewe famously did, labour to make a covenant with
ourselves, that affection may not press upon judgement.
Affection first ~ "Everyone," it was once commonly believed, "loves a lord."
This was before "New Labour" invented Cool Britannia, when the best known were Lord Emsworth of porcine fame and Lord
Peter Wimsey, scourge of the criminal classes. Others loved were
the great war chiefs of whom Viscount Nelson, Earl Roberts and
Baron Dowding spring readily to mind. Of the larger number, less
well known, were the lords who managed their great estates and,
more or less in their spare time, directed the creation of the
world's greatest empire, oversaw the genesis and development of
the industrial revolution, and governed the United Kingdom with
as little interference as possible in the affairs of its people.
Affection was feudalism's legacy, now almost spent, but what little
there is left we shall here, for the moment, disregard.
So, then ~ to judgement, on which our affection, as we have agreed, shall not press.
And thus to the question we are told is on everyone's lips ~ "Should
any man or woman have the right, based on the fortunes of birth,
to govern our country, to instruct us in what we may or may not
do?" (Or, as the Home Secretary has suggested, is the hereditary
principle in government risible?)
The Current Power of the People
Yet if we look at this without affection, which is to suggest
that we look at it without emotion; if we delay our judgement
judiciously and question first whether this is indeed a question
that requires an answer ~ what then? Ought we perhaps first examine
what the lords do, rather than concentrate our minds on what they
are? Might we not then first judge their role in the Constitution
of the United Kingdom and their contribution to its welfare?
The United Kingdom, usually described as a Constitutional Monarchy,
is more precisely a Representative Monarchy whose integral relationships
form a closed loop. Its People are sovereign; their sovereignty
is represented by the Monarch whom they, the People, choose; the
Monarch, as head of the People's Government, oversees the work
of the Government; and the Government governs the People. The
Government thus governs the People with the consent of the People
~ a closed loop.
The Monarch, the nation's chief executive, is responsible for
the effective coordination of a triad ~ the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. (The chief executive summons Parliament and dissolves it, appoints
prime ministers and dismisses them ~ and the retention of these
four powers allows the final freedom of choice essential to protect
the People from mischievous ministers.)
The legislature is empowered by the Sovereign People in Parliament.
The judges are appointed by the Monarch, and thus justice is dispensed
on behalf of the Sovereign People.
Executive orders, civil and military, are given on behalf of the
Monarch, and thus all executive power is the power delegated by
the Monarch in Council on behalf of the Sovereign People.
These powers exercised by the Monarch are authorised by the Act
of Settlement 1701, which designated succession to the Crown by
the Protestant heirs general of Sophia, and the Monarch, as is
well known, succeeds to the Crown at the moment the predecessor
dies. However, the ratification of that succession which the Monarch's
subsequent coronation signifies is not owed to the Act ~ it is
awarded by the people the Monarch is to represent until death.
During the coronation, the Monarch is acclaimed as the choice
of Parliament acting for the People, and the coronation oath,
whose continuous history can be traced to the time of Edward the
Confessor (crowned at Westminster in 1043), and whose development
comprehends the Magna Carta, confirms that the Monarch's authority is itself subject to the Law (and thus
all authority delegated from the Monarch is subject to the Law).
Without the hereditary Monarch, Parliament cannot in practice
legislate, for although the Royal Assent is given by the three
Lords Commissioners for the Monarch, that Assent has first to
be authorised by the Monarch. Assent will not normally be withheld,
but it is not impossible to imagine a situation in which the Monarch
might be aware that the Sovereign People the Monarch represents
have had their trust abused by the members they have elected to
Parliament, and that the abuse has not been countered effectively
by the Second Chamber, the House of Lords. The Monarch might then
suggest to her first minister, the prime minister, that the Government
seek a new mandate from the People for what is manifestly against
the wishes of the People.
The operation of an effective Second Chamber diminishes the possibility
that such a cataclysmic confrontation would ever arise, of course,
but the House of Lords has a far larger rôle than that of being
a cushion between the People and their Monarch on the one side
and the Commons on the other. It is there to revise badly-drafted
legislation; it is there to caution the Commons-dominated Government
when ministers attempt to exceed their powers; it is there to
give independent voice to views unheard in the brutally-whipped
Lower House; and it is there because the full authority of the
Monarch as the representative of the People is attained only with
the Three Estates of the Realm assembled in full Parliament, the
three estates being the Commons, the Church (represented by the
Bishops) and the Peers, the Bishops and the Peers providing the
membership of the Second Chamber.
Or is the Second Chamber there, as this present Government portrays
it, to frustrate the will of the People (as that will is interpreted
by democratically-elected representatives)?
The Future Impotence of the People
The British electorate enjoys a system which offers a choice of
only two major parties, 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 a future
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 thirty-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.
When the Pinks collect 45% of the vote, the Violets 40%, the Primroses
15%, and the Pinks (against whom, obviously, 55% of the electorate
voted) have a working majority of 150 seats in the House of Commons,
the political commentators note the arithmetical absurdity but
explain that it is the British system and that it works. (And,
until now, it has indeed worked reasonably well ~ but only within
the system of checks and balances integrated within the Westminster
Parliament, a system of which the Second Chamber with its current
constitution and powers is an essential component.)
But then ~ "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 our manifesto promised. We shall
sell the BBC to Rupert Murdoch."
"Oh, no!" is the collective gasp of the British People. "We didn't
vote for Murdoch. 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." (Never mind the quality; feel the width.)
And that is what is heard for the next four years. The 45% minority
of the electorate who voted for the Government are described always
as the majority, the power exercised by the Government is "the
verdict of the majority" ~ and whatever the Government wishes
to do becomes "the will of the vast majority of the British people".
And in this fashion the checks and balances are now to be refashioned,
under the label of "modernisation", to remove any possibility
of effective restraint being exercised by "undemocratic" influences
independent of patronage and free of the disciplines imposed by
The Representation of the People
Insistence on improvements to badly-drafted legislation, restraint
on abuse of ministerial power, protection against an elected dictatorship,
a platform for minority views, and the political freedom of the
"crossbenchers" ~ how can these be guaranteed by a Second Chamber
filled with puppets nominated by political parties and nominees
"elected" by political parties? Well, as one letter published
by The Daily Telegraph suggested ~ what about a lottery? Why not, instead of hereditary
peers, have the House of Lords filled with lucky winners? These
would be truly representative of the People.
This idea is often aired, but it fails to recognise that hereditary
peers are already selected by lottery, the lottery of birth. This
same lottery awards some degree of physical beauty, moral courage,
intellectual imagination, sporting prowess, etc, to everyone born,
and we learn to live with its arbitrary operation from early in
our childhood. It is not unnatural. So is there then any difference
between the current hereditary peers, and peers selected by a
ticket lottery, that would justify such a fundamental change in
There certainly are differences. For example, the lottery would
produce a body of ticket peers with an average IQ close to 100.
The current hereditary peers, in general, owing to a better education
than that enjoyed by the average ticket peer, owing to a wider
experience of foreign travel, owing to, for almost all, a more
cultured homelife, have had their birth IQ (averaging, presumably,
close to 100) massaged upwards. Again, in general, owing to their
parents' family environment, they have grown to maturity amid
a tradition of service and with an understanding of what is expected
of them which could be quite alien to some ticket peers, but which
directly assists the work of Parliament.
The Government insists that the current system is "undemocratic",
but democracy is a means to good government, not an end in itself.
Beauty and brains and athleticism and courage are "undemocratic"
in their allocation, so should we reform our systems for the selection
of actresses and professors and sportsmen and soldiers? Of course
not (although some of the reforms in the state education system
thirty years ago tended this way). Moreover, the current system
works well, and has worked well for many decades, so why, "if
it ain't broke", should it be changed?
What then, apart from self-interest and self-indulgence, drives
this urge to destroy that which manifestly works well? The Government's
case is easy to understand: whatever might interfere with the
dictatorial powers of the Prime Minister's office must be neutralised.
But the People, the electorate ~ they have no wish to destroy
the safeguards given to them by the current system and are justified
in questioning the motivation of those who would.
Tony Benn, MP, the erstwhile Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, the earlier
Viscount Stansgate who disclaimed his peerage dignity, has questioned
why the British should be the only European nation to have unelected
members in a Second Chamber. (Why is there this emphasis on making
the British as alike their continental neighbours as possible
~ in finance, in law, in taxation, and now in political constitution?)
Does he assume that no elector in continental Europe would prefer
to have the British system? If so, then he is wrong.
The Westminster Parliament is honoured around the world (and not
just in Europe) with such designations as "The Mother of Parliaments"
and "The Fount of Parliamentary Democracy". All Britons, not only
politicians, take pride in this. But the achievements of those
long centuries of parliamentary democracy are not restricted to
the House of Commons. Parliament consists of a mutually interdependent
triad ~ the Sovereign and the House of Lords and the House of
Commons. The Sovereign is an hereditary monarch, and the majority
of the members of the House of Lords are hereditary peers. And
the advantage of heredity as a selection mechanism is that it
is uninfluenced by politics. It has no debt to repay. It is independent
of arbitrary fashion. Its beneficiaries have time to listen, time
to reflect, time to debate, politely and quietly and wisely, with
thought instead of dogma.
Lord Cranborne, in setting aside affection to concentrate on judgement,
has, since his time as a member of the House of Commons, sought
to enhance the power of the Second Chamber to limit the tyranny
a Commons majority led by an ambitious dictator can impose. He
believed that the public perception of the House of Lords (too
often confused with its "democratic legitimacy") did require the
strength of the hereditary peers to be reduced, but while retaining
their influence, probably by limiting their voting rights. Much
of what he arranged with the Government was wholly consistent
with this. His action, whatever may be the final result in constitutional
terms, certainly served to emphasise to the public that the House
of Lords is far more independent than is generally appreciated,
and served to remind the public also also that on such politically
contentious measures as the reduction of rural bus services, the
relaxation of the laws on homosexuality, the inequitable fee structure
at Scottish universities, and the "modernisation" of electoral
systems, the hereditary peers represent and defend the wishes
of the People against their "democratically-elected" masters.
Parliament today, with its hereditary Monarch and Peers, gives
stability and security, rules in the name of the British People,
and is accountable to the British People. Dare the People now
give aspirant dictators with a five-year mandate a licence to
"reform" Parliament in such a way as to unbalance that stability
and thus to reduce their security? The present blend of hereditary
peers and life peers curb the excesses and abuses and silliness
of the present Labour Government, as they did with the previous
Conservative Government. Long may they continue to do so. If they
are put at peril, if they are to be put at peril, we are at peril,
liberty is at peril.