Constitutional Matters

A View from Westminster

The Future of the House of Lords

The most notable feature of the conflict between the political parties of the United Kingdom in respect of a "reformed" Second Chamber at Westminster has been the turmoil in the ranks of the Conservative leadership. While some voices there argue for a continuation of the status quo, on the rational grounds that the current system well performs its rôle as the protector of the people against the excesses of government, and that there is no noticeable wish among the people for it to be changed, others argue for a more radical reform than the "New Labour" Government seeks to adopt, one that would create a fully elected Second Chamber, a Senate that would have a "democratic" mandate to kick the government around.

Prominent among this turmoil was the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, Lord Cranborne, heir to the Marquess of Salisbury and to the political traditions of the Cecil family. He had served two terms in the House of Commons as the member for South Dorset, was subsequently called to the House of Lords in his father's lifetime through the device of calling him in his father's barony, and then served in Prime Minister John Major's cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and as Leader of the House of Lords. Now it was his task to oppose the plans of Prime Minister Tony Blair, plans whose intention is to emasculate the powers of the Second Chamber in pursuit of a more effective monarchical government (monarchical meaning "rule by one" ~ the "one" in this case being Tony Blair), but he did so by negotiating a compromise, with the support of cross-bench peers (peers with no formal political allegiance), that would allow ninety-one of the hereditary peers to remain in the House of Lords until the second stage of the government's plans (which are still unformed, and are most certainly uninformed) have been implemented.

The Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, did not approve of the compromise. Nor did he approve of the way in which it had been arranged. In consequence he replaced Lord Cranborne with his deputy, Lord Strathclyde, an hereditary peer whose views seem indistinguishable from those of his departing boss. Moreover, the Cranborne Compromise seems set to be adopted.

That is the background. Our View from Westminster now takes a fresh look at where we might proceed from here.

Affection and Judgement

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 selection committees.

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 the Constitution?

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.

Lady Jay on the abolition of the titles of life peers
For reliable news and analysis of proposed Constitutional
changes, available daily, The Baronage Press recommends
The Daily Telegraph (online at
Lady Jay on the Government plans for the House of Lords

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