Reform of the House of Lords
This is a personal reflection in response to
the consultation paper, and is not to be construed as in any way
part of the official Church of England response.
Two preliminary principles should dictate the
style and scope of any reform:
(1) The general character of the House should
be preserved as far as possible, on the grounds that the genius
of our political system lies in its gradual evolution rather than
in sudden drastic change. The extent to which both Houses rely
on conventions rather than on enforceable rules is a further reason
for favouring as much continuity as possible.
(2) The need for a second chamber arises
from the inherent deficiencies of government by a single chamber
elected on a popular vote. The role of the Upper House, therefore
must be to complement the House of Commons and to compensate for
As de Tocqueville pointed out 150 years ago,
representational democracy based on universal suffrage, though
undoubtedly the least worst form of government, is not an unmixed
blessing. He noted among other things that it tends to discourage
participation by people of real ability.
"The race of American statesmen has evidently
dwindled most remarkably in the last 50 years . . . While the
natural instincts of democracy induce the people to reject distinguished
citizens as their rulers, an instinct not less strong induces
able men to retire from the political arena, in which it is so
difficult to retain their independence, or to advance without
But then he went on: "It is no doubt of
importance to the welfare of nations that they should be governed
by men of talents and virtue; but it is perhaps still more important
for them that the interests of those men should not differ from
the interests of the community at large; for if such were the
case, their virtues might become almost useless and their talents
might be turned to bad account". The great strength of popular
democracy is that those elected "may frequently be faithless
and frequently mistaken, but they will never systematically adopt
a line of conduct hostile to the majority . . .".
It is not hard to see some parallels with our
own day. Politics is a rough game, with little attraction for
those who are distinguished in other spheres of life. There is
a widespread distrust of politicians, and there is reason to be
worried about the poor quality of much actual political performance.
No doubt part of the problem lies in the greatly increased demands
made on political leadership. But if de Tocqueville was right
in his analysis, the obvious advantage of a bi-cameral parliamentary
system is that it gives scope for people to enter it by two quite
different routes, and to perform two different but related functions.
The elected chamber must be the ultimate authority in policy-making,
since policies ought by and large to serve the interests of the
majority. The non-elected chamber, with a membership chosen primarily
for its abilities, its experience, and its representation of other
interests, needs authority to criticise the means by which policy
is to be implemented, in the light of its larger and longer-term
Pursuing this analysis a little further, it
would seem that some of the specific deficiencies in our democratic
system today are:
(1) The electoral system, while in theory
the basis of popular democracy, is so heavily dependent on the
political parties that power actually resides in very few hands.
Independence of mind is a rare commodity, made rarer by dependence
on the patronage of party leaders for political advancement. The
House of Commons, therefore, is severely limited in its ability
to keep a check on the Government, particularly when the ruling
party has a large majority. Nor can the committee system in which,
it is said, most of the real debate takes place, compensate for
the lack of parliamentary accountability, since most of the work
of committees is done out of the public eye and may in any event
(2) Dependence on the popular vote, and the
fear of losing popularity, encourage short-termism and cosmeticstendencies
which are greatly exaggerated these days by the influence and
fickleness of the media. Opposition parties may criticise Government
short-sightedness, but they too have their eyes on the next election.
(3) Lack of expertise in fields outside politics
has been exacerbated by the modern tendency for politics itself
to become a profession.
Such deficiencies are part of the price to be
paid for the democratic legitimacy of the Commons in its claim
to represent, albeit somewhat crudely, the will of the majority.
The key question, therefore, is whether the Upper House can be
so constituted as to compensate for them, without forfeiting authority
to represent the broader and longer-term national interest.
Popular election is not the only basis for a
legitimate role in revising and influencing legislation, or acting
as a brake on abuses of power. The Judiciary has recently been
given a closely related role through the Human Rights Act. This
has led to well-based fears about its potential politicisation
and the failure to separate powers, but the point is implicitly
conceded that there can and must be constraints on an electoral
majority. The House of Lords, in previously exercising such constraints,
has frequently demonstrated another kind of legitimacy through
the quality of its work. There is a legitimacy of good argument
and first-hand knowledge, as well as a legitimacy of numbers.
An unelected body need not necessarily be seen as unaccountable
to the nation at large, provided that its mode of appointment
is transparent and reasonable publicity is given to its proceedings.
In fact if it is to counterbalance the power of the Commons, and
to compensate for the latter's inevitable shortcomings, there
are positive reasons why it should not be elected.
Representative democracy is essentially utilitarian,
in that it depends in the last resort on individuals expressing
preferences which are decided generally in the light of their
own self-interest. Politicians may appeal to concepts of the common
good, but it is difficult for most people to internalise this
except in terms of the corporate interests which most closely
concern them. Corporate interests, however, are not directly represented
at a parliamentary level. The sponsorship of certain MPs by Trade
Unions was a step in this direction, but was fatally flawed by
the potential conflict of interest between an MPs electorate and
In a different, non-electoral context, there
need be nothing inherently wrong in the representation of such
interests. In fact it is worth noting that, in the early nineteenth
century debates on extending the suffrage, Gladstone's opposition
was based on his belief that only corporate interests could take
a sufficiently well-informed and long term view of what constituted
the common good. This was a disastrous mistake at the time because
it would have denied power to the majority of individuals. But
if it is clear that the ultimate power to decide policy lies with
a House elected on universal suffrage, there would seem to be
positive advantages in having the main corporate interests in
the country represented in the Upper House. These would, for the
most part, fall outside party influence, would tend to have a
longer perspective, and would bring various kinds of expertise
into the parliamentary system. The composition of a House based
on corporate interests would be representative of the nation in
a different way from that of the Commons, and its members could
enjoy a certain distancing from immediate political pressures.
It could also help to bridge the gulf between national government
and other social institutions, thus increasing rather than decreasing
the sense of direct participation in government. In short there
is a viable alternative to popular election, and strong reasons
why it would be a grave mistake to have a wholly elected Upper
House. Even if the electorate were differently constituted from
that of the Commons, the likelihood is that the deficiencies of
the Commons would simply be reproduced in another form.
The Upper House needs a core body of direct
political representatives to process its day to day work, and
who can be held to account by their parties. The main political
parties, therefore, should be classed as major corporate interests,
and should be free to appoint members of the House in numbers
proportional to their total vote at the previous general election.
There should be an upper limit to the number of such members,
and their tenure should not be affected by changes in party fortunes
at general elections. The proportions, therefore, would not remain
exact, but could be adjusted when there were vacancies.
Other corporate interests to be represented
might include the Law, Industry and Commerce, Unions, Science
and Medicine, the Armed Forces, Agriculture, Education, the Arts,
Religion and Local Government. The list would have to be limited,
and might be drawn up to coincide more or less with those areas
of public life served by the various Departments of State, plus
a somewhat broader based religious representation.
There is a good case for saying that at least
some representation in these fields should be ex officio. The
presence of bishops in the Lords demonstrates that ex-officio
representation can work, but that it needs a fairly large pool
of members on which to draw, since ex-officio members, by definition,
have other jobs to do. University Vice-Chancellors, for instance,
form a somewhat similar group, as do the Presidents of Learned
Societies, the leaders of Trades Unions, and the Chairmen of Local
It is inevitable that a House which is going
to command wide respect and contain varied expertise should have
both working and occasional members. It is also clear that people
of the calibre suggested are not going to be interested if they
are required to stand for election and thereafter commit themselves
to regular attendance. One of the strengths of the present House
of Lords is precisely the flexibility which allows those with
special knowledge or interests to attend on appropriate occasions
without compromising their normal method of earning a living.
A further advantage of this dual standard is that only those core
members required to attend regularly would need to be paid.
Ex-officio membership would only be practicable
for certain forms of corporate interest. Other interests could
be represented, after proper consultation, by members chosen by
an independent appointments panel. This could also bear in mind
such issues as age and gender, and allow scope for a limited number
of popular nominations.
It is inherent in these suggestions that the
connection between membership of the Upper House and the award
of a title could not be sustained. This would be as said break
with tradition, but like Knights, Lords can have social significance
outside the parliamentary context. Breaking the connection would
remove the temptation to confer peerages for merely party political
reasons, and might thus indirectly serve to increase the respect
in which the honour is held.
Titles should be for life, but life-long membership
of the House is no longer defensible. However, since the main
function of the House should be to take the long view for the
common good, and to provide a safeguard against constitutional
abuse, tenure should be different from that of the Commons, and
preferably much longer. The tenure of ex-officio members should
depend on their officeas for bishops at present. For the
remainder, I suggest either a retiring age or an individual tenure
of at least 10 years.
I envisage such a House fulfilling much the
same role as the present House, with initiating and delaying powers
and some reserve constitutional powers. I see no merit in giving
it any special role in relation to devolved assemblies or the
European Community. In these the most difficult questions are
likely to concern money and the distribution of power, both of
which should be the prime responsibility of the elected chamber.
In the recent debate in the Lords on the future
of the House strong distaste was expressed by some members for
the kind of mixed economy I have been advocating. There is a deceptive
simplicity about the idea of an all-elected House, and I can see
its political attractions. Nevertheless one of the great strengths
of the present House lies in the fact that its members have come
to be there by so many different routessome for historical
reasons, others on sheer merit, yet others through long service
in different walks of life. Variety is a defence against the marginalisation
of actual parliamentary debate, since it introduces an important
element of unpredictability, and thus increases the likelihood
that members will listen to, and be persuaded by, arguments. Those
who recall the beginnings of democracy will realise that this
is a much more democratic way of making decisions than slavishly
following the party line.