People’s peers: why not abolish the lot?

'Presumably those demanding that more "ordinary people" be turned into people's peers would be happy for political debate to echo the banality of commuter train chat.'

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Contrary to the impression given by the furore surrounding the appointment of Britain’s first ‘people’s peers’, the definition of democracy is not ‘government by hairdresser’.

Nor would there be anything more democratic about appointing peers to the House of Lords on the basis that they are ‘in touch with the feelings of ordinary people’. If that were the case, perhaps the government could democratise the constitution by giving seats in the Lords to Phoenix, the people’s calf, and those loveable kids from Hear’Say.

The announcement of the first 15 people’s peers last week was a PR disaster. After all the government’s talk about making the upper house more representative of society as a whole, the Lord Appointments Commission begged to be ridiculed by producing a list made up almost entirely of the great and good. The revolution the commission brought about was symbolised by the transformation of Lady Howe, wife of Lord Howe, into Lady Howe, life peer.

But many of the commission’s critics were not much better. The debate degenerated into an argument about which kind of cronyism would be preferable: a system of patronage based on the old boys’ network, or a new cronyism that is prepared to slum it a little and patronise some ‘ordinary people’.

After the commission chairman, the snooty Lord Dennis Stevenson, questioned whether a hairdresser would be able to ‘cut it’ in the Lords, the nation’s barbers and crimpers were treated as the vanguard of the movement for more people power. The general secretary of the National Hairdressers’ Federation suggested that his members were uniquely qualified to be people’s peers, since ‘hairdressers are in constant touch with today’s issues and today’s attitudes’.

No doubt there are many hairdressers with exceptional qualities. There have always been outstanding individuals who work their way up, and they are often the best candidates for any job. But they make their mark by striving to become something more than ‘ordinary’. That is quite different from the notion that being ordinary in itself should qualify somebody for a role in running society.

The old hereditary system handed a few the automatic right to rule on the basis of their genes. The new identity politics suggests that an alternative few should be empowered, on the basis of their background, profession or membership of a minority. It is hard to see why one is any more democratic than the other, or any less demeaning of what it means to be a leader.

Leadership is not something you can acquire through biology or identity. It is something to be aspired to, fought for and demonstrated, until you gain authority by winning the respect of your peers. That is ‘peers’ as in equal members of society, not lords and ladies appointed by an unaccountable commission.

Presumably those demanding that more ‘ordinary people’ be plucked from obscurity and turned into people’s peers would be happy for political debate to echo the banality of commuter train chat or the gossip of the hairdressing salon. My own barber could certainly give their lordships a polished speech on the moral superiority of Spurs fans over Arsenal supporters, a subject that he talks about for several hours a day. And how come nobody mentioned taxi drivers alongside hairdressers and dinner ladies in their lists of potential people’s peers? Surely not because they think all taxi drivers are racist scumbags? It seems that they only want the kind of ‘ordinary’ people who will sign up to the etiquette of the political class.

How then might politicians stop patronising the public, and start giving them more say in the way the country is governed? For one thing, perhaps they could sign a pledge to stop patting the citizenry on the head with those terrible words ‘ordinary people’. Most importantly, they might offer us some genuine choice of ideas and competing visions of society – surely the lifeblood of any democratic system.

There are also some constitutional changes that might help give people a little more power. Some of these have been well aired – for example, introducing proportional representation, or doing away with the Crown prerogative, which allows the prime minister to do everything from declaring war to appointing judges (and commissions) without reference to parliament, never mind the people. But there is another obvious constitutional change that is rarely raised. Why bother reforming the House of Lords at all? Why not just abolish it?

The most radical response to the people’s peers debacle has been to demand that the Lords should be elected in one way or another. Yet the very existence of the second chamber could be seen as a barrier to government by the people, since its function is to limit the democratic effectiveness of the first.

Even in the USA, where the senate is elected, James Madison justified setting up the second chamber as a ‘necessary defence’ against the passions of the populace, to be occupied by ‘a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited numbers and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels’. That is one reason why every US state gets two seats in the senate, regardless of its population, so enabling more conservative rural areas to counter the influence of the urban masses.

Doing away with the lords and democratising the system in this way would, of course, require some extraordinarily bold political leadership. Unfortunately, there are far too many very ordinary people in British politics as it is.

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Topics Politics


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