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Don’t moan about the House of Lords – abolish it

The ‘peerages for loans’ scandal is a symptom, not the cause, of the deeply undemocratic nature of the second chamber.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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If you want to see how today’s endless search for evidence of sleazy antics in political circles has a deadening effect on public debate, look no further than the ‘peerages for loans’ scandal.

Here we have a spat over how and why individuals are appointed to the House of Lords. But instead of it generating a debate about the House of Lords itself, how it works and whether it should even exist, it has given rise to an interminable discussion of which businessmen gave how much money to the Labour Party, allegedly in return for peerages, and which Labour officials knew about the loans and which did not – a discussion so breathtakingly boring that even friends of mine who are normally news junkies have asked me to explain to them what is going on because they can’t be arsed to follow it. Yet again, our obsession with sleaze, with who said what to whom in some Downing Street backroom, has turned a big political issue into a silly little pantomime.

It is alleged that at least four businessmen, and possibly more, who made unpublicised loans to the Labour Party were subsequently nominated for peerages by Tony Blair. What’s more, the Labour Party treasurer Jack Dromey, other leading party officials and even an apparently ‘unhappy’ deputy prime minister John Prescott did not know about these secret loans, received in 2005. However, Tony Blair and the party’s general secretary did know about the loans, and reportedly Blair’s fundraising chief and close friend Lord Levy was the ‘middle man’ who made the loans happen.

It has all apparently caused something of a stink in Labour Party circles, as well it might; but is it really, in the words of newspaper columnist Marina Hyde, a scandal so shameful that it makes the ‘justification for invading Iraq…sound like an exercise in Aristotelian logic’? Hyde says the peerages spat shows that we ‘have had [our] dreams trodden so unsoftly upon by the Blair administration’ (1). Speak for yourself.

Those who are dreaming should wake up. Paying or brownnosing your way into the House of Lords has been going on for ages. All of the mainstream parties have nominated their donors, especially the generous ones, for peerages or knighthoods. The newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe – who in the early twentieth century founded the Daily Mirror and bought and transformed both the Observer and The Times – once declared: ‘When I want a peerage, I shall buy it like an honest man.’ (2)

There may have been a law banning the sale of titles, but there were various ways around it; and as the journalist Richard Ehrman pointed out this week, that law has only been evoked once – in 1933, when ‘notorious honours broker’ Maundy Gregory, who had worked for Lloyd George and other prime ministers, ‘got two months for trying to peddle a knighthood for £10,000 to a naval officer who did not want it’ (3). (Presumably if the naval officer had wanted it, we’d still be none the wiser about the movements of money behind the scenes that made it happen.) Privately, Lloyd George told a colleague: ‘You and I know that the sale of honours is the cleanest way of raising money for a political party. The worst of it is that you cannot defend it in public.’ (4)

In the 1980s, the Conservative Party also received loans that magically resulted in the loaner getting a peerage, and it still does the same thing today. The Power Commission into electoral politics, published earlier this month, found that over the past five years every Labour donor who has given more than £1million to the party has received a knighthood or a peerage from the current Labour government. In 2001, the Electoral Commission began keeping a check on political donations, and since then the Labour government has bestowed honours on 12 of the 14 individuals who have donated more than £200,000 to the Labour Party, and on 17 of the 22 who have donated more than £100,000. Three quarters of those who have donated over £50,000 to the Labour Party have been honoured in some way (5).

We might not call it ‘selling peerages’ anymore, and Lord Levy and his pals might be more sophisticated in how they go about things than was Maundy Gregory trying to hawk a title for 10 grand, but it still amounts to the same thing: Patronage Wins Prizes. The unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, has always been stuffed with individuals who happened to be born into a prestigious family or, increasingly in the twentieth century, especially following the creation of non-hereditary life peers in 1958, with individuals who stumped up cash for political parties or did some other kind of favour for the prime minister or another influential figure.

What did those who are so shocked by the ‘peerages for loans’ scandal think the House of Lords was? An honourable institution full of honourable men and women? You only have to watch one of its debates for a few minutes – and see old men snoring while some trendy young-ish Asian businessman makes a speech about social inclusion or something – to know that these people did not get into the chamber by merit. Traditionally they were born into it, and more recently they have bought into it – literally.

The fact that individuals can effectively donate their way into the House of Lords, and once there assume the right to block decisions made by elected politicians in the House of Commons, points to a far bigger problem that has largely been ignored in the debate about peerages for loans: the profoundly undemocratic nature of the second chamber. The constitution of the House of Lords may have changed over the decades, but its role remains the same: to keep a ‘check and balance’ on the House of Commons, on those members of parliament we the people elect to run the country.

For centuries the House of Lords was made up of old aristocrats, those who were born lords or ladies. In 1776, the English revolutionary Tom Paine referred to the Lords as ‘the remains of aristocratical tyranny’, which existed to frustrate the House of Commons, the one democratic body in the British constitution, ‘on whose virtue depends the freedom of England’ said Paine. Various restrictions have been put on the House of Lords’ powers over the past hundred years. Most notably, in the constitutional crisis of 1909-1911, Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith faced down the House of Lords, which had refused to pass his chancellor’s ‘People’s Budget’. The Lords’ veto on the budget was overturned, and Asquith fought an election on this very issue, establishing the primacy of the elected Commons over the unelected Lords.

In 1958, the Life Peerages Act allowed the creation of life baronies, individuals who were appointed to the House of Lords by political parties who considered that they would do a good job there. Since then, the number of hereditary peers has steadily declined and the New Labour government has made moves to phase them out entirely. Today there are 595 life peers to only 92 hereditary peers and 26 ‘Lords Spirituals’ (bishops and suchlike).

Yet for all the reforms, the Lords remains a powerful snub to the idea of popular democracy. The life peers – largely political worthies and ambitious business types – play the same undemocratic role as those born to the manor did for so long. We could say that Paine’s ‘aristocratical tyranny’ has given way to a new sanctimonious tyranny, to the blocking power of individuals who also were never elected by anybody but who think they know better than politicians who were picked by the untrustworthy rabble. They are continuing with a deeply dishonourable and undemocratic tradition of tightening the reins on what is presumed to be the fickleness and irrationality of democratic politics.

Indeed, the alleged handing out of peerages for loans can be seen as a consequence of reforms that have tweaked the make-up of the House of Lords while leaving the institution itself intact. In the old days, the Lords was simply made up of individuals who happened to be born into the right family at the right time. Today, when lords and ladies are appointed by political parties, the process is open to being influenced by ambitious individuals who long to have a fancy title and a seat in the plush second chamber. They are not born to be lords, and nor are they elected by the public, so how else do they get into the House? By doing favours, making donations, by effectively buying their way to political influence. It is the very undemocratic nature of the Lords, the fact that it is not elected and accountable to the public, that means seats can be bought and sold between friends and acquaintances.

In this sense, the creation of life peers – and New Labour’s recent half-hearted and constantly stalled proposals of further reform of the Lords, to allow even more life peers and for a section of it (around 20 per cent) to be elected – have not made the Lords democratic; they have made it more grubby still. If there is financial or personal corruption in the way peerages are handed out these days, it only reflects the politically corrupt nature of the Lords itself. The solution is not to have an elected second chamber either, since that would leave intact the anti-democratic idea that the people’s will must be kept in check by further layers of decision-making; the solution is to abolish the second chamber entirely.

Moaning about the peerages for loans scandal without interrogating the nature of the Lords is like complaining about the Queen having lots of cash and land without challenging the role of the monarch in British affairs (and many in the media do that, too, as it happens). Peerages for loans are a symptom of the undemocratic nature of the Lords, not its cause. Of course, New Labour has no one to blame but itself for this current scandal: it was Blair who told us he would be whiter than white, unlike the sleazy Tories, and who brought in a host of new rules about party funding and the need to declare loans and donations. Such measures were aimed at creating transparency; in fact they encouraged suspicion, both of politicians and party funders. If the recent Tessa Jowell affair raised the question, ‘Who would want to be a politician these days?’, then the current peerages for loans affair raises the even more basic question: ‘Who would want to donate money to a political party these days?’

Let us stop obsessing over sleaze and instead talk politics; and let us stop wondering about how certain individuals got into the House of Lords and instead ask: what the hell do they think they are doing there?

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) If we are to be routinely misled by the government, could they at least do it with a modicum of skill?, Marina Hyde, Guardian, 21 March 2006

(2) A noble way to pay for a party, Richard Ehrman, The First Post, 17 March 2006

(3) A noble way to pay for a party, Richard Ehrman, The First Post, 17 March 2006

(4) A noble way to pay for a party, Richard Ehrman, The First Post, 17 March 2006

(5) Every £1million Labour donor has been given honour, The Sunday Times, 15 January 2006

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Topics Politics

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