The House of Lords is unreformable
The shock-horror over alleged corruption in the Lords misses the point — this institution is inherently corrupt.
British politicians just can’t help themselves. Each time they swear to uphold the highest standards in public life, to insist, in the words of Chris Huhne MP, on being ‘seen to be clean in both the [House of] Commons and [House of] Lords’, the charms of filthy lucre always seem to prove just a little too seductive.
In 1994 there was the ‘cash for questions’ furore; in 2006 it was ‘loans for peerages’. And now in 2009 we have alleged ‘remuneration for legislation’. Or rent-a-peer. The cash and loans scandals focused the public gaze on the behaviour of our elected representatives in the House of Commons, and the ease with which political influence could be brought. This latest addition to the sleaze files centres upon the unelected and, since the 1958 Life Peerages Act, politically appointed House of Lords; ‘the remains of aristocratic tyranny’, as Tom Paine once called it. If there’s one thing the affair has proved, it’s that while the House of Lords might only contain a rump of in-bred hereditary privilege and ecclesiastical appointees, its existence is no less tyrannical.
Motley Lords Truscott, Taylor, Moonie and Snape allegedly thought they were on to a good thing when two lobbyists approached them individually on behalf of a Hong Kong businessman called Lou Li Jiang. A piece of legislation unfavourable to Lou’s business was being passed, and the lobbyists wanted to purchase a bit of lordly influence. Lord Truscott, a former Labour member of the European Parliament, allegedly boasted to the lobbyists that he’d helped amend the 2008 energy bill to make smart meters mandatory in all homes and businesses. Not directly mind you: ‘There are ways to do these things, but there is a degree of subtlety. Work behind the scenes.’ Not to be outdone, Lord Taylor, who looks like an extra from BBC’s pensioner sit-com Last of the Summer Wine, reportedly bragged of his legislation-delaying work for Experian, a credit checking company. ‘If I want to get a point over to a minister or a civil servant this is the place where I would do it. I can speak better and they will speak more freer over a cup of coffee or a pie and a pint’, he said, presumably in between mouthfuls of steak and kidney (1).
Unfortunately for the Lords, Lou Li Jiang was a fabrication, and the lobbyists were undercover reporters for The Sunday Times. Ruddy faces all round then. Yet despite the Parliamentary injunction to ‘never accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence’, the Lords have remained bullish. Since no money changed hands and nothing was signed, there was no wrongdoing, they say. Aware that this is hardly the most convincing of defences, the leader of the House of Lords, Lady Royall, has promised a ‘rigorous’ inquiry.
The response beyond the upper chamber has mixed nostalgia for the House of Lords of yore with anger at their current uncouth custodians. ‘[T]he torchbearer of parliamentary integrity’ has been tarnished, complained the Daily Mail (2). Former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit preferred to condemn the Tony Blair-led decay of an institution ‘once so admired for its probity’ (3). And the Sun’s leader reflected on the loss of the ‘old timers… putting right flawed legislation sent along the corridor by the eager young pups in the House of Commons’ (4). In keeping with the misty-eyed recollection of England before Cromwell, one broadsheet columnist wondered if ‘[m]aybe there is something to be said for an upper parliamentary chamber made up entirely of hereditary peers, whose hands are unsullied by trade and who – in some cases, at least – have had a notion of public duty drummed into them from an early age’ (5).
This nostalgia for aristocratic disinterest, for a specious idea of public duty and the ersatz integrity of what was once the British Establishment, draws upon a cynicism towards parliamentary politics as practised in the House of Commons. That the Commons is full of untrustworthy, careerist lags is accepted these days. But the House of Lords… how could they? Such is the faith invested in the upper chamber that the need for its existence is unquestioned. The current allegations, to paraphrase The Times leader, merely make reform – not abolition – all the more urgent (6).
Yet attempting to reform the House of Lords, or re-imagine it once again as the province of hereditary peers, on the basis that either tighter regulation or aristocratic earnings will render the Lords impervious to fiscal temptation, misses the point. Its constitution is not the problem: the problem is the very idea that we, the people, should want, indeed need, an institution that stands apart from the democratic will, that, in the words of The Sunday Times provides an ‘important check on the power of the Commons’. That there is a check at all is at the heart of the current malaise. Whether an amendment to legislation is allegedly sponsored by business or made on the basis of the peers’ collective caprice is of no matter. The fact that it is made at all is the source of what is now being called corruption – that is, the corruption of legislation passed by the Commons.
Attacking the House of Lords as it existed in 1791, Tom Paine condemned it for ‘assuming and asserting indefeasible, irrevokable rights and authority, wholly independent of the Nation’ (7). While the hereditary principle, a particular source of Painite ire, no longer underpins the House of Lords, his charge stands: the upper chamber’s existence is no less an impediment to democracy and its authority no less independent of the national will. Replacing hereditary peers with bullshit artists like the Fundtastic Four of Truscott, Taylor, Moonie and Snape did not represent the democratic progress New Labour’s 1999 House of Lords Act claimed. It merely swapped the born-to-rule with the appointed; congenital authority was replaced with that of so-called expertise. Corruption did not come with the exchange of hereditary for life peers; it is inherent in the idea of the House of Lords itself, as an amendment to, indeed the institutionalised corruption of, the will of the commons.
Stuffed full of cronies and fogies, the twenty-first century House of Lords is a tribute to the vested interest not of the aristocracy, but of today’s political class. If The Sunday Times exposed anything, it’s the otiose, arbitrarily corrupting force of the upper chamber itself. Never have the revolutionary words of 1649 rung so true: ‘The Commons of England [find] by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England.’
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume suggested we abolish the Lords and do democracy a favour and thought it was a scandal that the Levy affair was even news. Brendan O’Neill provided a level-headed guide to the cash-for-honours scandal and suggested we stop moaning about the House of Lords and just abolish the Upper House. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.
(1) Whispered over tea and cake: price for a peer to fix the law, The Sunday Times, 25 January 2009
(2) Police in ‘Lords for hire’ inquiry, Daily Mail, 26 January 2009
(3) Police in ‘Lords for hire’ inquiry, Daily Mail, 26 January 2009
(4) Flaw Lords, Sun, 26 January 2009
(5) We’re under the thumb of the worst kind of aristocracy, The Times, 26 January 2009
(6) Cash for answers, The Times, 27 January 2009
(7) p181,The Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, Thomas Paine, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1998
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.