Lord Dobbs of Wylye continues our series on Lords reform. A former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Michael Dobbs is also a well-known writer.
Let’s start with what’s not in dispute. Lords reform is part of the Coalition Agreement – not that anyone has ever voted for the Agreement, but it’s not bad, so far as political stitch-ups go. The Agreement states: ‘We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals…’
Well, so far so good, but after that it begins to get vague. It talks about the ‘likely’ shape of draft proposals rather than offering specifics. Nowhere does it talk – as the Agreement does in other areas of political reform – about a strict timetable for legislation or using the muscle of the Whips to force proposals through. In other words, it was one of the most lightweight commitments in the deal, little sound, no fury. Not a whiff of the Parliament Act.
If you wanted to be pedantic, you could claim that we’ve already achieved what the Agreement called for. We’ve set up the committee. It’s in the process of bringing forward proposals. Not that Mr Clegg shows any sign of wanting to listen. He has his own, very determined ideas. A personal crusade. Other less charitable folk might call it an obsession. I’m in favour of radical reform. Smaller numbers. Stronger disciplinary procedures. A more independent way of appointing new peers.
And I totally accept that the British people have the right to demand their second chamber of Parliament be elected. Except they’re not doing so. And in any event, the Lords isn’t a proper second chamber, it’s more like an advisory body, a council of elders with powers that go no further than asking the Commons to think again. It often acts as a great composting machine – rubbish in, rather more fertile and fragrant stuff out. We peers are the worms of the Westminster Field. Ah, but elect me, and I would become a very different beast. Why should I regard myself as a second-class creature when my electorate would be far greater than that of any MP? Why should I always in the end back down? Vote against my conscience? Let the government of the day have its wicked way?
The fact is, I wouldn’t. I would demand more influence, a stronger voice, and that new power could come from only one place – the House of Commons. It is the supreme folly of Nick Clegg’s proposals that they don’t even consider this fundamental issue. And to cover up their intellectual nakedness, the proponents have resorted to some pretty ill-judged outbursts. Mr Clegg has described the Lords as ‘an affront to democracy’, while his party president Tim Farron has been peculiarly offensive, describing the Lords as a ‘national disgrace’ and comparing us with the regime in Syria. It’s that sort of intemperate guff that is surely the affront to democracy.
I wonder what sort of politicians would want to be elected to Mr Clegg’s powerless second chamber? Not the ambitious, or the able, I would guess. More likely to be a rag-bag of fourth-rate failures – those who had failed to become MPs, failed to establish a nest in Europe, or failed find an outlet in one of the regional parliaments. Over the last couple of decades we have elected more politicians than at any time in our history, and at huge expense. Are we better governed as a result? If more elected politicians are the answer to our problems, it seems to have been an exceedingly silly question.
Some of my fellow peers have threatened to become unwavering rebels and wreck the government’s legislative programme if the threatened miserable mess of potage is served up in the Queen’s Speech. I’m not going to throw all the plates out of the kitchen window, not until I see precisely what is put before us.
On Thursday it will be the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of that extraordinary Englishman, Augustus Pugin. As I sit in that gilded chamber he created, I often wonder what happened to the ambition and imagination that caused him and his fellow Victorians to achieve so much. Are we less than were they? I hope not. My eyes wander up to the statues of the barons that guard the Chamber, the men who fought for Magna Carta and began the process that made this country the envy of the democratic world. The constitution we have created may not be perfect, but it’s a damned sight better than most. It shouldn’t become the whipping boy for failed politicians desperate to salvage some of their lost credibility.
Does the House of Lords do a good job? Yes. Could it do that job better? Yes to that, too. Does it need abolishing and replacing with an assembly that must inevitably come into confrontation with the elected House of Commons? No, not on my watch.