Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
David Cameron, the most traditional Tory to have occupied Downing Street since Alec Douglas-Home, is doing what Asquith threatened to do in 1910: de-legitimising the House of Lords by flooding it with inconsequential nobodies.
If that seems a hard thing to read it is, believe me, a harder one to write. I have been in politics long enough to have many friends in the Upper House. I know peers in all parties who are exemplary public servants: wise, disinterested, incorruptible and patriotic. When I say “of all parties”, I mean it. From the Greens’ Jenny Jones to UKIP’s Malcolm Pearson, there are plenty of people on the red benches who are models of what lawgivers should be.
But even such peerless peers as these know, deep down, that their chamber is filling up with placemen. Lords are being created faster than ever: nearly 900 people have recited their oath before the woolsack. Only China’s National People’s Congress is more numerous. While, even now, some high-minded people are getting through, many peerages are going to time-serving quangocrats, who have built their careers on nodding sagely while others speak, and whose instinctive solution to any problem is to spend public money.
You think I’m overstating the case? OK, let’s try a little experiment. If we wanted to identify Britain’s worst political scandal so far in the century, I think we’d be hard-pushed to beat the 2009 cash-for-amendments affair, in which a Sunday Times undercover team found peers willing to move legislation in return for fees.
That, in my book, is proper, ocean-going sleaze. Forget cocaine and call-girls; never mind bathplugs and duck-houses: selling your vote to private interests is the essence of corruption.
Now, here’s the test. Can you name any of the peers involved? Come now. Three of them were found to have breached the rules (never mind the spirit of the rules) and two had to leave the Labour Party and were later suspended from the Lords – the first time such a thing had happened since Cromwell’s military dictatorship.
Am I ringing any bells? Are their names tolling up from the depths of your memory, like the peal of some sea-drowned church? No? Well then. Here you are, a wise and informed enough person to be reading ConHome, and even you can’t remember. What does that tell you, not only about the calibre of our peers, but about how we have come to take their mediocrity for granted? (The four peers named in the sting, by the way, were Lords Snape, Moonie, Taylor of Blackburn and Truscott – the latter two being the ones who were suspended.)
Since that scandal, a further 200 life peerages have been created: a higher rate under this prime minister than under any of his predecessors. As I write, a new batch is in preparation. David Cameron is reported to have offered Nick Clegg yet another ten Lib Dem peerages – which is odd, if true, since the Liberal Democrats massively inflated their numbers in the Upper House by insisting on the principle that party strengths there should reflect the share of the popular vote. Under that principle, the Lib Dems are now grotesquely over-represented, and shouldn’t receive a single new peerage until the numbers are back in proportion.
Unless, of course, David Cameron has a different agenda altogether. What if, having failed to get Lords reform through, he is now aiming to inflate the second chamber to the point of irrelevance? After all, a peerage is not what it was. No former Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher has accepted the offer of a seat in the Lords, and small wonder. Why would they want to hang around with dodgy donors and humourless NGO types?
To repeat, I feel bad about all the worthy peers. It’s hardly their fault that their ermine has been splattered by association. But, with every new wave of peers – we might almost say “swarm” – the decent Lords become a smaller minority. It’s hard not to think of that Gilbert and Sullivan song:
Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats –
In point of fact, too many.
Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May,
And Dukes were three a penny.
Perhaps the eventual plan is to give almost the entire population a peerage. I mean, it’s hardly as if attendance is expected these days. The real elite would then be those who remained commoners and so kept the right to vote in general elections. The lower chamber would become the new oligarchy while the Lords was for the hoi polloi. It sounds odd, I know, but have you got a better theory?