Peerages: a job, not an honour
Some of us expect the Labour party and a Labour government, even a New Labour one, to behave better and more honestly than the other parties, so the fresh revelations about the sale of peerages in exchange for very large donations to the party are another blow to our confidence in the system under its present management; and the further revelation that some of the donations have avoided any obligation to be publicly declared and transparent by being dressed up as ‘loans’, without even the knowledge of the Labour Party’s elected Treasurer, can only make matters worse.
It’s worth, though, making a few relevant points, not in mitigation but of context with a view to future remedy.
First, the issue of state honours has got hopelessly confused with the totally different issue of appointments to the second chamber of the legislature. The first implies recognition of public services rendered and, in the sunlit uplands of the honours system, involves the conferring of a handle to the honorand’s name, often much coveted: Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Sir, Dame. The second process need not be related to past services but instead implies suitability by experience and skills for service in the pretty humdrum work of scrutinising and reviewing legislation as an unelected member of our parliament. It’s become urgently necessary to disentangle the two quite different procedures. Once membership of the second chamber is recognised as a demanding and mainly routine and unglamorous job, even (or especially) the richest wannabe politicians may be more reluctant to offer to pay big money to get it.
Secondly, and as a corollary of the first point, it’s ridiculous to go on giving what are essentially bogus peerages to everyone appointed to the second chamber, and calling them Lord or Lady. The great majority of the hereditary peers have by now been removed, mostly kicking and screaming, from the chamber, and the rest are due to follow soon. There’s really no more reason to make every remaining or new member of this workaday institution a Lord or a Lady than there is to make every elected member of the House of Commons a Prince or a Princess. Still less need we dress up the appointed members of what is in practice the lower house in pantomime costumes on state occasions or put them through embarrassing fake-mediaeval rituals on first appointment.
Thirdly, this is no longer going to be a ‘House of Lords’ when in the near future there won’t be a single proper Lord left in it. In most serious western democracies the second chamber is called the Senate. Everyone knows what that means and there’s no possible reason to go on calling our second chamber something that’s not only different, but actively misleading too.
Fourthly, the spectacle of a wholly appointed chamber of the legislature of a modern western democracy has become an embarrassment too far. Of comparable democracies only Canada sheepishly maintains an entirely
elected appointed second chamber, and as a result it is generally despised by sensible Canadians. ‘House of Lords’ reform here is long overdue. A clear majority of members of the elected chamber favour a second chamber which is either wholly elected or else which has a substantial majority of elected members, preferably elected on a system different from that of the House of Commons and which will ensure that no one party has an overall majority in the second chamber. Only the obstinacy of the prime minister continues to obstruct this manifestly overdue reform. He fears that a mainly elected second chamber will challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. That is rubbish. The primacy of the Commons is assured by its function of choosing and sustaining or dismissing governments, by its almost unlimited (if largely notional) powers, and by the strictly limited powers and functions of the Other Place, none of which needs to change with ‘Lords’ reform.
And, finally, we must resist the siren voices of self-interested politicians arguing that if the political parties can no longer fund themselves by selling peerages, they must be given large slabs of the taxpayers’ money so that they may continue to keep our democratic system running. The financial crises of the main parties has nothing to do with the difficulty of selling patronage: it reflects the general disillusionment of ordinary men and women with the way our democracy has been hijacked by an over-mighty executive which has seized control of the parliament it is supposed to serve and answer to, not to manipulate and bully into doing its bidding. It reflects resentment of the power-grabbing centralism of Westminster politicians who preach empowerment at local neighbourhood level while enthusiastically legislating to determine whether an unemployed former miner in Durham should be allowed to have a cigarette in the local pub or working men’s club. If a political party can’t arouse enough enthusiasm among its supporters to generate the financial wherewithal to enable it to function, it should be allowed to go to the wall. The draining away of willingness on the part of ordinary people, including through companies and trade unions and other bodies, to stump up for the good of the party should concentrate political leaders’ minds wonderfully on the reasons for their failure, and on the need for radical remedies. It should be no business of the taxpayer to rescue them from that salutary discipline.
If these simple and sensible recommendations were to be adopted, the problem of cash for peerages would vanish almost overnight. Some hope!
Postscript: To pre-empt some predictable comments, I am trying to resist the temptation to get into the separate question of reform of the honours system, also long overdue. The only relevant aspect of that to this discussion is the question of new peerages. If the grant of a peerage is decoupled from the appointment of a member of the second chamber, as I recommend earlier, then there would be no need or justification for making new peers. To avoid a breach of faith with existing ‘life peers’, they would, I suppose, have to be allowed to keep their titles until they die. Lower down the honours system I would strongly favour abolishing all honours that entail a change of handle to the name, all honours in recognition of services for which the person concerned has been paid in the course of his or her principal career, and the hierarchical structure of the honours system which in practice relates mainly in effect to social class. But all that is really for another day.