The United Kingdom is a great nation and there are no two ways about it. This is a country built upon a thousand years of tradition and custom, and a country which exported the idea of parliamentary democracy across the world. But British democracy is not as stable as it once was. The upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords, is troublesome. The calls for reform are growing by the day. But should we reform, and if so, into what shape?
First, I shall provide an introduction to the political make-up of the Lords. Currently sitting in the house are some 804 of peers. 92 are hereditary peers, meaning they inherit their titles and the right to sit. It must be mentioned that the House used to have more hereditary peers until Blair's reforms screwed it so royally that we have been left with the mess we have today. The party breakdown of seats is as follows; 252 Conservative, 202 Labour, 178 Cross Bencher's, 102 Libdems, 30 non affiliated and then 26 Lords Spiritual (Bishops). There are also 3 for UKIP, one for the Greens and an assortment of others from Welsh and Northern Irish parties.
The first option that should be considered is to create a chamber of purely cross bench peers. This could mean a chamber of some 300 peers, who would be appointed for life, but would most importantly not be affiliated to any party. At the moment, cross bencher's are, I believe, the unsung heroes of parliament. Amongst the petty party squabbling and vested interests, they represent rather well the views of the average voter. It would be most refreshing to have a chamber untainted by party politics. The Bishops should be retained; but representation should also be given to the other faiths of the UK with seats for Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist and Sikh faith leaders as well.
The second option is to return to the more hereditary system we had pre-1999. The Lords had a few political appointments, but they were for the most part a whole deal more reputable than those of today. Many were men, and to an admittedly lesser extent women, who had titles, land, and a great interest in how the country was run, seeing as they owned so much of it. Because of their grandfathers’ agreement to the Salisbury convention, they would not vote down anything that had been in a party's manifesto, or monetary bills. They did this because, being members of the aristocracy, they had an inbuilt respect for tradition while at the same time feared angering the lower house for risk of abolishment. Many served in the army, and having to manage their own estates means they came face to face with “real life” far more often than the likes of Lord Mandelson or Lord Hain. So while the House was mostly Conservative in its leanings, Labour governments were still able to cooperate with the Lords based on the grounds of mutual respect and decency. This has been lost with the politicisation of the upper house.
The third, and most ghastly, option I can envisage is that of an elected upper house. I cringe at the very mention of the concept. Under such a new banner, I can only see it functioning as a chamber elected every 10 or 15 years on a regional basis which would act in a scrutinising capacity. Nothing more. This option is by far the more undesirable as it would create more career politicians. These are people who worry more about winning the next election than about their constituents. They rely on the good favour of the leader to gain advancement which may involve them actively voting against their constituents interests. They are open to bribes and are followed around by scandal wherever they go. Although some members are open and good people who serve their constituencies well, I would be very sad to see the Lords come into the levels of disrepute we saw in the Commons following the 2009 expenses scandal. In addition, if the Lords were to compete for parity with the Commons, we may find ourselves with another constitutional crisis.
The more recent scandals in the Lords have come about because it is filled with former council leaders, ex MPs and party hacks. They do the bidding of their party in a way the hereditary peers never used to. The Earls and Barons were very much of their own mind. Entrance is now based on who the party leader nominates into the upper house, and who the peer is now obligated to obey. You end up with the likes of Lord Prescott or Lord Hogg squatting on seats meant for people much more reputable and civilised than themselves.
The move for outright abolition of the upper house would be a mistake. To lose the House of Lords would be to lose a part of our history and democracy. We would be a lesser country for it.
Colm Lock is a final year Ancient History student at The University of Manchester