Friday, 18 February 2011

Johann Hari is right: there's no place for bishops in a modern Parliament

It is depressing, if unsurprising, to learn (via Johann Hari) that under proposals currently being considered to reform the House of Lords, Anglican bishops will not be stripped of their anachronistic right to interfere in the democratic process. Rather, in a quintessentially British piece of "modernisation", their numbers will be augmented by assorted rabbis, imams, lamas and whatever Sikh or Hindu equivalent might be nominated. That's the way we do things in Britain, I'm afraid. Abuses and anomalies are rarely swept away; rather those currently outside the system are co-opted, their acquiescence bought off with sweeties and baubles; the circle of elite patronage is subtly extended, and this is made to look like radical change.

This is not just cynical, it is profoundly dangerous. It is, after all, how the fairly innocuous, historic provision of church primary schools (most of which - and I attended one - were secular in character if not in name) has been turned into an ever-expanding and divisive sector of "faith schools" in which ever ethnico-religious community must have its centre of ghettoised instruction funded by the state.

Extending the religious complexion of the Bench of Bishops - perhaps increasing their numbers, probably boosting their "legitimacy" and thus power - may seem like a gesture towards pluralism, an advance in "diversity" and therefore a progressive move. But an abuse does not cease to be an abuse purely because more people are benefiting from it. Rather it becomes a more entrenched and insidious abuse. In this case, the proposal diverts attention away from the true question - what are the bishops still doing there? - towards a false debate about which religious leaders ought to be represented in Parliament.

The existence of bishops in the House of Lords may or may not be pernicious in itself. Hari argues that it is, pointing to "theocratic" attempts to stymie reform on such matters as assisted suicide and gay rights. Others would hold the instinctive liberalism of most establishment Anglican leaders against them. (Recently, the bishops surreally intervened in support of the Yes campaign for AV, as if the electoral system were somehow their business. And if the Church of England be a bastion of hardline religiosity, what does Hari think will happen when the imams show up?) But whether they be left-wing or right-wing, progressive or reactionary, Protestant or Catholic, the main objection is surely that, in this day and age, they should be there at all.

They have no mandate, after all, except the mandate of history. Hari is wrong to blame Henry VIII for their presence; it is thanks to him that they are Anglicans, not that they are there. And it is a bit silly of him to compare our set-up with that of revolutionary Iran. The ayatollahs' power is recent and real; it reflects the nature of the modern Iranian state, which is dominated by a military-theocratic complex. If they were sidelined the regime they serve and embody would be at an end. The bishops in the House of Lords are there because in the Middle Ages, when the concept of Parliament was born, the Church - along with the aristocracy and the feudal knights and merchants represented in the Commons - was one of the major powers in the land. It would have been absurd for an Edward III to have summoned a Parliament without bishops as it is absurd for Elizabeth II to summon a Parliament which contains them.

Along with the hereditary peers, the Lords Spiritual were a living historical relic, tolerable only so long as no-one paid them much attention. But the hereditary peers are gone. Their banishment - and the radical transformation of the lord chancellorship, another quaint survival - marked the death-knell of constitutional complacency. Henceforth, appeals to tradition, to the slow accretions and wisdom of history, to the advisability of not tampering with what has worked in the past, do not pass muster. Every institution, every consitutional rule, must now justify itself in the light of contemporary belief in rationality, accountability, democratic principle and transparency. Perhaps this is a shame. In my moments of palaeo-conservatism I think it probably is. But we are where we are. And in a modern secular state reserving Parliamentary seats for unelected representatives of religious opinion is insupportable.

This is why any extension of the religious representation in the second chamber would be profoundly regressive - far more so even than leaving the 26 Anglican prelates untouched. The latter course would be at least negligent. What is apparently being proposed is a deliberate insertion of a theocratic element into a 21st century constitutional settlement. Our leaders - Hari singles out the avowedly atheist Nick Clegg for censure here - would be saying, in effect, that having looked into the matter, queried whether a modern West European legislature should give ex-officio seats to priests and mullahs, they have decided that indeed it should. And have thought themselves liberal and progressive for reaching such a conclusion.

What a very strange country this is.