Monday, 4 April 2011

Encouraging news on Lords reform. Mostly.

It's being reported that Nick Clegg is finally ready to present his proposals for reforming teh House of Lords. The suggestion is that there will be a much smaller chamber of 300 members, 80% of whom are to be elected (though there's some confusion about precisely how they will elected) and the rest appointed. Because Clegg (whose party came a distant third in the general election) previously promised a wholly elected second chamber, this is being seen in some quarters as a climbdown. The Mail, for example, claims that Clegg "has suffered another setback" and has been "forced to compromise". Geoge Eaton complains that he has been "outmanoeuvred".

Actually, reform along these lines is a great deal more radical than anything the previous government managed to come up with. If it ever happens (a pretty enormous "if") it would put an end to the cronyism that, with the watering-down of the hereditary principle, has come to dominate the House of Lords. But it would preserve one of the most valuable aspects of the existing chamber - the role of the independent Crossbenchers, chosen not for their political affiliation but for their expertise, distinction and contribution to public life.

The Crossbenchers represent an important (if rarely articulated) principle, that legislation is too important to be left merely to politicians. Of course, popular election confers legitimacy and a semblance of public choice. But elected politicians of whichever party in many ways have more in common with each other than with the voters. And with very few exceptions they owe their careers more directly to the party machines that selected them to a winnable seat than they do to the voters. Any advanced representative democracy will produce a political class, and the tendency - not just in Britain - has been for that class to become increasingly homogenous.

The trend is probably inevitable - but it has its dangers. One is that the political process becomes progressively more self-referential, shutting out both people and ideas that are not plugged into the system. The division widens between those on the inside and those on the outside, between the rulers and the ruled, leading to resentment and a loss of perceived legitimacy. And, not infrequently, to bad lawmaking. Laws are passed which have avoidable, foreseeable negative consequences, simply because there is no-one on the inside able to puncture the political consensus. Having a few Crossbench peers in the House of Lords isn't a solution to this problem - they have not stopped a great many bad laws from being passed, and even good Lords' amendments are ultimately rejected. But they help, and their loss would be a sad diminishment.

Not so the bishops. It's baffling to learn that Clegg - a publicly declared atheist - has "bowed to pressure from the Church of England" and agreed to keep a few special seats reserved for Anglican prelates. It's well known that the C of E greatly enjoys the historical anachronism that grants its leaders ex officio seats in Parliament, and will resort to almost any desperate argument to justify their continued presence. Once, they represented the vast political, financial and landowning power of the Church of England. Now, they make a virtue of their marginal status, suggesting that without them moral and spiritual issues would be neglected. It's special pleading at its worst. In a country that is largely secular and claims to be modern, the bishops' presence is frankly embarrassing.

What pressure, I wonder, are the bishops able to exert? There are only 26 of them, in a House of nearly 800 members, so they can scarcely be said to constitute a blocking minority. There are not, so far as I can tell, thousands of angry parishioners ready to march Anjem Choudary-style on Westminster in defence of their bishops' votes. No doubt they have been able to muster considerable behind-the-scenes support. But it's depressing to think that Cleggie couldn't summon up the wherewithall to shout "boo" to a couple of dozen bishops.