There is a new law of politics: if it happened under Tony Blair, it’s almost certainly bad. Brexit has certainly shown up the fallacies of New Labour’s constitutional reforms, in particular the creation of the Supreme Court, whose might was mistakenly thought to be symbolic. But one Blair era reform, which took place twenty years ago this week, has been largely overlooked: the decision to eject the majority of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. It’s time to bring them back.
The key problem with the post-1999 Lords is that it introduced a system of unfettered patronage – the overwhelming majority of its members are there for life at the gift of the prime minister of the day. This allows for the continuation of the policies of a government long after it has left office, since invariably the upper chamber has been stuffed full of former MPs, party supporters and apparatchiks. The recent elevation to the Lords of Gavin Barwell – a failed MP and a failed government advisor – is just one example.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. During the passage of the reform bill, the Earl of Burford leapt up on to the Woolsack and implored peers to vote it down in the name of sovereignty, culture and freedom. To reporters outside, he suggested Blair was evicting the hereditary peers as the final obstacle to surrendering our nationhood to Brussels and to full political union. At the time, he was dismissed as a cranky Cassandra.
Yet since the removal of most of the hereditary peers, the Lords has acted without restraint where reticence is required and given in to the Commons where it should have been assertive. More recently, led by Mandelson and Adonis, it abrogated its responsibilities to even scrutinise, let alone revise (or reject) the Cooper-Letwin and Benn bills. This was enormously important constitutional legislation. It had appeared in no party manifesto and was arguably abetted by a rogue Speaker. What’s more, its passage has impeded our democratically sanctioned withdrawal from the EU. If there is a Conservative majority government after the election, will the Lords ignore the Salisbury convention and frustrate Boris’s deal or the result of the trade negotiations? In this topsy-turvy time it is hard to say.
It is no surprise then that there are growing calls to abolish the Lords, with Nigel Farage predictably leading the way. Yet the Brexit party leader has fallen into Blair’s modernising trap.
Modernisers like Blair present themselves as moderate reformers in contrast to the radical iconoclasts in their party, but the endgame is the same. By denuding the institution and corrupting its functions, people will eventually want to scrap it altogether anyway when they can no longer see its purpose.
There have been multiple attempts since Blair’s reforms – which were intended to be temporary – to finish the job. Last month, Labour peer Lord Grocott tabled a bill that would remove the remaining 92 hereditary members by non-replacement on death.
But no one can agree on what should follow. The proper relationship between the Lords and the Commons is like parent to adult child. The experienced parent will advise against rash action but ultimately cannot compel. From Farage’s unicameralism comes elective infantilism. An elected second chamber on the other hand retains the problems of an appointed one and adds one more: competition with the first chamber over legitimacy.
The best solution is return to the old status quo by simply repealing Blair’s reforms. The liberal philosopher Brian Barry wrote that it is better to perpetuate an anachronism than replace it with a piece of nonsense. Blair left us with the nonsense of an appointed chamber with farcical by-elections for the residual hereditary peers amongst themselves. Perhaps the creation of farce was intended. Liberal purists may say that hereditary privilege is indefensible. But we should take what works rather than obsessing about principles.
When the House of Lords staff told the current Earl of Elgin to clear his belongings after Blair had his way, he asked them if he should also take the stained glass window that his ancestor had installed. Almost twenty years to the day from his defenestration, the perils of removing the old constitutional furniture are gradually being understood. It is time to put the House back in order.