House of Lords Bill

Sometimes you need someone with an untenable position to be able to see their way through an argument which is clouded for others by vested interests. Such an occasion occurred yesterday, when the Lords gave Lord Steel’s House of Lords Bill its second reading.

A general, smug consensus had been building throughout most of the contributions that Jack Straw was being terribly naive, and that appointment was the way to go. We even saw Lord Campbell (Con) ask: “What about affinity with the monarch? That has at all costs to be retained, albeit reset constitutionally from time to time. Nobody seems to say anything about it. ” (Column 510) .

The whole thing was getting so terribly depressing as I sat watching it this morning on BBC Parliament. Of course, I knew I could hold out for Lord McNally’s (LD) thoughts (Column 529), but before that arrived, reassurance came from an altogether more unexpected corner of the house. Up stood the Earl of Onslow (Con), one of the 92 remaining hereditaries, to make the following storming speech (Column 517), which I have reproduced in its entirety:

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I start by reminding your Lordships of Macaulay’s comment on the Plantagenets. He said that the Plantagenet kings were restrained by a powerful and hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy was there not because of heredity but to stop an appointed House. Macaulay and the Norman barons were right, but I understand that the whole House is arguing for appointment. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, “They would, wouldn’t they?”

Elections would mean that a very large number of noble Lords would be on their bikes, so, not surprisingly, that may influence their thinking. We all love it here, but I am afraid that there is no modern justification for exercising power and bossing your fellow subjects about other than by popular election of one sort or another. This was what my great-grandfather talked to Salisbury about; it was said in the 1911 Act; and it was said in 1999. With regard to privy counsellors, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, said that we should stay here until the House was democratically elected, but since when has privy counsellors’ honour been subject to a statute of limitations? I did not think that it ever had been.

I am here not because my forebear got tight with Pitt or because one of my great-grandmothers slept with Charles II—she did but it had nothing to do with a peerage; that was another one—or because one of my forebears was Chancellor of the Exchequer to Walpole; I am here to ensure that the promises of an elected House are delivered. I am essentially a totally ridiculous character in that context. I may try to make up for it in other ways but, essentially, I am a ridiculous character in the modern world, and I am here to remind your Lordships of promises unfulfilled. I look around me and see lots of very able people, all of whom contribute in the way that has been described. But, in a modern world, we cannot have power exercised other than by popular vote.

Much is made of the supremacy of the House of Commons. In 1340-something-or-other, this House said that it would not have anything to do with tax. This House is restrained by the Parliament Act; another place’s votes apply. Under those circumstances, this House is already, and has been for a very long time, subordinate to the House of Commons. Therefore, the argument about gridlock is relatively feeble. As a democrat and as someone who loves the concept of parliament, I am afraid that I see nothing wrong in gridlock from time to time. Can we honestly say that every single Act of Parliament, every clause, every subsection and every statutory instrument passed over the past 20 years will go down in history as immutable and unchangeable and that it will be quoted as being as perfect as the law of the Medes and the Persians? That is self-evident rubbish. We should resist the parts of the Bill that make it easier for us all to stay here and feel self-satisfied about the benefits of an appointed position.

I suppose when one feels like something of an outsider to the rest of the house anyway, it is much easier to go in all guns blazing in this fashion. I do hope that, when one day we do achieve an elected second chamber, we manage to elect a house similarly peppered with mavericks. Of course, there is no reason why we shouldn’t – the commons seems to manage quite well for “characters” of its own.

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