7 March 2017

Once more the House of Lords, the ‘upper’ chamber of the British Parliament, has shown itself to be on the side of common decency, not to mention economic prudence. A few days ago it voted by a large margin to bounce back to the cowardly House of Commons the Brexit government’s cruel refusal of a guarantee of continued residence to EU citizens in the UK until the rest of the EU offers a similar guarantee to British nationals living and working in the remaining member states – which could take years; and tonight it has comfortably inflicted a second defeat on the government’s Brexit bill, requiring Theresa May to allow a Parliamentary vote on the terms of any deal her myopic, whistling-in-the-dark cabinet manages to negotiate with the EU. ‘How dare this undemocratic body defy the popularly elected House of Commons, itself simply “respecting” the order given to it by the British people in the referendum of 23 June 2016 to leave the EU?’ goes the howl of the flag-waving Brexit press – ‘Abolish the House of Lords!’ it cries. To which the reply should be that it is precisely because it is an undemocratic body that it dares to adopt an unpopular position. And, more, that any ‘democratic’ state or state that aspires to be a ‘democracy’, but also sees the importance of qualifying the ‘will of the people’ with the wisdom of experience, immense professional expertise, and moral courage would be well advised to consider a similar institution. For the ‘will of the people’ is notoriously capable of manipulation by special interests and super-rich media moguls. And so, too, is its measurement and what this signifies capable of being grossly misrepresented; for example, only 37 per of the British electorate actually voted to advise Parliament of their desire to leave the EU, yet we are constantly told that this amounted to a decision of ‘the people’ binding on Parliament. As for Donald Trump, he lies shamelessly to his constituency about the size of his support,whereas in fact he lost the popular vote in last November’s presidential election by a sizeable margin.

Let it not be forgotten that the British House of Lords is no longer a chamber of empty-headed hereditary peers of the landowning class, so justly and hilariously lampooned by Grenville-Murray in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, it is now composed largely of life peers, men and women overwhelmingly well over the age of 60, who have achieved distinction in many walks of life – be it the law, business, education, medicine, journalism, and so on, even politics. They are nominated by the prime minister of the day but it is a convention that some can also be put forward by the leader of the official opposition and other party leaders, which indirectly, by the way, gives it a democratic tinge. Of course, like any system of patronage, this system can be – and has been – abused. But, by and large, the upper chamber remains a genuine aristocracy, representing ‘the best’ among us, which is the meaning of the original Greek stem, ‘aristoi’. Of these, Patience Wheatcroft is a perfect example. ‘Great Aristotle’, as the late Bernard Crick called him, thought that the best constitutional arrangement achievable in most circumstances was a ‘polity’, by which he meant a democracy mixed with aristocracy. So do I. (The senior, permanent civil service provides another, vital element of aristocracy in this sense.) Let us hear no more calls either for the abolition of the House of Lords, or for it to be elected and therefore ‘more democratic’. Pure democracy is seriously overrated. Its representatives must always be challenged, especially when, as now, they mistakenly believe – forgetting Burke – that they are merely delegates elected to serve as mouthpieces for the views of their supporters, irrespective of their own convictions.

PS, 4 August 2020: In this post I omitted to note the thoroughly unsatisfactory method by which new peers are appointed. Predictably enough, the notorious fact that this results in the entry of too many useless  individuals was highlighted in particularly garish colours by those chosen by the equally useless prime minister, Boris Johnson, at the end of his first year in office. See on this the pieces by Simon Jenkins and John Crace.