Elections Are Not the Only Way to Bring Honour to the Lords the Upper Chamber Desperately Needs Reform. but Its Replacement Should Truly Represent Britain

Article excerpt

THE NEW Britons love their gongs as fervently as the most dogged upholders of tradition. An acquaintance who has achieved a modest degree of public prominence asked me last week, "If you were going to the Lords, which title would you pick?" The dilemma had obviously been on his mind for some time. He had joined those who, at a certain stage in their lives, look at the House of Lords thinking not, "Blimey, I thought he'd been dead for years," but "Come to think of it, I could look quite good in ermine too."

New Labour's list of working peers, announced this week, will feature a number of thoroughly modern Labour Lords such as Melvyn Bragg and Planet 24's Waheed Alli, who are both tough meritocrats in their professional life and thoroughly loyal to the party in their political one.

Richard Branson turned out to be too much of an irritation. It does seem a touch harsh to excise such from the Tory nominations for knighthoods someone who has created wealth, while elevating to the Lords Norman Lamont, the chancellor who poured carloads of sterling down the drain trying to prop up the pound before its ignominious ERM exit. Perhaps this was an in-joke in Downing Street: Mr Lamont's handling of the crisis made a significant contribution to Mr Blair's election chances. But it is hard to get too worked up about the exclusion of Mr Branson or the actor and SNP supporter Sean Connery. Politics seized the reins of patronage from the monarchy long ago. It is a chance for governments to create a Great and Good that reflects its own ideas of greatness and goodness, while delivering discreet snubs to those hopefuls who do not. The fate of the Lords reform should exercise us a lot more than whether Mr Branson and Mr Connery get knighthoods this year, next year, some time or never, because the shape of a second chamber ave years and thus prevent an elected parliament suspending elections. This reflects its wider purpose, namely, to check the tendency of executives to become elective dictatorships, to revise legislation and to send back the imperfect parts of bills that have been badly drafted. The Lords should also act as an early warning system, alerting us that the executive is over-reaching itself and riding roughshod over legitimate criticism and advice. All of these circumstances are as likely to arise under Labour governments as Tory ones. A reformed House of Lords should be so constituted as to check these dangers. As usual when the British have to find a blueprint for change, the instinctive reply is that we should find a foreign model - usually some form of elected second chamber - and copy it. …