Magazine article The Spectator

Peers into Tony's Senate

Magazine article The Spectator

Peers into Tony's Senate

Article excerpt

IN THE wake of Labour's conference, it is more urgent than ever to examine how a Labour victory at the next general election would affect the legislature, specifically its upper house.

Tony Benn once called the House of Lords the Madame Tussauds of British politics. He knew it was this, he said, because he had escaped from it. Tony Blair's plans to replace the historic upperhouse mix of life peers and hereditary peers with elected members as well as nominees would make it even more like Madame Tussauds, where waxworks of people who are no longer fashionable are expelled from time to time to make room for those who are.

Not that being like Madame Tussauds is necessarily a bad thing. Year after year it comes near the top of the list of the most popular attractions in Britain. Can Parliament say as much for itself? Anything is to be welcomed that binds either chamber at Westminster, as opposed to the Chamber of Horrors, more closely to the affections and interests of the man in the street.

But stuffing the Lords with would-be MPs is not the way. It has been calculated that Tony Blair will have to create some 200 peers to ensure that his reforms pass the House of Lords in the first place. The in-built Consern,ative majority there is huge, and in late June the Tory peers dropped the Salisbury convention, names after the fourth marquess who was Tory leader in the Lords after Labour's 1945 landslide, forbidding them to vote down a newly elected government's manifesto commitments, on the grounds that such radical meddling as Labour's proposed constitutional reform breaks the ground rules. It is therefore probable that after a Labour victory the upper chamber will have to be crammed even fuller than it is already with politicians who couldn't make it to the Commons in the ordinary way.

The recently ennobled former Labour MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, Helene Hayman, lost her seat in 1979. She may be delightful. So no doubt is Sir Gordon Borrie, also recently ennobled after the British people turned him down as a Labour MP - not once, but twice. (The Tories are just as bad, with John Major recycling Lynda Chalker from the scrapheap of British politics after the voters of Wallasey tossed her there in 1992.) The awkward fact remains that when last consulted on the point, the British electorate, in all its cussedness, decided it didn't want them to do the nation's law-making for it.

Tony Blair therefore laid himself open to a riposte when last February he attacked the right to make laws of a hereditary peer whose ancestor 300 years ago might have been a monarch's mistress. Creating peers of people like Borrie, Hayman and, in the past, poor Patrick Gordon-Walker, is as much a slap in the face for democracy as any amount of legislating by descendants of king's bastards or bedfellows, possibly more so. At least in the period before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Charles II created the dukedoms of Grafton and St Albans for his by-blows, there was no confusion about where sovereignty fundamentally lay - with the sovereign. Nowadays, the prime minister or leader of the opposition pretend it lies with the people one moment, but goes and nominates the people's rejects the next.

Historically speaking, a House of Lords made up not of hereditaries but of lifers is less radical than it sounds. Scholars now agree that the original summonses to Lords of Parliament in the late 13th and early 14th centuries were not intended to found a hereditary legislative caste. Later peerage law doctrine retrospectively imposed the idea on the Middle Ages, rather as the Houses of Parliament's architecture harks back to an idealised Gothic. But doctrines, like architecture, change with fashion. After 600 years, during which the hereditary principle was the mode, the pendulum has swung back again. Tony Benn, the Houdini who in 1963 broke free from the British constitution's coroneted Colditz, has had the last laugh.

Among the questions that arise is nomenclature. …

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