In an article in the New Statesman
in August 2020, Dr Robert Saunders, reader in modern British history at Queen Mary University of London, traced the potholed and often controversial path of House of Lords reform. Through the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, which reduced their Lordships' powers to delaying rather than writing-off legislating, the introduction of Life Peerages in 1958 and the removal of all-but-92 hereditary peers in 1998, the Lords has been subjected to a diminution in its power and significance, while the drastic increase in the number of Peers means that the far-end of the Palace of Westminster is now bursting at the seams.
Whilst suggestions to undertake a deliberate and methodical shake-up of the Lords to become a 'Senate of the Nations and Regions' have emanated from the likes of Gordon Brown and Ian Murray in recent years, Saunders characterises the House of Lords as the product of disjointed reform – not so much a 'timeless relic of antiquity' but a 'Frankenstein's monster of shreds and body parts, assembled piecemeal over a century of constitutional tinkering'. In a sense, its awkward combination of tradition and modernity, with a farcical touch, makes the House of Lords a strong contender for the best Ealing comedy that was never made.
For Baroness D'Souza, the second elected Lord Speaker who has been a fixture on the Red Benches since 2004, the UK's ongoing collective constitutional breakdown, sparked by the dreaded B-word, could be a catalyst for change. As she told Pamela Duncan in The Guardia
n days after Theresa May announced her intention to resign as Prime Minister, 'with any luck, what this might mean is that things get so bad that they have to get better'.
Nearly 70 years ago, just over a month before Her Majesty the Queen ascended the throne, George Keeton, then professor of English law at University College London, presented an equally dire picture of a Constitution reaching breaking point. For Keeton – who, unfashionably even for 1952, agreed with the Duke of Wellington that the Great Reform Act of 1832 (which attempted to extend the franchise and remove the bulk of the old 'Rotten Boroughs') was the 'first stage of a flood which would eventually submerge the Constitution' – the situation had become so dire that Britain's 'only remaining constitutional safeguard' was its age-old 'habit of tolerance' and the existence of a powerful political opposition.
At the time of its publication in The Passing of Parliament
, Keeton's thesis already appeared to be distinctly 'foosty'. One reviewer believed the professor longed for the halcyon days of the unreformed Constitution of the 18th century and suggested that his battle cry would be 'back to the Duke of Wellington and the Venetian Constitution'. Another noted that his assessment that Britain was now on the very edge of 'dictatorship', due to the 'completeness of power possessed by the government' and 'the absence of any real check' on its authority, was an unnecessarily 'forthright and alarmist proposition'.
However, for all its faults, The Passing of Parliament's
warning of the danger of an unruly and overbearing Executive, bolstered by an unassailable majority in the House of Commons, rings true today. For Keeton's 1952 assessment that 'today, Great Britain is governed by a party whose chiefs, whilst commanding a majority in the House of Commons, possess dictatorial powers' substitute Andy Beckett's in The Guardian
last month that populism's 'loudmouth leaders, constant rule-breaking and seductive promises of national renewal have dominated democratic life' in Britain and elsewhere.
Whilst its critics rightly highlight its burgeoning numbers, its under-representation of smaller parties and the illegitimacy of its continued hereditary element, the House of Lords remains a fundamental element of parliament's ability to exert any meaningful scrutiny on the government of the day. As Lord Dobbs once observed, the Lords' consistent ability to make legislation 'more fragrant and more fertile' than what they are sent from the Commons makes the Peers 'parliamentary worms' in a legislative 'composting machine'.
As we approach the first anniversary of Boris Johnson being gifted an 80-seat majority in the Commons, there is still a palpable sense that the Prime Minister sees parliament and the scrutiny that it exerts on his administration to be little more than an irritant. His continued bellyaching about any meaningful scrutiny of his actions and his willingness to find 'saboteurs' under its bed – with the EU and 'Remainer civil servants', enemies-of-the-people justices and even the National Trust heading the list – has made his administration an almost unique danger to Britain's institutions.
In the House of Lords, a week ago, Betty Boothroyd, the no-nonsense former Speaker of the House of Commons, delivered a damning indictment of Johnson's government. With parliament's signature Portcullis broch pinned to her chest, the nonagenarian who chaired the Commons as John Major's administration fell apart, told the Lords that she had never witnessed 'such a collapse of the people's trust in a government which promised so much and so quickly'. In stark contrast to its tired and hollow pledge to 'Level Up' Britain, Boothroyd noted that Johnson's administration is now 'groping for desperate solutions to problems it said would not arise'. Like many of its predecessors, it is not inconceivable that the government could resort to packing the Upper House with lackeys more willing to fall into line.
Whilst the strong element of prime ministerial patronage has made the Lords vulnerable to cronyism – this Prime Minister's relatively short tenure has seen drinking buddies, donors, cricketers and even his own brother sent to the Upper House – there remains a rump of Peers who see their purpose to be the 'respected revisers' that Walter Bagehot envisaged. Earlier this year, Robert Saunders compellingly suggested that the way to boost the House's credibility would be to bring its size under control, make Peers' expense more closely aligned to their participation and ensure that partisan nominations made by the Prime Minister are capped by an agreed cross-party formula.
Whilst the hereditaries continued to dominate the Lords until 1999, Peter Hennessy – whose career as one of Britain's most respected contemporary historians, surveying the mechanics and magic of the Constitution, makes him a particular asset to the Upper House – suggests that the creation of Life Peerages gave the Lords 'a meritocratic gene' and demonstrated the British gift for 'absorbing rising and broadening elements of society inside the welcoming membrane of ancient institutions'.
If one puts aside the likes of Ian Botham, Michelle Mone (who has never spoken more than once a year since her elevation) and the infamous Lord Hanningfield, whose collective unsuitability does inexcusable damage to the reputation of the Lords, there are particularly prominent examples of Hennessy's meritocratic gene in action, who bring far greater specialist knowledge, wisdom and experience to the legislative process than you typically find in the Commons. For Hennessy, there is no institution on earth to rival the most knowledgeable Lords' 'use of courtesy as a weapon'.
Alongside Hennessy on the crossbenches, one can find John Bird, the 'People's Peer' and co-founder of The Big Issue
who once washed dishes in parliament's canteen between youthful spells in prison, the historian Paul Bew, former Cabinet Secretaries, a squadron of the country's most high-ranking military figures, a handful of Ambassadors and many of the UK's most senior Justices, let alone the dozens of retired Cabinet Ministers who fill the Labour, Liberal and Tory ranks.
One recent Twitter spat between The Lord Foulkes of Cumnock and Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, points to some of the difficulty in Scotland's relationship with the House of Lords. After Foulkes questioned expat Brian Cox's endorsement of Angus Robertson for next year's hotly anticipated contest to represent Edinburgh Central in the Scottish Parliament, Wishart asked Foulkes which part of Scotland had 'voted' him into the House of Peers. Foulkes, whose 40-year political career has seen him serve as a councillor for the former Lothian Region, an MP and MSP, is one of Scotland’s most experienced and longest serving public servants and simply replied: 'Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, 1979–2005'.
For all the Lords' inadequacies and the SNP's refusal to nominate any candidates for the Upper Chamber, tried and tested parliamentary procedures and experienced and weather-beaten legislators makes the Lords our best chance of obtaining more meaningful and more effective examination of the policies of a government with an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. At Westminster, the Lords can restrain a government, moderate its worst impulses and remind it of some of its overlooked responsibilities.
It is certainly not fashionable to defend what many believe to be a distinctly elitist institution, but the demanding scrutiny that a revising chamber (no matter how dissimilar in makeup to the Lords) brings to the legislative process would also surely improve the quality of government at Holyrood, despite its architects' preference for a robust committee system. For as long as Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, surely nationalists should see the advantage in and champion the good work done by those on Scotland's service in the ermine-clad district of the Palace of Varieties.
Tom Chidwick studied history at Queen Mary University of London. He is currently writing a book on political history