Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

See also

Enter Ross

There stands a new party leader: Douglas Ross, chosen swiftly without contest when lesser candidates withdrew in the sight of his coming. The new Leader of the Scottish Conservatives is barely known outside his own circle, or at least so the BBC would leave it, as they know no one but the main players. (The political newsmen also seem to have a mental block over anything north of the Tweed.)

I will admit that I had hardly heard of the man but to note his triumph over the SNP in Moray, which had been their fiefdom for years – it was the awful Margaret Ewing’s seat. He also glinted into publicity recently by resigning a ministerial post over Dominic Cummings, and I thought he would slip into obscurity, for Boris does not forget these things easily.

On the other hand, Douglas Ross is a man born in Aberdeen, which is Michael Gove’s home town and so he has a recommendation at the top. He is not a university man, studying instead to take over his father’s farm, and a man of the soil always has a common touch to recommend him. He is not a titled man (Fay tells me his title is “the Dashing”, but I’ll pass over that). He studied in Forres, as in ‘How far is’t call’d to Forres?’ and is rooted in the soil of Morayshire. He has been politically sacked and politically resigned, suggesting more independence of mind than is healthy in a dedicated party politician, but which is an advantage to one who would make an impact on his own.

He has a heavy task ahead of him. The BBC do not entirely block Scotland from their coverage – it is just devolved, which means it is forgotten for most of the country. The corps of journalists o’ the North, so they say, would sell their souls to win an interview with ‘Nicola’, and Snoopy (sorry, the SNP) control access, forbidding it to any who are unfriendly – it ensures positive coverage of the Snoopy government at all times.

As Holyrood is looking to muzzle speech more effectively now under cover of hate-speech legislation, breaking through is to be harder still.

Ross might well lament like his namesake who also came to Forres:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

Courage though. Ruth Davidson made a breakthrough, somehow, by making an impact, and Douglas Ross has more conventional charm to turn upon the voters.

Actually, I feel more admiration for Jackson Carlaw, his immediate predecessor. Carlaw resigned without warning, without a great uprising in the ranks. He did so for the best and most rare reason – he felt he was not up to the task. What other politician has ever admitted this without facing actual defeat? The cause of Conservatism is more than one man.

For that I saw the tyrant’s power a-foot:
Now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland
Would create soldiers, make our women fight,
To doff their dire distresses.

See also

Books

Labour: wear a mask when shopping on-line

This week’s Labour health spokesmxn, Jonathan Ashworth, expressed outrage that the Government has not gone far enough in enforcing face muzzles. The government’s half-measures are all for show, he spluttered: all the headlines are about shops and theatres, but the staff of online retailers are the forgotten working class. Shopfloor workers have protection from customers in muzzles and there must be a level playing field to protect jobs and lives, he said: customers doing their online shopping must wear facemasks at all times, because the workers behind the screens need protection from these notorious computer viruses.

Week one of the face-lockdown. The shops are emptying again satisfactorily. Now I get a chance to see what’s on the rails without elbowing dawdlers out of the way. I can’t see much though with this thing right under my eyeline.

Not everyone must wear the cloth. As I gathered after interviewing Mat Hancock, while he was trying to run away:

  • It’s to protect other people in case I have the dread disease;
  • Although I don’t have it;
  • Unless you’ve actually got the Wuhan flu, it’s as pointless as a chocolate chastity belt;
  • You don’t need to wear a muzzle if it causes you breathing problems;
  • Which is what you’d have if you get COVID-19;
  • So if you do get the smit, don’t wear a mask – better to infect the carriage than choke to death.

I wear it: I have a very dinky one which the maid made for me, which beats the designer face-muzzles I’ve seen: my, you should see the green envy. (The rivalry over masks is quite a thing to watch in the salons – all from a lacey lingerie-style, all holes and imagination, down to one that looks as if it was last worn in a trench outside Ypres.) It is taken very seriously – the fashion, at least, and I do wear it on trains. Of course I take it off when I need to make a call or to have a good cough, but I have it for a good show of concern.

I am my usual, cheery self in the shops I deign to frequent. I greet the shop assistant with my eyes, we admire each others’ muzzles, and I ask “Mmmm ngh ngh mmmnnnn!”, which never fails to elicit an appreciative “rrrrr, mngh, ghghgh mmmm.”

What next week will bring, we cannot tell. I am quite looking forward to getting the illness – better now I’d say than in the winter when I have a cold too to cope with. That COVID-19 party was a mistake though, without a nurse to hand. Another member of staff down.

See other stories