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.