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It’s broke so let’s get on and fix it
I WONDER if the listening figures for Radio 4’s Today programme suddenly dipped in East Yorkshire last week? I ask because of the thoroughly snooty way a BBC political correspondent reported Tory grassroots discontent with Lib Dem-inspired plans for an elected House of Lords.
If the Government could only manage a majority of 25 to defeat an attempt to protect jobs in East Yorkshire by altering plans to put VAT on static caravans, the Beeb man loftily declared, then what chance did it have of pushing through reforms of the Lords? You had to be listening to catch the patronising tone, but I’m sure you get the idea.
But snootiness aside, is it really true that the proposed Lords reforms are more important than threats to British caravan manufacturing, most of which takes place in the east of our region? Because surely the House of Lords is in such a state that any changes, no matter how cack-handed, can hardly make the situation worse.
Some may think that statement makes me some sort of wrecker, seeking to consign centuries of history and our glorious constitution to the dustbin. Far from it; I’m actually being something of a traditionalist, even a bit of a fundamentalist.
Because when you go back to its roots you find the House of Lords once had a very real point and purpose. It was where you gathered people who already wielded enormous power in the land – economic, social and even military. They brought power and influence to Parliament, rather than deriving power from it.
Far from standing still, the aristocracy was very flexible in the olden days, which helps explain how it stayed so powerful so long. The last peer to be Prime Minister left office only in 1902, after all the social and economic upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries, which shows how resilient the Lords’ grip on power was.
But the next attempt to get one of their number into Number 10 fell distinctly flat, and involved yet another snub to East Yorkshire.
It came in 1940, with the war against Hitler going badly and about to get worse. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain clearly had to go, and most influential people agreed his ideal replacement would be the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, whose estate, of course, was at Garrowby.
Winston Churchill thought differently, and the rest was, as they say, history. It was diplomatically suggested Halifax would have had difficulty running the government from the Lords. I suspect in reality had Halifax displayed the same hunger for power as Churchill the peer would have prevailed, with incalculable consequences for world history.
But the constitutional excuse given for Churchill’s elevation only served to emphasise the new reality; that no serious politician would want to be in the Lords. Their powers had already been cut and have been trimmed since, with Life Peers and even People’s Peers joining their ranks.
Both the nature and its membership of the Lords have changed dramatically, in the Heath Robinson fashion typical of the British constitutional approach; very ingenious but short on purpose.
I accept the Lords give a voice to disparate groups in society, their debates are superior to the Commons and they play an important role in revising legislation, but I say all that could be done – and probably better – by a chamber which had greater relevance and consequently greater authority.
That would be achieved democratically or, more cynically, we could take the Lords back to their roots by appointing the real powers in our modern land, taken from the “rich lists” and “most influential lists” in the Sunday newspapers. The debates would be less literate, but they’d be pretty eye-opening.
There is, of course, an argument that we have more pressing worries than changing our constitution, and I suppose I partly agree with that, albeit slightly reluctantly.
Because, ultimately, I think the fact that politicians and journalists at Westminster think the House of Lords is a more important issue than manufacturing jobs in East Yorkshire tells you a lot about why our country is on its uppers.