Carry on Quangocrats

I spoke at a meeting of the Blairite ginger group Progress last night, and frankly it would have been more fun addressing corpses in a mortuary. The committee room in the Commons was suffused with an end-of-regime atmosphere. Brave hopes had gone. Plans for the future felt futile. Every face looked depressed.
The subject, you see, was reform of the House of Lords. I tried to stir the audience by telling them the story of Kenneth Tynan visiting New York in the early Sixties. Tynan was going through a Marxist phase, as many men of his class and generation were to do. At a Manhattan party he started spouting pre-fabricated chants about class consciousness, the dialectic, hegemony and such like. William Phillips, who had edited Partisan Review in the Thirties, and had fought furious polemical battles against the supporters of Stalin’s massacres and show trials, was astonished to hear the same stale communist slogans coming from a dandified Englishman of the upper-middle class years after Stalin’s death.
“Young man,” he said after Tynan ground to a halt, “your arguments are so old I’ve forgotten what the answer is.”

The same applied to arguments for keeping an unelected second chamber, I cried. Our great grand-parents knew why they were wrong. Surely, as Labour faced defeat, it would want to create a credible Lords from where elected representatives could assault Cameron’s governments. Did we really have to go through all that anti-democratic junk again, almost 100 years after Lloyd George first proposed removing the peerage? Couldn’t we just get on with it?
The somewhat bathetic answer was – er – no we could not. It’s too late. No bill replacing the aristocrats and quangocrats with elected representatives would make it through Parliament before the May 2010 election. Even modest proposals to ban criminals and tax dodgers from sitting in the second chamber would probably run out of time.
As Tony Wright MP, warned the Labour crowd, people would look back with astonishment that, after 13 years of a professedly modernising Labour government, the Lords was still there at the end –unreplaced, unreformed and as unconscionable as ever.

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4 thoughts on “Carry on Quangocrats

  1. At least you turned up and stayed, Nick.

    That’s a lovely answer by William Phillips. I bet from his life in those strong, dangerous political times, he would think the people who shouldn’t be are presently just playing or being bored by politics.
    If the British generation coming into adulthood now had to give their impressions of how a centre left labour party seems to them, how far do you think these would be from what it should really look like on paper, giving the financial climes, banks and the continuing oxygen for those unelected peers, and more, as examples.

  2. I think they should either bring back the landed aristos. There’s no buggering point having a democracy if there’s no liberty under law – something that we’ve almost lost under Labour.

  3. Why should we trust Labour to reform the Lords when they have already botched so many other constitutional reforms? They’ve already fiddled about with the Lords a bit, making it even crapper than before. I’m not sure that directly appointing people who give you money is any improvement on the hereditary principle, which at least incorporated an element of randomness.

  4. The Iron Snuke: please give actual examples, rather than the oft-repeated stock answer of the British intelligentsia – “police state”.

    Nick, I am one of those oddballs who actually don’t want an elected second chamber.
    What purpose would a second elected chamber actually serve? If it is merely to fulfil the current role of the House of Lords, then why does this need party politicians?
    I’m sorry but I wouldn’t trust this chamber to become more than a dumping ground made up of fourth rate politicians and worse. I say worse because this chamber will likely attract as much electoral interest as the European elections (about a 10-15% turnout) and provide a back door onto the public stage for Islamists, the BNP and the Greens (who frankly are not far off in their adoration of totalitarian ideology).
    My own preference would be a select committee of the Commons to examine candidates for appointment and that appointments be based upon excellence in a field of classical academia, business, medicine or politics. These should be appointed on long term mandate, I would prefer ten or fifteen years, with the ability for appointment to be revoked on grounds of misconduct. This would suit well if the House retains its current role.
    The question that comes to mind is – What else would you wish a reformed House of Lords to be? It cannot be a Senate without assuming functions embedded in the Commons and the Royal Prerogative. A role as a duplicate House of Commons would be worse than useless – the phrase that comes to mind is moribund.
    The alternative is to simply abolish the Lords. That did occur in the 1640-50s. But I would feel that we have lost an essential memory of the political and legal landscape of Britain if we did so.

    This argument is part of what I would term a form of left-wing nostalgic argument. It’s a bit like “working towards the kingdom of Jerusalem” in the 17th Century, seeking perfection in this world. I remain a monarchist on the left, even though this runs contrary to most ways of thinking because I cannot see a plausible alternative – could you imagine Ken Livingstone or some awful git like that as President of the UK? Even in a ceremonial role?.
    The House of Lords is a ridiculous arrangement at present – the 1999 reforms were excellent in the dismissal of hereditary peerage, a function with no practical use and moribund in terms of symbolism. I would argue for the retention of the shell (Lords and the ceremonies) but that the practical element be that we ask the cleverest men and women to advise our politicians in the matters of politics. We get the appointment of lords right when we appoint or rather ennoble men like Robert Winston – we get it wrong with “kicking the old fart upstairs”.
    I would also back legislation baring “criminals and tax dodgers” from appointment.

    Finally, can I ask, though this is repeating myself, “What will actually be gained by having an elected upper house beyond empty symbolism?”

    Feel free to call me an idiot via email.

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