incompetence, sleaze, corruption, misrepresentation, lack of transparency –
there are plenty of reasons to reform the House of Lords. One only need turn on
BBC Parliament to see peers sleeping on the job. But we cannot allow these
failures to cloud our appreciation of the system. Wiser than Solon but more
democratic than Plato, the theoretical basis of the British bicameral system is
a triumph of political philosophy.
House of Commons is democratic. Its members are elected every four years, more
or less, and its legislative agenda corresponds to the manifesto on which the
majority party was elected, more or less. The House of Lords is an unelected
body for the most part appointed by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister
or the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Lords is rather like the
House of Commons’ mentor – the former scrutinises the latter’s work and rejects
it when it’s not good enough.
should an unelected body have such sway over the work of an elected body? Three
simple reasons: because some of the best minds in the world are equally the
worst politicians; because pandering to popular feeling or party ideology
undermines philosophical integrity; and because election itself does not
necessarily guarantee representation. All of these speak to the
Platonic-republican tradition in politics. Let’s look at the arguments in more
a long history of great philosophers whose political aspirations were never
fulfilled. Plato, to whom almost all political philosophy from communism to
liberalism is indebted, famously tried and failed to become governor of Sicily.
J.S. Mill, father of modern liberalism, enjoyed only one year in parliament
despite multiple attempts.
as they are, these anecdotes may actually draw us away from the point that
there are many pursuits requiring of great wisdom and which play an important
role in shaping our social order but which nonetheless are not strictly
political. The protagonists of these pursuits can help guide policy. Good
examples are business leaders, academics and faith leaders: these represent us
in a much deeper way than democracy can allow for – they represent the wisdom
of the institutions we cherish.
notion of sourcing people of greater wisdom speaks to my own preference of
functional constituencies: constituencies representing institutions rather than
people directly. In places like Hong Kong functional constituencies are limited
to areas such as business, media, education and environment. I imagine a more
innovative system whereby we place in the Lords people of wisdom from all the
fields that we deem important.
rely on wisdom to overcome the dangers of populsim. This has never been more
important. In an age of evidence-based practice in which we rely far more on
empirical truth than moral truth, so that the fact that 80% of people want
something has greater import than whether or not it is right, having peers not
bound by the morally corrosive obligation to pander to an electorate is
essential. We have never needed this strictly undemocratic process more than
we want peers to ‘toe a party line’. The whole point is that they scrutinise
individual policies. One would not want certain policies to go unscrutinised
simply because one party has a majority. Nor would we want a good policy to be
ignored for the same reason.
to the age problem too. Some politicians have called for an upper age limit on
serving in the House of Lords. My own feeling is that wisdom comes with age and
that incompetence on account of age should be scrutinised on a case-by-case
I want to challenge the idea that election confers representation. There is an
all too obvious point that parties are well known for ignoring manifesto
promises. But there is a deeper point about what representation means too. Anyone
with even the scantiest knowledge of music can see that reality music shows
like the X-factor bring success to people whose talent is questionable. And
they do so specifically because the outcome is put to the vote. I have found
myself madly voting for someone or other to win the X-factor and yet once they
get the record deal, our bond dies and I could not care less: the fact that I
voted has very little to do with their representing good music. We see that
democracy is corrosive in other areas, so why do we not see it in politics?
Representation is too often associated with representing popular feeling. We
forget that it may also mean representing what is wise, moral or virtuous.
these arguments are against reforming the House of Lords. There are plenty of
issues that need to be tackled. Apart from the list offered in the opening
sentence, the Lords Spiritual should represent all faiths and none, and the
process of selecting peers should be opened up and made more rigorous. As I
have said, there are many ways to be representative without being more democratic.
My feeling is that democracy often gets support de facto because the only undemocratic systems we learn about are
morally reprehensive: fascism, communism. But in the words of Jed Bartlett from
the West Wing: ‘You know, we
forget sometimes. In all the talk about democracy, we forget it's not a
democracy. It's a republic. People don't make the decisions.’