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On Burke & Badgering the Government

ResPublica Trustee, Professor Simon Lee, responds to the Government's proposals for the reform of the House of Lords

First, Nick Clegg’s argument for reform calls the House of Lords an ‘affront to democracy’ because it is unelected. Yet the Supreme Court is unelected but performs a vital role in our democracy precisely because its unelected nature gives the judges the scope to stand up to majorities on behalf of minority rights. As Edmund Burke said, the constitution is more than a matter of arithmetic. When the Coalition government gets round to arguing about our Bill of Rights, it would be odd indeed for a Liberal Democrat to be committed to the position that elections and majorities are all that should count in our constitution. When the Diamond Jubilee is in full swing, again an unelected element of our democracy, the monarchy, will be celebrated over the coming months. The debate on Scottish independence or devolution deserves to be about more than arithmetic.

The Deputy Prime Minister in his speech to Demos and the Open Society Foundation last December said that the open society was why Lloyd George, that Liberal leader and prime minister of both Liberal and coalition governments, ‘battled the House of Lords’ and that, ‘Lloyd George described the House of Lords as being “a body of five hundred men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed”.’  Nick Clegg did not mention that Lloyd George sold peerages (as well as buying off media criticism by selling knighthoods and peerages to press barons) and accepted a hereditary peerage for himself, becoming Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor.

Nowadays, the House of Lords is more reflective of people who know about the Big Society espoused by the Prime Minister. The Lords are seen by such stalwarts of the open society as Liberty to be battling the government. As Liberty observed last year, ‘The past few months have seen a remarkable series of debates in the House of Lords as principled opposition to the Public Bodies Bill united members of all political denominations and none. Over the course of several debates, powerful arguments have been made against the approach taken in the Bill. This process demonstrates the very point that those opposing the Bill sought to make, namely the importance of informed and detailed parliamentary scrutiny in keeping a check on Executive excesses.’

This takes us to the second point of ‘badgering’. The government’s proposal ignores the fact that the House of Lords works, that it has many expert members from diverse spheres who have performed a valuable role in scrutinising and improving draft legislation. Even this year, the government has been defeated in the Lords by people who knew what they were talking about in both debating high principle and in exchanging detailed comments on the impact of government changes to social benefits.

From before Clegg and Cameron were born right through their lifetimes, the House of Lords has given such attention to a wide range of causes, including unpopular ones. For example, the Earl of Arran was asked why, when he had in the 1960s introduced two bills, one to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting male adults and one to protect badgers, the more controversial one on homosexuality found its way into law whereas the one about badgers was defeated. He is reputed to have said that the answer was simple, that there were no badgers in the House of Lords. In fact, the scrutiny of badger bills in the 1970s and 1990s continued to be of high quality. As the government seems intent on a badger cull later this year, perhaps the Lords will return to the theme.

When Viscount Monck in 1973 asked the Lords to imagine that, ‘My noble and learned friend and myself are walking quietly down a glade in a wood at this time of the year, and, as is our wont, stopping now and again to pick a primrose, and uttering those famous words of Wordsworth: Oh to be in England, now that April's there. Then, suddenly, round the corner comes a badger…’, Lord Chorley pointed out that ‘Browning wrote the poem’ and the Earl of Arran, interjected to ask, ‘May I point out to the Committee that the walk which the noble Viscount proposes taking with the noble and learned Viscount would have to be by night, because badgers are not normally seen in the day-time’.

Before the government sleep-walks into culling the Lords, it is time to take a more measured approach to constitutional reform.

ResPublica have today published a collection of essays on House of Lords reform, 'Our House: Reflections on Representation and Reform in the House of Lords', which draws together a number of commentaries from leading figures of society, including Bishop Tim Stevens, Convenor of the Lords Spiritual; John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce; political philosopher Professor Roger Scruton; former welfare minister Frank Field MP; Sir Stephen Bubb, the Chief Executive of Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations; Lord Adebowale, the Chief Executive of social enterprise Turning Point; and Lord Wei, former Government Adviser on the 'Big Society'.

An online copy of the publication can be found here.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
29 February 2012

British Civic Life

About The Authors

Professor Simon Lee

Simon Lee is the Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast and was formerly Vice-Chancellor of ...