In the latest in our series of elderjuice debates, Red Ron replies to Tory Tim Worstall, who argued last week for a return to a hereditary House of Lords.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
So wrote Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns – and you don’t need to understand all the words to get his general drift.
More than two centuries later, our Upper House is still stuffed full of strutting and staring Lords, not to mention Baronesses, Viscounts, Bishops, Earls and Marquesses. But we stopped laughing long ago.
For a start, it costs the taxpayer tens of millions a year to subsidise this retirement home for mediocre politicians who’ve grovelled their way to a fancy title, dodgy geezers who’ve bought themselves a seat in the Upper House, and clapped-out aristocrats with too much time on their hands.
Then there’s the example it sets to the rest of the country. We’re told by the government and business that in this modern, flexible, free market society, there’s no such thing as a job for life.
Oh yes there is! Even Lord Sugar wouldn’t be able to fire one of his fellow peers, no matter how incompetent, dishonest or disgraceful their behaviour.
Done for perjury? No problem. History of shady dealings with corrupt buinessmen? Welcome to the club. Jailed for fiddling your expenses? Take twelve months off and we’ll see you next year.
Blood and inheritance
Then there’s the affront to democracy, which would never be tolerated even in the most conservative states of the USA. As Abraham Lincoln, the greatest ever Republican President, once defined democracy: ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’
Nick Clegg’s half-hearted proposal to tinker further with the House of Lords has upset some traditionalists.
Tory Tim Worstall doesn’t like the idea of a second chamber dominated by political lapdogs – and understandably so.
Less understandably, his solution is to return to a system of genetics, where the Upper House will become a private club for the offspring of our inbred aristocratic elite. Perhaps he also believes that we should tackle traffic congestion by bringing back the horse and cart?
Tim claims that a House of Lords based on blood and inheritance would be a ‘random’ sample.
Yes, it would be a random sample alright – of those who grew up in stately homes, were educated in our top public schools, and stand to inherit vast landed estates.
But it wouldn’t be a representative sample of the population, any more than would be a jury system restricted to the sons and daughters of convicted criminals.
Privilege, patronage and pomposity
Nostalgia has its place, but just because something is old and traditional doesn’t mean it’s sensible. Mobile phones are much more practical than red telephone boxes.
The fact is we don’t need a House of Lords, reformed or unreformed. Other countries manage quite well without this quaint old institution that reeks of privilege, snobbery, servility, pomposity, patronage and nepotism.
Whenever a trade union goes on strike, even for a single day, the country is plunged into crisis. Even a work-to-rule by teachers, railworkers or firefighters has the capacity to create pandemomium.
So imagine, if you will, a strike of the House of Lords. Imagine every last Lord, Viscount, Baroness, Bishop, Earl and Marquess staged a walk-out – and not just for one day, but for a year, or five years, or longer.
Would the country grind to standstill? Would the financial markets go into freefall? Would the government be forced to declare a national emergency?
Or would everything just carry on as before? Indeed would anyone even notice the difference?
If we really must have a second chamber to revise legislation, let’s root it in the real world and let’s make it representative of the whole of society.
Let it be elected from constituencies of the professions, the business sector, the public sector, the voluntary sector, the trade unions. Let it be balanced by gender, age, geography and ethnicity to ensure it’s a proper cross sample of the population.
And on this final point, Tory Tim and Red Ron might even be in agreement…
Let it be free from the machinations and manipulation of apparatchiks, spin doctors and special advisers by banning anyone from standing who is a member of a political party.