17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 8


How their Lordships ought to conduct their fight in the last ditch


It follows, therefore, that constitutional questions should be approached with humil- ity. Are we in this generation really so confi- dent in our political wisdom — and in our politicians — that we can happily disregard the collective wisdom of many previous gen- erations? A tincture of that spirit used to guide our legislature in its approach to con- stitutional matters. The assumption was that changes should only be enacted after long forethought, and preferably on a non-parti- san basis. Then along came Mr Blair with a radical new constitutional insight.

He concluded not only that, the British people did not understand their constitu- tion, but that most of them were too stupid to do so. As long as his spin doctors could lull the public, there was no need to play by the old rules; above all, there was no need for prolonged deliberations. It is hard to overestimate the liberating effect of this insight. Previous generations of politicians had worn themselves out by poring over long, complex documents and thinking through difficult questions; Mr Blair was not going to make that mistake. Give him a whim and a majority, and who cares about Locke, Burke or Oakeshott? Act first, think later, if ever: that is Mr Blair's motto.

The arguments for removing the heredi- tary peers from the House of Lords are finely balanced, and the case for their retention is stronger than is often supposed. They ensure that the land is represented, and every constitution needs an Antaeus element. They also represent history. 'You know what I most enjoy about this place,' a recently created Labour peer confessed to a Tory friend: 'sitting in the same chamber as the Duke of Norfolk.' Such responses are too easily dismissed as sentimental; there is nothing sentimental about history. It is surely appropriate that a nation as old as this should find space in its legislature for some names that were already old when Shakespeare was writing about them.

The hereditaries are also a crucial ele- ment in the ethos of the present House. If you were to drop into the Bishops' Bar on any day when their Lordships are sitting you might well find old Lord Ramsbottom of Wigan having a drink with young Lord Fauntleroy. It might seem an unlikely pair- ing. Albert Ebenezer (Bert) Ramsbottom, b. 1909, elementary schools. Gen. Sec., Nat. Union of Holeborers 1956-64. MP (Lab) for Wigan Districts 1964-83; Assistant Govt Whip 1978-79. Cr. (life peer) 1983. 21st Baron Fauntleroy, cr. 1485, on or near Bosworth Field. No two men would seem to have less in common, but they have learned a lot from each other's company; friendships like that have given the modern House its unique character.

This could not be replaced by a nominat- ed House. The current House's debates often have a serious intellectual compo- nent, which is usually made more interest- ing by its quirky, accidental quality. But the proceedings of a nominated chamber, a hybrid of Tony's cronies and the great and the good, would be as insipid as they were earnest; they would also be in abject thrall to conventional wisdom.

A new chamber would have to be an elected chamber, and that creates a prob- lem: we have one already. To retain its independence the new second chamber would have to be elected on a different basis from the Commons, at different times, and to draw on personnel immune from party hackery. From this, one conse- quence would inevitably flow. By the mid- dle of its term of office, almost every gov- ernment would have lost control of the upper house, which would be in a position to exploit mid-term unpopularity by fight- ing a legislative guerrilla war.

That is the crux of the issue: not the upper house's composition, but its powers. If you believe, as most of the Salisbury fam- ily have since the 1880s, that the march towards democracy has created an imbal- ance in the constitution, so that the powers formerly held by King, Lords and Com- mons are now concentrated in one untram- melled assembly, which must be restrained, then you ought, however reluctantly, to join Lord Cranborne in supporting Lords reform. As long as the Upper house retains its present composition, it will not have the self-confidence to be an effective check on the Lower house.

But if you take the view that there are merits in elective dictatorship; in giving the prime minister a four- or five-year man- date, after which his record can be assessed and his contract renewed, or otherwise, then even if you deplore the hereditary peerage, you should appreciate the advan- tages of the present House. It can act as a revising chamber, it can inflict the occasion- al salutary defeat, but it cannot challenge the Commons' primacy.

That is the debate which ought to take place before the Lords is reformed, and it is a debate which concerns the Commons as much as the Lords; it might indeed be widened to include the parliamentary arrangements for a future federal United Kingdom. For the past 18 months, Robert Cranborne has been trying to engage in such a discussion, but it takes two to debate, and the Labour party is determined to thwart him. An edict has gone out from Downing Street that no Labour front-bencher from either House is to appear on any radio or television programme with Lord Cranborne lest the unthinkable happens, and a Labour spokesman is drawn into an intellectual debate on an issue of principle. Unless and until such a debate takes place, their Lord- ships would be justified in using all of their remaining powers to block Mr Blair's pro- posals for as long as they can.

But they ought also to employ tactical finesse. If in six months' time the govern- ment has persuaded the voters that Lord Cranborne is using the language of Lord Halsbury to refight the battle the Ditchers lost in 1911, Mr Blair will win and Mr Hague will suffer. But what if the Lords amend a lot of government bills in ways that will be popular with everyone except Labour MPs? What if the public decides that Mr Blair must not repeat the error he committed in Scotland by blundering ahead with thoughtless and destructive legislation, and that the government should reform the Lords comprehensively or not at all — and anyway, why are they wasting time on the Lords when the economy is in a mess? If that happens, Mr Hague will benefit.

Whether this will help to produce a worth- while second chamber is another matter.