A Point of View: Lords, lordlings and… crumpets


Reforming the House of Lords is a topic that, for some, can have a soporific effect (much like too many buttered crumpets in the peers' tea room). But is this torpor - and the slow pace of change - adding to a democratic deficit, asks Will Self.

About 15 years ago I went for tea at the House of Lords with the late Conrad Russell, the distinguished historian of the 17th Century and son of Bertrand.

Russell struck me as almost beatifically refined: courteous, softly-spoken, and passionately Liberal - with a capital L. The reason for our meeting was an article I was writing on the then mooted reform of the second chamber.

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Will Self
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Needless to say Russell, himself a hereditary peer, was entirely in favour of his own abolition, but suspected - with all the acuity that comes to those accustomed to taking the long view - that it would take more than one sweep of the democratic brush to finally clear his entire ilk from the House.

I recall this, and I remember also his lightly ironic account of all the different kinds of coronets sported by the various peers - with three balls, with seven balls, with yet more balls - that indicated their ranks.

But what most comes to mind when I think back to that pleasant hour with this unassuming man, was the way he urged me on to have more crumpets: "Do have another crumpet," he'd say, "they really are awfully good."

Russell was right about the crumpets - and he was right about the hereditaries.

A few of them still linger on in dusty ermine drifts on the leather benches, plumped down beside brasher and newer lordlings; those who've been ennobled for making computers, or arts documentaries, or possibly simply because they've made a lot of money - and, entirely coincidentally - donated some of it to one or other of the major political parties.

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Polling experts say that when asked about Lords reform, voters can't even manage to shut the door in their faces because they've fallen so abruptly into such a deep swoon”

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One of the downsides of excluding from the House of Lords those who were there only because of paternity is that it freed up space for those who are simply there due to patronage. Now the chamber is stuffed with these heavyweight expenses claimants - hundreds of them, in fact - and the career politicians have, with rare astuteness, realised that something must be done.

All three main UK parties put reform of the Lords in their manifestos, and while there's broad agreement that the second house of our legislature needs to be elected there's considerable disagreement about both how this should be done, and whether the new electoral method should be subjected to a referendum.

Indeed, so contentious are these questions that it's widely anticipated that the presence of a bill of some form or other in the Queen's Speech next week will merely be the start of a tedious gumming-up of the legislative works as MPs and peers amend and filibuster the issue back into the long grass.

Does this matter? Many say not one jot. After all, the first bill to create an elected second chamber was introduced over a century ago - and doesn't this simply prove that the great and glorious fudge that's the unwritten British constitution thrives on such slow and organic change.

Besides, there's the economy, stupid - you don't want important time in the Commons being taken up with such marginal concerns when our legislators should be earnestly sowing the seeds for rather quicker growth (although exactly where law-making comes into this is a little beyond me).

Empty second chamber, picture c. 1890 Proposals for an elected second chamber were first mooted over a century ago

I've heard experts on polling say that when asked about Lords reform, voters can't even manage to shut the door in their faces because they've fallen so abruptly into such a deep swoon.

However, the same pollsters conceded that when roused, then asked if they believe the Lords should be chosen by them rather than the leaders of the main political parties, the very same voters perk up to become positively revolutionary. "Yes, yes!" they cry. "Of course the people's will should prevail."

So, which is the case, are we laid-back conservatives - with an emphatically small "c" - or frustrated communards, desperate to have our say in the making of the law?

My view is that this inconsistency springs from polling itself - opinion polling, and its bastard child the focus group, are the hidden search engines of a political process that has become subjected to a strange form of what can only be termed Googlisation.

Politicians in search of new policies likely to win them votes get their strategists to formulate a range of attractive options and put these to a cross-section of typical voters, then, depending on what flies with the sample, the spin doctors apply this prescription to the rest of the electorate.

Focus group Focus group: Offspring of the opinion poll?

When, in turn, pollsters question their own cohorts, their tick boxes are effectively pre-drawn for them into a limited range of options. It's as if the sheer numbers of people searching for a given political solution were to restrict the availability of any alternatives, much in the way that Google's algorithm determines what plumber mends your ballcock, or Amazon offers you books on the basis that that's what people with your purchasing history have also bought.

I say "as if", because the truth is that these samples and cross-sections are just that - they by no means reflect the wealth and variety of opinions out there in the general populace, nor the solutions that they might give rise to.

The net result of political Googlisation - and this doesn't simply relate to constitutional reform - is the inexorable drive towards the centre-ground by the main political parties. We, the people, are tormented by politicians who look the same, sound the same, and spout policies that are usually only marginally different versions of the same routine ideas.

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A concept borrowed from sociology - the "narcissism of small differences" - helps to explain why seemingly high passions can be generated by such insignificant variables: Ed Balls hurls himself against George Osborne with the rage of a Caliban confronting his own distorted image in a glass darkly.

Even the extremist parties of right and left are mangled through this impress of electability; their stated aim always to be acceptable to the broad mass of what they imagine voters to be. And so it goes dully on, a political process constipated by its own lack of real conviction, hence one that's only ever really animated by scandal.

Meanwhile, half a world away in China, Bo Xilai is purged from the upper echelons of the Communist Party, the serried ranks of which - at this or that hollow congress - present a spectacle of uniformity and senescence that seems… oddly familiar.

Bo's real crime was, it's said, that of Leftist deviationism, a call for a return to the harsh levelling of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Not that that's what the Communist Party apparatchiks are giving out. Their spin is that Bo and his wife were mixed up in dodgy deals that ended in the murder of a British businessman - that they were, in a word, corrupt.

Somewhere in the coverage of Bo's purging I heard a sinologist opine that what the Chinese crave above all else in their political system is stability, and this too sounded oddly familiar. It's often said contemptuously in the West of the People's Republic's faux democracy that the Communist Party has offered their masses things in lieu of political rights, but I'm inclined to believe that our system consists in pretty much the same sort of trade-off.

Westminster exterior shot from Westminster bridge Will the debate ever result in actual legislation?

Of course, our rulers don't actually imprison or exile dissident voices - there's no need to, they're simply drowned out by the great chuntering sound of people consuming things, or the low, moaning noise of other people complaining that they don't have enough things to consume. Remember: it's the economy, stupid.

So, for the ossified apparatchiks of the UK - who crave stability above all - Lords reform looks dangerously like Leftist deviationism, as does any move to make good the democratic rather than the economic deficit.

Instead of being given a chance to select our legislators we're given the opportunity to sign online petitions, which, if they garner enough votes will result in parliamentary debates. Of course, these debates will never result in actual legislation; rather, they are simply a sort of populist lobby music.

Meanwhile, beyond the lobby, in the Lords' tea room, the men and women with real balls are still busily tucking into their excellent crumpets. Yummy yummy.

Below is a selection of your comments:

A fully elected second chamber in a country where three party politics is a vague idea rather than a concrete reality is a recipe for unleashing our own form of the American stasis. When each chamber is dominated by a different party, then moving forward on anything but the most bland of policies is impossible. Far better for the second chamber to be appointed based on merit by a committee, with career politicians constitutionally barred. After all, with the commons and the councils, there is plenty for them to do already.

Andrew, Reading

Nobody's ever asked me, but surely what we want is people with experience (bishops, ex generals, ex admirals, ex mandarins, ex cabinet ministers, ex bankers etc) who have been there/done it and stepped down. Oh, and they can't become cabinet ministers. Hopefully they will provide the constructive criticism the Commons sometimes need.

John, Weybridge UK

We need a House that can take the long term perspective of the welfare of the country; and tell the Commons 'no'. One where the incumbents are not bothered about getting re-elected in the next five years. One where the majority are not there because of political patronage. Maybe the aristocracy and the Law Lords are not the best choice, but at least they are more interested in the long term, or they understand what makes 'good' law.

Barrie Jehu, Quarff, Shetland

The problem with voting for Lords can be seen with who we get to vote for as MPs they are hand picked by the major parties so we actually end up with less choice. One thing i have noticed over my many years is that the hereditary peers were actually a thorn in their parties side on many occasions because they couldn't be bought and had no set in stone allegiance when it came to dubious legislation.

John, Workington

I had always been a supporter of a fully elected second chamber but in the past few weeks we have seen the only people to stand up against the government on many of their very dangerous and badly planned policies have been the unelected members of the second chamber. I am now fully AGAINST any kind of elected second chamber. I am terrified for the future of our country if we change anything more of the House of Lords.

Glenn Lennox, Nottingham, UK

I liked your description of the crumpets and I agree the Tories may talk about Lords reform to placate the Liberals, but in the end do nothing. I've often thought we need a House of Savants (not my term, see The Difference Engine novel), of experts drawn from all the major fields of our society, as constituencies, e.g. science, commerce, medicine, media etc.. They could be nominated by the governing bodies of each constituency and then elected by popular vote. There should be about 100. They would revise legislation and also give weighty expert opinions when asked, and sometimes when necessary. They would not be termed Lords, but possibly Savants and addressed , correctly, as "The Learned..." (they should not include the law, since there is now a Senate).

Dr Richard Symonds, Broadstairs, Kent

A well written and amusing article but and as the rejection of City Mayors demonstrates, I suspect that left to themselves, the public would leave the Lords alone on the simple basis "It ain't broke so don't fix it !" For the average person, the desire to change the Lords is likely even lower down their priority list than the UK leaving the EU, it is only an obsession of the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble be they politicians or Media people. Before the public will get interested in this, there has to be a demonstrable problem that can only reasonably be dealt with by radical change. Currently and whether you were talking about reforming the Lords or leaving the EU, there is no groundswell of opinion that says: "We need to sort this out..." If the Government spent any time on this, they will just demonstrate that they are totally out of touch with the electorate who will think there are more important issues that need attending to. This has nothing to do with whether in principle people would say it is a broadly good thing, they probably would but at the same time also say, "Not right now".

John Haynes, Burnham on Sea, Somerset

As Churchill said, democracy is an awful system, but it is the best we have. It has all sorts of problems, given the choice people normally vote for low taxes and high spending, we don't have time to evaluate all the options properly before we vote, parties mean that our actual choice is limited, and act in their own interest rather than the nations. Because of this, and the strange way the media treat politicians, there are important groups of people who are just not elected as politicians, there are huge numbers of lawyers and trade unionists, but almost no scientists, engineers, or for that matter hair dressers. I think the house of lords isn't perfect and should be reformed - it shouldn't be in the gift of the prime minister to make most of the appointments, it should be spread more widely, but the concept of a reviewing chamber, full of people who are experienced, have knowledge, and are not dependent on the major parties is a very important one. What is the point in a second identical chamber.

Dave ansell, cambridge, cambs

Before starting to change the composition of the Upper House, ought we not to establish what its function now is or ought to be? ( It no longer functions as the highest Court in the Land). Then maybe the size of the 'Senate' should be determined and eligibility/qualification for membership and duration of sojourn should be established. Do we really need a membership as oversized and expensive, as we have at present? Would not a maximum of 101 Senators suffice? Then and only then, should we determine how the membership is appointed/elected? As an afterthought, could we not conduct a review of the Lower House and reduce the number of MPs there by half?

Armand, Aberdeenshire

I don't want an elected second chamber at all - all we'll get is is another dose of sham huckstering and false choices. More elections will just reinforce the primacy of parties and their contributors. Instead, take money and power mongering out of the equation - a random selection of 1000 people from the ranks of eligible voters; the British people warts and all for 2 year terms.

Gary O'Keefe, London

One thing to be said in favour of the hereditary peers is the element of randomness. Of course, their inheritance is not random, but what they choose to do with it is. There is no party line to toe and, at best, there is a healthy strain of eccentricity. Elected peers would simply be career politicians with a bit of stoat fur round the collar, just as dull and even more pompous and self-interested. We need more real-life Lord Emsworths!

Louise, Birmingham

The upper chamber must be at least 50% elected. A proportion should be appointed by the Queen (i.e. No. 10) from the pre-eminent members of Industry, Armed forces, Academia, Religious groups and the civil Servants: the aim here is to establish a caucus of those strands of society that reflect the culture of the country. To create a 'Free' Upper chamber, then those elected must be apolitical: they must reject all political affiliations while in office; no membership of a party; no attendance at any formal party meetings, etc., etc. I can't object to a party supporting the nomination and electioneering - which it should be declared. It works for the armed forces and the judiciary. The electoral college should be countywide on a PR basis, so there are no 'save seats'

philip hartley, Helensburgh; Argyll

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