A Point of View: Lords, lordlings and… crumpets
- 4 May 2012
- From the section Magazine
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.