Leave those Lords alone
The Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill could have saved itself a lot of bother if, instead of producing a lengthy report, it had simply quoted the words of Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, in the House of Lords in 1641: ‘When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’
That was the attitude of the British people, expressed as eloquently as can be through a ballot box, the last time that a proposal to change the British constitution was put to them a year ago. The alternative vote system was rejected as emphatically as Lords reform would be if the public were given a say. But Nick Clegg has learned from his mistake over AV. His latest scheme, to reform the House of Lords in a way that would give Liberal Democrats the balance of power, will not be put to the public. Clegg does not intend to (as he so condescendingly puts it) ‘subcontract to the British people an issue that the politicians at Westminster just can’t deal with’. What he means, of course, is that he fears the public might once again smell a large, whiskered rat.
For decades, reforming the House of Lords has been a mission that has stumped successive governments. If we were starting from scratch today, no one would propose the odd mix of bishops, businessmen and cronies who pass judgment on laws made by MPs. No one would advocate allowing people to sit in the Lords on the basis that a distant ancestor was favoured by the king (such people can in any case prosper in the Commons, as George Osborne reminds us). Yet the great strength of the British constitution is that it does not start from scratch. It is the way it is because of centuries of compromise, which have given us an eccentric but effective mix of political plants, doddery elder statesmen, mavericks and political novices.
Yes, there are lords who have gained access to the House by virtue of their political donations, and lords who are former ministers booted upstairs after being sacked from their jobs in the Commons. But it does not follow that a reformed House of Lords will work any better. On the contrary, the party list PR system proposed by Nick Clegg would increase the number of hangers-on in the Lords. Party managers would draw up the list and the quality of such parliamentarians would rapidly deteriorate. Clegg’s proposals are intended to turn the Lords into a gilded retirement home for defeated Lib Dem MPs.
To be fair to Clegg, he is only the latest party leader to try to rig the constitution in his party’s favour. David Cameron’s proposals to ‘reduce the cost of politics’ by cutting the number of MPs is designed to trigger a boundary review that would help the Conservatives. Labour set up the Scottish Parliament in the naive belief that Scots would keep it in power there for ever. One of the drawbacks of having an unwritten constitution is that there is no protection from hyperactive politicians.
It is lucky that, in this case, the constitution looks like being defended by a hundred Conservative MPs who have said they will rebel against Clegg’s plans no matter what. It has become commonplace for politicians to offer ‘change’; or ‘to do things differently’. But sometimes it is better that we carry on doing things exactly as before.
Tragedy on the Thames The Greek gods must think we’re crazy. They, like this magazine, will have been thrilled by the plans to sail an ancient Greek warship down the Thames on 27 July, carrying the Olympic flame to Stratford. It’s a rare example of a truly inspired idea: a replica of Olympias — who helped saved the day at Salamis — floating through London, linking our great city state with ancient Athens. Like all excellent ideas it had a plethora of positive effects: a fillip to poor Greece,
whose craftsmen would work on the ship; a spark of hope for Britain, that our opening ceremony might, after all, rival Beijing’s.
Perhaps it was hubris to aspire to excellence. Last week the Olympic organising committee (Locog) cancelled the plan on the completely ludicrous grounds that it might prove too popular. The committee was worried, it said, that enthusiastic crowds would rush to the riverside to watch Olympias sail by and that some might try to jump from the bridges to her deck. It’s a decision of breath-taking, Olympian wetness.
But what must really stump the gods is that Sebastian Coe is head of the committee that axed Olympias. Lord Coe is a former Olympic athlete; a gold medal winner. He of all people knows that it is not possible both to excel and to avoid risk. He must also know that it’s the mark of a great man to admit when he’s made a mistake. See better, Lord Coe.
the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk