‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

27 April 2010

An Appreciation for the House of Lords

Imagine my surprise when I received an email notice from David Cameron, announcing my invitation to join the government of Britain. How wonderful! As a firm supporter of the Commonwealth and as a Canadian who shares Sir John A. Macdonald’s belief in our golden ties to Great Britain, this was an incredible offer.

However, in place of an opportunity to swear oaths of fealty to the Queen, was a copy of the Conservative party’s 2010 political manifesto. I quickly found the chapter on ‘Changing Politics’, with its overview of restoring faith to the political process and of renewing the bonds of participatory democracy between citizens and the representatives chosen to serve them.

I agreed with much of what I read in the section on governing structures—or was willing to grant the desirability of reform in areas that could be made to work even better—save for this section on the Upper House:

We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.

The Parliament of Canada itself faces pressure to reform the Senate, from an appointed chamber whose members serve until retirement age to an elected body of limited, eight-year terms. In both countries, though, I fear that this democratic impulse is short-sighted and motivated less by a desire for good government than by the mistaken belief that the electoral mandate is the only valid means to legitimate political ends.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber performs yeoman service in pointing out the strengths of the current arrangement and the weaknesses of various proposals for reform. Unfortunately, the Senate of Canada has not enjoyed an equally concerted defence of its merits (although I have collected articles and reports and posted a file on Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers).

In the British context, the Campaign website highlights excellent arguments by Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Howe of Aberavon (among others) that emphasis the virtues of the appointed model. Such appreciations include these fundamental observations:

  • Whereas the present House of Lords serves a complementary role to the confidence role that is the purview of the elected House of Commons, two such elected bodies will inevitably create gridlock as both chambers exercise their democratic mandate;

  • A hybrid House of Lords between appointed and elected members only illustrates the reformers’ muddled-headedness: they backhandedly concede the benefits of experience and expertise that appointment makes available, but add confusion—and internal jealousy—by introducing an elected element which will only lead to a two-tiered category of peer; and

  • Appointed peers enjoy legitimacy indirectly via the executive offices which oversee the process—which are themselves accountable to the people—much as in the selection of judges and other government officials, who exercise authority yet not through courtesy of the ballot box. If the ballot is the sine qua non of legitimacy, then the very foundation of the British monarchy is threatened, too.

And, until questions of dodgy expenses and charges of influence peddling tarnished the reputations of both Houses of Parliament, the Lords received more favourable reviews than its Commons partner, as a non-partisan body whose revising function added value to the shambolic legislative programme of two Labour prime ministers who aspired to presidential status. ‘Public confidence’ clearly resided with the Upper Chamber, and it is sheer effrontery for the Lower Chamber to cast aspersions elsewhere.

One may assume that a modernising, progressive liberal Conservative’s position is clearly with the reformers, but not necessarily so: first, it bears repeating that it is not the case that democratic legitimacy is found only through the popular vote; and second, even from the classical liberal position, a strong case can be made that ‘more democracy’ only leads to ‘more Government’—which, in many respects, is anathema both to liberalism and to the Conservative party’s larger aims to decentralise power to the people.

In both instances, the current House of Lords proves an admiral bulwark of the citizen’s rights, remaining both ‘efficient and effective’. It is also to be remembered that while Conservatives may be liberal or progressive or traditional, they all share the basic convictions for conservatism. Edmund Burke undertook a similar exercise in writing An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that, regardless of changing circumstances, core principles of political institutions and practices still held true: ‘Our fabric is so constituted; one part of it bears so much on the other, the parts are so made for one another, and for nothing else, that to introduce any foreign matter into it, is to destroy it.’

The fabric of Westminster has evolved so that two Houses—one elected, one appointed; the first serving as the primary voice of the United Kingdom, the second as counsellor to the first—form a vibrant, organic Parliament. Any elected element in the House of Lords would be to introduce a foreign matter, destroying both it and the whole.

Burke also wrote that ‘To innovate is not to reform’; little imagination is required, therefore, to see that innovation should not be equated simultaneously with progress.

No, for whatever its minor faults which can be readily amended, the House of Lords is still fit for purpose.

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