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Britain’s House of Lords is a national embarrassment



The largest political assembly in the world outside the Chinese National People’s Congress is the British House of Lords. It is, alas, a national embarrassment worthy of its size.

With good reason, the bedroom is derided as “The house of friends”. The upper house of the British Parliament, 800 members strong, is approaching its Beijing equivalent in democratic deficit, being largely appointed at the whim of the Prime Minister of the time, on increasingly obscure criteria. According to the latest opinion polls, more than 70% of voters want it to be reformed.

The room is packed with party donors. Last year, The Sunday Times revealed that £3m ($3.6m) in donations often secures membership in the buddies club. A century ago Prime Minister David Lloyd George was forced to resign in part for selling peerages and honours. Some of his acolytes have been prosecuted. Yet earlier this year the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate whether Boris Johnson’s own Lords appointments had been bought. Before leaving office, Johnson has two more honors rolls to offer, causing a scandal even before the names are officially released.

Why does this state of affairs persist? The upper house, a vestige of the hereditary system which still has 92 aristocrats or “peers of the realm”, is held in such low esteem that the last five prime ministers have refused to become members, as was once the tradition. It’s a commentary on their appointments.

Johnson has also shown no intention of becoming a member of the Lords, although he intends to flood it with his own cronies, having already appointed 86 members during his three-year term – twice the number of his predecessor who served for a similar position. term. In 2006, Johnson condemned the abuse of the nomination system as “putrefaction…a quintessentially British crime”. But Labor’s Tony Blair was Prime Minister then. In 2010, it’s the Conservatives’ turn to take advantage of it.

It is true that there are many worthy people in the Upper House who bring professional expertise to the public debate and who have a strong sense of civic responsibility. Their spokesman, Lord Speaker John McFall, warned that the Prime Minister’s latest plans to bring more of his former allies into it risked undermining “public confidence in our parliamentary system”. He wrote to both Conservative leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, pleading with them to break off Johnson’s cronyism.

It has been widely reported that the House of Lords Nominating Commission (HOLAC), the body responsible for verifying peerages, is withholding Johnson’s latest list. But where the interim prime minister has a will, he has a means.

Johnson has already bulldozed other controversial peerage nominations, such as that of Tory donor Peter Cruddas, who has been embroiled in cash-for-access allegations as the party’s co-treasurer. HOLAC unanimously recommended that the Prime Minister rescind his appointment. Cruddas donated £500,000 to the party days after his elevation to the Lords and recently campaigned to put Johnson on the Conservative members’ ballot for leader.

As outgoing prime minister, Johnson also has the right to propose a resignation honors list. These have been notorious since Harold Wilson’s 1976 “lavender list” of business personality nominations, allegedly written on the lavender stationery of his adviser, Marcia Williams. She became a Lady, of course. One member of the list committed suicide while being investigated for fraud and another was imprisoned for fake accounts. Although he was a four-time election winner, Wilson’s reputation never recovered.

Johnson, always a cavalier with the rules, probably feels he has no reputation to lose after his ousting following the Partygate scandals. We can therefore expect him to ignore all the red lights of the establishment.

But there is more at stake for his Tory successor. The last long period of Tory rule ended with a slew of sordid allegations that paved the way for Labor’s return to power in 1997. The Opposition is eagerly waiting to pillory Johnson until the next general election in two years and will seek to pin his misdeeds on his successor. History does not have to repeat itself.

Labor has toyed with a number of reform proposals from the Lords – from outright abolition to the creation of a ‘house of nations and regions’ that could cement the fractured union of the England with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gordon Brown, the honest Scottish successor to Blair, is an ardent defender of this federal solution. So did Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury, a venerable member of the Conservative aristocracy, descendant of prime ministers and former party leader in the House. This will probably be the way to go – one day.

But solve one problem and you often create another, which is that the elected member of the House of Commons is jealous of any proposal that might create a rival. Such constitutional tinkering is complicated and time-consuming anyway — it is often abandoned. So much so that constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, himself a Lord, calls the House reform “the Bermuda Triangle of British politics”.

Johnson’s successor – be it Truss or the less likely Sunak – will have limited time to make a difference in this parliament. They should show reformers a sign of good intentions. Phased reform plans to reduce the size of the House to a more manageable 600 members by introducing a mandatory retirement age could be tailored to simply restrict members’ terms. If the Lords have only served seven years, or even 10, the presence of cronies and donors in the mix might be less offensive – or at least they’ll produce quicker.

A moratorium on all new appointments would be even better. Because what is the alternative? The Constitution Unit think tank estimates “that without scrutiny of nominations, the size of the chamber could reach 2,000 or more”.

Both candidates vying for Johnson’s crown have pledged to shrink the size of the state. Here’s a modest proposition: where better to start than with the House of Lords, the home of institutionalized foolishness? The outgoing prime minister’s honors list will no doubt make the case for reform even clearer than it already should be.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion