Journalism - Arena
Big up the Lords
Brains, debate and one-liners: Why the House of Lords should live forever
Is it any wonder that politicians are up there with traffic wardens and estate agents as the most despised people of the modern age? When the Commons was televised, you could hear the screams across the nation as the spectacle of windbags bickering, bitching and making a nuisance of themselves while pretending to run the country was beamed into unsuspecting households.
Early one morning though, as the green tinge and bellowing of Parliament Today faded on BBC2 it was replaced by a less familiar red and - hallelujah! - a revelation. Argument turned into debate, guffawing into killer one-liners and bullshit into reasoned analysis. Welcome to the House of Lords.
Take the intelligence of late-night review shows without the pretension, mix with sharp British humour, add some of the finest natural performers in the country and you've got yourself a hit show. If highlights of the House of Lords were shown in the evening, it would knock EastEnders off the top spot. The repartee alone is worth the licence fee.
But the Lords excels at more than just entertainment. It is not only superior to the Commons as a decision-making body, it is also wittier, more diverse, better upholstered and fundamentally more rock 'n' roll. Considering members stand to gain nothing personally from contributing, don't receive a wage, have no dealings with taxes and have no power to stop legislation (they can only suggest alterations), you can't help but think something is going right.
Sadly though, the House of Lords has a terrible public image - out of touch, frequented by the rich and privileged and resting as a remnant of an outmoded system. Members of the Lords are attacked because they're not elected to office, they're too old (Lord Denning, 98) or too young (the Earl of Craven, 8. Well, OK, he's not allowed to sit until he's 21, but you get the idea), they hinder the passing of bills, they take too long debating matters, they know nothing of modem life, they can't be trusted to vote the right way, they speak their mind, they won't be threatened. How can Tony Blair ever be expected to run a presidential autocracy with people like that in power?
The simple fact is, through all the ups and downs of British politics, the Lords has remained resolute in its stubbornness - humouring or just plain ignoring the machinations of "the other place'. It has provided consistency against a background of egomaniacs and has done so with relish. Margaret Thatcher hated it, of course. Tony Blair's not too keen either. Why, Tony asks, should this country continue to have its laws passed by an upper chamber - a majority of whose members are there by birth not merit, perhaps because 390 years ago their ancestor was the mistress of a monarch? Possibly because its members act as an independent government watchdog. Possibly because members vote (God forbid) with their consciences. Possibly because it refuses to be fobbed off with non-answers. Possibly because it's the antidote to all modem politics has become. Possibly because its members know that, in five years' time, they'll be sat in the same seats while those in the other House could be scrambling around for corporate directorships.
Don't think the Lords is priggish either. You have to applaud when someone - in this case Viscount Caldecote - fails to enter any chairman's posts or directorships in the list of Members' Interests for one of the most powerful institutions in the country, plumping instead for "interested in ship design and building' and "interested in engineering affairs'. And for those who would like to see anyone but lawyers and accountants in positions of power, look no further than "professional artist' Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, "sculptor" Lord Freyburg and "social worker' Baroness Ryder of Warsaw.
Ironically, the argument that the Lords should be representative of the people remains its greatest anchor. Replacing hereditary peers (who make up 757 of the 1,198 in the House) with chosen or elected members will inevitably introduce yet more career-driven, power- crazy, two-faced deviants into politics. Hereditary peers will be replaced by government-selected sympathisers. And we can all look forward to rich and influential figures, long discredited in the public's eyes, gaining life admission to the upper chamber. The question is: Who will we end up with in ten years' time? Chris Evans? Posh Spice? In the meantime, I say hats off to the boys and girls in red and long may they antagonise. Hear, hear.
Lordy lordy in the house
Lord Renton of Mount Harry