The English House of Lords is now a laughing stock

Keith Hudson

The Dissolution Honours List announced today, by which new Lords are appointed is a useful indication of the respective real political power of the prime minister versus the senior ranks of the civil service.  The latter have — again — won hands down.

(For non-UK readers I’ll explain that we have Honours Lists twice a year each containing about 1500 names of members of the public who are granted minor honours — letters they can put after their names and which enhances their social reputation somewhat. These Lists also contain a few very high honours and also a few who become Lords [Barons and Baronesses] and can sit in the House of Lords.  The Dissolution Honours List is for the latter only and the names are chosen by the prime minister of the previous government — that is before the General Election.  As it happens, the present prime minister, David Cameron, was also the prime minister then.)

Only a few weeks ago, David Cameron was agreeing in public for the third or fourth time with the general mood of the country for many years past — but particularly that of the more intelligent 15% over-class — that the House of Lords is so swollen in numbers (now well over 650) and with so many trivial people among them that it has now become a farce.

What used to be a Second Chamber of the legislature intended to moderate any hasty or foolish laws proposed by the House of Commons is now an accumulation of many friends, financial donors, useful business contacts and sycophants of past and present prime ministers — albeit vetted for suitability by a top level committee of the civil service.  The ordinary Honours Lists, however, usually appoint new Barons and Baronesses who have excelled in public service or in their profession or vocation in the sciences, arts, entertainments and sports and fully deserve the honour.

Thus the House of Lords is a mixture of excellent individuals — maybe about 100-200 of them) — plus past prime ministers’ ‘friends’ — maybe about 300 to 450 of them — plus 92 of those who have inherited their peerage by ancient rights.  About half of the second category can only be described as trivial in ability and experience. and also almost all of the third category.  There are also a dozen Bishops of the Church of England, there by ancient rights.  On any one day only about 100 Lords sign the entrance register and receive their £100 expenses even if they only stay there for 10 minutes.  The House of Lords seldom meets in full except for very occasional controversial political matters and also on occasions of ceremonial pomp when they’re all dressed up in ermine and other sumptuary refinements — much elaborated in Victorian times — as were most of the ridiculous ceremonials that go on in Westminster — and which must now cost at least £10,000 each.

Collectively, the House of Lords is now becoming a laughing stock, so why did David Cameron appoint 45 new ones in the present Dissolution List?  (Of the 45, most objectives observers would say that only half-a-dozen or so of these are really the sort of outstanding people they would want to see in the House of Lords.)  More to the point, why did the civil service give permission for these 45?  (One of the present appointees was previously turned down three times by the civil service.)

The answer is that the civil service is not a totally independent source of power.  Because of history, it also has to pay attention to the government’s wishes (as well as keeping its eye on the always-potentially dangerous public mood) even though it is manipulating politicians most of the time.

Why hasn’t the House of Lords been reduced to about 200 or 250 people — the sort of figure that everybody is generally suggesting?  The answer is that the civil service hasn’t yet figured out a way of doing it in a way that the political-arm of the government can justify to the public — and also without offending the present House of Lords — some of whom are in the 15% over-class themselves and more than usually appreciate being a Peer in order to augment their business or other career interests.  When the civil service has made up its mind and advised the government accordingly how to achieve it then we might begin to see some reform.  But the politicians themselves have no hope of bringing off reform.  They just haven’t the political power to do so.

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