Opinion

My Sweet Lords

Boris Johnson’s appointment of Ian Botham to the House of Lords last week was wonderfully ludicrous. That’s no insult to Sir Ian: he saved England’s honour at the 1981 Ashes and is a campaigner against leukaemia; he is something of a national treasure. But anyone who has struggled through A Level politics should know the Lords is supposed to be an independent check on the Commons, not a retirement home for the Prime Minister’s boyhood idols. If the aspiration is for the Lords to be a place for expert eyes to dispassionately analyse legislation, shouldn’t Boris be appointing economics Professors, leading scientists, or legal specialists, rather than good old Beefy? That’s even before considering all the other personal friends, relatives, and political allies he also chosen to cloak in Ermine. Boris’ appointments should look like the final nail in the Lords’ coffin to its opponents. Surely it is absurd to try and justify such a bloated and undemocratic institution in this day and age if its appointments seem to rely so blatantly on cronyism and favouritism. 

Unfortunately for them, I’m absurd enough myself to think that the Lords, despite its flaws, is still a valuable part of our democracy. To be even more absurd, I even think the Prime Minister’s appointments go some way to highlighting that value. Sorry in advance, Lords reformers. 

It is easy to reel off a good set of arguments against the Lords. It is undemocratic – you get in either as one of the 90-odd remaining hereditary peers, or by appointment based on a recommendation. It is too big – with 792 members, it is the second largest legislative chamber in the world and the only upper chamber larger than the lower. For many of its members, it is a pension, not a pillar of our constitution: some do not even contribute, yet still collect their £300 daily allowance.  In 2016/2017, 115 members were found to have taken out £1.3 million despite not contributing a word in debates. 

Most profoundly, any idealised role of the Lords as independent and non-partisan chamber checking the Commons has long since been eroded by Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition using their appointments to reward supporters and party donors. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian, this has been going on a long time. Lloyd George sold peerages for £50,000 each, and of the 11 industrialists Mrs Thatcher appointed between 1979 and 1985, all were party donors. Blair and Cameron created 618 new peers between them – almost another House of Commons. Alongside financial motivations, there is  old-fashioned favouritism. Harold Wilson made both his secretary and the bloke who made his favourite raincoats peers in his resignation honours.

Bojo’s choices look no different. Alongside Beefy, there’s his former advisor Sir Edward Lister, his friend and Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, his brother Jo Johnson and fellow former Spectator editor Charles Moore. They are all clever, talented, and likeable men, but their appointments all come as favours from Downing Street. As useful as their potential contributions  might be, there’s something iffy in that.  Having spent their careers in journalism or politics, their expertise is also not overtly different to most MPs’. If the whole point of the Lords is to balance the Commons, what point is there in it being just as packed with politicos? 

But the Lords’ opponents see only half the picture. Yes, there are many duff Lords and Baronesses, and (as argued in this week’s Spectator) removing those 115 scroungers would be a welcome change. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. An elected House of Lords would be pointless, filled with the same partisanship as the Commons, like the American Senate. Doing away with it completely would remove the necessary breaks that it offers on poor legislation. The last government to scrap the House of Lords was Oliver Cromwell’s – not exactly a brilliant precedent if one wants to make Britain more democratic. 

Instead, we need reforms and appointments that highlight the chamber’s greatest asset: its ability to offer intelligent and diverse viewpoints free from party whips MPs are lobby fodder.  They’re usually party members seeking to climb the greasy pole and so often putting political ambitions before critical thinking when speaking or voting in Parliament. As the Lords are appointed for life, and a government majority isn’t required, members can vote according to their consciences rather than their career plans. A free House of Lords helps to make up for self-interested MPs in the Commons by rejecting or altering legislation passed in their haste to get their hands on ministerial red boxes. 

Although Boris is acting in the tradition of his predecessors by promoting some friends and supporters, his appointments also show a willingness to make the Lords an intellectual challenge to the Commons. By appointing former Conservative MPs such as Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond who opposed him over Brexit and former Labour MPs such as Kate Hoey and Ian Austin who broke with the Labour leadership over Brexit or Corbyn, he is providing a permanent platform for individuals who challenge the party line in the Commons. He has entrenched criticism – a healthy addition to any liberal democracy.

Boris also appointed Claire Fox. Most recently a Brexit Party MEP, she was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and argued IRA atrocities in Britain were justified. I find that abhorrent. So does Charles Moore, one of the IRA’s fiercest critics in journalism. But she is as entitled to argue for her views within the law as anyone else. I find it refreshing that the Prime Minister would appoint such obvious opponents  to the Lords in the interest of widening debate: perhaps a legacy of his time as Union President? 

It is not a moment too soon, either. Because the Lords’ biggest problem is not its size, nor its lack of democracy, nor an appointments system open to abuse. No, the Lords is at its worst when its members decide they know better than voters. The two Parliament Acts that curbed the Lords’ power were responses by governments to peers attempting to block legislation for which mandates had been achieved at elections. Although most of the Tory-voting hereditary Lords have been replaced by a more politically heterogeneous set of life peers since then, they still have the occasional problem with respecting democracy. Recent attempts to delay or reject legislation around our exit from the European Union is a case in point. Whilst the Lords ultimately acquiesced, the grand-standing of Lords Adonis, Mandelson and Heseltine (amongst others) showed that it was time the Lords was brought more in line with the views of the public. The best way of doing this whilst retaining the virtues of an unelected revising chamber was for the PM to appoint some more Brexiteers. These new peers are therefore a welcome step in the right direction. 

So, the appointment of the resolutely pro-Leave Sir Ian is less bizarre than it seems. I’m sure he’ll prove as much a success in justifying keeping  the Lords as he was on the cricket pitch.

*As a disclaimer, I once shared some chips with Moore and showed Johnson’s son around my school. Not at the same time though.