Sometimes in politics – and in life – you change your mind about things. When you look into something, maybe you find out it’s not as bad as you always thought. Or there’s some reason or justification for it. In consequence, maybe you temper your opinion. Sometimes.
But with the House of Lords, the opposite is the case. It is a phenomenon which becomes worse with examination. Most people reading this, indeed any democrat, will instinctively feel there’s something off with people you did not elect – and cannot remove – making the laws by which all of us live. But the more you find out about this institution, the worse it gets.
At the start of the year I published a report on Scottish members of the House of Lords. Across the UK, the Lords are an unrepresentative bunch. But when it comes to Scotland, this argument is turbo-charged.
Lords don’t have a constituency of course, so it’s not an exact science to say who is a “Scottish” lord. We looked at those members of the Lords with a Scottish connection, either because they themselves have spent most of their active life in Scotland or have a Scottish title. The numbers have changed a little bit, but at the time of the research there were 87 Lords whom it would be reasonable to describe as Scottish members of that institution. About one in nine.
This bunch of people bear little resemblance to the Scottish population. Only 14% are women. 70% are aged over 65. Only one Scottish peer is aged under 45. Only one Scottish peer is from a BAME background.
We can get an idea of their social class by looking at peers’ educational background. Almost three in five went to a private school, compared to just 5% of the general population. 14% of them went to just one private school, Eton College.
57% of the House of Lords members were privately educated.
Not only is this grossly unrepresentative – new research shows this is actually going up.
— openDemocracy (@openDemocracy) July 8, 2019
But even more staggering is a breakdown of their political views. The SNP refuse to nominate people to be members of the House of Lords – a principled position which the party has held since its inception. So, it is unsurprising that none of their lordships regard themselves as an SNP supporter.
But people are put into the Lords in a variety of ways, not just party-political nominees. Individuals who have had success in business, arts, sport and academia are ennobled too. So, where do they stand on the biggest issue of all – the constitution by which our country is governed.
45% of the Scottish population voted for independence in 2014. A majority support it now. So, it is surprising that not a single Scottish peer supports political independence for Scotland. You would have thought that if they are drawn from across society, one or two Yessers might have slipped through.
But the main argument against the House of Lords is not that it is unrepresentative. It clearly is – with knobs on. But even if its members were appointed in a way that reflects the gender, age, race and political views of the population, it would still be an affront to democrats.
Democracy demands that people can elect their rulers. None of us will ever get the chance to elect members of the House of Lords. They are appointed for life and no matter how objectionable they might be we can’t remove them.
— Mirror Politics (@MirrorPolitics) September 14, 2020
This matters. The House of Lords is a fundamental part of the British parliament by which we are ruled in Scotland. There are over 800 members of the upper house. That means a clear majority of members of the Westminster parliament are not elected, or accountable, to anyone. That should be a source of shame and it undermines the UK when it talks about abuses of governments in other parts of the world.
As if that weren’t bad enough, 26 bishops appointed by the Church of England are members of the House of Lords, making the UK the only country apart from Iran to have clerics in government as a right. This is simply an outrage. An insult to every other religion and against centuries of progressive development to separate church and state.
The House of Lords is a cosy club, the executive committee of the British establishment. People get there through political favours and patronage. They are paid for life by the taxpayer for just turning up. Some of them are very nice people. They mean well. They think of themselves as liberal and progressive. Quite a few probably went there intending to change it and got lost along the way. This is not an argument about individuals but about institutions.
Now, it is claimed that the Lords – even a reformed one – plays a vital function in curbing the excesses of the government of the day. But how can it be acceptable that an unelected body can hold up, frustrate or change the decisions of an elected one? It can’t.
He was booted out at the ballot box by the electorate, but he’s given a lifetime of power and privilege through the backdoor.
Westminster isn’t working, and the undemocratic House of Lords is just one example. https://t.co/pg4l9WQkZ7
— Olaf Stando (@olafdoesstuff) October 19, 2020
These arguments only have resonance because the House of Commons itself is for the most part unrepresentative of the views of the electorate. Majority governments can be elected under the corrupt first-past-the-post system with just over 40% of the vote.
Some people think that having a revising chamber is a way of making up for the fact that governments are often out of touch with public opinion. A better way would be to tackle the problem at source and have a fair voting system which created parliaments reflecting the balance of opinions amongst the electorate.
The House of Lords exemplifies the archaic and undemocratic nature of the British state. It could be reformed – and whilst we are part of the UK, we will not stand in the way of change – although the pace is glacial.
But a better answer is to set up a new country and do it better. If we win our political independence, we will have the power to change every aspect of how our lives are ruled. To create our own institutions based on democracy, transparency and accountability.
That will be our challenge in the early years of our new country – to draw up a modern popular constitution which inspires and represents our citizens. And in doing that, we can use the House of Lords as a template for what to avoid.