ANDREW NEIL: £3million for a gong? Now we must scrap the ‘useless and dangerous’ House of Lords
Selling peerages has been illegal since 1925, when the Honours (Prevention Of Abuses) Act was introduced in response to David Lloyd George’s flogging of hereditary titles for £50,000 apiece.
For anybody who thinks it still doesn’t happen, I have a bridge to sell you. The current price is about £3 million.
We know this because a newspaper investigation last week revealed that 15 of the past 16 Conservative treasurers — all of whom donated £3 million or more to the party’s coffers — were offered seats in the House of Lords.
Of course, you can never prove somebody has bought their place on the red benches.
Andrew Neil: Selling peerages has been illegal since 1925, when the Honours (Prevention Of Abuses) Act was introduced in response to David Lloyd George’s flogging of hereditary titles for £50,000 apiece
In that very British way of corruption, there are no written agreements, no receipts, no invoices, not even a handshake. Just a nod and a wink that all will be well.
There’s no point in calling for the Old Bill to investigate, unless your sole aim is to generate virtue-signalling headlines for yourself, in which case you should be done for wasting police time.
Precisely one person has been convicted under the Act and that was Lloyd George’s ‘honours broker’ Maundy Gregory — 88 years ago.
So it goes on. And looks like going on for the foreseeable future. Which is why we should just wipe the Lords from the face of our constitution.
It has been allowed to degrade our democracy for too long, a symbol of institutional corruption at the heart of our constitution, bloated with ministerial has-beens, placemen and women, undeserving beneficiaries of political patronage and lobby fodder — an expensive and posh care home for politicians and other public figures long past their sell-by date.
And, even though they have the power to legislate over our lives, not one of them has been chosen by you or me.
It is remarkable — shaming, indeed, for a country which pioneered modern democracy — that we have allowed this antediluvian relic to survive into the 21st century.
Some will say abolition would be precipitate, surely reform is the answer. But we’ve been trying to reform the House of Lord Lords for over 100 years, usually without much success, sometimes, in fact, making things worse.
Let’s just abolish it. Don’t try to drag it into the democratic age. Just get rid of it. Back in 1911 the then Liberal government cut its powers because it was standing in the way of a much-needed ‘People’s Budget’, which it had been elected, twice, to deliver. But while the Lords lost its power of veto over Commons legislation, it remained intact as a wholly hereditary body for another half century.
Then in the late 1950s, a Tory government introduced the concept of ‘life peers’ — people appointed to sit in the Lords with titles that were not hereditary. This was regarded as progressive but, in practice, merely increased a prime minister’s power of patronage to reward friends and remove enemies from the Commons.
And, of course, the hereditary lords, largely composed of the British aristocracy, still had their guaranteed places on the red benches.
That’s the way it stayed for another 40 years. There were efforts at further reform but there was never a clear consensus on what it should be. Reformers were always defeated by parliamentary wrangling, legislative gridlock and political ambush.
Nothing much changed until Tony Blair used his 1997 landslide majority finally to get rid of the hereditary peers in 1999. It was a botched job.
True, the 750 hereditary lords lost their privileged position at the heart of our constitution. But Blair and his advisers were cowed into allowing 92 hereditary places to remain, to be chosen from an electorate made up entirely of hereditary peers.
The lucky 92 are all white, all male, all aristocratic. Over half went to the same school (no, not my alma mater Paisley Grammar, Eton).
You don’t need to be a woke warrior to believe this to be a scandal in the modern age. Not that life peers are much more representative of contemporary Britain. The whole place perpetuates our class system. Products of public schools and Oxbridge — and white males — still predominate.
It is the unaccountable House of Remainers in a country that voted for Brexit. When you look at the Lords you see a snapshot of Britain’s past not its future. The Lords has become a dumping ground for politicians who should have retired from public life years ago.
Alone among political elites in the world, the British political elite knows that, even when the elected bit of their career is over — and no matter how much of a hash they made of things when in power — a nice little sinecure awaits them for the rest of their lives on the banks of the Thames.
I knew one peer who was diligent at turning up. He always arrived in time for his subsidised lunch, washed down with some fine claret, then took a nap in the library to sleep it off before heading to some other well-paid sinecure he’d clinched because he was a lord — but not before trousering the daily attendance allowance, now £323. Nice work if you can get it.
Party leaders who railed against an unelected Lords when in Opposition soon find it a convenient tool of patronage. Recent prime ministers have made so many new appointments that the Lords is now more than 800 strong, which makes it the second largest legislative assembly in the world, only outbloated by that other exemplar of democracy, the Chinese National People’s Congress.
Yet somehow the U.S. Senate, the most powerful legislative assembly in the world, manages with just 100, Germany’s Bundesrat (upper house) just 69 and even France’s Senate gets by with 348, which many across the Channel regard as excessive.
I don’t rule out a new second chamber, starting from scratch, elected by proportional representation, perhaps from constituencies based on our nations and regions.
Its electoral cycle would be different from the Commons — perhaps a third up for election every four years — it should have no more than 200 members and its limited powers clearly delineated.
And it should certainly not be called the House of Lords. In 21st-century Britain we should not be calling those who work for us ‘lords’.
So let’s just consign the upper house to the dustbin of history and see how we get on without it. We have too many politicians anyway and, at a stroke, we will have culled hundreds of them, saved money and reduced corruption in the process.
In 1649 the Commons voted to abolish the Lords because it was ‘useless and dangerous to the people of England’. Unfortunately, it was resurrected after the Civil War.
This time, let’s kill it off for good.
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