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Debasing the Lords

(Filed: 03/05/2004)

The appointment of 46 new life peers, half of them Labour, is a reminder of just what a hash Tony Blair has made of Lords reform. Though the new list includes a handful of people of real distinction who will adorn the second chamber, the wheat is greatly outnumbered by the chaff: superannuated politicians, party or trade union officials, donors and courtiers.

This dismal roll call of the New Labour establishment is not so much a militant tendency as a mediocre tendency. All prime ministers reward their aides, so it is no surprise to see the likes of Philip Gould, Mr Blair's focus groupie-in-chief, on the list. But the sheer scale at which the Lords is being packed with placemen is breathtaking. Lloyd George was never so brazen.

Such wholesale abuse of political patronage is undermining the revising chamber's reputation for independence. Not long ago, it was still a real honour for a former Governor of the Bank of England, say, to sit in the Lords, alongside other robust individualists, most of whom owed their presence, like him, to merit, or at least to the accident of birth, rather than to prime ministerial patronage. Now only a sense of patriotic duty could impel the genuinely great and good to accept a peerage, thereby joining the ranks of the political has-beens and never-wases. How the Upper House has come down in the world.

This Government's attitude to the Lords, far from destroying privilege, is in fact thoroughly reactionary. By altering the composition of the House to make it less representative of the country and less likely to obstruct or amend legislation, the "reform" is both anti-democratic and illiberal. Indeed, the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's hands, at the expense of the House of Commons, is now to be perpetuated by the installation of the Blairite praetorian guard in the other place.

If the Government has its way, the House of Lords is about to be weakened still further by the loss of its functions in the administration of justice. With the law lords banished to a new supreme court and the office of the Lord Chancellor abolished, the organic connection between the revising chamber of the legislature, the highest court of appeal and the apex of the judiciary will have been broken.

That expertise is irreplaceable, least of all by Mr Blair's entourage in the Labour Party, the bureaucracy and the quangocracy. A takeover bid for the Lords by the very people who have least respect for our delicately balanced unwritten constitution is not in the interests of the shareholders - the British people.