Over at Libertarian.co.uk, Sean Gabb provides a rather weak attempt to defend the hereditary right of the Lords. There is a strange, almost unnerving hypocrisy in a site that proudly waves the flag of Libertarianism, yet supports the deeply tyrannical premise of a deliberative chamber based solely on inheritance. One argument for instance, is that the oldest hereditary peerage dates back to 1264, and that an attack on hereditary peerages is an attack on our heritage and tradition. Gabb says:
The oldest Peerage now represented there is the Barony of De Ros, dating from 1264. The most senior is the Dukedom of Norfolk, created in 1483. There are titles in the Lords that carry the mind back to times long before the modern age—to the time before America was discovered, before printing and gunpowder, when English was a collection of barbarous dialects, and when Europe was still in the shadow of the seemingly greater civilisations of the East.
To lay hands so violently on the ancient Constitution is to attack the national identity of the English. It is to snap one more of the precious threads of continuity that bind us to our past.
I would disagree with this premise. The ghost of 13th Century England is certainly one to be feared. Rash decisions based on the need to end a costly and vicious civil war was the main reason behind the creation of certain Peerages. Firstly, the first Baron of De Ros, Robert De Ros, whom we might credit for fighting against King Henry III, only took up arms to extend his own power, pushing his languorous son toward the thrown of Scotland through his rather flimsy claim to that particular thrown due to his great grandad marrying the bastard daughter of Scotland’s William I. De Ros was only interested in more power. He may have fought against the King when the rebels had the stronger hand, but he had also fought for the King of Scotland against a similar rebellion years earlier, because it benefited him to do so. Right here in Leicester at that time, Simon De Montfort raised a force against the King – which included De Ros – forced Henry III to sign the Provision of Oxford, creating a council of Barons and appointments by the King, and De Montfort called the first ever fully elected Parliament a few years later. The war of the Barons in the 13th Century was an attack on hereditary rights, and De Monfort is considered a father of Parliamentary democracy. In fact, after De Montfort was killed in battle, a year after pretty much taking power, the Dictum of Kenilworth reinstated the power of the King, the apparent “divine right” that would persist for centuries, giving us a cruel Monarchical tradition resulting 200 years later in a century long battle for supremacy between the nobles and the crown during the Wars of the Roses. Not to mention the apparent “divine right” which gave Henry VIII the freedom to spend 30 years executing everyone who he didn’t care to see living. Or the five year reign of hell forced by Mary during which time anyone who owned a Bible written in English could be burnt to death. The creation of a peerage in 1264, to signal the regained power of a disturbingly bloody history of Monarchical power, is not something we should be proud of. The point of Simon V De Montfort’s attack on the power structure of the day, was progression. Society and political institutions progress. Tradition is not a valid argument. Surely if Libertarian.co.uk were to invoke the 13th Century as a key moment in English political tradition, he would be calling for greater democracy, not defending the right of hereditary peers to sit in the Lords, when the exact opposite was the sentiment and legacy of the 13th Century he so fleetingly calls upon to defend his magnificently weak argument.
Incidentally, the current Lord of De Ros (one of the few remaining hereditary peers), is Peter Maxwell, who continues to insist that his children’s names (including the horrifically named “Finbar Maxwell“) be prefixed with “The Honourable“. Wouldn’t that be a bit of a slap in the face of English Parliamentary tradition, and Libertarian thought in particular, to have to refer to a child as “The Honourable“, based solely on inheritance?
My argument here, is that the Lords should be neither hereditary, nor fully elected.
Before the Medici family had climbed to the heights that they managed to during the 16th and 17th century’s, they lived rich, yet subtle lives. They didn’t much care for public life and kept pretty inconspicuous in a city whose wealthy thrived on extravagance. Giovanni de Medici, the father of Cosimo, was a part of the Arte Della Lana wool merchants guild, who had much power, but he himself didn’t wish to come across as almost ruling the city. The government of Florence was interesting. It was known as a Republic, but it was far from democratic, or Republican in our sense of the word (but we must not look at the Republican of Florence through 21st Century specs, given that we have had the wisdom of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine to inspire modern Republican thought).
The Florentine Government was known as the Signoria. The Signoria was made up of a group of men collectively known as the Priori. To be elected as member of the Priori, you must be a member of a guild (There were 7 major guilds and 14 minor guilds), you must be over 30, you mustn’t be in debt, and you mustn’t be related to someone who has just been elected to the Priori. If you fit this criteria, your name was placed in one of eight leather bags called a “borse“. The borse was kept in a sacristy, in the Church of Santa Croce, in the Piazza di Santa Croce, just east of the Duomo. If your name was pulled from the hat, you joined the Priori for two months, after which the whole process began again. The placements were set to house two members of the Priori from the minor guilds, and six from the major. The ninth and final member was known as the Gonfaloniere; the standard bearer of the Republic. The Signoria also consisted of two councils who were to be consulted on matters relating to foreign policy; the Dodici Buonomini and the Sedici Confalonieri. Other councils were called for advice at specific times, like war. The Priori, once elected, were required to take up residence at the Palazzo della Signoria, in the centre of Florence. There they remained for two months.
It is fair to say, the government of Florence was run by a very narrow wealthy elite.
The 21st Century House of Commons is much the same. The Tory/Lib Dem cabinet is worth £60mn between them, whilst they insist that their governing ideal is one based on fairness. Out of 29 Cabinet ministers, 23 have assets worth over £1mn, and not all of it was “fairly” achieved. The Chancellor George Osborne is set to make £2mn from his father’s wallpaper company, of which Osborne has no input over, and has never worked for. He is a modern day Lord; forcing a heavy George Osborne Tax on the workers of the wallpaper company. The people who make the money, don’t see the money, because it goes into the pocket of a man who already owns a £2mn house. The Cameron family set to inherit a combined wealth of £30mn. That is the House of Commons. England’s Medici. Yet they seem to think they are the beacon of democracy. An especially odd sort of democracy, that must be spread to the evil, anti-democratic House of Lords as a matter of urgency. The truth is, the House of Lords is necessary. An elected upper chamber is unnecessary, and simply plays to the idealised version of democratic principles we so naively believe in. A set of principles so corrupt and useless, calling it democratic is an insult to democratic principles.
I do not want an elected House of Lords. Whenever a political party claim to be reforming a system for the interests of the people, one must be skeptical. Take the mention of “patient choice” with NHS reforms. On the one hand the Tories are indirectly criticising GPs by insisting that most disability allowance claimants do not deserve the benefit, and on the other hand, insisting the GPs are best people to do a job which apparently requires far more involvement of the private sector, with plans put forward by a Health secretary whose private office is largely funded by private health insurers. When it is claimed to be “for the people” then it isn’t for the people.
In November 2010, John Nash, the head of private health provider – Care UK – donated £21,000 to the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley’s personal office. Of all the ministers, or even MPs that Nash could have possibly donated a massive sum of money to, he chose the guy in control of the health policy in the UK. There is obviously a reason for this. It is unlikely that Nash just donated such a vast sum out of the goodness of his heart. Do we really want another chamber funded by people like Nash? Is an elected 2nd chamber really empowered to work in the interests of the people, rather than a very narrow wealthy few?
The late Lord Onslow was one of the few remaining Hereditary peers sitting in the Lords after the 1999 House of Lords Act. Hereditary peerages are an awful, archaic idea and owe less to merit than does a fully elected chamber, which is saying something. During the Queen’s speech in 1998, in which she outlined Labour’s plan to reform the Lords and bin Hereditary peerages, the Tory Lords screamed out “Shame!” at the Labour front bench, as if they had an absolute, Hobbesian right to their peerage. Labour were right to abolish Hereditary peerages, yet the late Tory Lord Onslow insisted that he’d disrupt the legislative agenda of the Blair government entirely, if he continued with his abolishment of Hereditary peers. Lord Onslow clearly believed in the ancient principle of the divine right of Kings. A dangerous, discredited, and utterly absurd basis for power.
Since Labour’s reforms, the House of Lords is no longer based purely on hereditary acquisition, but far more on merit. Merit is not a bad thing to be appointed to the Lords for. I personally want my politicians to be experts in at least one field, rather than relying on a Minister working at Health, and then being moved to Transport, and finally onto education, in a time period of two Parliaments, without knowing anything about the plethora of Whitehall departments they’ve spent less than a week at each. If we take for example, David Blunkett, not only was he an MP or Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, dealing with constituency issues constantly, he was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Two completely unrelated fields thrown awkwardly into one small department, overseen by a single Minister. Five years later he was crowned Home Secretary; a job distinctively different from his previous post at Education and Employment. Less than four years later, he ends up as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Does he have any qualification for Education? Employment? Policing? Pensions?……… he has a BA in Political Theory and Institutions, just before becoming a Clerks Typist. By contrast, Lord Winston has a degree in Medicine and Surgery, is an expert in fertility, developed a technique known as sterilisation reversal for those wanting to reverse a vasectomy/hysterectomy, was the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science set up one of the Countries top IVF facilities, and primarily spends his time in the Lords arguing on legislation surrounding fertility and medicine. Do I want Lord Winston replaced in the Lords with another David Blunkett? No. I want to see a House of Lords filled with experts, chosen on merit, not on how much money their campaign can raise.
Democracy is massively overrated.