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Giles Fraser: A Primatial problem in Parliament

IN a recent ICM poll, 74 per cent of the respondents said that they do not want bishops in the House of Lords. Seventy per cent of the Christian respondents agree. Apparently, the writing is on the wall. And yet, as is often the case when it comes to reform of the House of Lords, nothing is quite what it seems.

For years, the reform of the House of Lords has been a constitutional fixation for democratically minded campaigners. How can it be right that we, a proudly democratic country, are governed by a non-elected body? How can it be right that, in a diverse and multicultural society, we give a legislative place to bishops ex officio?

Of course, the issue may be significant for the Church, but it is a sideshow to the main event. Bishops constitute just four per cent of the Upper House. Yet, precisely because they are so few, they represent easy pickings for secular campaigners. Removing these bishops does not oblige those who are suggesting change to offer a constitutional alternative. This is attractive to cam­paigners because, frankly, there has never been a sensible and popular alternative.

The logic of those who argue against bishops in the House of Lords is fundamentally an argument from democracy: we ought to have an elected second chamber. This is the real issue here, and this is the problem.

It is the House of Commons that must be sovereign. To set up an elected Upper House would enable the House of Lords — or whatever we might come to call it — to claim democratic legitimacy. The conse­quences of this would be to blur the democratic lines of accountability, and to raise the prospect of two chambers of Parliament both claim­ing a democratic mandate. This would lead to either chaos or inertia, and both houses blocking each other. We do not want to get into a position where, like our American cousins, we cannot even pass basic heath-care reform legislation. Do 74 per cent of us really want this? I doubt it.

Those who want to drive any sort of religion out of the public square are going to make much of this new poll. So it must be remembered that some of the fiercest advocates of the retention of bishops in the House of Lords are members of other faiths, who regard it as a crucial part of the Church of England’s function that it should hold the ring for all other faith communities.

At its best, the House of Lords supplies a very different sort of wis­dom to the constitutional pot, albeit in an odd sort of way that one could never invent again from scratch. To swap all this for more party poli­ticians is not going to get my vote.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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