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The Lords and the people

10 August 2012

IT IS possible to sympathise with the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, over his failure during this Parliament to win the reform of the House of Lords, in which he had invested so much of his reputation. It is impossible to be taken by surprise. The various ships Lords Reform, launched from time to time with talk about the scandal of the British constitution's including such a conspicuous anachronism, have a tendency to founder. The underlying reason for this failure is, we suggest, a lack of popular interest in the subject. Even in the constitutional crisis of a century ago, Lords reform was a secondary consequence, not the goal of a popular revolt. In the current economic situation, the Upper House hardly looks to most people like a social evil worthy of the Government's prolonged attention. Indeed, the Lords' ability to scrutinise legislation's social consequences has been notable - even, for example, over the relaxation of Sunday-trading hours for the Olympics Games.

Now that the hereditary peerage is reduced, the House of Lords functions well enough in comparison with the Commons to make changing it even more difficult. The main body of the Conservative Party, by historical standards, has adopted radical ideas in recent decades, but when it comes to the Crown, the Union, or the Second Chamber (and the three are related), it tends always to be conservative with a small "c". There is also a well-known intrinsic difficulty once one accepts the advisability of a Second Chamber in Parliament at all. If the Lords are too weak, they are useless; if too strong, because of enjoying the mandate of popular election, they become a rival to the fully elected Commons.

Over the matter of the Bench of Bishops, the Church of England has come out of this as fairly conservative, too. The voices that have prevailed have been those that sought to preserve the Bishops' place in the legislature; and historical arguments were prominent, besides those that claimed a more broadly representative character for the episcopate, as understood in a distinctively British Anglican way, in a multifaith society. Nevertheless, this case did not go unchallenged, and the Bryant amendments seeking to remove the Bishops, which have been warmly backed by secularist campaigners, have found some support. Despite shrillness in certain quarters, it seems unlikely that the place of the episcopate in the Lords was at real risk of being unfairly decided by pique over decisions about the draft women-bishops Measure made in the General Synod's House of Bishops (a larger body, of course, than the parliamentary Bench, even at its current strength). Questions about marriage and discrimination remain ones, however, on which the Bishops in the Lords will need to show the country that they are listening to all sides of the argument, if hostility to their historic constitutional rights is not to grow. But, for the time being, the debate is set aside. 

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