Analysis | Britain’s House of Lords Is a National Embarrassment


The biggest political assembly in the world outside of China’s National People’s Congress is Britain’s House of Lords. It is, alas, a national embarrassment in keeping with its size.

With good reason, the chamber is derided as “The House of Cronies.” The 800-strong upper house of the UK Parliament approaches its Beijing equivalent in democratic deficit, being largely appointed at the whim of the prime minister of the day, on increasingly murky criteria. According to the latest opinion polls, more than 70% of voters want it reformed. 

The chamber is stuffed with party donors. Last year, The Sunday Times revealed that £3 million ($3.6 million) in donations often guarantees membership to the crony club. A century ago, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was forced out of office partly for selling peerages and honours. Some of his cronies were prosecuted. Yet earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police declined to investigate whether Boris Johnson’s own appointments to the Lords had been bought. Before he leaves office, Johnson has two more honours lists to gift, causing a scandal even before the names are officially gazetted.

Why does this state of affairs persist? The upper chamber, a relic of the hereditary system that still contains 92 aristocrats or “peers of the realm,” is held in such low esteem that the last five prime ministers have refused to become members, as once was traditional. That’s a commentary on their appointments.

Johnson has shown no intention of becoming a member of the Lords either, although he intends to flood it with more cronies of his own, having already appointed 86 members in his three-year term — twice the number of his predecessor who served for a similar term. In 2006, Johnson condemned abuse of the appointments system as “putrefaction … a quintessentially British crime.” But Labour’s Tony Blair was prime minister then. By 2010, it was the Tories’ turn to take advantage.

It’s true that there are many worthy people in the upper chamber who bring professional expertise to public debate and have a strong sense of civic responsibility. Their spokesman, Lord Speaker John McFall, has warned that the prime minister’s latest plans to pack more of his old allies into it risk undermining “public confidence in our parliamentary system.” He has written to the two Conservative leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, begging them to make a break with Johnson’s cronyism.

It has been widely reported that the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC), the body responsible for vetting peerages, is holding up Johnson’s latest list. But where the caretaker prime minister has a will, he has a way. 

Johnson has bulldozed through other controversial peerage appointments before, like that of the Tory donor Peter Cruddas, who was embroiled in cash-for-access allegations as party co-Treasurer. HOLAC unanimously recommended that the prime minister rescind his nomination. Cruddas gave £500,000 to the party days after his elevation to the Lords and has recently been campaigning to place Johnson on the Tory members’ ballot for leader.

As a departing prime minister, Johnson has the right to propose a resignation honours list too. These have been notorious ever since Harold Wilson’s 1976 “lavender list” of nominations of business figures, allegedly written on the lavender notepaper of his adviser, Marcia Williams. She became a Lady, of course. One member on the list committed suicide while under investigation for fraud and another was imprisoned for false accounting. Although he was a four-time election winner, Wilson’s reputation never recovered. 

Johnson, always cavalier with the rules, probably feels he has no reputation to lose after his ouster following the Partygate scandals. We can therefore expect him to ignore all the establishment’s red-light signals. 

But there is more at stake for his Conservative successor. The last long period of Tory dominance ended in a welter of sleaze allegations that paved the way for Labour’s return to power in 1997. The opposition is looking forward to pillorying Johnson all the way to the next general election in two years time and will seek to pin his misdeeds on his successor. History need not repeat itself.

The Labour party has toyed with a number of proposals for Lords reform — beginning with outright abolition to the creation of “a chamber of the nations and regions” that might cement England’s fractured union with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gordon Brown, Blair’s upright Scottish successor, is a strong advocate of this federal solution. As is Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury, a venerable member of the Tory aristocracy, a descendant of prime ministers and a former party leader in the House. This will probably be the way ahead — one day.

But solve one problem and you often create another, namely that the elected House of Commons is jealous of any proposal that could create a rival. Such constitutional tinkering is in any case complicated and time-consuming — it is often abandoned. So much so that the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, himself a Lord, dubs reform of the House: “The Bermuda Triangle of British politics.” 

Johnson’s successor — be it Truss or the less likely Sunak — will have a limited time to make a difference in this parliament. They should show the reformers a sign of good intent. Plans for incremental reform to reduce the size of the House to a more manageable 600 members by introducing a compulsory retirement age could be adapted to simply restrict the terms of members. If Lords served a mere seven years, or even 10, then the presence of cronies and donors in the mix might be less offensive — or at least they’ll churn out faster.

A moratorium on all new appointments would be better still. For what’s the alternative? The Constitution Unit think tank estimates “that without control of appointments, the size of the chamber could reach 2,000 or more.”

Both candidates vying for Johnson’s crown are pledged to cut the size of the state. Here’s a modest proposal: Where better to start than with the House of Lords, the home of institutionalized sleaze? The departing prime minister’s honours list will doubtless make the case for reform even more plain that it already should be.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

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