Missing the point

We seem to be going through a phase where people write to The Times detailing their pet schemes for the composition of the House of Lords.   We are told that members should be appointed on the basis of nomination by professional bodies, or that some should be elected by this body or for that length of term, and so on. 

There are two problems with the correspondence. 

First, some of the correspondents seem unaware of the existing composition of the House and propose schemes that would produce basically the existing House, but without the flexibility and recognition of appointment on individual merit. 

Secondly, and more pervasively, the correspondents ignore the essential starting point.  Anybody can come up with ideas for how the House should be composed – it doesn’t exactly require much use of the grey cells.  What is crucial is to start from first principles.  That is, to determine what we expect of Parliament in our political system and therefore the role and relationship of the two Houses and their relationship to the other elements of our political system.  Once we know what we expect of the second chamber as an integral part of our constitutional arrangements, then and only then can we start to determine the composition best suited to the fulfilment of that role.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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4 Responses to Missing the point

  1. As ever, friends of the House of Lords can rely on Lord Norton for wise assessments on reform—this time his insistence on considering first principles.

    The sad reality is, I venture, that it is those very people who have not appealed to basics and to the consequences of slapdash reform proposals who are the most vocal proponents for altering the existing state of affairs.

    ‘They have no respect for the wisdom of others,’ wrote Edmund Burke; ‘but they pay it off with a very full measure of confidence in their own.’

    With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,
    I am impressed with Stephen Maclean’s quote from Burke. It seems apt to me today.
    Perhaps your anxiety (which you do not overly manifest) concerning possible loss of the essence of your government tradition will give you some empathey in these days for Louisiana families who have lost all their centuries old oyster beds to BP oil contamination. They must hope that if they survive the millions of dollars in lost captial and tens of millions in lost business that their wild seed regions in the estuaries can survive and the beds be cleaned repaired and regenerate while their children have the determination to retain the skills during recovery. Catastrophic discontinuity typifies our era.

  3. Carl.H says:

    I think already the role and relationship between Houses has been changed and in some ways not for the better. Power over the years has been diminished from the Lords and the House is becoming more politicised. This is not how the wise and knowledgeable ancestors intended it to be, nor how it works best for the people of the Nation.

    We can argue all day about how the popular should be the more powerful but that isn`t what is best and it certainly would make all Governments hypocritical if they stated it so. In terms of popularity rarely does a Government get through 2 years before the electorate, in polls, turn against them.

    The role of the Lords is determined by it`s power, it`s ability to clearly see any shortcomings in bills, it`s wisdom to see that what maybe right for Government maybe entirely wrong for the people of the Nation. The diminishment of power and politicising of the House means it cannot be a check on Government, who can to all intents after calling upon the mighty whips be a very small minority.

    If the House were more politicised as would be the case in an elected body then it would be mute, merely a plaything of Government, a Committee that does the work that SHOULD be done in the other place. The Lords must not become the clearing house of the commons who would simply throw more and more badly designed bills at it, leaving IT to take blame.

    The role of the commons, I believe, was to give the people of the Nation a deciding voice in law pertaining to them and to put forward those bills to the wise and knowledgeable in the Lords who should have last say. Popular these Lords should not be, similar to the best teachers at school, I cannot hold in high regard that which crawls to be my friend. The best decisions oft come from those we dislike at that time, like a Father who loves but scolds his child.

    The HoL has already lost too much power, been too politicised, to let this go further would be a travesty one that would cost this Nation dearly. Yes to limits on numbers and other reforms in already, I hope, in the offing but no to elections and the ideaology that by some type of popular Communistic it would make a better Parliament.

  4. ladytizzy says:

    Apologies for going O/T but I’ve just caught up with your sponsor’s blog and note one of today’s contributions:


    Is the 1 June timebomb a reference to the ECHR by any chance?

    He’s a wag, isn’t he!

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