Debating the future of the Lords

The Public Sector section of The Times yesterday carried a debate piece on whether the House of Lords should be elected or not.  Lord Tyler argued the case for an elected House.  I argued the case against.

Because of the paywall, I cannot offer a link to the article, but – as it is a short article – I may reproduce it in a later post.

There was also a debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, held last Tuesday, in which Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Shami Chakrabarti (Director of Liberty) and Sir Simon Jenkins argued the case for the motion ‘An elected House of Lords will be bad for British democracy’ and Lord Adonis, Billy Bragg and Polly Toynbee argued the case against.   The debate – in which the case for an appointed House had the biggest impact – will be broadcast on the BBC Parliament Channel on 4 and 5 December.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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16 Responses to Debating the future of the Lords

  1. Jonathan says:

    The Times paywall isn’t really compatible with the modern media world where content is supposed to be disseminated by sharing links online.

    It’s interesting that civil liberties campaigners such as Shami Chakrabarti are against an elected upper house, but not surprising. I’ll certainly look out for that debate on iPlayer – you can even post the link to that!

  2. Carl.H says:

    Yes, would really like a link when available, I have a lot of time for Shami Chakrabarti she talks a lot of sense.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H: I could not attend the debate as I was giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee at the time. I gather Shami Chakrabarti was very good, as were the other speakers for the motion. On the other side, Lord Adonis was apparently good, Billy Bragg was Billy Bragg, and Polly Toynbee was appalling,.

  3. Jonathan says:

    That’s odd, why isn’t this post showing on your front page? It’s in the archive and RSS but not your home page!

    • Carl.H says:

      Hi Jonathan it`s on the home page for me, doesn`t appear a problem from here.

      • Jonathan says:

        If I go to this post is not there. I’ve tried clearing the cache, a different browser, and even accessing it from work, as I’m remote working today, and the first post is “Twelve years on”.

        Hold on: just refreshed again, and now see it at home, but still not at work. There must be some sort of funny caching at

  4. franksummers3ba says:

    Lover-of -Horses Lord Norton Baron of Louth,

    The world is full of states which are barely able to survive in part because of poorly balanced constitutions. I usually think that two hundred years of basic formal continuity in a scoiety which is relatively prosperous is the sign of some kind of apt and stable arrangement. Most do not reach this test. Of course the UK is only debating how the upper house should work but I think a return to principles is a useful exercise here.

    I have often commented on the Greek origins of much of the British constitution: the aριστοκράτης included. the fact that these are Hellenic elements that did not originate directly in Denmark for example has a lot to do with an honest discussion of things resposibly. Much of this came through learning which was largely led by those who had Greek language and culture:

    Here is a simplified construct of the origins of the machinery Westminster seeks often to interpret to the world and how it perhaps might be discussed in a context which has an unbroken continuity since its ancient origins:
    Quote from link at bottom begins:
    •”Aristocracy”: rule by the best (aristos). In practice this usually meant rule by the well-born, those of noble family, who referred to themselves as “the best people”.

    •”The generic name — a constitution”: or “polity” (politeia, constitution). In modern English “polity” is not a common word, but when it is used it means form of government or type of constitution; thus one might speak of a democratic polity or a monarchical polity. Aristotle uses “polity” both in that way, as the generic name for a constitution of any sort, and as the name of one of the sorts. One of the kinds of polity is “polity”, i.e. the polity or form of government in which all citizens rule and are ruled in turn. The idea of polity is that all citizens should take short turns at ruling. It is an inclusive form of government: everyone has a share of political power. He sometimes calls it “polity”, sometimes “political” or “constitutional” government — these are interchangeable.

    •”Oligarchy”, the generic name for rule by a few, is also the name of one kind of rule by the few, the perverted kind which seeks to further the interest of the wealthy few.

    •”Democracy” means literally rule by the people, but Aristotle and other ancient writers use it to mean rule exclusively by the poor in their own interest.

    It would be a good idea to put down on paper the classification this passage suggests:

    Classification of Constitutions
    Good Bad
    One: Kingship Tyranny
    Few: Aristocracy Oligarchy
    Many: Polity Democracy
    End of Quote from Link, Link:

    As with any survey course summary I do not endorse all that is said in this brief summary and would argue that polities were the democratic or plethonymic form of the mixed governance tradition to which Britain is heir. Perhaps the Spartan Constitution is the closest ancient Greek template of the politics of the UK while being far from it in economic terms as they were communists (while not at all like the Soviets in the form of their communism).
    This is also important in the UK conversing with the US and its colonies and the heirs of the Bolivarian revolutions since both of those influences operate in a Greek intellectual context.

  5. djb13 says:

    Technically I disagree with the latter motion; I don’t think that an elected House of Lords would have much effect on British democracy either way. My concern is that it would slow down the already sclerotic political system (so the outputs would be fewer), but if we were to rank said outputs by how well they match with the informed views of the British people, I can’t see how an elected HoL would improve or damage the ranking. The only way that an elected House of Lords could improve or damage the quality of democracy would be is if the House of Lords were elected by a proportional system, and was able to dismiss the government (de jure or de facto), disrupt it’s economic program, or regularly defeat it on legislation. The only way that the debate on the election of the HoL touches on the issue of democracy is how it relates to the debate on electoral reform. The fact is that we already have a chamber who members are selected via democratic procedures, and if you (like me) don’t think that this is working sufficiently, I would suggest that you consider reform of the lower chamber, rather than trying to paper over the cracks with the upper chamber.

    What I am concerned about is that we’re losing another important form of representation, the technocratic one, which is practised, albeit imperfectly, by the current HoL.

    I’m on Toynbee’s side in the latter debate, but Norton’s side in the prior debate. And how many times in your life do you get to say that?

  6. ladytizzy says:

    Can we continue to assume that ‘reform’ does not equal ‘elected’ and move on? The HoL has given the boys a hell of a beating (cue link):

    • ladytizzy says:

      Wow, early clip of Boris.

    • djb13 says:

      I think in this instance it does. In any case, what alternatives exist to election? There’s no other manner of selection being seriously proposed (although I can certainly think of a few that ought to be seriously considered).

      • franksummers3ba says:

        One appeal of the House of Lords to some political theorists is the perception that a misinterpretation of Ockham’s razor has not driven things to idiocy in the UK parliament. the people and society of Britain could choose to embrace complexity. They could codify complexity. They could come to a solution even more complex than the status quo. For example a pool of Peers could be created and it could be composed of four sections: Honors List or Created, Lords Spiritual, Hereditaries and Law Peers. No seats could be filled except from this pool and with quotas allotted to each section and perhaps a fixed number of seats.

        A handful of seats in each category could be for life and ex-officio and have the full glory of Lords tradition that perhaps the whole cannot afford. Another section of each group could be seated yearly by rotation from a list for reasonable terms of four or so years, another randomly chosen by lot, another appointed to serve while the Government is in power and a final group could be elected from within the pool sections by the members of the pool section every term. Such a system woluld preserve titles, the Crown Appointments, the mix of the House and some level of aristocratic independence. It would even restore some judicial expertise to this special institution which it may lose. Nonetheless it would be profoundly reformed and would be able to offer an answer to countless procedural objections it cannot offer now. Everyone of these appraoches has beeen used by some successful constitutional government but not all for one house. Lords however could afford to be the beacon of what is possible in terms of bringing together a diverse house.

  7. Carl.H says:

    An aside:

    I don`t think I can continue on LoTB, one- I don`t know all the words to “The Red Flag” song, and two- I didn`t realise that although the header was red(dish) it was going to turn into a secondary forum of The Socialist Worker !

    The small independent voices we heard from the House seem to have been suffocated by a large Labour pillow probably left over from the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings.

    I have no wish for straight political scrums, I`d rather address issues rather than listen to the constant drones of how Labour was/is right without substantiative evidence and the FACT they cannot have been right to have gotten it so wrong and to have lost power.

    I am not a Tory either, or a Lib-Dem I support Arsenal if I want these types of discussion I can go see friends who support Tottenham and we can repeat them ad nauseum.

    As I suspected the Lords has become too partisan, all too Commons. Time I was gone and perhaps time…………

    • Lord Norton says:

      I had better start correcting the balance…

    • Chris K says:

      Don’t leave Carl! Any Lords who call themselves socialists surely meet perfectly the definition of ‘sell outs’?

      Count yourself lucky you’re not at university. There are posters up by the Socialist Student Workers’ (contradiction in terms!) Society trying to stir up trouble re uni fees. I actually have it quite good; my university is one of few not affiliated with the NUS, and we played no part in the mindless protests of the past weeks.

      That is part of the problem with a predominantly non-hereditary House; there’s a higher proportion of quangocrats with their in-built natural bias to all things fluffy and EU-orientated.

      What this country needs is a good dose of common sense, and for that we need old people who’ve done real jobs. The hereditary system ensured that perfectly, so it’s no wonder Blair put it on the bonfire.

      I only read and support LoTB because I consider the alternative to the Lords in its present incarnation a much, much worse prospect.

  8. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,

    Here is another (if perhaps the least compelling of all those you will consider) to preserve the special nature of Lords (although elections per se are not relevant). I have an unpublished novel told from the even more distant future but set in the years of the 2260s mostly. In that novel the House of Lords is a minor but significant part of the political scenery and some Lords are significant minor characters:

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