Last night, I delivered the 2012 Magna Carta Lecture at Lincoln Cathedral. The title of the lecture was ‘Still a role for the Barons?’ I addressed the functions now fulfilled by the House of Lords. In the course of looking at the reflective function, I drew on some of the evidence presented to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill. I was keen to identify the capacity of the House to serve as an arena for the discourse of bodies that make up civil society.
In assessing the contribution made by the House, I stressed that it was not just a case of looking at the merits of the individuals who form the House but the parts of civil society from which they are drawn. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York last year identified one of the functions of the House as being ‘to represent the breadth and diversity of civil society and intellectual life’. The significance of the House in fulfilling this role was well drawn out by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in his evidence to the Joint Committee.
Individuals, as he noted, enter the public square through two routes. One is as individuals and, as such, their views are aggregated through political parties, and they find a voice through the House of Commons. The other is as members of families, communities, and moral or spiritual traditions: institutions, as he put it, ‘in which the “We” has primacy over the “I”’. These institutions, he said, ‘are vital to our sense of identity. If they do not have a voice, people are left with the feeling that the public arena excludes some of their deepest commitments.’ ‘Britain, he continued, should have, within its deliberative assemblies, a forum for ongoing moral commentary on both legislative proposals and developments taking place in society.’
The House of Lords, I argued, provides a formal arena for public discourse between these essential elements of society. As such, it complements the Commons rather than duplicates it. If the second chamber was elected, voters would be voting in the same capacity as they vote for members of the first chamber, that is, as individuals. We would lose the benefits derived from the existing House and inject an element of redundancy into our cameral relationships.