A voice for civil society

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.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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10 Responses to A voice for civil society

  1. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,
    A very nice post which is doubtless inicative of an esxcellent lecture as well. It is quite probable that the median and average income and financial net worth of Lords is higher than that of those in Commons and long has been. However, in our age most of all but also in other ages is Lords not one of those bastions against the Totalitarian Tyranny of Tender? The individuals rolling like marbles are linked by and made over into the image of the super fungible thing that is money. Money may influence who becomes an Earl, a war hero, a bishop or a prominent professor (in honesty it certainly does) but it operates at a great disadvantage compared to its ominpotence in most areas of modern society, A State, nation or polity entirely up for sale is neither a state, nation or polity…

    • Lord Norton says:

      franksummers3ba: Although there are some wealthy members of the House of Lords, the membership is actually remarkable diverse. Though the House is not socially typical – by its nature, it cannot be – it does draw members from a variety of backgrounds, a good many of them far from privileged backgrounds. If you want to find a concentration of millionaires, one needs to look at the US Congress.

  2. Tory Boy says:

    Can i suggest you post this link on Lords of the Blog http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/outreach-and-training/resources-for-universities/open-lectures/an-insiders-guide-to-the-house-of-lords/

    A very good lecture by the Clerk of Parliament’s David Beamish.

  3. maudie33 says:

    From my point of view, no matter how one is clever enough to scoot around the fact, anyone who fears election, as Gordon Brown did, fears it because they instinctively know they are likely to be unelectable.

    More than that, a man or woman who doesn’t have the wherewithall to stand up for their beliefs and allow their abilities to be open to scrutiny, doesn’t deserve to be a mover and shaker in a democracy. This cannot be considered a democracy if the rules of that system are flouted. Just the way so many of you repeatedly claim our EU is ‘undemocratic’ because it is felt they are unelected. When in fact they are far more democratic than the House of Lords as they face scrutiny of election every five years. Why you want to hang on to this style of government is in order to place those who are ‘not fit for purpose’ in positions beyond their ability to manage.

    We are infiltrated beyond reason by a hierarchy of incestuous appointments and those who take up positions because of birth, cronyism or nepitism, this has to stop. And it has to stop because it creates a level of innefectual robots, who have little interest in what would be good for the nation and too much interest in what would be good for them. And this is now so blatantly obvious to any, exceptt the totally illiterate, unless change is made substantially, the public will lose any respect or interest in the mechanism of their government than they already express.

    • Lord Norton says:

      maudie33: Your response embodies a fundamental misconception. Democracy is about how people choose to govern themselves. In the UK, the people chose government – and can remove it – through elections to the House of Commons. Government is thus accountable through the House of Commons. We have the benefits of a second chamber without challenging that core accountability. Electing the second chamber would not render the political system more democratic, but rather underrmine it through diluting that core relationship. The EU is fundamentally different. Through elections to the European Parliament, voters are not choosing a government, nor through elections can they remove a government. Furthermore, the European Parliament claims that it is part of a bicameral system, with the Council of Ministers serving as a second chamber. That second chamber is not directly elected.

      • maudie33 says:

        Lord Norton:

        The suggestion you make, as I understand it, is Reform of the House of Lords. You cannot do both, keep it as it is and reform it. If it is to be of any use to the country, it must be elected as the nepitism it suffers under is out of control.

        Playing around with we have so many wonderful people there to change the fundamental system would lead to difficulty, is of no consequence. They are not of the people. They are appointed by those of you who are already in the system and have been for eternity.

        And if it was working so well with all these wonderful experienced people, why are we, as a country in such a mess? And no matter how you try to work around that, makes no difference to the fact that Parliament was not fit for purpose as it did nothing to avert the disaster it must have been aware it was creating. Either way you look at it, this leaves our government, as a whole, unfit for purpose.

        We can only have a new and clean beginning once we begin to dismante what has taken place within. The same way Parliament can easily dismantle the welfare state and is doing so, it can also dismantle a not fit for purpose system of government.

        And, as I write, even Europe is coming to terms with its unaccountability .

  4. maudie33 says:

    I left out the fundamental point, which is, The House of Lords has no legislative powers, it can revue, advise and discuss. Therefore it is simply a talking shop. The power therefore is dictatorial to the Prime Minister. Somewhat akin to Napoleon I’d say..

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