Oh Lordy – A Modest Proposal

 “Peers may lose right to sit in trimmed down Lords………. The House of Lords should be slashed from its current size of more than 800 peers to meet a cap of 600 within 10 years under the blueprint published by a cross party committee of Peers led by Lord Burns.”
T
he Times. November 1, 2017

 “The case for a cap on numbers is overwhelming.”
Lord Fowler, Lord Speaker, House of Lords

 “Proposals to reduce the size of the House of Lords are  unnecessary and counterproductive”
Letter to
The Times on October 28, 2017 from Robert (Diehard) Fraser

 “Two in three voters want the Lords to be elected”
Daily Mail headline – October 30, 2017    

“ Political parties are set to be awarded a quota of peerage appointments based on their latest general election performance,  The Times has learnt.”
The Times October 27, 2017

 “Another scandal has just whacked the House of Lords. We have become wearily accustomed to tales of naked greed. From Westminster’s Upper House ….. Sixteen peers were found to have pocketed almost £0400,000 of taxpayers cash between them , even though they had not done one stroke of recognisable work”
Quentin Letts, 
Daily Mail, October 25, 2017 

The readiness of these aristocratic old timers to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us is a disgrace and an affront to democracy and so on and so forth. Typical sentiments in the columns of our sprightly left wing press.

In this connection the alleged practice of some peers of clocking in, collecting £300 and then making off elsewhere has not pleased those now in charge of The Labour Party. 

Another feature currently annoying those of the Brexit persuasion is that the House of Lords is opposing Brexit in the name of democracy – you work that one out.

For a variety of reasons, not all of them clear,  the role of the House of Lords has emerged as an issue and, as is customary, the debate has been muted and respectable. On this occasion the debate has centred on three issues.

Two central issues are the ideal size of the Upper House, and the ideal composition of the upper house. The third issue for some is the very existence of the House of Lords , and here the preference of the Bolshie tendency would be to consign the upper house to the dustbin of history – their phrase.

“’Thats your glorious British Navy’, says the Citizen, ‘that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of Gods earth, and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. Thats the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.’
Ulysses by James Joyce

The fiery Citizen from Joyces novel was clearly no lover of the British House of Lords, but he was speaking, amid a copious supply of free drinks, in 1904. It is possible that Joyce himself would have been startled to learn that it has taken another 100 years to prise the tenacious grip of at least some of the hereditary peers from the ultimate quango, the House Of Lords. 

The problems facing those who seek reform of the House of Lords are formidable because of the inability of the various bodies charged with the job to come up with a solution which combines plausibility with acceptability to the House of Commons. The modest proposal which follows has been prepared both to solve this seemingly intractable problem and to bring much needed relief to the hard pressed finances of the United Kingdom.

The following notes set out the basis of a convincing plan to solve the problem for the next two decades or so – let us say when the current problems posed by Brexit have been resolved.

My suggested approach combines transparency, simplicity, and, crucially, cost effectiveness.

Let us look briefly at the history of the problem, and at the arguments against the solutions put forward down the years. It has to be acknowledged that the House of Lords has fought a magnificent rearguard action for centuries against those who sought to question its lack of democratic legitimacy. It took a combination of  that astonishing political phenomenon, New Labour, and the perplexing collapse of the Conservative Party to make the decline of the hereditary peers inevitable. The great majority of this group were cast out leaving only a rump of blue bloods massively outnumbered by the appointed peers.

This last group take us at once to the heart of the argument about who shall replace the hereditary peers and on what basis. Many column inches have been devoted to the iniquities of any revising chamber based on selection, because, as we all know, for selection read patronage. As of today – but possibly not of tomorrow – for patronage, read the patronage of Mrs May.

The alternative, that of election, has been deemed to be equally abhorrent, partly on the grounds that election would give it the very attribute so feared by the lower house, namely that of legitimacy. The other objection to an elected membership is that those elected would be mostly party political people, and the only thing that all of us, apart, that is, from the professional political classes, are united upon is the need for a revising chamber to consist to the fullest possible extent of people who are independent and outside the world of the professional politician.

My solution to this long-standing thorny problem would require no changes to the responsibilities and functions of the House of Lords. In particular the essential function of the Lords, namely that of keeping an eye on the rascals in the other place and blowing the whistle on them as required would remain as now.

The key issue to be resolved is this. On what basis should we determine who shall sit in the Lords? The answer in this modest proposal is that membership would be sold to those who can afford it. Members of the upper house would be required to pay both a substantial down payment (or, in modern parlance, up front money), and a substantial annual membership thereafter. What could be simpler?

 To get the debate under way I suggest that the membership of the House of Lords be set at 500 to give a rough parity with the Commons. Members of the new upper house would pay an initial membership fee of £10 million, and an annual fee of £2 million thereafter. This plan would bring in £5 billion to get the show under way, and an annual contribution to the coffers of the nation of £1 billion. That is a lot of schools and hospitals.

 The arguments in support of this novel mercenary approach are formidable. In no special order they are as follows:

1. The arrangement would be very economical. Our revising legislators and watchdogs would pay us, indeed would pay us handsomely,  instead of the other way round.

2. At a stroke we solve the difficulties both of an appointed house and of an elected house by simply discarding both approaches, and adopting a clear cut market approach.

3. We solve the vexed problem of party influence. Those with the funds to apply for membership tend to be outside the party system because they have been too busy piling up riches.

4. The independence of our new body from party strife would in itself ensure high public esteem. The new upper house would also benefit from the fact that the House of Commons combines over manning and  with excessive remuneration, both classic hallmarks of the time honoured practice of looting the public purse. The definition of politics by Ambrose Pierce as the conduct of public affairs for private advantage is arguably more true in our time than in any earlier era. We hasten to point out that Pierce was using the word affairs in its older and more seemly sense, although some of our current crop of politicians might wish that their affairs in the more recent sense of the word had been rather more private.

5. Successful applicants would in the main have track records of high achievement in that most important of activities within a liberal market economy, namely the acquiring of wealth.

6. The new body would be a shining example of a Public/Private Partnership. It would in fact be a PPP in excelsis, the highest attainable pinnacle of the dream of New Labour.

7. A much-needed gusto would be injected into the body politic. Moneyed men tend to be sharp and vigorous. This vigour would get round one telling criticism of the current upper house is that on a busy day it resembles an old folks’ home and, on a quiet day, a morgue.

8. The new house could serve to curb the excessive political influence of the Celtic members of the Lower House. This group, surplus to the domestic requirements of Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland, has sought and continues to seek to reduce the conduct of political affairs of England to the same level of torpor and ineptitude as those generated by their respective devolved institutions.

9. Any failure to pay membership fees by the due date would send out an early warning about impending corporate difficulties.

10. Lastly and possibly crucially it would, to a considerable degree, confer legitimacy upon what happens now in the case of substantial numbers of appointed life peers. The ranks of the Lords, if not the benches of the Upper House are littered with the names of the affluent whose appointments swiftly followed the bestowing of substantial sums of money on the party of their choice, ie the party best placed to reward their generosity. Our modest proposal would confer transparency upon a process currently shrouded in uncharitable hearsay.     

What about the arguments against? These are few and easily refuted. There would be an inbuilt small ‘c’ conservative tendency in the new house. This is urgently required as a counterbalance to restrain the Corbynite tendency.

Change for the sake of change, and, above all, frenetic activity masquerading as progress, needs to be kept in check.

A more telling criticism that the arrangement might mean that the new upper house would be reluctant to approve measures to increase the tax burden on the rich, a measure thought to be long overdue in Bolshevik circles. We solve this difficultly by simply maintaining the current position which limits their  power to that of delay rather than outright rejection on financial measures.

On a personal note I find the plans of the Corbyn-led Labour Party to tackle the problem of growing inequality between the haves and have-nots surprisingly timid but that is another topic for another day.

It might be argued that this proposal is a tawdry opaque attempt to sell political influence (not to be confused with party influence). This is, of course, perfectly true, but the proposed arrangement merely legitimises and formalises and makes much more profitable what happens now. It makes the whole system very transparent, in fact more transparent than the Tammany Hall proceedings which precede and underpin membership of the House of Commons. Those in doubt on this point should consult Boris Johnsons book Friends, Voters, Countrymen in which he describes the machinations he employed to become the Hon Member for Henley.

 Much thought has been given to the fine details of the new scheme. The competitive bidding approach was considered and discarded on the grounds that could result in sharp practice. Plutocrats did not get to where they are today by being honourable. A few phone calls between aspiring members would quickly drive down the entry fee,

 We have opted instead for the exclusive club model. As noted earlier membership of the upper house would be offered on the basis of the specified entry and annual fees. Membership would be for a fixed period of five years but members would be free to offer themselves for re-selection. The Modified House would have precisely the same powers and responsibilities as the existing house, but there would be no remuneration.  The perquisites of the members would comprise membership of an exclusive club with the additional much sought after right to style themselves Lord or Lady whatever.

As with all such organisations a civilised code of conduct would apply. We suggest that absenteeism be treated leniently, but drunkenness (at least within the confines of the palace of Westminster), criminal convictions and attempts to bribe members of the lower and relatively impoverished house would result in the termination of membership. Members wishing to leave the new upper house prematurely would request that they be allowed to so upon payment of the Chiltern Millions. Needless to say the most serious offence of all would be failure to pay membership fees on time, and this could lead to the formal stripping of the adopted title within a hollow square of fellow members.

In the event of the membership being over-subscribed (and in all probability it would be) the names of all applicants would go into a hat and the first 500 names to be drawn shall constitute the new upper house. The draw could be timed to coincide with that for the national lottery to give the event maximum publicity.

Sceptics may ask: What if the plutocrats don’t go for it? Oh, but they will, they will. They queued up to buy earldoms from Lloyd George on the black market, and they have been doing so ever since. Under our proposals everything is above board, all is transparent (a fine word, transparent).

Is the asking price about right?  It may well be that it has been pitched on the low side, but in this matter, as in all other crucial matters in today’s Britain, in the longer term we will let the market decide. At this early stage we would simply note that £10 million is small beer to many of our fellow citizens as avid readers of various published rich lists will confirm. In our revised House of Lords our plutocrat can purchase the one thing he or she has coveted and has hitherto been denied, that which rounds off his collection of worldly goods and assures his social success.

What about the existing members? No need for any concern here. Some current members could and doubtless would seek to join the new house because they, more than most, grasp the attractions and benefits of membership. To those who could not afford to go into the hat we say: Thank you for your disinterested and somnolent services rendered over the years, but, sadly, farewell. Their removal from their rest home would add a poignant note to the launch of the new house, and could form the basis of a profitable series of fly on the wall television documentaries. 

The author of this modest proposal cannot be accused of having a vested interest in its adoption as he does not possess the financial resources necessary to purchase membership of even the most lowly layer of the democratic pyramid. He writes from a pro bono publico viewpoint, motivated only by a fervent desire to see this seemingly intractable problem solved and by an equally fervent desire to improve the state of the national finances.

 How should supporters of this proposal campaign for its adoption? It would be a waste of time to write to your MP because he/she has a vested interest in the continuation of the existing arrangements. Write instead to the reactionary press to express your support and urge that the proposal be adopted. The many interested aspiring plutocrats could take out full page ads to advocate the scheme.

Just think about it! The new house might contain Lord Ecclestone (of Brands Hatch),  Lord Lewis Hamilton,  Lord Murdoch (although as a wild colonial boy he might spurn the opportunity), Lord Desmond to spice things up, Lord McCartney to give us a song, Lord Lennox Lewis to keep order, Lord Beckham of Old Trafford to strengthen the squad, Lord Burns himself to ensure that the accounts are in order, Lord Sorrell to look after the PR side and – why not – Lord (Philip) Green to keep an eye on any pension matters.

Readers will doubtless have their own views on which of our affluent fellow citizens would add to the lustre of our new upper house.

 Like the Romans of old we want bread and circuses. This proposal supplies both in abundance. I commend it to the British people, and to British politicians, although I suspect that it will appeal much more strongly to the former than to the latter.

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Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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