Lords and bishops go a-leaping

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
17 Mar 2007

Democratic politics is widely described as “the art of compromise”, in legislative terms at least. But as far as the government’s White Paper on Lords reform is concerned, the attempt to please everybody just a little bit rapidly descended into accusations of an establishment stitch-up ahead of the key Commons vote on 7 March 2007.

In the event, it seems that those opposed to a fully-elected House who decided to vote tactically ended up giving their opponents an unexpected victory. Now that the cat of democracy has been let out of the bag, it will be difficult to dispose of.

But the government rushed to confirm that the vote was ‘advisory’, and by 15 March we were reading in The Independent: “Attempts to secure a historic reform of the House of Lords were thrown into chaos as peers defied MPs and overwhelmingly backed an all-appointed second chamber.”

The process of developing a modernised second chamber has stalled several times since the 1999 House of Lords Act, which removed remaining hereditary peers – an anachronistic legacy of an organised system of privilege harking back to the days when parliament itself was a royal council composed of ecclesiastics, nobles and allies in the counties and boroughs.

Unsurprisingly, most found something to grumble about in the government’s latest endeavours – including Jack Straw’s proposal for a hybrid chamber of elected members, political appointees and a minority of non-political nominations.

Critics suggest that this was deliberate. With gridlock considered the most likely outcome, the problem can boomerang between the two Houses until time presses and it is booted into touch for another few years.

Back in 2003, the proposal for an 80 per cent elected second chamber was lost by only three votes, even though a majority of MPs opted for at least one of the majority or wholly elected proposals. It will be interesting to see what impact the recent Commons swing toward a 100 per cent electoral option has. And whether it sticks.

For many, the key issue is patronage as a barrier to legitimacy. A stable majority of people from all political persuasions support the idea of a checking and improving body, with a role and powers defined in relation to the primacy of the House of Commons. But they also want the second chamber to be at least substantially elected.

The consensus is there. But the devil is in the details. Some MPs fear a diminution of their levers of political control. Traditionalists are nervous about a stronger revising chamber independent of the executive arm of the state. Whitehall foresees more paperwork.

Meanwhile, reform groups advocate a radical approach – cross-parliamentary pre-legislative scrutiny, an electoral system based on proportional representation, and fixed-term membership aimed at attracting independents, those from smaller parties, and people interested in grassroots as well as national politics.

Another stumbling block remains the 26-strong bench of bishops in the House of Lords. The Church of England has mounted a vigorous campaign to maintain its block in the second chamber. This included the tragi-comic sight of the Archbishop of York recently rushing in from a royal banquet to vote against democratic change and for his own privilege. Whatever happened to the gospel principle of “the first shall be last”? Lost between courses, perhaps.

Aside from its congruence (or lack of it) with the Christian message, the presence by right in the second chamber of unelected male clerics from just one tradition and one nation is hard to defend on plural grounds. And it leaves unaddressed the issue about whether any religious institutions should be given a privileged say in legislative assemblies. The United Kingdom is the only Western democracy where this remains possible.

As part of the last major round of reform consultations, denominational representatives from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales got to discuss ‘the bishops issue’ at a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland meeting in 2003. It proved fatally inconclusive.

Congregationalists, Quakers and some Baptists, the remnants of what was once the nonconformist conscience, stood out against religious representation in parliament per se. Individual faith members should be elected or selected through the normal channels, they argued. Free witness is corrupted by privilege.

The Anglican bishop sent to defend the status quo, meanwhile, spoke of the heavy burden of responsibility and the noble ethic of service embodied in the Lords Spiritual. He deftly sidestepped the inevitable questions. Why only bishops? Why not lay people? What about other Christian traditions? What about other faiths?

(No one asked about confirmed non-believers, as I recall. Or the power-transforming vocation of the church in theological terms. It was just assumed to be a player for influence in someone else’s system.)

The whole thing proved a bit embarrassing. In the end the Church of England, unwilling to budge, was politely asked about at least considering the inclusion of Anglicans from the other two nations and one jurisdiction of the UK. They failed to do so.

The fact that Christians could not agree among themselves and that the representative forums of other faith communities were hard to identify and correlate meant that the government reverted to the easiest solution. Stick to the one Established Church. Lambeth was duly appeased, but its position was also rendered that bit more untenable in most eyes.

Meanwhile, in spite of that Commons vote, no-one is holding their breath for a definitive second chamber solution this side of a Brown or Cameron premiership. And Lords reform is only part of the wider deal. Citizen-initiated legislation, a civic assembly, reform of party funding and a new constitutional settlement are the next steps in ‘unlocking democracy’, says Charter 88. The art of compromise can be about highest aspirational factors, not just lowest political denominators, this agenda suggests.

But whether that can be so depends upon a larger vision of the public sphere than one premised on a ‘thin’ notion of good as the limiting framework for political argument. It means moving from procedural to deliberative democracy. And that requires relationships and virtues which push us in the direction of theological questions about what really sustains ‘the good’.

Perhaps the church’s job is to instantiate those vital questions in what it says and what it does, not to defend its own status in a self-interested way.

This is an adapted and updated version of an article which appears in Third Way magazine – written for The Westminster Column before the two parliamentary votes.

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Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His background is in journalism, adult education, politics and theology, and his offsite weblog is: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com. His other columns can be found here and (until the earlier ones are transferred) here.

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