Bernard Ingham: Brexit and Theresa May's big chance to put House of Lords in its place

WALTER Bagetot, in The English Constitution, wrote that a severe though not unfriendly critic of our constitution felt that 'the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to go and have a look at it'.

Should the House of Lords be reformed?
Should the House of Lords be reformed?

It is still not a pretty sight and its antics over Brexit show that nothing changes. It has never been exactly revered. The late Lord Campbell of Eskan, an industrialist, once claimed its only justification was its irrationality. “Once you try to make it rational you satisfy no one,” he said bleakly.

Worse still, Baroness Stocks, the educationist, described it as “the perfect eventide home”.

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We thus have it from peers themselves that it is a sort of home for irrational geriatrics. If only that were true, we might be able to tolerate its eccentricities, if not the daily stipend just for turning up.

Unfortunately, it has forgotten its place, if it ever knew what it was. It is not there to interfere with the democratic process or public spending. Instead, its role is to bring its collective experience to the process of providing an informed second opinion on Government legislation.

It is not observing its constitutional limitations in using Government legislation to try to thwart Brexit.

In some respects this is not surprising. It reeks of placemen put there to support the Establishment. They include 245 Tories, 191 Labour, 183 Crossbenchers, 98 Liberal Democrats (most of whom are there for no better reason that they are Lib Dems), some 43 non-affiliated and odds and sods and, of course, 26 Lords Spiritual, a proliferation of wet bishops presiding over the demise of British Christianity.

Perhaps the most alarming thing is that five former Cabinet Secretaries – Lords Armstrong, Butler, Wilson, Turnbull and O’Donnell, all of whom I worked with in my 11 years in No 10 – joined the Lords’ latest attempt to sabotage Brexit.

It may be argued that I have no room to talk as an ex-deputy secretary – one below the top Civil Service rank – utterly opposed to our continued membership of the EU. But I labour under none of the obligations of a Crossbench member of our revising chamber. I am a free man.

In one sense, I find their Europhilia as inexplicable as that of my fellow journalists covering labour affairs in the 1950s and ‘60s who stuck grimly by the trade union movement in its abuse of power.

They make Margaret Thatcher’s term of office all the more remarkable because she was clearly up against an Establishment that had lost its confidence in Britain. Its continuing Europhilia is convincing proof that it still has no faith in our nation’s ability to stand alone.

This revives the eternal question of what to do with the House of Lords as the national legislative assembly second only in size to the People’s Congress of China.

Well, first, I would eliminate the hereditary element. This would be hard on the responsible landed gentry who generally, and paradoxically, know their place. Second, I would remove the Lords Spiritual, apart from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Third, I would eliminate all those over 75 to make it look less geriatric and perhaps more of this world, though those under 75 are not necessarily with it. Then there would a pro rata
cull of political nominees to reduce the overall size of the House to 450, which is plenty enough to monitor Government legislation.

Having cut the place down
to size, I would then put a
severe limit on nominees from political parties and the Civil Service and let a semblance of democracy into the institution by opening it to a specific number
of nominees from our great cultural and scientific institutions to keep topping up the House’s expertise as the over 75s retire.

Just as spring has at last sprung, bringing a sense of beginning again that is entirely in tune with Brexit, I would therefore urge Theresa May to seize the moment and spring roughly on both the EU for its utter punitive intransigence and the House of Lords for exceeding its authority.

This would make her the darling of the people who are absolutely fed up with all this messing around within and without Parliament over Brexit. They want the smack of firm government.

It is my fond hope that the PM will handbag both the EU and the Lords. But I am not yet quite daft enough to expect it. After all, the Commons is teeming with those desperate to enter the eventide home. Politicians are their own worst enemies.