August Books 8) The End of the Peer Show?, edited by Alexandra Fitzpatrick

I was alerted to this book (PDF download) by the excellent Jonathan Fryer, who like me (but with more regret) concludes after reading it that the most likely outcome of the current push to reform the House of Lords is that nothing will happen. The book is a collection of thirteen essays on the subject by various figures, roughly evenly balanced between practitioners and academics (with some fitting both categories), published jointly by the (Lib Dem leaning) thinktank CentreForum and the Constitution Society. I had not previously heard of either of these organisations, but the latter’s Alexandra Fitzpatrick, who edited the book, provides an eight-page introduction which summarises the essays so well that you can almost skip the rest of the book.

A couple of points are clear from the majority of the essays. In general, the need for elections to an upper house is asserted as self-evident by reformers but dissected rather forensically by other contributors. But specifically, apart from those actually on the government’s payroll, support for the current proposals seems non-existent, with the Labour Party, which like the two coalition parties went into the 2010 election promising reform, unlikely to back this particular set of ideas, which do not go far enough for reformers, and go too far for those comfortable with the status quo.

Many of the contributors make the functional point that a more democratic upper chamber will be much more comfortable in challenging the Commons and the government of the day, and that the current coalition proposals are dishonestly silent about this. People vary as to whether or not this rebalancing of powers would be a good thing, but agree that it should not be so flippantly introduced. (My old friend David Howarth is particularly strong on this.)

I hadn’t taken in a couple of the weirder points of the current proposals – that elected members won’t be eligible for re-election ever, and won’t be allowed to stand for the House of Commons for four years after leaving the upper house. I feel this critically weakens the democratic credibility of the reform – you can vote them in, but you can’t vote them out. You might as well go for sortition, which is cheaper (but not mentioned in this book). And there is no discussion (not even by Richard Harries) of why twelve Church of England bishops should get to stay on ex officio, actually increasing the episcopal percentage of the house.

Finally, two of the contributors (Bob McLennan and Dawn Oliver) propose that alongside a democratic reform of the Lords, a body of independent experts should be established to take over the job of revising draft legislation. This seems to me a classic case of reinventing the wheel; the present system has essentially produced such a body anyway. (My own views have been vented a couple of times, here and here.)

Anyway, it’s a good digestible set of perspectives on the debate, recommended also to Irish readers given the push for reform (or, in my preference, abolition) of the Seanad.

One thought on “August Books 8) The End of the Peer Show?, edited by Alexandra Fitzpatrick

  1. I thought Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance was rather self-indulgent and I did not enjoy it. Bujold used the early volumes of the Vorkosigan series as vehicles for interesting social and technological commentary. Thus in Barrayar she contrasts Cordelia Naismith’s Betan worldview with the violent feudal structure of Barrayaran society. There was no illusion in the early stories that Barrayar is a particularly pleasant place to live for the majority of its citizens. But somehow this perspective has been lost: Bujold’s skill at creating likable characters together with her focus on the uppermost stratum of society means that our view of Barrayaran life is coloured by the fact that nearly everyone we meet is both nice and competent. The fact that life still sucks for nearly everyone else on Barrayar barely gets a look-in (and even when it does, sometimes it is dismissed with a joke, as in the case of the forced marriages of Vormuir’s 118 cloned daughters in A Civil Campaign). The monstrously efficient secret police work for the heroes rather than against them. And in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance I never felt that Ivan got into any trouble that he wouldn’t easily get out of, thanks to the fact that his cousin is the emperor.

    Also, the Barrayaran form of marriage as described in this novel seems open to abuse: fraudulent marriages and forced marriages would be much easier to carry out in the absence of banns or licences. (Obviously it takes this form for plot purposes, but still: it would have been nice to see some thinking about the consequences. With Barrayaran society being built around inherited rights like Countship, you’d think they’d be more uptight about the regulation of marriage.)

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