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April 18, 2005

Democracy and the House of Lords: Democracy should no longer be a knock-down principle in every discussion of a public institution, argues Prof. Michael Bentley

Posted by Michael Bentley

In their 2005 election manifesto, the Conservatives pledge to "seek cross-party consensus for a substantially elected House of Lords". The Labour Party in their manifesto state that they "will complete the reform of the House of Lords so that it is a modern and effective revising chamber". As Michael Bentley - Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews - shows, the debate about the composition and the function of the House of Lords is far from new. Furthermore it has long been framed in terms of the House of Lords' lack of 'democratic legitimacy'. Prof. Bentley asks whether "it may be intelligent to deflower 'democracy' as a knock-down principle in every discussion of public institutions".

Michael Bentley will be writing regularly for the Social Affairs Unit.

Time was when 'democracy' connoted a category: a description of how governance might be arranged in certain states under certain conditions. Classical authors thought little of either the conditions or of this way of dealing with them; and the practice of educating Britain's political elite through their understanding helped perpetuate a scepticism about the virtues of popular government. Developments 'on the ground' during the nineteenth century confirmed this dark mood in the minds of public intellectuals from Robert Lowe to James Fitzjames Stephen, from Matthew Arnold to Sir Henry Maine, all of whose blood ran cold at the thought of democratic 'advance'. On the other side of politics, meanwhile, the new dawn of the people promised a less unequal world as the three extensions of the franchise in 1832, 1867 and 1884-5 appeared to bless the aspirations of the parti du movement and corroborate the direst predictions of Sir Robert Peel that the door, once pushed ajar, would ever widen. Yet the movement did not present fundamental alternatives to the political structure that enclosed it. The culture remained – horrible word – 'parliamentarist' in that most sides of the debate looked to historic institutions as fora within which argument might be won or lost. Even serious argument about the standing of those institutions, such as that produced by Gladstone's challenging the authority of the House of Lords over his budgets, did not threaten the stability of governance itself.

Then, suddenly, a shift. Beginning with the Lords' throwing out of Gladstone's second Home Rule bill in 1893 and rising to a crescendo during the Liberal governments of 1905-15, the issue of the second chamber became a centrepiece of electoral strategy and party calculation on behalf of political groupings of all kinds and a particular focus of concern to the two Kings, Edward VII and the young George V, who were doomed to deal with it. What distinguished the divisions of these years was not simply the new register of disdain brought to public discussion of the peers ("Should five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen by accident from among the unemployed, override the judgment …" etc etc). This led to the tying together of two issues that have remained tangled ever since – the question of who should serve in the upper chamber and the problem of deciding what a revising chamber ought to be allowed to do. The twentieth century decided, eventually, that the House of Lords ought to do as little as possible because its membership lacked democratic credentials. Confronted with the unpleasant alternatives foreseen by Sieyès in the late eighteenth century - superfluity or obnoxiousness – the British House of Lords cleverly chose both.

An elision had occurred in the way that 'democracy' had been presented in public argument. No longer merely a category of analysis, it had begun its journey towards depicting a value. Government acquired legitimacy by virtue of its claim to exist through democratic choice – the same 'virtue' that might have undermined the standing of a government in 1850 – and the 'undemocratic' House of Lords lost its legitimacy by virtue of that very tautology.

Function then demanded re-translation quite as radically as had composition. There could be a case, even in 1911, for having a revising chamber; there could be none for an institution that frustrated the wishes of the elected House. Thee elements in the language of politics became dominant between 1892 and 1911, spiced by the contingency that not only was the second chamber constituted through privilege and the randomness of primogeniture but that it also demonstrated an undeniable party hegemony that would always prejudice the Lords against progressive governments. If the Lords could somehow have turned out to be Mr Asquith's poodle instead of Mr Balfour's, after all, the political problems of 1906-11 would have looked very different. Threats to 'flood' the Upper House with the wrong kind of peer significantly predated threats to alter what the Lords might be allowed to do and reform took place in 1911, as it had in 1832, because anything looked better than that.

Most of the arguments surrounding the House of Lords, then and since, have suffered from what Michael Oakeshott called 'rationalism' in political argument. Now the Lords drew their power, historically, from a precipitate of privilege that had its origins in their proximity to the throne and their regional and local power resting on the possession of land. Their place in the constitution came from a story of centrality as an estate, not from any projected function within a 'process' of ever-expanding 'representative government' or 'advancing democracy' – a whig assumption of progress towards a known present. Indeed in many ways the 'House of Lords' as a constitutional description is a figment of tendentious historical writing: it is no accident that the crisis years of the second chamber's relationship with 'the people' coincided with a whig-historical persuasion that wanted to lend that relationship – past, present and future – a particular sense of direction. To conceive of the Upper Chamber as 'undemocratic' is both to state the obvious and to miss the point of its existence by covering over its specific past which makes it what it is, or was until the post-war reforms of 1949 and 1963 began to reshape it. Ever since the Commons obtained the power of initiating and managing legislation in its own name, the second chamber has played the part of critic.

Moreover, a blatant point made by Arthur Balfour a hundred years ago still needs saying. It was always likely that a revising chamber based on established social power would bring more criticism to bear on radical legislation than it would on conservative initiatives. Balfour's uncle, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, had gone further in evolving a doctrine of revision as a form of constitutional principle when he was prime minister during the difficult decade of the 1890s.

Salisbury's view of the issue had a clear party spin: he wanted to legitimate the continuing strength of a Conservative House of lords. But the public rhetoric implied that a second chamber should be seen as a sort of meta-democratic forum that had the ultimate responsibility to protect the people from rushed, deceptive or authoritarian legislation proposed by a Lower House that had shown itself increasingly anxious to curry favour with an imperfect, ill-educated and gullible electorate. By reining-in the arbitrariness of an over-confident Commons, the Lords in Salisbury's imagination occupied a significant political space in rescuing the people from their own short-sightedness and the manipulation of demagogues.

For some, the argument reeked of disingenuous self-interest. For others it penetrated to some essence of constitutional authority. In fact, Salisbury's doctrines replicated the rationalism deployed by his opponents in that it subsumed discussion of the Lords within a discourse of function that an historically-sensitive reading would want to avoid.

But just as the Lords' power and privileges did not have their origins in a constitutional démarche, for all the majesty of Magna Carta, so the continuing strength of the Upper Chamber rested on a social power that reflected a balance of forces in the country – town and land, masses and classes – and a variety of supporting doctrines that gave late-Victorian Britain its particular character. Rather like soldiers in the Flanders mud, the Lords were there because they were there and not as a result of some calculated contrivance. Oddly enough, that very sense of contingency helped underpin the authority that comes with disinterestedness. Men with property and a private income, be they never so inbred or dim, appeared a better foil for professional politicians on the make than might a collection of nominees or elected grand-citizens. What has not been made has the signal quality of being hard to unmake.

Does any of this historical perspective throw light on present debates? This is not the place to enter into the party politics of the matter. Besides, the parties are themselves part of the confluence of misapprehension that has been apparent since the Edwardians. Perhaps the historical way of presenting that confluence prompts the idea that it may be intelligent to deflower 'democracy' as a knock-down principle in every discussion of public institutions and to engage in a rethinking of the relationship between current society, its modes of legitimation, its unspoken need for some form of historicity in making its arrangements and its as-yet-unconscious need for forms of protection from a state whose composition is decreasingly independent of the political executive and whose voice already speaks the servile language anticipated by Hilaire Belloc before the First World War.

Michael Bentley is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and the author of Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2001).


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