Saturday, 7 July 2012

Against a Democratic Upper House

The below article is by the College of Sociology's Editor and was originally published by the think-tank Respublica on 01/07/12. It offers reasons for holding on to the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords.
Heredity, incompetence, sleaze, corruption, misrepresentation, lack of transparency – there are plenty of reasons to reform the House of Lords. One only need turn on BBC Parliament to see peers sleeping on the job. But we cannot allow these failures to cloud our appreciation of the system. Wiser than Solon but more democratic than Plato, the theoretical basis of the British bicameral system is a triumph of political philosophy.
The House of Commons is democratic. Its members are elected every four years, more or less, and its legislative agenda corresponds to the manifesto on which the majority party was elected, more or less. The House of Lords is an unelected body for the most part appointed by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The Lords is rather like the House of Commons’ mentor – the former scrutinises the latter’s work and rejects it when it’s not good enough.
Why should an unelected body have such sway over the work of an elected body? Three simple reasons: because some of the best minds in the world are equally the worst politicians; because pandering to popular feeling or party ideology undermines philosophical integrity; and because election itself does not necessarily guarantee representation. All of these speak to the Platonic-republican tradition in politics. Let’s look at the arguments in more detail.
There is a long history of great philosophers whose political aspirations were never fulfilled. Plato, to whom almost all political philosophy from communism to liberalism is indebted, famously tried and failed to become governor of Sicily. J.S. Mill, father of modern liberalism, enjoyed only one year in parliament despite multiple attempts.
Interesting as they are, these anecdotes may actually draw us away from the point that there are many pursuits requiring of great wisdom and which play an important role in shaping our social order but which nonetheless are not strictly political. The protagonists of these pursuits can help guide policy. Good examples are business leaders, academics and faith leaders: these represent us in a much deeper way than democracy can allow for – they represent the wisdom of the institutions we cherish.
This notion of sourcing people of greater wisdom speaks to my own preference of functional constituencies: constituencies representing institutions rather than people directly. In places like Hong Kong functional constituencies are limited to areas such as business, media, education and environment. I imagine a more innovative system whereby we place in the Lords people of wisdom from all the fields that we deem important.

We also rely on wisdom to overcome the dangers of populsim. This has never been more important. In an age of evidence-based practice in which we rely far more on empirical truth than moral truth, so that the fact that 80% of people want something has greater import than whether or not it is right, having peers not bound by the morally corrosive obligation to pander to an electorate is essential. We have never needed this strictly undemocratic process more than now.
Nor do we want peers to ‘toe a party line’. The whole point is that they scrutinise individual policies. One would not want certain policies to go unscrutinised simply because one party has a majority. Nor would we want a good policy to be ignored for the same reason.  
Wisdom speaks to the age problem too. Some politicians have called for an upper age limit on serving in the House of Lords. My own feeling is that wisdom comes with age and that incompetence on account of age should be scrutinised on a case-by-case basis.
Finally, I want to challenge the idea that election confers representation. There is an all too obvious point that parties are well known for ignoring manifesto promises. But there is a deeper point about what representation means too. Anyone with even the scantiest knowledge of music can see that reality music shows like the X-factor bring success to people whose talent is questionable. And they do so specifically because the outcome is put to the vote. I have found myself madly voting for someone or other to win the X-factor and yet once they get the record deal, our bond dies and I could not care less: the fact that I voted has very little to do with their representing good music. We see that democracy is corrosive in other areas, so why do we not see it in politics? Representation is too often associated with representing popular feeling. We forget that it may also mean representing what is wise, moral or virtuous.
None of these arguments are against reforming the House of Lords. There are plenty of issues that need to be tackled. Apart from the list offered in the opening sentence, the Lords Spiritual should represent all faiths and none, and the process of selecting peers should be opened up and made more rigorous. As I have said, there are many ways to be representative without being more democratic. My feeling is that democracy often gets support de facto because the only undemocratic systems we learn about are morally reprehensive: fascism, communism. But in the words of Jed Bartlett from the West Wing: ‘You know, we forget sometimes. In all the talk about democracy, we forget it's not a democracy. It's a republic. People don't make the decisions.’

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