Wednesday, 7 February 2007


Whether it's peerages for sale scandals or arguing over plans to reform the House of Lords, the role of an unelected second chamber is back on the agenda.

So much utter crap is spoken about how an unelected body is somehow 'above' politics.

Regardless of it being the hereditary landed aristocracy, life peers drawn from the great and the good or even bishops from the Church of England (yes really in 2007!) - the fact that they are there at all is down to patronage of some sort.

The culture of deference runs deep in this country and one unspoken underlying aspect of defending an unelected body is that there is some special quality about these people that makes them 'know better than us'.

This is where a bit of historical perspective is essential - what looks likes an institution legitimised by ancient tradition always has been what it is today - the product of patronage, nepotism, crony-ism and out and out corruption. Blair and New Labour are just keeping the tradition going.

Contrary to common belief the House of Lords does not represent something mystical continuity going back to ancient times. There have been a number of 'spurts' of peerage creation , all of them highly dodgy and not at all noble.

• The Normans - the original English aristocracy were all but wiped out or exiled at the time of the conquest in 1066. William replaced them and gave land and titles to the French and Norman knights who came over with him - an inner circle of henchmen who could be trusted.

• The Wars of The Roses - a weak central monarchy and strong regional factions made possible a kind of fifty year gang war between the nobility. It is a story more like the Godfather than King Arthur and the round table. Alliances were made and broken, puppet kings installed and - titles created for favours done and to buy loyalty.

• The Restoration - peerages created for those who had stuck by the Stuart monarchy through the civil war years, and also for those compliant husbands who co-operated with Charles II taking their wives as his mistresses !

• The Eighteenth Century - the new merchant classes claimed their place at the table of power and more peerages were granted in return for loyalty to the solidly Whig regime.

• Victorian times and later - since the industrial revolution there has been a steady stream of peerages given to successful businessmen, and this has been mutually beneficial to them and governments alike, with influence traded in both directions.

And so on to the present scandal... So long as the second chamber is appointed in some way rather than elected, patronage and corruption go hand in hand.

If we do need a second chamber for our legislature, it must be an elected senate.

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