House of Eccentrics
The reform of the House of Lords has defeated successive governments. There are still a very few who recall the reform proposed in the 1960s, but therehave been many attempts since. Meanwhile the Lords itself has survived rather well. This should be allowed us. The life peers have been an overall success, the surviving “hereditaries” have made fine contributions even though, or perhaps because, their days are surely in the long run numbered.
The atmosphere in the Lords when a difficult decision is reached by a vote which no one predicted remains electric. The ex-members of the House of Commons who are lords talk too much, it is sometimes said, but to have ex-cabinet ministers such as Lords Tebbit or King of Bridgwater, a long-serving secretary of state for defence, or Lord Reid, who had the same post at a difficult time, adds greatly to the weight of the discussions. There have been occasions when three or four ex-foreign secretaries (Lords Howe, Hurd, Owen and Carrington) have all spoken). Is there a debating chamber in the world where ex-chiefs of staff can speak (Guthrie, Inge, Craig, Boyce, Walker, Stirrup and until recently Lord Bramall)? Ex-cabinet secretaries make major contributions (Lords Armstrong and Butler in particular). There are one or two historians, such as Skidelsky and Morgan. It is still a pleasure to hear Lord Weidenfeld, who at 94 speaks as if he is in the first flush of youth. The Foreign Office is very well represented by Lords Hannay, Jay, Kerr and Wright. The Treasury has several distinguished survivors, such as Lord Lawson and Lamont and in theory Healey, though alas he rarely comes now. David Howell, for a long time a most distinguished minister of state for foreign affairs with the present administration, is remembered with respect and affection. The Bishops are present and speak often, the Archbishop of Canterbury in particular. It is a pity that we do not have the Chief Rabbi (though we have his predecessor Lord Sacks) and Catholic prelates preserve a self-denying ordinance but we do have a good cross-section of beliefs and loyalties, including Muslims. There are four ex-Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police in the Lords and two ex-private secretaries to the Queen.
I could go on for a long time listing my favourite speakers but there are too many to make it a comfort. Since I have been in the Lords for more than 30 years, I remember very well brilliant speeches by Lords Callaghan, Soames and Beloff, not to speak of Michael Stewart and once or twice George Brown. Ah my Kaldor and my Balogh long ago! And Lord Longford, commemorated now by two portraits in the House. I specially miss Lords Dacre and Blake. What does seem more important than most reformers have allowed is that in any serious reform we should seek to preserve the professional diversity of the House as presently constituted. Thus there is surely a strong case for a corporate approach. At the moment we have by chance not design generals, historians, former cabinet ministers, lawyers, doctors, health workers, sometimes a vet, a musician in Lord (Michael) Berkeley, a writer or two (including P.D. James), several ex-ambassadors, several one-time European Commissioners, a publisher or two, and a good armful of hereditary peers. There are still a few landowners. I do not think that I am the only peer to be reassured by the presence among us of Lady Manningham-Buller. Few if any of us would be elected if there were to be an elected House of Lords but the country should lose a great deal if we were all excluded.
Thus my suggestion for the reform of the Lords would be to devise a House where these irrational eccentricities are preserved, even codified by custom and practice. It would be difficult to work out the desirable balance. But it could be done, recalling that one profession (the Church) has been well represented in the Lords since the Reformation. The Church, incidentally, is in an exceptional position since it alone among professional members includes persons who are by rule still in service. Most others, from cabinet secretaries to chiefs of staff, become peers when they retire. In the 18th century many generals and admirals went to the Lords straight from their battlefields or flagships. Nelson spoke.
My suggestion is that in the first instance the members of any revised House of Lords should reflect the balance between professions currently prevailing in the chamber. Revisions could follow once or twice a year by, for example, suggestions by members themselves that there should be more doctors, another surgeon, fewer ex-MPs, more vice-chancellors, a dancer or two, a singer, more serving soldiers, and perhaps, why not, a special cohort of persons who are under 30 to reflect the fact that there are now 24 members of the House who are over 90, while just two are 39 or under.