Gunn on politics

In the style of Basil Fawlty, Tony Blair’s aides are circling
Westminster hissing: “For God’s sake, don’t mention the war!” As a
consequence, all manner of alternative diversions are being
drip-fed to the media.

Some were predictable, such as the agonising over our drinking,
smoking and eating habits. More serious are the concerted
ministerial attacks on the House of Lords.

Blair appears to have backed down from removing the remaining 92
hereditary peers before the next election. However, the
increasingly acrid atmosphere between government and Lords could
have far-reaching consequences, not least, for those involved in
social or community care work.

No one would have devised the House of Lords as it is if they were
starting from scratch. On my first visits as a political
journalist, I accepted the view of most of my colleagues that it
was akin to “an old folks’ home”.

My conversion was in part due to witnessing the likes of the late
Baroness Lucy Faithfull fight for stronger measures to protect
children and Earl Conrad Russell forensically dissect the flaws in
social benefit and welfare legislation.

It is odd that a legislature that is so hard to justify in a
democracy has such a formidable record for working on behalf of the
most vulnerable in our society.

Accident-of-birth is a quirky and, perhaps, ridiculous system for
picking some of our parliamentarians. The same could be said for
the monarchy. But there is an arrogance about taking a sledgehammer
to part of our constitution without offering any alternative.

Hence the current problems are entirely of the government’s own
making. The peers always flex their muscles more vigorously when a
government has a large Commons majority. Margaret Thatcher gnashed
her teeth at Lords’ revolts.

But if ministers succeed in further emasculating the powers of the
second chamber, then many peers involved in scrutinising bills
would no longer turn up. Then we would all be the losers.

Blair could solve the issue of the 92 hereditary peers at a stroke.
Since they were elected on a ballot and make a worthwhile
contribution to the Lords’ work, their titles could justifiably be
converted into life peerages. Then their heirs would not inherit
their seats in the Lords. But that would not appease those whose
opposition is based purely on class prejudice.

Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.

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