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Britain’s House of Lords is a national embarrassment

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The largest political assembly in the world outside the Chinese National People’s Congress is the British House of Lords. It is, alas, a national embarrassment worthy of its size.

With good reason, the bedroom is ridiculed as the house of friends. The upper house of the British Parliament, 800 members strong, is approaching its Beijing equivalent in democratic deficit, being largely appointed at the whim of the prime minister of the day, on increasingly obscure criteria. According to the latest opinion polls, more than 70% of voters want it to be reformed.

The room is packed with party donors. Last year, The Sunday Times revealed that $3 million ($3.6 million) in donations often secure membership in the cronies’ club. A century ago Prime Minister David Lloyd George was forced to resign in part for selling peerages and honours. Some of his acolytes have been prosecuted. Yet earlier this year the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate whether Boris Johnson’s own Lords appointments had been bought. Before leaving office, Johnson has two more honors rolls to offer, causing a scandal before the names are even officially released.

Why does this state of affairs persist? The upper house, a vestige of the hereditary system which still has 92 aristocrats or peers of the kingdom, is so devalued that the last five prime ministers have refused to become members, as was once the tradition. It’s a commentary on their appointments.

Johnson has shown no intention of becoming a member of the Lords either, although he intends to flood it with his own cronies, having already appointed 86 members during his three-year term, twice the number of his predecessor who served for a similar term. . In 2006, Johnson condemned the abuse of the appointments system as putrefaction, a quintessentially British crime. But Labors Tony Blair was Prime Minister then. In 2010, it was the Conservatives’ turn to take advantage of it.

It is true that there are many worthy people in the upper house who bring professional expertise to public debate and have a strong sense of civic responsibility. Their spokesman, Lord Speaker John McFall, has warned that the Prime Minister’s latest plans to bring in more of his former allies risk undermining public confidence in our parliamentary system. He wrote to both Conservative leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, pleading with them to break off Johnson’s cronyism.

It has been widely reported that the House of Lords Nominating Committee (HOLAC), the body responsible for verifying peerages, holds Johnson’s latest list. But where the interim prime minister has a will, he has a means.

Johnson has already bulldozed other controversial peerage nominations, such as that of Tory donor Peter Cruddas, who has been embroiled in cash-for-access allegations as the party’s co-treasurer. HOLAC unanimously recommended that the prime minister rescind his appointment. Cruddas donated 500,000 to the party days after his elevation to the Lords and recently campaigned to put Johnson on the Conservative members’ ballot for leader.

As outgoing prime minister, Johnson also has the right to propose a resignation honors list. These have been notorious since Harold Wilson’s 1976 lavender list of business personality nominations, allegedly written on the lavender stationery of his adviser, Marcia Williams. She became a Lady, of course. One member of the list committed suicide while being investigated for fraud and another was imprisoned for false accounting. Although he was a four-time election winner, Wilson’s reputation never recovered.

Johnson, always a cavalier with the rules, probably feels he has no reputation to lose after his ousting following the Partygate scandals. We can therefore expect him to ignore all the red lights of establishments.

But there is more at stake for his Tory successor. The last long period of Tory dominance ended with a slew of sordid allegations that paved the way for Labor’s return to power in 1997. The Opposition is eager to pillory Johnson until the next general election in two years and will seek to pin his misdeeds on his successor. History does not have to repeat itself.

Labor has toyed with a number of reform proposals from the Lords, ranging from outright abolition to the creation of a House of Nations and Regions that could cement England’s fractured union with Europe. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gordon Brown, Blair’s Scottish successor, is an ardent defender of this federal solution. So did Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury, a venerable member of the Conservative aristocracy, descendant of prime ministers and former party leader in the House. This will probably be the way to go one day.

But solve one problem and you’ll often create another, which is that the elected member of the House of Commons is jealous of any proposal that might create a rival. Such constitutional tinkering is anyway complicated and time-consuming and is often abandoned. So much so that constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, himself a Lord, has dubbed House reform the Bermuda Triangle of British politics.

Johnson’s successor, whether Truss or the less likely Sunak, will have limited time to make a difference in this parliament. They should show reformers a sign of good intentions. Phased reform plans to reduce the size of the House to a more manageable 600 members by introducing a mandatory retirement age could be tailored to simply restrict members’ terms. If the Lords have only served seven years, or even 10, then having cronies and backers in the mix might be less offensive or at least they’ll produce quicker.

A moratorium on all new appointments would be even better. For what is the alternative? The Constitution Unit think tank estimates that without checks on nominations, the size of the chamber could reach 2,000 or more.

Both candidates vying for Johnson’s crown have pledged to shrink the size of the state. Here’s a modest proposition: where better to start than with the House of Lords, the home of institutionalized foolishness? The honors list of outgoing prime ministers will no doubt make the case for reform even clearer than it should already be.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

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Union Bashing won’t win for conservatives: Thérèse Raphaël

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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