Could an argument over the House of Lords bring down the British government?

Britain’s ruling coalition of David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats seems seems to be nearing the breaking point over the government’s failure to make headway on the least likely of issues: reform of the House of Lords. The development means that the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber of the British ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

Britain's ruling coalition of David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats seems seems to be nearing the breaking point over the government's failure to make headway on the least likely of issues: reform of the House of Lords.

The development means that the House of Lords - the unelected upper chamber of the British parliament - is unlikely to be reformed anytime soon despite widespread criticism that most of its members are political appointees and that the so-called hereditary peers owe their seats to an accident of birth.

Although the chamber does not have the power to initiate new legislation, it scrutinizes new laws and can seriously delay them or propose serious changes to them.

Britain’s ruling coalition of David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats seems seems to be nearing the breaking point over the government’s failure to make headway on the least likely of issues: reform of the House of Lords.

The development means that the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber of the British parliament – is unlikely to be reformed anytime soon despite widespread criticism that most of its members are political appointees and that the so-called hereditary peers owe their seats to an accident of birth.

Although the chamber does not have the power to initiate new legislation, it scrutinizes new laws and can seriously delay them or propose serious changes to them.

The scuppering of Lords reform, a key plank of the coalition agreement struck in May 2010 with Cameron’s Conservatives, is particularly damaging for Clegg as it fuels the perception that the Liberal Democrats have gained little from going into government with a party that was not their ideological ally.

With House of Lords reform shelved indefinitely, Clegg is retaliating by opposing a planned redistricing of constituencies that would benefit the Conservative party in the 2015 election. In a statement made today, Clegg reiterated his support for Lords reform: 

I support an elected House of Lords because I believe that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. That is democracy – and it is what people rightly expect from their politics in the 21st Century. 

Cameron supported a plan to have the House of Lords be mainly elected, but his efforts were frustrated by a group of 91 rebel Tory MPs, leading to a shouting match between the prime minister and the leader of the group on the sidelines of parliament last month. 

The leader of the group, Jesse Norman — an old friend of Andrew Sullivan’s apparently — made his case against the reform in July: 

Members of the House can properly differ on the merits of the underlying issues. What they cannot differ on are the flaws in the Bill itself. It is deeply confused and, indeed, dangerous legislation. It will prevent real reform. It will reduce diversity and deep expertise in our political system. It would be a catastrophe for this country if the Bill were ever enacted.

David Lloyd George famously referred to the House of Lords as Mr Balfour’s poodle, but if the Bill goes through we will have Mr Clegg’s lapdog—a Chamber full of elected party politicians.

There is a case to be made that the politically appointed House of Lords is more diverse than the elected parliament, but it still seems — from the outside — like a bit of an anachronism.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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