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Three Sensible Suggestions to Reform the House of Lords

Here's how to solve Britain's constitutional crisis.

Photo by Chris Bethell

The British like to hang on to old stuff. Across the country, suburban semis and stately homes are crammed airless with haphazardly acquired junk: pizza delivery flyers, snow globes from around the world, porcelain figurines of vaguely menacing clowns, the bodies of our victims. Long ago, we arranged a bunch of stones in a circle—it's been patently useless since the invention of the calendar, but somehow we can't quite bring ourselves to knock the thing down and make room for a nice Tesco's or something similarly worthwhile. We locked an old lady away in a big house, ringed it with iron gates and armed guards, and large sectors of the population are inexplicably proud of this fact. And for hundreds of years we've hung on to the House of Lords—an entire unelected upper chamber of parliament that has no actual function whatsoever.


The House of Lords is terrifying and autotelic, at once a retirement home for failed parliamentarians and a nightmarish science-fiction monster, a Thing that lives beyond its bounds, existing only to endlessly engorge itself. Of course it's not pretty—it counts Andrew Lloyd Weber among its initiates. Of course it's not democratic—it's something tyrannical and ancient, snarling at us from the darkest pits of time; something that's impossible to kill. It's been over 350 years since the republican government of Oliver Cromwell, "finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the People of England," tried to abolish the thing. But it came back; the undead always return.

Not always in the same form, though. Just two short months ago, David Cameron was happily packing the House of Lords with new Tory peers, making it the world's second-largest national legislature, as if that were the most normal thing in the world.

Now, the Conservatives say, it's a grave threat to British democracy. This is because for once it's actually done its job, voting down the government's proposed cuts to tax credits. (They would, with depressing inevitability, have ended up disproportionately affecting the poorest members of society. As if that even needed to be said.) The Lords doesn't have any power of veto; all it can do is delay new legislation for six months. But for George Osborne, a greased-up and aerodynamicized velocity-demon that hungers for untrammeled world domination, this is entirely unacceptable.


The British constitution is essentially a collection of unspoken conventions and half-baked ideas jotted down on ten centuries of napkins, but one of those ideas is the sovereignty of Parliament and the supremacy of the Commons. As far as the Tories are concerned, the Lords facing the Commons down amounts to a constitutional crisis (although it might be more accurate to say that this kind of crisis is our constitution).

With terrifying speed, the Tories have set up a review to propose reforms to the House of Lords. (But because Britain is fundamentally a very stupid place, it's being chaired by a hereditary peer, one with a frankly incredible collection of middle names: Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, Second Baron Strathclyde.) However, they face an obvious problem. The Tories are, after all, the party of English tradition; cricket on the village green, scrumptious lashings of ginger beer, and the thermonuclear slaughter of all foreigners. How can they reconcile this with any reforms to our beloved aristocratic nursing home come chamber of parliament? These are just a few suggestions, but Lord Strathclyde would do well to consider them:


The fundamental purpose of the House of Lords is to waste time: with its six-month delay to legislation it wastes time for the House of Commons, and with its very existence it's happily wasted time for generations of the idle rich. Medieval aristocrats didn't have BuzzFeed, so they invented the Lords instead. It's this aspect that needs to be modernized; in the 21st century, we expect our time-wasting entertainment to be properly entertaining. The government could simultaneously preserve a long-standing British custom and neuter any threat to its plots against the poor and helpless by reversing New Labour's reforms and only allowing harmlessly bonkers rich people to sit in the upper chamber. Were the House of Lords populated entirely by monomaniac apiarists, snaggle-toothed bishops, dotty old racists, and people with beards in the shape of household objects, at the very least we could sell the American TV rights for a small fortune.


That still leaves the question of the democratic deficit. Traditionally, bicameral parliaments use different voting systems across their chambers, to prevent their makeup from being redundantly identical. There have been proposals—most recently from the Liberal Democrats—for a reformed upper house to be elected by proportional representation, but this is boring, and it fundamentally ignores the current state of British democracy. Instead of the election, which happens every couple of years and generally fails to interest anyone, our model should be the phone-in reality TV show, which gives people a direct and visceral sense of civic responsibility every single week. It should be obvious that the House of Lords needs to be drastically slimmed down, and the best way to do it is to have all the current peers compete for a maximum of 12 seats, dancing for the viewers at home, sobbing to Ant and Dec once they're stripped of their titles.

The government claims to be at the service of the people. If they really mean that, they'll dance for us.



Maybe, the answer isn't to endlessly tinker around with what we already have, but to create something new. Originally, Parliament was meant to represent the British public according to the only thing that matters to an essentially psychotic national psyche: class. One house for the landed aristocracy, another for the ordinary red-blooded bourgeoisie. But with the extension of the franchise to the working classes, a distressingly high proportion of millionaires among our MPs, Parliament simply no longer accurately represents the class composition of the voting public.

Clearly the answer is to introduce a new organ of government, a House of Plebs or a House of Proles. While actually representing the working class would, for obvious reasons, not be constructive for the current government, most British people seem to be incapable of telling the difference between the working classes and a shoddy caricature of a white van driver. There's no need for any more troublesome elections; perhaps the cops could be enlisted to gently shepherd an entire EDL rally into the Houses of Parliament, and then lock the doors.

If the Lords exists to slow down the work of the Commons, the Plebs could balance it out by violently speeding things up: swinging the mace in front of a terrified junior minister's face, scrawling the words "Immigrants Out" over some needlessly convoluted piece of legislation, bashing MPs heads against the ancient benches, and growling at them to vote or get off the pot. Governance would be clear and decisive, politicians would be accountable to the people, tradition would be preserved, and British democracy would, at long last, reach its historically perfected form.

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