“It was a virtuoso performance” [2]

Responses and replies to “It was a virtuoso performance” – Viscount Astor on Lord Ashdown on Lords reform

KL — Posted 22nd June 2011 at 9:04 am

If you’re saying that the House of Lords should remain appointed because of its ‘wisdom’, why not apply that to the Commons too then, given its primacy?

Because, despite it’s flaws, democracy is essential for a well-functioning society. But, it does not have to be either/or; we can have both — a House of Representatives (the Commons) and a (true) Senate. And the UK is currently in a unique position to achieve this, but is heading towards throwing this opportunity away because ‘democracy is perfect manna from heaven‘ and ‘everybody else does it that way‘.

And in any case, do you not trust the electorate to choose carefully the people who are elected to the new chamber?

Even if we had an exceptionally wise electorate, your question suggests a free choice. Political parties choose the candidates, leaving a limited, and often poor, selection. Further, as any vox pop will tell you, most of the electorate vote for a party, not a candidate — hardly a ‘careful’ choice. Getting elected is about standing for the right party in the right constituency at the right time.

“I would happily exchange wisdom for legitimacy”
Please tell me you’re joking, Lord Ashdown. What this country needs is another large dose of legitimate stupidity.

That’s a quote from the late Lord Russell. A hereditary peer himself, he put more trust in the electorate to choose correctly than the upper crusts of society.

I am not proposing anything to do with the ‘upper crusts’.
Through their choices, the electorate gave this nation 11 years of Margaret Thatcher and 10 years of Tony Blair. Might it be that Lord Russell’s trust was misplaced?

So the solution to a lack of confidence in something is more of the same?
So are you arguing then that the whole democratic system should be torn up?


What do you suggest as the alternative then – dictatorship? Absolute monarchy?

Actually, benign dictatorship can work quite well, but that’s another story…

We’ve tried both of these before — not sure they were terribly successful for the common man…

The premierships of Thatcher and Blair weren’t terribly successful for the common man either.

Lets step away from hyperbole.

We have an elected house which is not only the primary chamber of legislature, it is also the source of the principal members of the executive. So, through the ballot box, we give 650 people a huge amount of power.

What do they then do with that power? They turn up to important divisions, having taken no part in the debate, and vote according to what the whips tell them to. So the parties choose the candidates (hence the MPs), and then the party leaders tell them how to vote.

I value our democracy, but I do not revere it. It has many flaws none of which can or will be mitigated by another elected house.

My solution — currently unpopular but not unique — is a revising chamber of individuals who carry the qualities necessary to mitigate the flaws in the other house: political independence and ‘wisdom’.

This idea is often referred to as a House of Experts.

It draws criticism along the lines given by William Summers, “…that doesn’t mean a Peer who is a professor in biochemistry is also the best person to make important decisions on law reform.”
But this misses the point: mathematicians, scientists, engineers, doctors, … all have spent their lives having to understand and grasp complex issues quickly and then think very deeply, using the fundamental principles of logical reasoning, to come to the right conclusions. Valuable skills in any environment.

How many MPs fall into this category? Many of those who began in the reasoning disciplines left for a career in politics long before they had time to hone those abilities. Even when they try this approach, it’s rare:
Select committees are pretty much the only place in parliament where MPs do what you’d naively hope they do all the time: sit down, hear a lot of evidence on an important issue, and then have a good hard think about it. — Ben Goldacre

Your lack of imagination at the beginning of that sentence would appear to be resolved by the end: both would have passed had the second chamber been constituted with the same set of political weights — just as wrong but with added legitimacy.
But would they? Would an elected chamber, with 1/3 of its membership due for election, have actually agreed to something there was clear and demonstrable opposition to?

So your argument is that an elected second chamber would have voted against, not because it was wrong, but because 1/3 of them were up for election? You’ve just flagged up another major flaw in our democracy — from both sides of the ballot box — that personal gain trumps doing what is right.
Furthermore, being up for election didn’t stop members of the Commons voting for the war.

Of course, in an ideal democracy, the Great British public would have shown their opposition to the war in 2005. Some did, most didn’t.

Would a Government not have had to consult its members in the upper house before presenting the bill, when the changes could be made?

This should happen anyway, regardless of how the second chamber is chosen.

And in any case, even if they had passed, a bad decision is still a bad decision, no matter how many people voted for it.


Henry — Posted 22nd June 2011 at 11:29 am

It is a truly stunning speech. In particular that line, which Richard Quinn does not seem to concede:
‎’The case is very simple to argue. In a democracy, power should derive from the ballot box and nowhere else. Our democracy is diminished because this place does not derive its power from democracy and the ballot box but from political patronage—the patronage of the powerful.’

In a democracy, power should derive from the ballot box and nowhere else. Dear Lord Ashdown, that is a statement not an argument. How is it “very simple to argue”?

The vast majority of the power lies with the Commons. And I would not change that. The power and responsibility of the second chamber is (or should be) to analyze proposed legislation, spot the flaws, and then to present the suggested changes and the reasoning which led to them.

William Summers — Posted 23rd June 2011 at 10:20 am

Great speech Paddy.
There may well be wisdom in the HoL, but that doesn’t mean a Peer who is a professor in biochemistry is also the best person to make important decisions on law reform. As stated above, if you believe appointed wisdom is more important than democracy,…

No, not more important.

…why does this not also apply to the House of Commons?

Because democracy is essential but flawed. And the flaws cannot be mitigated by a second chamber which is similarly constituted — however much one plays with the popular voting system.

How we make decisions is the most important decision we make.


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