To many, the House of Lords seems like a dusty reminder that the UK is slow to update itself to the modern day. Between archaic outfits and an ageing demographic, the House of Lords seems to not only facilitate giving power to rich old people but to actively entrench that idea. Largely unknown, unelected and riddled with expense scandals, it seems like an easy point of consensus that the House of Lords is the relic of a bygone age and ought to be left to the scrap heap of history. Nonetheless, I want to make the case that the House of Lords is an institution worth keeping.
In centuries gone by, the House of Lords – as the name suggests – was home to aristocrats. This included Dukes and Earls as well as bishops and archbishops. Many of the positions were inherited and were created to the exclusion of the common man (hence the creation of the House of Commons). Yet this was also an age where the word aristocrat meant more than just being a pasty old man who inherited a fortune and didn’t have to work a day in their life. The word itself actually clues us into this. The ‘-cracy’ part of aristocracy is the same -‘-cracy’ that we find in democracy and it means ‘the rule of’. In democracy, this means the rule of the demos, the people. It’s the ‘aristos’ bit that is more interesting to this conversation. It literally means the ‘best’ making aristocracy the ‘rule of the best’. Yet the root of the word ‘aristos’ is the same as ‘arete’. If you’re not familiar with Aristotle’s philosophy, arete is the ideal endpoint he thinks everyone should be striving towards. It’s usually translated as ‘virtue’, but a more accurate translation would be ‘excellence’.
There are always going to be bad eggs and history was darker than we can imagine but these aristocrats of centuries gone by – the best that sought to rule – generally lived up to the name. Wars in the medieval age were fought with smaller armies and were built around those wealthy enough to fund their own armour and men-at-arms. When the farmers needed protecting or when the country was going to war, it was often enough the aristocrats who went. They were entrusted to lead local areas in the feudal system and before that, the root of the English word ‘lord’ is the Old English hlaford which meant ‘loaf guardian’ or ‘bread-giver’.
Clearly, however, modern aristocrats neither need to perform the same duties their ancestors did nor attempt to. When Blair scrapped all but 12 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, there were few complaints from anyone who wasn’t one of the Lords who’d lost their position. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still appreciate the role of a true aristocrat and re-work the idea for the modern day though.
When you first start studying British politics and politics in general, something you learn about democracy is that on the one side it’s the rule of the majority, but on the other it’s also the rule of 50% + 1. The danger of democracy is ‘mob rule’ where minorities are at risk. The fortunate point is that in the UK, we have a chamber of legislature dedicated to minorities. What is someone who is ‘excellent’ if not a minority? Today, many of the seats in the House of Lords are taken by those who have served in their respective fields for decades. They’re experts who can provide valuable insight into the effects of certain bills before they’re turned into laws. Though it may not be the first thing that jumps to mind, an expert is also essentially a minority.
With that being said, the dusty chambers of the House of Lords could use some spring-cleaning. The expenses scandal, for example, is an appalling reminder that those who are meant to serve the public and the greater good of the country can take for granted the privilege that comes with their responsibility. There are also issues with a lack of testing in the appointment process. Donors – in recent years predominantly Tory donors – can essentially buy a seat in the House of Lords. But when people either don’t understand the House of Lords or accept it as an outdated institution then the solution becomes to just scrap it. For a number of reasons, this isn’t likely to happen for some time, so it means that the problem persists. Why bother reforming an institution you want gone anyway? Clearly then, the process to becoming a Lord needs to be less political and personal and more meritocratic and non-partisan.
When done right, the House of Lords can be a benefit for our country by providing minorities – whether that means experts or ethnic and religious minorities – with a voice. Aristocrats have a largely deservedly bad rap in this day and age but that doesn’t mean that we should toss the baby with the bath water and forego all ideas of aristocracy. There are those in our country that are ‘excellent’. They’ve worked for decades in public service and their respective industries, and they can hold politicians accountable when elected representatives try to force through damaging bills in order to win a few votes. A Britain that keeps the House of Lords as it is, is a Britain left with an outdated institution that is open to corruption. A Britain that decides to scrap the House of Lords is one that has muted the political voice of the potentially excellent and is a Britain left with only Commons.