Why Anglican bishops should sit in a reformed House of Lords

Originally published on 7 August 2014 for Theology. By Nigel Biggar.

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Why Christianity benefits secular public discourse, and why, therefore, Anglican bishops should sit in a reformed House of Lords

Since the failure of the Coalition government’s attempt – or rather the Liberal Democrats’ attempt – to reform the House of Lords in 2012, the issue has been kicked into the long grass, where it is likely to remain for some time. The reason for this is that, when push comes to shove, governments worldwide are traditionally reluctant to spend valuable time and energy on reforming second chambers – for example the Canadian Senate has been awaiting reform for over a century and the Irish Seanad for the best part of one.

Judging by the centre of gravity of the last bout of public discussion in Britain, if the House of Lords were to be reformed, membership would be entirely or overwhelmingly by election. This would go against the Wakeham Commission’s report on Lords reform in 2000, which recommended that a reformed upper house include a significant number of members appointed by an independent Appointments Commission.

It would also go against the conclusions of the most thorough available analysis of the options, Meg Russell’s Reforming the House of Lords, which draws on the experience of Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Ireland. Russell observes that part of the value of a second chamber is its inclusion of members who are independent of party politics and who bring important expertise and experience into Parliament, which enables more reflective and intelligent public deliberation. Such inclusion, however, is very difficult to obtain through election. None of the other second chambers achieve the same reputation for expert membership as does the House of Lords. She also observes that a second chamber ought not to rival the first chamber in authority, otherwise it would become more of a party-political arena and lose the desired deliberative qualities. Hence, it needs to be seen as less ‘representative’.

Given this considered, expert wisdom, why does the government and why do political parties prefer membership by election? In part, because the House of Commons is sensitive to its loss of reputation and public trust through the so-called expenses scandal. But the reason is mainly, I think, the dominance of a democratic populism. It is very widely believed that political legitimacy can only be had through democratic election.

I think that this is a major mistake, and I think so, both as a Christian and as a human being who has reflected on human affairs. Of course, a good political constitution needs a part where rulers are made sensitive and accountable to those they rule – that is, an elected legislature that can hold government to account and stop it in its tracks. A good constitution needs a democratic element. After all, at least according to a biblical and Christian view, rulers exist to serve the ruled: kings are expected to be shepherds of their people.

Nevertheless, one ought not to be naive about the people. On this I think that Christian tradition, personal experience and history concur. The popular will – which, we should remember, is usually only the will of a dominant part of the whole people – is not always right and just. As a Christian I call to mind that it was the people (the laos as in ‘laity’) who bayed for Jesus’ blood in the Gospels, and it was the people (the demos as in ‘democracy’) which, according to the Acts of the Apostles, responded to the Christian persecutor, Herod, by lauding him as a god. If kings can be sinners, then so can the people. As a reader of history, I remember that Hitler was elected by due democratic process.

What this means is that a healthy political constitution should not be entirely democratic. Of course it needs an elected house of popular representatives, which should be predominant. But it also needs other parts too, to balance it. The constitution needs to be mixed. I think that Wakeham and Russell are right. In addition to an elected House of Commons, a healthy constitution also needs a House of Lords composed of a wide range of experts and leaders of civil society. That is, it needs an aristocracy of wisdom, not of land, and this can only be secured by appointment, not popular election.

The good thing about elected representatives is that their dependence on popularity makes them sensitive to the needs of the electorate. The danger, however, is that elected representatives, whose main ambition is to stay elected, will sacrifice their better judgement about the common good to the wants of their electors. In Parliament we need to be sure of hearing voices that are not constrained from speaking unpopular truth by the desire to remain popular. Elections cannot give us that guarantee. That is why an upper house should be entirely appointed by an Independent Appointments Commission, whose brief is to ensure a wide representation, not of people, but of expertise and wisdom.

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