Opinion | The First Scandal King Charles Could Face Is a Gift From Boris Johnson
But there is a bigger scandal with the House of Lords, one that has been overlooked and which will persist even if Mr. Johnson’s appointments all turn out to be ethically aboveboard. The current appointments process, even when it’s not being abused, produces a homogeneous and unrepresentative House of Lords. For more than a century, measures have been taken to reform the Lords — to make it less elitist and more democratic in spirit, less privileged and more meritocratic. They appear to have backfired.
The House of Lords has long been considered “a reactionary institution of such magnitude and dead weight as no other nation in the world can show,” as the reformer Edward Carpenter put it at the turn of the 20th century. Hereditary aristocrats — eldest sons of eldest sons of ancient landlords — could veto laws passed in the Commons. In 1911, the fallout from a fierce budgetary battle led to measures to tame these privileges. Thereafter, the Lords could, for the most part, only delay laws or suggest amendments.
But in a democratic age, there was still a repugnance at the principle of hereditary power, especially since those who inherited titles tended to be less impressive than those who won them. In 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government limited hereditary peerages to fewer than 100 and began a new system in which the chamber would be dominated by life peers. They would presumably be better thinkers and better legislators — perhaps experts drawn from the loftiest realms of academia and the business world.
The Blair reform, however, has exacerbated the problems it intended to solve. The Lords appointed since the turn of the century have been more “qualified” in a sense, but no less uniform as a class. In practice, the Lords, though still a place for the genuinely accomplished, has taken on a ballast of politicians, spin doctors, donors, dirty-tricks artists and partisan journalists. In 2006, Mr. Blair saw four businessmen he had nominated to the Lords rejected when it emerged that they had lent millions of dollars to the Labour Party.
In retrospect, the occasional mediocrity of yesterday’s Lords was as often a blessing as a drawback. The passage of time had a randomizing effect. The justification for the Lords’ rule wound up looking less like divine right and more like the drawing of lots. Some Lords lacked money. Plenty lacked polish. They held all kinds of jobs. When Adm. Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero, died at Trafalgar in 1805, King George III conferred an earldom on his brother, with a vast estate and a large pension. Today the 10th Earl Nelson, now in his early 50s, is a police officer — as was his father, the 9th Earl, before him.
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