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Lords Spiritual — A Categorical Affront

April 27, 2012

The subject of Lords Reform has re-entered the public sphere, and so we discuss the possibility of a partially or totally elected chamber and whether churchmen will be included. I think that the bishop question is far more imperative than it is presented as being, and is perhaps not so much a case of secularism.

At this time, bishops are, on the merit of their being bishops, included in the House of Lords; the draft recommendations which have just been released by the committee which is charged with imagining the constitution of the reformed chamber has recommended that they be preserved, though  in lesser numbers. To decide whether these Christian primates should be present, I will discuss the two reasons why a certain individual should be present in a legislative chamber.

The first reason is democratic — we determine that because the population ought to govern the way in which they are governed, that they should be able to vote for the members which they want to constitute their houses of parliament.

The second reason concerns ability. In this scenario the elected government select people who have specific skills which would greatly benefit government, like Lord Mandelson, and make these individuals members of the Upper house to that they can be part of the government. Also, the authorities select people who are in possession important experience and abilities so that through their skills the chamber will be better able to scrutinise legislation.

I assert that these cases are the only ones through which an individual should be allowed to sit in a legislative chamber; that is that members should be included according to the mandate of the people who they govern, and included according to their abilities so that the government and legislature can perform its function with greater ability and awareness.

The bishops who do, and perhaps will, sit in the House of Lords are not members because of either of these two reasons, they are there because of their membership of a certain organisation. This is not to say that a bishop shouldn’t be elected, or shouldn’t be selected for government or law-making according to their knowledge of religion and tradition, but to say that no one should be present in a legislative house because of their position in a certain club. The expression of this governmental solipsism is mild in this country, but it is no less unsatisfactory — offering certain individuals the chance to be present in the law-making organs of a nation only as a privilege of their being part of a certain organisation is a grave affront, whatever its expression.

With that established, I am in favour of a partially elected upper chamber. It is proper that those who sit to scrutinise legislation should do so due to an electoral mandate, but it would be a shame to lose the opportunity to consciously select individuals to constitute parliament. As I said before, it can be very useful to appoint a given person to the Lords so that they can take a role in the executive and answer Ministerial questions in the house. At the same time, there are certain individuals of such brilliance and talent that it would enrich the legislative process to have their experience and expertise present while laws are made.

With the promise of reform comes the possibility of a genuine rationalisation process, which could create a fairer and more effective House of Lords. There are many obstacles which make this goal a little closer to being unattainable, such as the hedge-trimming desire to leave systems unchanged (or to change them by the smallest increment which is possible), often citing the fact that it ‘works’ in its current form — this may be true, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t the possibility of fruitful improvement and economization.

‘Guaranteed places for a dozen male prelates who are guided by religious laws and selected by a church hierarchy which denies equal rights to women and gay people and the dying,’

This is from an Observer editorial, and I insist that to list defects such as this is to dilute the very categorical argument which must be made. The Church wouldn’t be able to make the guaranteed places for bishops any less unsatisfactory by removing these transgressions — the affront isn’t in the backward and unfair nature of the Church but the fact that rank and membership of this church is a sufficient condition. With or without these shockers which she lists, guaranteed clerical presence in parliament is not compatible with democracy.

From → Essays

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