Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

Of course the House of Lords is corrupt

Britain’s political and media elites are still reeling from the revelation this weekend that the House of Lords might be corrupt, after four lords allegedly offered to amend legislation in return for cold, hard cash. In other news it has been reported that, on the outskirts of Alaska a bear defecated in the woods, while in Rome, Joseph Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, is due to give an address in St Peter’s Square titled: “Yes, I am a Catholic.”

Of course the House of Lords is corrupt. I could have told you that even before the Sunday Times sent its undercover reporters, posing as lobbyists acting for a company, to ask Lords Truscott, Moonie, Taylor and Snape if they could help them dodge the law on business rates. The Sunday Times says the lords offered to help if the price was right; the lords say they didn’t. Either way, the House of Lords is an inherently corrupt and corruptible institution.

Britain’s second chamber was set up to “check and balance” the decisions made by the rabble-rousing elected House of Commons. The idea behind the House of Lords — described by that scion of democracy and liberty Thomas Paine as the “remains of aristocratical tyranny” — is that the political process needs an aloof body of men who stand above everyday debate and desires to keep in check the passions of the “commons”.

The lords have been able to strike down legislation and amend laws passed by our elected leaders, if they feel that the laws are too rushed, too harsh, ill-judged and so on. So it is in the very make up of the House of Lords to “corrupt” things, in the strictest meaning of that word: “To change the original form, of a text, for example.” If corruption involves making something “impure” by adding a “foreign or inferior substance”, then that surely is the perfect description of the everyday activities of the House of Lords. Its purpose in life is to corrupt — to change, alter, sway, deny, destroy — the will of the people and our elected representatives.

It seems odd that such a storm has brewed over allegations that four lords offered to act on behalf of “business interests” when the House of Lords itself was created to represent elite interests, to consolidate the will and decision-making powers of aloof, unelected Men Not of The People. It is in the nature of the lords to “corrupt” democratic legislation in the name of elite better judgment. So, while accepting cash to amend laws on behalf of businesses might strictly be against the rules, this latest scandal can be seen simply as one small part of a far grander scandal in British politics: the existence of the House of Lords in the first place and its temerity to amend the laws of the passionate many in the name of the cool-headed few.

Even if the allegations turn out to be false, the House of Lords is deeply corruptible. It is precisely its alleged “virtue” — the fact that it is once removed from the plebiscite — that makes it so potentially sinful. Where elected politicians are accountable to a section of the population and thus are directed, for the most part, by the will, desires and complaints of their voters, unelected lords remain far more open to the influence of small, sectionalist, elite lobby groups.

Common politicians must win the political argument with the electorate in order to get a seat and must always endeavour to represent their electorate’s interests. Lords, by contrast, represent only themselves and possibly other members of their “caste” — that is, other wealthy or powerful individuals who want to put a block on democratic law-making in the name of some “elite interest”. The existence of the lords as a permanent check on democracy invites corruption. It invites those who, for some reason, are displeased with the democratic process — whether it’s the sitting lords themselves, or their aristocratic, bishop and business friends who might be put out by some new law — to try their hand at stopping the democratic process, or at least skewing it.

From the outset the House of Lords has been a fairly criminal enterprise. In the late 1700s, Thomas Paine said the Lords was “originally composed of robbers”. He pointed out that an act passed in 1550 made all members of the House of Lords exempt from punishment for the crimes of “house-breaking, highway-robbing, horse-stealing and robbing of churches”. It was in the nature of aristocrats — landowners, landlords, and rent-collectors — to do all of these things, said Paine: “This is aristocracy.” More recently the House of Lords has been reformed, to lower the number of hereditary peers and replace them with “life peers” nominated by the political parties themselves. Yet if anything, this has increased corruption. In 2006, there was a massive scandal over political parties “handing out peerages” to rich people in return for donations. In the past, the House of Lords was made up of people who happened to be born in the right place at the right time; today it is stuffed with the wealthy friends and acquaintances of the elite who do “financial favours” for political parties. It positively reeks of corruption.

The House of Lords is unreformable. It cannot be made “more democratic”. Its very essence is elitist and corrupting. And so long as it exists, it will elevate the interests of the few — lords, bishops, life peers or businessmen — over the interests of the many. It must be abolished.