For many years the two annual honours lists (Queen’s birthday and New Year) have contained no new peers. Indeed, they are almost entirely apolitical. Yes, there are usually one or two long-serving MPs who are given knighthoods and the occasional party political hack may be given an OBE. But almost everyone else on the list is there because he or she has excelled in some field other than politics.
It is true that civil servants continue to be given gongs as a matter of course, even though they may have performed abysmally. That practice used to be defended on the grounds that they were very badly paid. The defence no longer works. Top civil servants are now some of the richest people in the country, and they all have extraordinarily lavish pension arrangements which cost them nothing. There would be something to be said for abandoning the practice of dishing out honours to civil servants just for doing their jobs.
But most other people (and there are more than a thousand of them) given honours in the two lists are thoroughly deserving of them. What is more, the awards give untold pleasure to those who get them. The visit to Buckingham Palace to collect the MBE, OBE or CBE is likely to be one of the best days in the life of the recipient. Those who call for the abolition of honours, just because they disapprove of the odd knighthood, are guilty of forgetting the ninety nine percent of men and women on the lists who have done nothing but good.
Peerages, though, are quite a different matter. In today’s Telegraph there is an article by Nigel Farage in which he attacks the whole honours system because successive Prime Ministers have refused to appoint Ukip members to the House of Lords. Mr Farage is keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The honours system must be abolished or radically reformed, he says, because Ukip doesn’t get its fair share of the goodies. Only one Ukip councillor, he tells us, got an MBE in the New Year’s list. That means that the system is corrupt. What he has apparently failed to notice is that very few other councillors are to be found in the list. He hasn’t grasped the fact that honours lists are not there to reward politicians.
Nevertheless, Mr Farage does have a point about peerages. We now have separate lists of new peers. They turn up at unexpected times. And they, unlike the New Year’s and Queen’s birthday lists, are entirely political. The modern convention is that the Prime Minister nominates most of the new peers, the leader of the opposition gets a few and the leader of the Liberal Democrats gets the rest. During the coalition the Liberal Democrats overtook Labour (hence the staggering 105 Lib Dem peers in the House now). But, on the whole, the spoils tend to be divided between the Tories and Labour with the Lib Dems coming in third.
None of this would matter a great deal if the House of Lords understood its position as a revising chamber, rather than as a competitor with the elected House of Commons. For most of the last hundred years, particularly when the House of Lords was largely made up of hereditary peers, it was very careful not to challenge the supremacy of the elected chamber. But that is no longer the case. The four hundred or so peers who were appointed by Blair, Cameron and Clegg can see nothing wrong with doing all in their power to overrule the representatives of the electorate if they happen to disagree with them. The House of Lords is now, first and foremost, a body made up of party politicians.
Obviously, there is a pressing need to reform the Lords. But, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that reform of the upper chamber takes decades (centuries?) to achieve, and then goes horribly wrong. We are stuck with the present system for a long time to come. Since that is the case, how can the refusal of successive Prime Ministers to give any peerages at all to Ukip members be supported?
I am not, and never will be, an admirer of Ukip. But I know that it has massive support in the country. It frequently polls many more votes than the Liberal Democrats (in the last European Parliament elections it polled more votes than any other party). It is quite possible that it will, in the not too distant future, overtake Labour. And yet 105 Liberal Democrats have been ennobled and not one Ukip member has been. I know there are three Ukip peers, but they were all originally Tories. It really is true that no member of what has become the third party in the land has been appointed to the House of Lords. That, it seems to me, is a scandal.
I hope Mrs May will grit her teeth, hold her nose and recommend the appointment of at least half a dozen Ukip peers in the next batch of peerages. I fear, however, that she will follow in her predecessors’ footsteps and decide that only her own party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats should be represented in the Lords. Worse still, all the signs are that she will accede to those who say that no one should be appointed to the Lords unless he or she is passed by a committee charged with ensuring that nominees are politically correct (fully signed up to Blairite social policies).
Whatever became of fairness in public policy?