I have already recorded my disappointment at discovering, during the second reading of the Brexit debate, that the House of Lords now has practically no members who understand what the word “debate” means (there was a succession of dreary and predictable speeches all written out days before the debate and then read to the chamber by peers who seemed to have no interest in what other noble lords had to say).
I stressed, in that earlier piece, that pretty well all peers, even those (the very few) whose opinions I shared, were appallingly bad debaters. I wasn’t criticising their views, just their incredible incompetence in the way they expressed those views. But now, I warn you, so you can stop reading if you fear seeing opinions you may find disagreeable, I am going to say something about the substance, rather than the form, of their lordships’ contributions to the debate.
The House of Lords is not meant to be a representative body. In the days when it was mostly made up of hereditary peers it was, by chance rather than design, a much more diverse institution than it now is. There were peers of all ages (though sadly only a few women). There were peers with eccentric views (Communists would never get in to the place now). But it didn’t claim any sort of democratic legitimacy. It did represent something, an important estate in the country, but it didn’t purport to represent the people: that was for the House of Commons.
The House of Lords has now become a body of men and women who are all politically orthodox. That is particularly obvious when one sees them debating Europe. One after the other, their lordships rose to say that, of course, they had voted remain in the referendum. One of them even came out with the startling assertion that it is now “universally” accepted that the referendum vote was a serious mistake. For almost all members of the House it was a given that no remotely sane person could have voted leave.
And yet we know that more people voted leave than remain. What is more, though some of the more hysterical remainers disagree, there were many intelligent people amongst the majority. It may well be that the majority of people with 2:2 degrees in media studies voted remain, but the contention that they are all much brighter than non-graduates is obvious nonsense. And, anyway, there were lots of highly educated people who voted leave. The almost “universal” opinion of members of the House of Lords that it was impossible for an intelligent person to vote leave was, at first sight, remarkable.
But only at first sight. As soon as one reflects on the present constitution of the House, all becomes clear. There are a very few hereditary peers still there. There are some big guns, one thinks of Lord Lawson, who obviously had to be given peerages because of their distinguished public service, even though they were eurosceptics. But the rest of them are all there because they were chosen by Prime Ministers and opposition party leaders who had one thing in common: anyone who opposed our membership of the EU was a “bastard”. There was simply no possibility of any eurosceptic (other than the tiny number of big guns) being given a peerage. It has been, for a great many years, a condition of membership of the House of Lords that the potential peer should be in favour of our membership of the EU. When one understands all that one can easily understand why the vast majority of the House is so confused by the result of the referendum.
So what did the peers actually say in their speeches? They came into three categories. There were the extreme remainers, mostly Liberal Democrat but some Labour, who were determined to do all in their power to reverse the referendum result. There were the Labour, and a few Tory, peers who said the referendum result and the Commons vote for the Bill were a national tragedy, but we must grit our teeth and hold our noses because democracy should win in the end. And then there were Tories who, having made it clear that they they didn’t let the side down, that they had voted remain, said that, actually, things might not turn out to be as bad as we thought they would be.
There was a horribly depressing sameness about the speeches. Of course there were exceptions (there was even one incredibly brave Liberal Democrat peer who opposed a second referendum – you should have seen the scowls on the faces of her noble friends). One of the Labour peers actually dared to say he had voted leave. And I have to say I almost admired Baroness Wheatcroft for being courageous enough to say, despite being in receipt of the Conservative whip (I didn’t say she was a Tory because she obviously isn’t), that everything was going to be disastrous.On the whole, though, every speech came into one of the three categories.
And nearly all of them had one thing in common. They all devoted most of their six minutes to telling us how rule from Brussels was obviously like rule from heaven. Yes, most of the Tories were grudgingly prepared to concede that it was possible we could survive outside the EU, and even possibly do quite well. But even they, or most of them, felt it necessary to make it clear to us that we, the dreadfully common and stupid people, had made a serious mistake.
There was another irritant. Lots of their lordships prefaced their remarks by saying they had a constitutional right to differ from the people (which is correct – even if convention provides they should eventually bow to the popular will). And they tended to go on to say that the reason for that was that they were all, by virtue of their peerages, vastly superior and much more intelligent than anyone else. But no disinterested observer of the debate could possibly have concluded other than that most of their lordships are extraordinarily second-rate.