I’ve more thoughts on Jack Straw’s white paper on House of Lords reform, which I will get to in due course, but in the meantime let me introduce you to Anil Bhanot, General Secretary of the Hindu Council UK and author of what is, thus far, the worst article on the current reforms I’ve had the misfortune to encounter.
[WARNING - Fisk coming up]
Why are the powers that be apparently obsessed with elections, when the general population seems to have lost interest in voting unless it is to evict people from reality TV shows?
Let me see… I think its called ‘Democracy’.
Jeebus, is that not the mother (or perhaps father) of all straw men - why should we elect the second chamber when people are more interested in voting in reality shows that voting for Parliamentarian.
But hey, Anil, you may have something there - lets make this whole democracy business a bit more entertaining.
We can start by having a general election and then every couple of weeks afterwards, we can have a public phone poll and vote out the most useless and irritating MP…
When it comes to House of Lords reform, we already have one legislative chamber based on a competitive model. Where is the extra value in having a second chamber if it simply mirrors the first?
But you see, Anil, its doesn’t actually follow, logically, that a second chamber will ‘mirror’ the first merely because some or all of its members are elected because one has to consider both form and function. The trick in avoiding ‘mirroring’ lies in nothing more than how you define and codify the functions of the two chambers. Give each a different function and your don’t have any problems with mirroring.
The second chamber should be based mainly on merit, not on the strength of feeling or political spin individuals can drum up to swing the ballot in their favour. People want good policies; they want honesty, security and reliability. Yes, it is right we have the kind of representative mandate delivered by the House of Commons, who legislate on our behalf, but it is equally right to make the Commons subject to a process of scrutiny by a second chamber comprised of experts and specialists.
So what you’re saying, here, is that democracy should be watched over and regulated by an elite technocracy? Mmm…
But if these experts and specialists are such a big deal, then why not just cut out the middle man and get rid of the whole messy business of elections full stop?
And who decides just which of these experts and specialists are going to the most useful? Just what kind of expertise are we looking for? Who’s going to write the job description and person specification?
You’ve just not thought this through have you?
For elections to be truly effective, voters must have full knowledge of what and whom they are voting for.
Well yes, that would seem reasonable in principle - doesn’t work out like that in practice but, hell, no system is ever 100% perfect.
Too often, the electoral process is fatally flawed in that votes are cast not for the individual and their ability to do their job effectively and with integrity, but for an ideology they may have little understanding of; an ideology subject to perhaps radical change over time.
Yes, Anil, that’s what we call - politics. Will somebody please buy Anil a dictionary, he seems to be having some considerable difficulty in comprehending very basic terms.
Look. First and foremost, if what you want is for people to vote for individuals on their personal qualities and not their espoused ideology, then the simple solution is to ban political parties. They are, after all, the main vehicle (in theory) by which ideology is expressed in our current political system.
The thing is, not only (in theory) do political parties have an ideological position that some people vote for, but, guess what, individuals hold ideological views as well - so who’s to say that some people won’t vote for a particular individual because they espouse a particular ideology.
Voters may be unwittingly manipulated into casting their vote; Rupert Murdoch is on record as claiming that he could change the outcome of a general election within 3 days, and he should know.
So let’s ban Rupert Murdoch - I can live with that.
Look, whatever claims Murdoch might make about being able to change the outcome of an election, those claims have never been verified or adequately put to the test.
If you look back, you’ll find that the Murdoch press rarely, if ever, make an open call on the outcome of an election more than a day or so before voters go to the polls and while, on paper, his newspapers do appear to have a solid record of picking the winner, what we can’t be sure of at all is whether that record is based on people actually changing their voting intention because of last minute editorial in The Sun, or whether The Sun is just very good at reading the polls and making the right call and them claiming, after the fact, that it ‘woz them who won it!’.
Murdoch’s apparent claims have never been tested. It could all be cleverly-crafted hype and, oddly enough, the only way we’ll ever know for sure one way or another is if the Murdoch papers ever make the wrong call - because that would show that they don’t have the degree of influence they claim.
In India, criminals have been elected occasionally. In some other parts of the world we have seen much worse. Sadly, we are not unfamiliar with the concept of a minority of our MPs engaging in criminal practices here in the UK. Our current electoral system is adequate when it comes to short term positions in the House of Commons but the House of Lords requires better procedures if it is to produce members of the calibre required to sit for a maximum or renewable term of 15 years, as current proposals suggest.
Right, as far as the criminal thing goes the situation as I recall it is that an MP convicted of criminal act and given a custodial sentence is disbarred - they cease to be an MP. They may well be eligible to stand for election again after a set period but they would do so in the knowledge that their past in a matter of public record, and will inevitably be brought up by their political opponents.
As far as the present House of Lord is concerned, two words - Jeffrey Archer.
Archer has served two years of four year sentence for perjury and perverting the course of justice, yet the law permitted him to retain his peerage and he could, as I recall, have re-entered the Lord on his release, despite the fact that having been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty and deception, he would be disbarred from serving as a Trustee of a registered charity for life under the Charities Act.
I think you have things rather backwards.
What you’re effectively saying is that its the democratic process itself, which requires MP to stand for re-election every four or five years, that creates a culture of deception and dishonesty amongst politicians. Sorry, no - I don’t buy that at all.
A viable House of Lords needs to be collaborative and cooperative, rather than competitive. It needs to be a uniting influence, a family environment at the heart of our nation, rather than a hotchpotch of ambitious, politicking, competitive individuals of the kind an election is more likely to secure.
And I guess it would serve Mom’s apple pie and jam roly-poly twice a day as well.
Again, one can exert considerable influence over the ‘environment’ of the second chamber simply be exercising care in defining its function and the social mores within which that function takes place.
Look, aside from peer pressure and convention, the one thing you could argue serves most to preserve the current gentile atmosphere in the House of Lords is the fact that its members are currently appointed for life and, therefore, have no need to rely on the patronage of political leaders for their position. But that still does not mean that politicking doesn’t go on - the House will still often divide down strict party lines, the parties have whips in the Lords, albeit those whips are somewhat less influential than in the Commons and there is still a modest amount of jockeying for position that goes on.
I am pleased at least that Jack Straw is not proposing the bishops should face a general election system before being allowed a seat in the House of Lords. bishops, like others in such high profile public positions, face stringent selection procedures from within their own ranks, judged by people who have the expertise and experience to assess their merit. It is this knowledge base behind their selection that makes the process meaningful and valid, not the mere size of their electorate.
So if its the knowledge base, expertise and experience that counts, why limit such appointments to judges and bishops?
Why should we not similarly privilege other groups who can bring much the same degree of expertise and experience in the same way?
Why not have guaranteed seats in the second chamber for the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the British Medical Association, The Royal College of Nursing, The Royal Society, the Institute of Chartered Accountant or a myriad of other professional bodies all of whom could provide the same expertise and experience.
In my view, the church is mostly a positive influence on society and government. The relationship between church and state also has a reforming effect on the church, ensuring it moves with the times as new legislation sometimes challenges archaic and prejudicial opinions.
Hang on, Anil.
Legislation is legislation, irrespective of whether there is or isn’t a formal relationship between the church and the state. It’s not the relationship between church and state that ensures that churches have to move with the times in line with new legislation but the legislation itself - in Britain, no one is above the (aside from the odd ‘wrinkle’ around the monarchy) not even churches and that principle applies whether there is a relationship between church and state or not.
Yes, the secular fundamentalists will argue the church should not be allowed a seat as a matter of right and continue their ill-conceived attempts to remove the essential metaphysical dimensions of our lives in favour of purely temporal ones.
There’s no such thing as a ’secular fundamentalist’.
Secularism advocates a constitutional separation between church and state - its that simple.
There is no such thing as ‘partial-secularism’, no one is ‘half-a-secularist’ and no one can be more ‘fundamental’ in their views than any other.
Secularism does not ‘remove the essential metaphysical dimensions of our lives in favour of purely temporal ones’, it merely ensure that no single set of those ‘metaphysical dimensions’ is afforded pre-eminent status over any other by treating all of the equally. A secular state does not ignore religious beliefs or fail to take it into account in its activities, but it doesn’t privilege those beliefs either.
It’s also entirely untrue to suggest that religion has a monopoly on metaphysics - just because atheists, for example, do not believe in the existence of a ‘god’ does not mean that they don’t ‘do’ metaphysics - that’s what we have philosophy for.
This is yet more specious propaganda - and not very good propaganda at that.
But to capitulate to their vociferous demands would mean we lose a vital something that could never be replaced through an environment of competition and elections. To lose the influence of our bishops would be a major loss to the well being of this nation.
Why should removing bishops from the second chamber result in a loss of influence?
They can still speak, can’t they? They can still write? The can still make their case, put forward arguments and express their point of view - and have that taken into consideration by members of the second chamber.
The could even stand for election or be appointed as cross-bench members by the same appointments process that other cross-benchers would have to go through under Straw’s plan - so whats the problem?
What should bishops, specifically, be afforded guaranteed seats in the legislature and not other ‘groups’ who are equal in their experience and expertise. Why not scientists, doctors, philosophers, ethicists, accountants or business ‘leaders’?
Judges, yes, there is an argument to be put forward both in terms of a reward for years of public service but more compellingly because their specific field of expertise - the law and its application - is especially relevant to work of a chamber whose primary function is to ensure that what is passed by parliament is good, well written and exacting legislation.
But where is the parallel argument for the inclusion of bishops? Come on, Anil. Tell me.
Countries that have purged faith from their borders are now seeing the error of their ways. Russia and China, two great persecutors of religion, recognise the benefits faith brings to society and are trying to bring it back into their countries.
Oh good, another straw man - lets make an invalid comparison with the former Soviet Union and China and ignore the very much more valid comparison with the United States of America, which was constituted as a secular state by its founding fathers and for that is has a clear separation of church and state is hardly short on religion or religious influences.
Actually, the reason why this comparison is not advanced is pretty simply - it doesn’t fit in with the propaganda line about ’secular fundamentalism’.
What’s really happening here, and the US is the perfect example of this, is not that religion is under attack from secularism, let alone from an absurd oxymoron ’secualr fundamentalism’ but rather that the long established secular authority of the state is under assault by religious, and specifically Christian fundamentalism.
The differences between the US and UK are matters of degree. In the US, what is being attacked is the secular character of the state and the constitutional separation between church and state and the attack is being led, in the main, by the Christian right who, at its most extreme, want to turn the US into what amounts to Christian theocratic state - oner that retains the outward semblance of being a democracy but only to the extent that one might recognise Iran’s claims to be a democracy.
In Britain, things are somewhat different in the sense that the fundamentalist elements remain largely at the fringes of the Britain’s religious polity and the issue is not so much about trying to turn Britain into a more religious state - give or take the ravings of Mad Mel and a few others - but rather about trying to preserve religion’s many state-sanctioned (and often funded) privileges, whether that’s by way of bishops in the legislature, ‘faith’ schools and the extensive funding they received or in numerous other ways.
We live in a pluralistic society that accommodates many different beliefs and, of course, non-belief and we also aspire to be an equal society. Where secularists, like myself, differ from Anil and other religious believers, especially those who aren’t Christians, or more specifically, member of the Anglican church, is in how we look at this question of equality.
Secularists see equality in terms of putting all faiths on an equal footing by separating religion and the state taking away the privileges of the Church of England.
Anil, and those like him, want to see the Church of England retain its privileges because they see equality as a lever for their own faiths to obtain the same, or similar privileges.
We (secularists) want everyone to be equal, Anil just wants his faith to be given parity with the Church of England in terms of its perks - that’s where we differ fundamentally in our views.
However, it would be equally wrong to bring faith into any future constitution. Since Bangladesh adopted an Islamic clause in their constitution, the minority of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists have suffered greatly. What we need is a small degree of faith influence on the state but not to the extent that it becomes constitutional. The House of Lords’ reservation of 26 seats for the clergy strikes that balance fairly well.
I wonder, do think Anil has ever taken one of those dumb citizenship tests?
Britain already has ‘faith’ in its constitution - we have an established state church, the Church of England and have had since… well Henry VIII started the ball rolling, but then there was Mary Tudor, so I supposed since Elizabeth I is about the right answer, give or take the odd bit of faffing around until the suppression of the Jacobites in 1745.
The most revealing element of that last paragraph is Anil’s support for the retention of a full complement of 26 bishops in the second chamber - even Jack Straw has proposed some (as yet unspecified) reduction in numbers.
The calculation is all too obvious - Straw’s white paper talks of making the House more ‘representative’ of British society by using the appointment system to ensure that it has more members from ethnic minorities and non-Christian ‘faith communities’. Anil’s just working the odds here - the most bishops there are in the house the bigger the likely contingent of representatives of other faiths will be and the better chance there is that one or more of them will be earmarked for a Hindu.
In fact the short version of this article - as I’ve posted at Comment Is Free is…
“Jack’s offering guaranteed seats in the second chamber to other faith groups.
I’d like one.”
The House of Lords must maintain its distinctiveness.
Well Jack’s hardly suggesting that it’s going to assimilated by the Borg.
By all means reform bad elements but keep the chamber based on a cooperative model.
But the ‘bad elements’ are that its undemocratic and elitist, and that what you want to keep.
Leave competition to the Commons; they can struggle to secure the votes of a paltry 40% of the population.
Let me translate. What Anil’s actually saying here is:
Bastards. How dare you move the goalposts before I get my peerage.
The upper chamber is too important to leave to what can often amount to the laws of chance.
Funny you should say that, you see there is this idea of selecting members by lottery that sounds quite interesting…
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