Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Reforming the House of Lords

I was listening to Radio 4 the other day when I was annoyed to hear an idea being praised by some academic. It was on the selection for the House of Lords and the idea was that citizens should sit on juries to select peers. The reason this annoyed me is that I floated this very idea some time back. This is how it came about.

Remember New Labour’s “Peoples’ Peers”, the label applied to the Independent Appointment’s Commission chaired by Lord Stevenson? Members of the public were nominated, with the Commission receiving over 3000 applications to join the House of Lords. There was widespread outrage when Lord Stevenson announced the names of the successful applicants. Among those newly ennobled, six knighthoods and five other honours had already being awarded. What is more, Lord Stevenson suggested that normal people, such as hairdressers, would be uncomfortable being in the Lords.

This was November, 2001. At the time I happened to be listening to the Jimmy Young Show on BBC Radio 2 and decided to contribute to the debate. I was fortunate enough to get through to a producer (possibly with the name of Chris?) who was courteous enough to listen to my idea which was this:

The Independent Appointment’s Commission was effectively a selection jury made up from the Great and the Good. Is it any wonder therefore that they had selected new peers from their own social background? Therefore if the IAC was truly to represent “Peoples’ Peers”, the selection committee would have to be made up from normal people. How could this be achieved? By selecting the members of the IAC on the same basis as juries are selected for court cases. The individuals selected would be part of the panel for the duration of that selection round.

Now, I was on the telephone for about four minutes putting forward this suggestion. The gentleman on the other end seemed genuinely impressed and questioned me on aspects of the plan. After the conversation ends I listened to the rest of the programme in the hope that my idea would be mentioned. It was not. And there matters rested until I heard the same suggestion being praised the other day.

I am not accusing anybody of stealing my idea. It is almost certain that whoever came up with it recently had arrived at it independently. No matter what the provenance of the idea is, I reckon it is still a good one.

The problem with selection of the House of Lords is that it is tied too much to the justly criticised patronage system. IAC was a flawed attempt to balance the system. I am against the direct election of the Lords for the simple reason that it will undermine the independence of the House. Peers will be in the power of the political parties rather than independent as they are now. An elected Lords will also undermine the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons. In recent years the Lords have been a centre of effective resistance to government attempts to pass through illiberal, not to say draconian measures such as the extension of the term of detention that the police can hold a suspect without charge. The Lords also acts as a centre of expertise and specialised knowledge that is simply not available to the Commons. This is all the more important with the increasing professionalisation of the political classes. In my opinion, a House of Lords made up of entirely elected members will fatally wound the institution and inevitably it will become a rubber stamp for the executive in power.

The power of the Lords is that its members, once they join the House, are life members. The government no longer has direct control over them. Certainly many still take the whip and sit loyally with their political party. But still the Lords is a rigorous obstacle that contentious bills have to pass through.

The key to reforming the Lords lies in reformation of the selection system. Whether made up members of the public or more specialised members (such as politicians, academics or religious leaders) or even a mixture of members, juries may offer a simple and elegant solution as to who becomes a Lord.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Vladimir Putin: Almost There

In August I wrote a blog about Vladimir Putin (Putin – Frost in August ) Events have continued apace since then, pretty much as expected. Iran is still enjoying Russian support for its nuclear aspirations. The rumours of assassination attempts on Putin during his trip to Tehran naturally came to nothing. Since the majority of Muslims from Chechnya are Sufi and Iran is Shia, Iran has little interest in aiding the continuing insurrection against Russia in its southern provinces. (In fact I would not be at all surprised if the whole story of the murder plot originated from some Western spook house, aided and abetted by tame journalists, in an attempt to sour the cosy relationship between Moscow and Tehran.) But I digress… It is at home that Putin’s conquest of Russia is nearing completion.

As outlined in Frost in August, Vladimir Putin’s wooing of the Russian people continued apace before the elections. An excellent example of this during the pre-election phase was Putin’s appearance as guest-of-honour on broadcaster KVN’s television comedy show celebrating its 45th anniversary. Naturally Vladimir got to have a speech at the end (, an opportunity which I hope he felt was worth the wait as during most of the show he wore the fixed smile of a guest watching his hosts’ children at play and being expected to enjoy the experience. But now Putin can rest from such trifles and return to the real business of power: the elections for the lower house of parliament, the Duma, which started this week.

Being as cautious and methodical as always, the Kremlin has restricted the number of observers from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) from 450 in 2003 to “up to seventy people” for the December elections. Putin has also endorsed his party, United Russia, and put into place this year Viktor Zubkov as current Prime Minister. Zubkov is expected to run for the presidency following Putin’s mandatory retirement from the role in March next year. Should Zubkov win (and I don’t think anybody would bet against that), Putin is expected to take the role of Prime Minister.

From there, I reckon it could go in two directions. The current plan in the media is that Putin would be able to stand in the presidential elections for 2012. There is another option though. Under many states, the role of President is one of figurehead, wielding no actual power (the ex-Soviet Union was one such state for example). It may be that the constitution will be changed, in the name of democracy naturally, devolving much of the current presidential role down to the Duma and its prime minister, which would happen to be one V. Putin.

Now the name of this article is “Vladimir Putin: Almost There.” All these parliamentary manoeuvres are as naught compared to what is happening in the country-at-large. First of all, a law has been passed for the compulsory teaching of religion at all schools. The religion of choice and of nation is Russian Orthodoxy. This form of Christianity is rather illiberal (especially on women: long skirts, headscarves etc) and the usual Sunday service (although they are rather beautiful) is in the order of three hours long; standing only. This isn’t the problem though. In the past Russian Orthodoxy has been totally loyal to the regime of the Tsars, with the same level of loyalty being expected from United Russia. Other forms of worship are being actively discouraged if not suppressed. The second factor is coming from the Russian people themselves. They have stopped talking politics on the telephone. Discussions are starting to be limited to small groups in individuals’ homes.

The transition to totalitarian state is almost complete. Almost there, Vladimir, almost there….