Anybody under the delusion that the temper of British politics is fundamentally democratic should consider Labour's extraordinary contortions, since it came to power in 1997, over the future of the House of Lords. Labour MPs and ministers have haggled continuously over the precise proportion that the people can be trusted to elect, like a dysfunctional family squabbling over the estate of a deceased relative. Figures between 20 per cent and 60 per cent have been batted back and forth. Now, Tony Blair seems inclined to offer nil per cent, and to settle for a second chamber appointed by an independent commission. The chamber would then be stuffed with exactly the same tried and trusted characters who now run quangos, sit on task forces and committees of inquiry, and act as non-executive directors of companies, thus allowing them to put in a few more expense claims and scoop up a few more allowances for their overvalued time. It would also be full of ex-MPs and ex- ministers, many of them rejected by the electorate.
Nothing wrong with that, you may say; a revising chamber, designed occasionally to restrain a headstrong or over-mighty first chamber, needs people with knowledge and understanding of how the world is run, and with experience and confidence in the conventions of decision-taking and rule-making. Fair enough. One would not expect one's hairdresser to do the job, as Lord Stevenson, chairman of the present Appointments Commission, remarked. But are voters really incapable of making such judgements themselves? It is objected that able, busy people would not wish to put themselves through a time-consuming and possibly humiliating election process. To which one can only reply that if they will not take the trouble and the risk to make their case to the people, they will prove poor guardians of the people's interests.
There is only one acceptable future for the House of Lords: as a 100 per cent elected chamber. The arguments should not be over the proportion that is elected, but over how it should be elected. It need not, and indeed should not, simply replicate the Commons. General elections try, with decreasing success, to perform a dual function: to elect an assembly that will reflect the views of the people, on the one hand, and to choose an efficient, stable government on the other. It is widely agreed that election by proportional representation would enhance the first function; it is equally widely agreed that it would detract from the second. The logical answer is to have a proportionally elected second chamber. It should probably also be elected on a different cycle from general elections, thus making our democracy more vigorous and more responsive than the present system of voting only once every four or five years allows. It is laughably suggested that midterm elections of this sort would make governments over-concerned about short-term popularity; though surely we would all gain more if ministers listened to a properly elected chamber rather than to Philip Gould's focus groups.
The main objection to electing the two chambers by different methods and on different timescales, however, is that they would then, quite frequently, be under the control of different parties. And this, it is said, would lead to legislative gridlock. There are two responses to this line of argument. First, we are often told that we have gone beyond the age of rigid ideological divisions, that party boundaries no longer reflect how people think in the country at large. And it is true that, on such issues as the threatened war in Iraq, there are as many divisions within the parties as there are between them. The second chamber could easily reflect this reality, particularly if its members were barred from the government payroll and from standing for "promotion" to the Commons within, say, ten years. Second, we should not assume that legislative gridlock is a bad thing. It might have spared us the poll tax, to say nothing of the successive changes to the health and education services that so exasperate the people who are compelled to make them work. If ministers had to strive harder to get their legislation through the second chamber, we might get fewer and better laws.
New Labour leaders frequently wring their hands about the growth in voter hostility and apathy, and make plaintive speeches about the need for established politics to rethink how it operates. Here is an opportunity for change and experiment that stares them in the face. Yet they do not want any of this newfangled, complicated politics at the heart of Westminster. They still believe that the electorate should be kept at arm's length, and that the less it is allowed to interfere with the serious business of government, the better.
The god that threw a sickie
Scan the headlines of recent days and you will see news of an unpredictable and temperamental creature. Sometimes it is "ailing" or "sickly"; at other times it is "bravely fighting back"; it is some years since it has been "buoyant" or "healthy". Aliens from another planet may well think this is some deity we worship. Time-travellers from an earlier age would certainly think so because we fear the moods of this creature as the ancients feared the thunderbolts of Jupiter. The god is called the Footsie, which, for the uninitiated, is the Financial Times index of shares in the top 100 companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Like the balance of payments - a god once worshipped almost as fervently - its day may pass. But anybody who thinks that, several centuries after Galileo, Luther and Newton, mankind has cast aside superstitious awe and taken full control of its own destiny should think again.