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  1. Long reads
1 November 1999

Make the Lords a lottery

We should select our upper house with a phone book and a pin

By Melanie McDonagh

Eight hundred years seems an awfully long time in politics. So when the hereditary peers voted for their own removal from the House of Lords this week, it was hardly surprising that Lord Strathclyde made much of the event as a great rift in the history of England. “The Prime Minister has taken a knife,” he said portentously, “and scored a giant gash across the face of history.” Not quite so giant a gash as Cromwell made when he summarily dispensed with the upper chamber back in 1649, but undeniably a radical departure in a low-key, nineties sort of way.

Abolition of the hereditaries diminishes something of the democracy of the constitution. It takes away the utterly random element of chance whereby some of the important functions of parliament are undertaken by people who are set apart from the rest of us by the accident of birth. Birth into a particular caste, obviously, but still a kind of random selection. And the inevitable result will be the transfer of power to people who are even more utterly unrepresentative than the peers – politicians and placemen.

As usual, G K Chesterton – perhaps the most penetrating constitutional analyst of this century – put his finger on it. In his novel of 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a vision of a new England where revolutions are out of fashion, his fictional civil servant, Barker, outlines a new version of democracy to a passing foreigner. “To think,” he recalls “what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords – Tories saying it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid. Because that chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents.”

Chesterton’s solution to this problem is a system whereby the king is picked “like a juryman upon an official rotation list” – by sticking a pin into the telephone directory. And here Chesterton is on to a principle that would serve us well in reforming the Lords, as Lord Wakeham and his commission is trying to do. Rather than entrusting the entire composition of the second chamber to placemen and elected party politicians, why not have a small proportion of it – 20 per cent, say – plucked from the population as a whole, quite at random? Not for life even, but simply for the space of a single parliament.

I’m serious. The kind of party hacks who would put themselves up for election are quite unlike normal individuals; they have an appetite for politics and self-promotion that everyone else lacks. Whether you call it talent or pushiness, they are different from the rest of us. And I need hardly say that the kind of people who end up as life peers – the Braggs, the Hurds, the Jays – are not like the masses, either.

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The hereditary peers who argued that they were more independent than anyone else in parliament because they didn’t owe their position to party patrons and didn’t get where they were by sucking up to the Prime Minister were perfectly right. But they were wrong in assuming that the only way to obtain the benefits of random selection was by selecting for the job the eldest sons of dukes and earls and barons. You can do it equally well by plucking people at random from the electoral register.

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We adopt the principle in a couple of respects already. Juries are taken from the electoral roll, though the randomness of selection is compromised by the heroic efforts of the salaried middle classes to get out of the job. And members of one of the most important bodies running the National Lottery – the commission that decides how money is spent – are chosen arbitrarily from the general population.

I need hardly say that the principle is old hat. As Chesterton knew – and as the think-tank Demos reminded us all recently – Athenian democracy was founded on precisely this principle of selection by lot. So long as you were a citizen over the age of 30 (and obviously, this excluded women, slaves and foreigners), you could take part in the discussions at the general assembly and you were eligible to be chosen by lot to participate in the ruling council. Plucked from shops, ships and shoemakers, citizens governed themselves. Indeed, as Aristotle pointed out, elections are inherently undemocratic because they favour demonstrated talent. In our own case, elections favour the people who have the stamina and self-assurance to survive the bruising business of selection by other people who are similarly obsessed by politics. I suppose Aristotle would see it as oligarchy on the basis of disposition.

It would be a bit much to suggest that the House of Commons should be quite as radically inclusive as Athenian democracy was 2,500 years ago, but an element of random selection in the upper house would be a start. Of course, there are dangers. Even if your randomly selected peers served only for the term of a single parliament, there would always be the problem that racists, bores and lunatics would inevitably be thrown up in any genuinely arbitrary selection. But there are civilised ways of dealing with such people.

Over the next few weeks, Lord Wakeham will be busy canvassing opinion from the experts about the composition of the upper chamber. He could do worse than buy a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, for here is a solution with a ready-made slogan: It Could Be Us.