House of Lords reform: overdosing on democracy?

Apparently having a fully, or almost fully, elected second chamber is the “only way to make it fit for the 21st century”. I’m always suspicious of arguments that appeal to the times as their unanswerable and self-evident authority. I can see no particular consequence which flows inevitably from the fact that the current year has occurred after the year 2000. Be that as it may, the appeal to democracy is clearly what underpins the anxiety to reform the House of Lords. The almost unstated assumption is that if people are elected to do something, then that something will be done better than it would be done had those people arrived at their status by any other means. That is not, it seems to me, the obvious and inevitable truth that it’s made out to be.

Sometimes I think democracy is a bit like vitamins, or any other such thing that’s supposed to be beneficial, or indeed necessary, for our physical health. The seemingly irresistible temptation is to think that if a little of something is good or necessary, then more of it must be better still. Thus at best we end up with the most expensive urine in the world as our bodies piss out the excess, and at worst we poison ourselves. Democracy is the essential element of our civic society, the bedrock of consent, and the bulwark against despotism. But it doesn’t follow that more and more democracy – elected police commissioners, or elected shadow cabinets, or elected heads of state – will make things any better. And in large part that’s because democracy is not an unmitigated good. It has some serious weaknesses as well.

The first and most obvious is that democracy generates politics, in the sense of politicking. That’s generally a very bad thing indeed. It leads to wheeling and dealing, the subjection of principle to pragmatism, the constant dance of shifting alliances and dishonest compromises, corruption of all kinds. Constantly extending the areas of civic society that are subject to democracy likewise extends the opportunities for all these not-so-good things to multiply and flourish. It’s not that somehow democracy has been infected by wickedness: it’s that democracy requires politics, and politics spawns these other things in an unavoidable and necessary way. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so opposed to elected police commissioners – the last thing we need is for the downsides of the democratic process to infect policing even more than they inevitably have already.

There are lots of others. Here are just a few.

It’s inordinately expensive, both in the logistics of elections themselves, and in the money spent currying favour with the electorate. Every extension of democracy also extends the power of those with enough money to participate.

Democracy’s first cousin is populism, and so it reinforces and amplifies ignorance and prejudice. In turn that encourages electoral deceit, in which politicians are obliged to lie to the electorate because they know that if they tell the truth they’ll never be elected anyway.

Democracy encourages short-termism. The electoral cycle becomes by default the longest into the future that anyone dares to think. Global warming and dwindling biodiversity are classic examples of things that politicians cannot tackle adequately because their effects don’t unfold in five-year chunks.

Democracy is in one sense simply institutionalised bullying. It perpetuates existing differentials of power and influence, and legitimises them. The mere act of casting one’s ballot every now and again does not add up to any real sense of helping to determine what might happen to you, or of being involved in decisions. The link between voting and outcome is at best tenuous.

None of this is an argument against democracy in itself. Democracy is “a good thing”. But it is an argument against the mindless assumption that more democracy is always and inevitably better. What we need is a system in which democracy is subject to checks and balances so that its worst downsides can be managed and mitigated.

So in considering the reform of the House of Lords, it’s facile to witter on about this being the 21st century. Adding a whole new layer of elected representatives is simply creating new opportunities for democracy’s dark side to emerge. A revising chamber is in fact surely better for not having a competitive sense of legitimacy over the elected lower house. The great thing about the House of Lords at the moment is its diversity. It’s got a load of time-served politicians. It’s got masses of the great and good. It’s got bishops. It’s got a sprinkling of aristocrats, who at least provide a bit of colour and entertainment. The House of Commons by contrast has 100% of its membership drawn from the power-hungry and ambitious. Having two houses filled to the gunnels with the ambitious and the power-hungry hardly sounds like much of an improvement.


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