First Woman Bishop In The House Of Lords, Same Rotten Old Theocracy

Rachel Treweek - Bishop of Gloucester - Tax Credits

Don’t cheer for Rachel Treweek as she takes up her unelected, theocratic position in the House of Lords. Chase her – and all of her fellow Lords Spiritual – out of Parliament and back to the pulpits where they belong

So let’s get this straight: Scottish National Party MPs are scolded and warned by the Speaker when they spontaneously applaud what they believe to be a good speech in the Commons chamber, because clapping is wrong and unbecoming. But today, peers give a standing ovation to the first female bishop to take her seat in the House of Lords, and that is A-OK?

The appointment of Rachel Treweek, Lord Bishop of Gloucester, to the red benches is nothing to celebrate. Don’t misunderstand – it’s great that the Church of England now allows women bishops, and some of the first female candidates appear to be excellent theologians and pastoral leaders.

But in every other respect, the enoblement of Rachel Treweek is just another case of the British theocracy doing what it always does – appointing clerics of the favoured national church to unelected positions of power and influence in the heart of our political system. Don’t expect us to cheer on this occasion just because the Lord Bishop in question is a woman. Our belief in equal rights and opportunities for women should not be so glib and superficial.

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The Distant Dream of Lords Reform

A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state
A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state


In their latest editorial on the subject, The Guardian appears to have given up on the one-step, transformative reform of the House of Lords that was set in motion by the last Labour government and the next steps enshrined in the coalition agreement (before the Tories and LibDems blew the plan to bits in a fit of politically childish pique). Instead, they now advocate a slower (if that were possible), multi-step process of gradual and incremental reforms before we arrive at the cherished goal of having a working bicameral legislature where both houses hold democratic legitimacy.

We begin with the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth at the current state of affairs, and lamentation that the yearly spectacle of undeserving people being honoured with the privilege of sitting in the upper house has taken place yet again:

What an embarrassment to the so-called mother of parliaments. Thirty more cronies and party donors, leavened by a handful of the genuinely worthy and the downright eccentric (what’s an active journalist like Danny Finkelstein doing on the list?), appointed to the democratic world’s largest legislative chamber. It’s hard to imagine where they’ll find room to sit, never mind a job to do, in a chamber where in some debates there’s a 90-second limit on speeches. Yet proposals for reform are discarded. Even a modest suggestion of voluntary retirement founders. And prime ministerial patronage continues more or less unchecked.

The whole exercise is, in the widest sense of the word, corrupt: a system where individuals who make huge party political donations and – however sound their judgment and broad their experience – are awarded a place in the legislature as a gift from the leader of the party is just as much a scandal waiting to happen now as it was when Maundy Gregory was operating the system in the interests of Lloyd George.

But after this strident denunciation of the way things work, The Guardian goes turncoat on us:

Yet despite its Ruritanian appointments process, the Lords is generally acknowledged to be working unexpectedly effectively. Peers do take seriously their duty to scrutinise legislation, they have a good record for improving it, and some have been doughty defenders of individual freedoms. And look closely at who actually sits in the Lords: since the hereditaries were largely ejected in 1999, it’s become a more representative cross-section of the electorate – and the share of the votes cast – than the Commons, and more ethnically diverse. Even the gender balance is at least no worse. The danger is that the more useful it is, the harder it will become to reform.

Well, yes. This is why bicameral legislatures are a good thing. A more ruminative upper house will generally act as a brake (if not a stop) on the more reckless or short-term politically calculating moves of the lower house (and Lord knows that countries like Britain and America need such a check). This fact holds true even when the upper house in question has no real democratic legitimacy. But the fact that the House of Lords is doing okay-ish at the moment (if we choose to ignore the recent lobbying scandal and the fact that 26 lords spiritual continue to exert the not-always-benign influence of the Church of England over our lawmaking) is insufficient reason to reduce the pressure for comprehensive reform.

Most of the hereditary peers are now gone, so Britain is at least spared the indignity of having nascent laws scrutinised by the inbred landed gentry of the realm. We are just left to tackle the political appointees, the favoured party fundraisers and other beneficiaries of prime ministerial patronage who continue to occupy the place. We must also end the ridiculous, anachronistic idea that it is in any way appropriate to reward a person for their deeds (no matter how worthy or altruistic) by giving them a seat in our legislature. The honours system must be divorced from the political system as a matter of great urgency.

The Guardian concludes:

No one supposed, in 1999, that removing the hereditary peers was where reform would end. But since then, the next step has invariably been too much for some and not enough for others. So without abandoning the ambition for an elected upper chamber, perhaps it is time to make progress in smaller steps.

I would rather abandon any expectation of further changes in the next two years in the hope that more comprehensive reform can be achieved following the 2015 general election. This is not an unrealistic goal. True reform was part of the coalition agreement and very much on the cards until the Tories and Liberal Democrats decided to have a mutually destructive bust-up over linking the policy to changing electoral boundaries. Assuming the parties can find it within themselves to grow up slightly, Lords reform can be part of a future coalition agreement (or single party manifesto) too.

Semi Partisan Sam says no to any more slow, incremental reform of the House of Lords. The nation would be better off suffering through another two years with the upper house stuffed full of bewigged, enrobed anachronisms and political patronage beneficiaries before finally kicking the lot of them out after 2015 rather than enduring another decade or more of hand-wringing and glacial progress.