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House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:44 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Meyer Baroness Meyer Conservative 11:44 am, 13th March 2020

My Lords, much as I like and admire the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I hope that he will forgive me for disagreeing with him on this occasion. One thing that I have always admired about this country is its stability based on an ancient monarchy, ancient Parliament and ancient traditions. Since the Civil War, this country has known instinctively how to find the right balance between preserving tradition and allowing evolution. Contrast and compare that with the two countries from which my parents come: France and Russia. Since the revolution in 1789, the French have experimented with two empires, a monarchy and five republics to find the secret of stability. I would argue that they were still searching for it. In one short century, Russia demolished an empire and got rid of the aristocracy, replacing it with a communist tyranny. It is now an autocracy disguised as a democracy.

I am not being flippant, but I see that, in each of these countries, the constitutional baby has been thrown out with the bathwater several times, often in circumstances of extreme violence. In Britain, in times of great change, we have managed to keep the baby and successfully replace the bathwater without having to resort to violence. There is a lesson to be learned here. I am well aware that, for many people, Lords reform is long overdue. Many have spoken about it today. However, there is a difference between modernising an ancient regime and extinguishing centuries of tradition. Change, often masquerading as progressive politics, does not always produce improvement, particularly when there is no consensus on what shape that change should take and how it might affect our long-held values as a consequence.

Removing all hereditary Peers would fundamentally change the nature of your Lordships’ House. Their numbers have already been reduced to barely 11% and there is no reason to cull them into oblivion. Why should their presence be considered more objectionable than that of, say, those Peers who have been politically appointed? I may not have been a Member of this House for very long, but one thing I have observed is the quality of the hereditaries’ contributions, their grasp of a wide range of subjects and the variety of their expertise and experience. At a time when levelling up between north and south is a major plank of the Government’s strategy, we should recognise that the hereditaries are less urban as a group than any other group of Peers in this House. One issue often raised is the absence of female hereditary Peers. That needs to be addressed, there is no doubt, but surely this is not a matter for this Bill.

While we can all agree that change is needed, it should not be done in this way. It would be pure constitutional vandalism simply to wrench out of our ranks one small group which contributes so positively to our proceedings, out of proportion to their number. If this were to happen, I very much fear that we would find ourselves on a slippery slope at the bottom of which we would find a republic waiting for us. The last time we tried that, almost 400 years ago, was certainly not a happy experience.