Friday, 10 September 2010

Mary Warnock and the House of Lords

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Earlier in the summer, I accompanied Laurie Taylor to the House of Lords when he interviewed veteran philosopher Baroness Warnock for our new issue. Aside from getting to nosey around inside the Palace of Westminster, which is always good fun, it was a fascinating experience.

Listening to Mary Warnock talk so clearly and eloquently about ethical issues, such as assisted dying and embryology, and why she finds the special privileges afforded to the Church of England by way of the bishops in the House of Lords so irritating, I found myself having something of a revelation in terms of my attitude towards Lords reform and the issue of an elected second chamber.

I've always firmly believed that the existence of the House of Lords is thoroughly undemocratic, and that it should be replaced by a fully elected upper house. I was familiar with the argument that appointed peers results in a House of venerable experts, but I never bought it. Get rid of them, I thought, and let's turn Britain into a proper democracy. But since sitting in on Laurie's interview with Mary Warnock, I'm not so sure. If members of the House of Lords had to stand for election, would an eminent 86-year-old ethicist like Warnock really bother getting involved? Would we have experts such as her, without a political agenda, providing their vital scrutiny to legislation concerning issues that most people, elected representatives included, know very little about? Or would we end up with a House full of career politicians, ready to toe the line in the same way as their counterparts in the Commons (and, admittedly, many of the current peers) do now?

I'm not claiming that this is a particularly original observation, but it was certainly an interesting experience for me. We're very lucky to have people like Mary Warnock in Parliament, and I think we'd lose them if the Lords was made into a fully elected chamber. I now find myself thinking it would be best to keep at least a portion of it appointed, on the basis of past professional expertise.

Have a read of the interview and see what you think – there's also a great line about Melanie Phillips near the end, which I think many of you will enjoy.
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