Tuesday 24 April 2012

Elected mayors? I'd rather be represented by a duke

How entirely typical that our beloved political elite should mark England’s national day by publishing proposals to screw up one of the few bits of our system of government that is both decorative and decorous, functional and inexpensive.

I have got into hot water before for defending the House of Lords. Clearing out some old newspapers at the weekend, I came across an impassioned reader’s letter of October 2009. Its author positively reeled in disbelief that anyone could hold to the “absurd” notion that there was a place in the “modern British constitution” for the hereditary peer.

But frankly I would much rather be represented in Parliament by a duke than almost any of our current crop of MPs. Apart from anything else, a man who has inherited a castle or two seems rather less likely to fiddle his expenses than someone who has clawed their way up the obsessives’ greasy pole of political research and special adviserships.

The Duke of Wellington: my kind of Prime Minister

While there may be some life peers whose curricula vitae leave a little to be desired, it also seems ironic that proposals to clear out the current House of Lords should be published on the very day that the papers carried obituaries of exactly the sort of member that the old system of nomination delivered so well: that doughty campaigner for the disabled, Lord Ashley.

However, I am prepared to forgive all this for the sheer delight of hearing Nick Clegg on the BBC on Sunday dismissing the need for a referendum on Lords reform in these words: “Why is it that we should spend a great deal of money, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, asking the British people a question which frankly most people don’t worry about very much?”

In such marked contrast to, say, the great AV referendum of 2011, on which the great British public could scarcely contain their excitement. Or the current fatuous votes on “directly elected mayors”, for which we have clearly all been crying out since we saw such brilliant examples as Ken and Boris, the man in the monkey suit in Hartlepool and that English Democrat in Doncaster.

Hangus, Mayor of Hartlepool - almost making Ken look credible

If the people of Newcastle are daft enough to vote for this, we are told that the egotist who gains the position will have (undefined) “greater powers” and could take a leadership role across the whole of the “city region”. Including, presumably, the rural backwater in Northumberland that I call home.

In which case it seems pretty unfair that I am not also being given an opportunity to cast a vote against the idea. Government isn’t “Britain’s Got Talent”. We don’t need more star personalities. We need decent, principled and disinterested people prepared to undertake a necessary but thankless job.

Like most of the current members of the House of Lords, to pick an example entirely at random.

The Government wastes not millions, but billions of pounds of our money every single day. It makes me furious every time I contemplate it. Yet suggest a referendum on something about which a significant number of us clearly do care, like our continuing membership of the European Union, and there is never any shortage of reasons why it would be unconstitutional and unnecessary.

No wonder politicians are held in such minimal respect.

There are lots of things in Britain that aren’t working well. School leavers unfit for employment because they are functionally illiterate, the continuing travails of the NHS, overstretched armed forces and a collapsing pensions system, to name but a few. Against such fundamentals, having a Home Secretary who literally does not know which day of the week it is pales into insignificance.

Theresa May (or, in her diary, June). But probably Won't.

So as some people once said on the telly, I agree with Nick. The House of Lords hardly even begins to register on the very long list of things we need to worry about, so why doesn’t our cabinet of chum(p)s just move on and leave it alone?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.