From the manifesto (here) we have the words:
We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence
OK, that does not commit to House of Lords reform, but does commit to working to build a consensus- so a mainly-elected House of Lords is not a "Liberal Democrat obsession" but rather something we have accepted in principle. But the details...
It does appear that the consensus Cameron cannot build is with his own party, so looks like we have the U-turn. Again. You turn if you want to, Prime Minister.
I was struck by this letter from Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East, as he presents a false choice:
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The yah-boo politics of the House of Commons with its political parties, and then the Bill goes to the House of Lords where experts look at it, as if it's a council of wise men and women, free from any party loyalty, only thinking about whether the legislation is good or not.
But that isn't the reality. Around three-quarters of the House of Lords are chosen for party loyalty, not for being an expert, whatever that is.
Students of European Union history will know it has its origins in the European Coal & Steel Community, with decisions in its competencies to be made by technocrats- in other words people considered to be experts in that area, who could make decisions unrestrained by political ideology or national identity. The 78-member Assembly was thrown in as an afterthought.
There was this interesting article by Matthew Parris in The Times, in which he states:
Mine was the first generation after the Second World War. It is hard now to credit how mainstream then was the idea and what high hopes were then invested in the dream that the world was coming together and a new age of reason was dawning. Internationalism was the coming thing. We were entering an epoch, we speculated, of which the nascent UN was the most potent early symbol and something like world government was the final destination. We saw as a noble prospect the possible withering away of the nation state. Global action headed by multilateral organisations would assume responsibility for all those problems better tackled globally than nationally. Which was, surely, almost everything?
Confidence in science was key. Science meant reason as well as knowhow. Science would banish prejudice as well as disease and want. Politics (in the national, political party, sense) would become old-fashioned as, across the globe, men and women of goodwill, expertise and common sense established the habits and institutions of co-operation. We thought it would be somehow obvious to them what needed to be done and reasonable people would increasingly reach out across national boundaries and join forces to do it. And maybe there would be no more war.
What Parris is describing is technocratism- that political philosophy which sees itself as:
It is, writ large, the idea that the gentleman in Whitehall knows what's best for you. The cleverest philosophies, the ones that get under your skin, are those that convincingly trumpet that they are not a philosophy- for example, the way secularism succesfully portrays itself as not being a belief system but the neutral territory which should form the public square.
Although the creation of the ECSC Assembly was an afterthought, it expresses an important idea- even when experts make their decisions, they have to be answerable to men and women chosen by the people for the people.
Is too much misty-eyed emphasis being put on "experts" who are supposedly beyond politics and who will just do what's best? And why should being an expert in one area make you one of these wise people? After all, if I suddenly got to wear ermine then, yes, there are areas I could bring knowledge to, but would that give me the right to hurry along to a debate on an issue that I am a complete ignoramus on, calling out, "Let me through! I'm an expert"?
Also note that until the Life Peerages Act 1958- which extended life peerages to men (and for the first time, women) who were not Law Lords (there had been some life peers around before 1958)- a man would be in the House of Lords if his late father had been, or if he were a hereditary peer of the first creation. A woman would be in the House of Lords if she had to do the dusting of red benches.
This House of Non-Political Experts cannot be dated back more than 54 years. Well, to be precise, the House of Non-Political Experts exists only as part of the anti-reform campaign. I think it goes next to the Australian-style counting machines that the Australians don't use.
Don't get me wrong. I am not knocking the Crossbenchers, who are generally beyond party politics. Just don't get dewy-eyed about a House of Lords that doesn't exist.