It is time to end this crisis, and rescue the Lords, by insisting on a fully elected chamber, in which all peers are chosen by the same method, and yet without the same democratic mandate as the commons.
Elect the Lords - and stop our gongs going for a song
I was stuck at a traffic light yesterday when a brand new red Toyota 4X4 drew abreast, containing three extraordinary women. Their cheeks were flushed, their lips were red, they wore sexy little cream pant suits and matching cream hats, and identical pink shirts to go with the flowers in the brim.
They were in that state of innocent euphoria that causes human beings to hail complete strangers. "Oi Boris," they shouted through the window, "we've just been to see the Queen!" And then the Beverley sisters (for that was how they introduced themselves) waved the square blue leather case containing the three identical ribbons and medals they had earned for a lifetime of belting out hits (I think they said there was one called Sisters) that have no doubt brought pleasure to millions, if not to you or me.
Then the honking behind us became unbearable and, as we parted, I suddenly felt all choky. As I watched these jubilant beldames kangaroo-hop from the lights, and as I listened to the chorus of horns as they tried to execute an illegal right turn, I felt a surge of emotion at their joy, their evident and ineradicable pride, at being gazetted "Members" of the British Empire, an institution that has long since collapsed and which is in any event reviled in the schools of this country.
How perfect, I thought, that in the twilight of their singing careers, the Queen has rewarded these spunky old crooners with a mark of distinction that contrives to be both ludicrous and affecting in exactly the right degree. How fine, how proper, how British.
I thought about the honours system, in all its absurdity and magnificence. I thought about how it brings a tinsel spark to so many lives, and I wondered why people were, these days, so cynical and fed up that some conservative commentators have recently called for the whole thing to be scrapped. How could anyone look at the happiness of the Beverley sisters, dolled up for the palace, and propose to snatch their prize away? Why be so cruel, when they have sung so lustily and for so long, and so well deserved their tinny guerdon?
The answer, of course, is that at the very apex of the honours pyramid there is an institution - the peerage - that is now wrapped in a fog of guilt. And beneath that fog there is one fact that is now obvious to the whole country - that peerages, places in the upper house of our legislature, can be bought and sold like golf-club memberships. It is odious, and it must stop.
I remember feeling a bit mystified, on arriving at school, to be told that some small, knock-kneed kid was guaranteed a seat in Parliament because of some feat of his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. It struck me as unfair on the kid, since the ruthless democracy of human reproduction had diluted the genes of his illustrious ancestor, placing the sprig firmly in the bottom form, and I wasn't convinced that his coming role in government was fair on the rest of us, either. But I think I'd rather have the hereditary system, with all its imperfections, than the current bordello.
As I say, there is nothing wrong with honours for achievement, and the whole apparatus seems to satisfy something deep in our instincts. We live in a gong-enchanted island, a nation divided into snobs and secret snobs; and on the whole our appetite for honours - for rank, dignity, title, preferment - is a great spur to energy and aspiration. I have known lifelong Lefties, diehard republicans who have succumbed with trembling fingers to the letter from the palace, and gone out to get their morning dress with the hilarious excuse that, ahem, it is all a load of nonsense, really, but they feel obliged to accept because, er, you know, it's not so much for themselves, as a, ah, recognition of the work done by the institution in which they were privileged to serve...
No one could object to such footling self-deception, and nor do I remotely object if people receive honours for their support of political parties. I think of my old friend and editor, the great Sir Max Hastings, who no doubt deserved a knighthood many times over, but who almost certainly clinched it by bringing the Evening Standard out for Labour in 1997, even though he knew it would mean a ban on fox-hunting and hysterical measures against people taking shotguns on aircraft. What is the moral difference between Sir Max's act of self-sacrifice and the generosity of Chai Patel, who wanted to give so much money to Tony Blair?
If you are a rich man, and you are so public-spirited as to donate squillions to a political party, so that its members can get on with their task of understanding and improving the condition of the country, then you should surely be encouraged, not vilified. The last thing we want is for the whole political clerisy to be bankrolled exclusively by the taxpayer, with state funding for all manner of cranks, bigots and extremists. If Chai Patel and others want to give money to Labour or to the Tories, then I see no reason why they should not be rewarded with a suitable gong for their philanthropy: on two conditions.
First, that they should in future give on condition that the gift (or loan) is public; and second, that they cannot thereby ascend to the legislature. It is time to end this crisis, and rescue the Lords, by insisting on a fully elected chamber, in which all peers are chosen by the same method, and yet without the same democratic mandate as the commons.
The answer, of course, is a self-electing chamber of 500-600 of the best from all walks of life, serving for a maximum of 10 years, and electing new members from a list of candidates drawn up by the appointments commission on the proposal of a wide variety of bodies, including unions, the universities, the CBI, the professions, and all the rest of it. Election by such a body would carry immense prestige. Such peers would never have their heads turned by money. It is by far the best way forward.