Boris Johnson is apparently considering plans to move the House of Lords to the north of England. This was recently confirmed by James Cleverly, the Conservative party chairman, after reports emerged that Johnson had officials looking into the possibility of doing this. This would be part of his plan to “level up” the regions outside London, bringing the wider country back into the centre of things. Johnson and his team have correctly identified a need and desire among the people to give the whole country a voice, to represent the whole people. And yes, symbolism is important in politics as well as practicality. But the line between symbolism and gimmickry is a fine one. And moving the Lords to the north would be on the wrong side of the line.
In the first place, this could come across as fobbing off the north. The Lords have no real power beyond reviewing legislation and suggesting amendments. Sending the Upper Chamber north could therefore be the wrong kind of symbolism – a symbol that suggests that London will condescend to listen to the regions, as the Commons does to the Lords, but that ultimately London has the final say. Such a symbol could be particularly acute after the bashing that the Lords has just taken in the eyes of the Tories’ new regional voters for repeatedly doing its utmost to block Brexit. Moreover, there will be no pride in or connection with the ermine-clad members of the upper house by the people of the north. In fact, shunting the half of Parliament that’s unelected on the Leave-voting area smacks almost of the opposite of what Brexit was about, giving them technocratic impositionists rather than representative democrats. The people want a voice, not a show of dreary peers debating minute points of process.
What’s more, the move would incur a high cost and no real purpose, further reinforcing the idea of fobbing off and gimmickry. Not only would there be the initial cost of moving all of the paraphernalia of the Lords to its new location (apparently York is looking likely), but the cost of thereafter running government would surely also be higher, involving far more unnecessary travel and haulage between the two new centres of government than if the two Houses were separated only by a corridor (as they are now). And what of the state opening of Parliament? The Queen is not allowed in the House of Commons, given that the last monarch to enter the lower chamber tried to arrest half its members, so MPs have to troop over to the Lords to hear her (government-drafted) speech. Are they now going to hot foot it from the House of Commons up to York, listen to a five-minute speech, and then rush off back south to finish off their session in the Commons? Should only take a couple of days…. This proposal seems to knee-jerk and unnecessary. It’s all too reminiscent of the image-over-substance politics of Blair that did so much to turn people off politics in the first place. It would be a grand, expensive vanity project with little benefit or demand – a lot like HS2.
Far more symbolic would be to build visible infrastructure in the regions – railways, business centres, airports. Far more symbolic would be greater time spent in these areas by local MPs and by cabinet ministers, articulating and selling the renewed focus on the area. Far more symbolic would be the visible regeneration of once prosperous cities, with more people passing through, more businesses setting up in these cities, and more investment in the areas. The people of the north don’t need the Lords in order to feel more included, nor do they want them – what they want is to be visibly listened to, visibly represented, and visibly benefitted.
To this end, and also far more important and symbolic than transferring the Lords to the north, would be devolution of powers. Empowering local mayors and local councils to a greater degree, reducing the reach of central government, would go a long was to restoring a sense of control and a sense of pride to these areas. A rejuvenated and reinvigorated town or city hall would be far more symbolic than a repositioned House of Lords. For, to the people of the north, local government and visible, responsive MPs will symbolise control and will symbolise their having a voice in the nation, whereas the Lords would symbolise powerlessness and ineffectiveness – for the people of the north know that power in Parliament resides in the Commons.
Symbolism is important, even vital, in government. But the symbolism of the current Parliament building is far more important than the Lords’ location. The Palace of Westminster is a widely recognised symbol of the long and strong tradition of British democracy – the longest running democracy in the modern world. The people of Britain admire and respect the grandeur and history associated with the building. They just want that democracy to be responsive the them. Moving the House of Lords would be the wrong symbol – it could even, ironically, show disdain and disinterest. Far better to restore the regions’ local government and to demonstrably rejuvenate their economies.