Friday, 2 August 2013

Fridge magnets and rich tea biscuits

Alex Hearn gets a terrible gag into his piece on the latest batch of peers to enter the House of Lords, calling a newly minted Labour peer 'Scottish fridge magnate, William Haughey' (sounds like 'fridge magnet', geddit??!!).

OK, it's not the funniest joke you'll hear all week, but I, for one, appreciate the attempt to inject a bit of irreverent fun into a story about the depressingly undemocratic business of stuffing the upper house with compliant careerists, selected for their ability to follow orders without rocking the boat, and rich party donors, who've helped to prop up unpopular party machines, in the hope either of buying influence, or of acquiring a peerage as yet another tacky status symbol to go with the vanity licence plate on the Bentley.

Mention "reform" and the usual suspects will pop up, claiming that if this hand-picked assemblage of establishment yes-men and yes-women is, in fact, a collection of fiercely independent minds, wholly dedicated to objectively scrutinising the executive and holding it to account, without fear or favour. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Then, they'll probably cite the small minority of actual independent, brave, clever, inventive, or otherwise remarkable people, like Doreen Lawrence, who get added to the list to add a veneer of respectability to this very British form of genteel corruption. As tokenism goes, that's about as transparent as our independent schools claiming to be "charities", because they allow a tiny number of scholarship oiks to rub their grubby little shoulders with their well-heeled betters.

The case against House of Lords reform could be better made with biscuits. Some biscuits are objectively better than others. Unless you've got the undeveloped palate of a small child, an all-butter shortbread finger is superior to a Jammie Dodger, two circles of biscuity boredom trapping a vivid clot of ersatz jam, boiled down to the consistency of half-dried glue.

If you're more inclined to indulgence, you may prefer to go wild with Bahlsen's Choco Leibniz, the chocolate biscuit so shameless that it actually has more chocolate than biscuit (having had a sheltered upbringing, I felt quite shy and uncomfortable when I first experienced such wanton levels of unbridled hedonistic excess in biscuit form).

Of course, an acceptable biscuit doesn't have to be so outrageously extravagant. Even an ordinary plain digestive can fill that biscuit-shaped hole.

But even for somebody as un-fussy as I am, there are limits. For me, the rich tea biscuit falls below the lower bound of biscuit acceptability. It's a biscuit so bland, so devoid of flavour and interest, that I just can't be bothered with it. The pleasure of eating a rich tea biscuit is slightly less than the pleasure of saving yourself the effort of chewing one. It is worse than useless. It is a pointless biscuit.

The House of Lords is the rich tea biscuit of the UK's parliament. Just as the rich tea fails to be biscuitful enough to be worth eating, the House of Lords fails to meet the minimum criteria for being a worthwhile chamber. It isn't representative enough to justify its existence in democratic terms, the majority of its members are too narrowly drawn from the establishment, embedded in a network of favours to party machines and ultimately powerless (it's only an advisory or "revising" chamber), for it to make any sense as an independent counterbalance to the executive.

The liberating thing about the rich tea biscuit is that it's not better than nothing. If there aren't enough to go round, who cares? It's not like they're nice enough to be worth eating, anyway. It's not a real crisis, like running out of shortbread fingers. Likewise, the House of Lords is so spectacularly unfit for purpose that if it didn't exist, nobody would need to invent it. Maybe all the arguments about what "reform" should look like are just distractions. Just get rid of it - after all, some countries get along just fine with a unicameral system.

That sounds better than what we have now. Mind you, having two elected chambers, even ones that are constantly squabbling and gridlocked would be better than tolerating the undemocratic, crony-crammed talking-shop we have now.

Come to think of it, I don't think we'd be any worse off if the next batch of peers were actual fridge magnets - it couldn't be any more of an insult to our intelligence, or our democracy, than the current puppet show. Like a rich tea biscuit, the concept of the House of Lords is so rubbish that almost anything - or nothing at all - would be an acceptable alternative.