The House of Lords has been badly bruised. Peers are angry to see themselves depicted as ermine-gowned, coroneted money-grubbers with their snouts in the trough. We don't know whether it is the gullibility, the stupidity or the greed of the four peers who were stung that is most contemptible, but we do know it is unfair because the image has stuck. At the end of the week of shame in January there was a debate on climate change instigated by Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP. Speeches were made by Lords Rees OM, President of the Royal Society and former Astronomer Royal, and Lord May OM, former President of the Royal Society and former Scientific Adviser to the Government, which should have gone some way to redeem the Lords' reputation; but no one noticed.
Our anger is deep-seated because, since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers (only 92 remain), the House had carefully built up a reputation for independence and it had won a good deal of the public's respect. Without the taunts about "backwoodsmen", the House has challenged many measures coming from the House of Commons, which is firmly under the control of the Government's whips. We have defeated the present Government 489 times, whereas in ten years under Tony Blair the Commons defeated the Government just twice. It was the Lords who stood up to defend some of our ancient liberties, notably by resisting the pressure to extend detention without trial to 42 days. We opposed plans to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, forcing the Government to amend them. For the first time in a century we have had effective bicameral government. When Jack Straw speaks of reforming the House of Lords, he means that the Lords is going to be put back into its box.
Ultimately in the legislative process the House of Commons will prevail, but only after we have started a public debate and as a result won concessions from a resentful and bullying Government, something the House of Commons has failed to do. "A little touch of gridlock in the night" is no bad thing.