Listening to MPs debating Nick Clegg’s proposals for a mainly-elected House of Lords, one learned that there are two types of parliamentarian.

One is the “expert” – though that arid and easily-derided term hardly does justice to these paragons of wisdom and virtue. These are the men and women of the House of Lords, whose judgements are dusted with infallibility, whose opinions make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice, whose detached and gracious consideration of the Local Government (Number 2) Regulations are sufficient to make the cynic drop to his knees in the street and cry “hallelujah”.

And then there are the elected members of the House of Commons. Quite what it is about the process of being elected that causes these vast grain-silos of erudition to shrivel like a grape upon the Aga hotplate was never adequately explained in the debate, though the New Forest’s Julian Lewis for one accepted the inevitability of the process. There comes a time in everyone’s 30s or 40s, he observed, when it was necessary to choose between securing the “pinnacle of expertise” and seeking the people’s mandate. Thus Dr Lewis, a modest man burdened by the realisation that he had chosen the lower path, humbly submitted that the Lords was the intellectual and moral superior to the Commons, a point he illustrated with three historical studies where it had had the intellect and moral purpose to agree with Dr Lewis.

These examples were all from before 1997, the point at which Dr Lewis had kissed enlightenment goodbye and become an MP. In the subsequent 14 years, he explained, Dr Lewis had, with one tiny exception, had no influence over legislation whatsoever. The electors of the New Forest it seems have received a poor return from their member’s intellectual defenestration.

This was, in many ways, a good old-fashioned debate where the conservative cause came directly up against the forces of progressivism and, in my book, the conservatives won. This was not just because the progressives are led on this issue by Nick Clegg who, in the current political climate, is the one man whose advocacy of motherhood and apple pie would doom those causes to defeat. One sensed the weakness of their case when Susan Elan Jones, the earnest Labour member for Clwyd South, without preamble or pleasantry, pitched straight into quoting from the universal declaration of human rights. I dare say that there is much to be said for the universal declaration of human rights, but it seems like a sledgehammer better wielded against, say, the imprisonment of political activists in China or ethnic cleansing in the Horn of Africa. Just how oppressed are the people of Clwyd South by the limited voting rights granted in our parliamentary system to Lord Winston and the Bishop of Bath and Wells?

Ms Elan Jones did though have China on her mind, observing that the Lords is the second-largest parliamentary chamber in the world after the National People’s Congress. Since no one objected that it would be a damn fine thing if we could beat China on something for a change, one must assume that Ms Elan Jones carried the House with her on this complaint that the “other place” (as they like to call it down the green end) was over-endowed with members. In fairness, however, it should be pointed out that the House of Lords works a lot harder than the National People’s Congress and enjoys better upholstery. Meanwhile the prime minister was occupied round the corner hosting Premier Wen Jiabao and studiously not mentioning China’s human rights record in the interests of British trade. It must have been a comfort to him that at least somebody in the neighbourhood was addressing that other great blot on the planet’s democratic credentials, the House of Lords.

Busy with the Great Wen, Mr Cameron was not present at all during the debate, though his deputy was, if only sporadically. A pity because he missed some good, if slightly repetitive, speeches on both sides of the aisle. He also missed a typically OTT performance from Ealing North’s stand-up member Stephen Pound who had much fun with a previous contribution from George Eustice, a Cornish Tory, who had praised the Lords for providing a forum for “debate for the older generation and people who have experience”. This, naturally, in Mr Pound’s hands became the “Saga Chamber” and (for less obvious reasons) like “the great zoos of Addis Ababa” where “giant pachyderms sink to their knees and surrender to starvation”. Pound pounded on in this vein for a couple of minutes before  the air ran out of even his great balloon of wit, and he collapsed into the somewhat feeble conclusion that the Lords should be left as it is because it looks nice and does little harm.

The same might be said of Mark Durkan’s suggestion that there should be a “pastoral bench” in the Lords. This conjured up the brief  and pleasant image of a happy corner of morris dancers who would tinkle their bells in assent to the motion and beat the crossbenchers with their staves when the ale ran out. Alas, Mr Durkan was using the term in its theological sense, calling for the bench of bishops to be replaced with a multi-faith workshop where bishops would rub up against rabbis and imams and, no doubt, druids, Zoroastrians, Hare Krishnas and a smattering of folk from the South Sea islands where the Duke of Edinburgh is worshipped as a god.

And atheists too I hope. What better reform of the Lords can there be than to elevate Richard Dawkins to its membership and sit him in a special place where he can experience hell on earth before he gets the opportunity of finding out about the real thing?

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