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Baron times

The latest list of peerages brings back to centre stage the question of what is democracy? And it's not just my political colleagues who are noticing the relevance of the question. Although the SNP have nailed their colours to the mast and have never put forward anyone for nomination.

I confess to having brought forward a resolution to our national conference some years ago suggesting that we should do so. On the basis that we should be there to keep an eye on Scotland's interest in a body that had significant power over us. I cannot quite remember when I did this. May have been 2006. But our conference was very clear in its view. The proposition was heavily defeated.

When the second story, it comes below that huge explosion in Beiruit, from the New York Times engages with the democracy question raised by the PM's list of new peers, you know that this is a matter which is further undermining the idea that Scotland is part of a democratic state.

Here's what the "other" Times says; "The handing out of peerages, as the lifetime appointments are called, is one of UK's most dependable displays of cronyism, regardless of who the prime minister is."

I should perhaps first dispose of the appointment of James Stevenson, who was my father's cousin and thus my first cousin once removed, to the House of Lords in 1924. His contribution to their deliberations was quite modest, not least because he died at the age of 53 in 1926.

The flood of appointments so familiar to us now did not exist then. James' appointment was the only one Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald made that year. However as MacDonald only served between January and November, less than eleven months, before returning the Prime Ministership to Stanley Baldwin, the man who had preceded him in office, we probably should not read too much into that either way.

It seems that James' becoming Baron Stevenson was for his public service rather than for political purposes. He had been appointed Chairman of the British Empire Exhibition which opened on the 23rd of April 1924. He rescued the exhibition from looming disaster, created under the previous Chairman, and his barony quickly followed on the 7th of May.

Although a son of Kilmarnock, where he had risen from stock-room "boy" to Managing Director of Johnnie Walker's whisky company, it may be that it's the people of England who should look upon him with the greatest affection.

One of the temporary buildings erected for, and intended to be removed at the end of, the exhibition was Wembley Stadium. Cousin James recognised that England needed a national football stadium and saw that it was preserved for that purpose.

The New York Times uses the word "crony". The Cambridge English Dictionary provides as a definition; "a person who works for someone in authority, especially one who is willing to give and receive dishonest help". So it is quite a harsh judgement.

Just to be clear, I agree that there is political dishonesty involved here but there is no suggestion on my part of anything more. The New York Times must account for their choice of words.

For the fifth time we have a peer created as a result of their serving in our Parliament. I am thinking of Annabel Goldie (joined 11th November 2013), Jack McConnell (28th June 2010), Nicol Stephen (7th February 2011), Jeremy Purvis (22nd October 2013), and now Ruth Davidson.

Pressed as to why she is accepting a peerage, Davidson has said that it so she can reform the House of Lords. So what of her four predecessors?

Only Jack McConnell seems to retain much connection to Scotland in the sense of occasionally making comments that are published in the media. His voting record too, 40% of the possible votes, shows only modest diligence in the discharge of his membership by comparison with other Lords. But a performance which at Holyrood would have led to an early a meaningful discussion with the whips. What I haven't spotted, is anything that he has personally delivered through being there. On voting, he is the well bottom of the pack among our four.

To my surprise, Baroness Goldie has voted 54.7% of the time because I have heard and read precisely nothing of her since she arrived on the red benches.

Nicol Stephen, equally silent as Ms Goldie, and known to have been the least administratively diligent of any Scottish Minister, manages to do even better with 57.6% of possible votes being cast.

Greatly to my surprise, I find that the previously named Jeremy Purvis voted 72.6% of the time.

I have no idea what Jeremy has been delivering in his approaching seven years at Westminister.

And therein lies the rub.

Appointed for life, undismissable except after the most egregious misconduct. Even being sent to jail as a criminal doesn't get one thrown out.

And most disgraceful of all, accountable to no one but themselves. So where are the "demos" (Greek for ordinary people) which is the first, and arguably the more important, part of the word democracy? Answer nowhere.

The ordinary people have no role in appointing a peer. Caveat; I seem to recall some half-baked "people's peers" scheme; wonder what happened to that?

The ordinary people have no power to dismiss a peer.

The ordinary people hear nothing from peers. Oh well, I concede that there are mad-cap tweets from George Foulkes.

The ordinary people are accorded only one thing in relation to peers. We have to pay for them.

If we have to have a second revising house, personally I remain strongly unconvinced, what do other countries do?

The Canadian Senate is said to be modelled on Westminster's House of Lords. But you must retire at 75, so it is not the care home that UK's second house is often described as. The 105 members are about a third in number of that country's MPs. That ratio feels about "right" to me.

For completeness, I should state that had a fairly distant cousin, Keith Laird, who served as a Senator there between 1967 and 1982.

Australia, like Canada, has a Senate and members are elected to represent geographical areas. Note that word elected.

With only the People's Congress in the world exceeding the number in its supreme political decision-making body, and with the unelected House of Lords substantially outnumbering the elected members in the Commons, the PM Minister's proposals merely serve to highlight the "cronyism" described by the New York Times.

And be sure that all this sits at the Prime Minister's door and his door alone.

He rejected a proposal from the Leader of the Opposition to enoble the retiring speaker of the House of Commons.

He could. And he did.

Says it all about the ramshackle "constitution" of the UK.

There ain't one.

It's no more than habit and repute.

If the PM wakes up dyspeptic of a morning, it seems no one has the power to reign in his worst instincts.

I wait to see what specific proposals Davidson brings forward for reform.

I think we are in for barren times in that regards from Barons.


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