Lords Reform: Technocracy or Lottery – Ideas from Athenian democracy

If someone were to design a constitution for a country from scratch, it is inconceivable that they would design the current British constitutional settlement. The House of Lords, among other institutions, is seemingly based on completely arbitrary principles. Some members have their positions because their ancestors were in the right place at the right time, some are appointed because they have expertise, some because they were owed favours by a particular Prime Minister.

Many solutions to this mess of a chamber have been proposed; direct election of all or some of its members, indirect election, abolition entirely or some kind of technocratic chamber, among other proposals. All of them are problematic.

An elected Lords could challenge the Commons for supremacy and create deadlock; Italy and the United States of America are shining examples of too many directly elected chambers. A chamber of ill-defined experts would require members to be appointed somehow; politicians could simply fill the Lords with their supporters, as is the case of many current members of the Lords. Abolition is also a problem, without any checks on Commons power, a government with a majority of one can do whatever it likes. In theory, they could take away our right to a fair trial, abolish elections or persecute minorities.

Ancient Greece offers some fascinating alternatives to the current House of Lords. Athenian democracy bears little resemblance to the modern notion of democracy. A lottery was held among eligible citizens to take up seats within what we would call the legislature, for a fixed time period. Normal citizens would be called up based on complete chance rather than connections or skills; this was true equality of opportunity. It was very similar to jury service in contemporary Britain. These representatives of the people would then vote on who was to lead the armies, policies and so forth. A system where Lords were selected at random from British citizens would give everyone an equal opportunity to participate, rather than merely being able to vote once every five years.

An alternative comes from Plato, the fiercest critic of Athenian democracy. The people, Plato argued, were stupid and easily led to disaster by witty and clever speaking politicians who make promises they can’t possibly keep. The Athenian Assembly voted to execute Socrates, to embark on disastrous wars with Sparta and Syracuse and had brought disaster upon itself. Plato would not be surprised by the Brexit vote or the rise of populists like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. As far as Plato was concerned, politicians who promise the people a moon on a stick will always win because the people are idiots. Plato’s solution was guardianship; have the ‘kings’ rule as philosophers, or the philosophers rule as kings.’ These days we call this technocratic government; rule by the cleverest, most able people.

A solution to the Lords is to have both systems; half of the chamber can be chosen from among the people by lottery like jury service, the other half technocrats selected according to objective criteria much like recruitment to the Civil Service. Short term limits can be imposed perhaps of as little as two or three months, with regular circulation of members to prevent self-serving behaviour and the emergence of politicised factions.

Everyone agrees the House of Lords needs reform, but no one can agree on what to do about it. Ancient Greece offers us one perspective on how to maintain a check on government power, have a technocratic body which can scrutinise government legislation and include representation of the people.