David Cameron Creates Some Lords

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last weekend, I wrote about scandals and reform in two of the English-speaking world’s upper legislative houses: the British House of Lords and the Canadian Senate. On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron added to those scandals when he released the Dissolution Honours List.

Drafted by prime ministers on the Queen’s behalf, the honours lists mostly recognize civilian and military merit. Lists are typically issued twice a year and on special occasions; today’s list marked the dissolution of Parliament for elections earlier this year and focused on “public and political service.” Among the most significant honors a prime minister can bestow is a “life peerage,” which entitles the recipient to a seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament. These can be controversial, and today was no different:

Forty five new peers have been appointed, many from the ranks of former MPs, party advisers and donors, raising new questions about the credibility and expense of the House of Lords.

The 26 Conservatives include a city banker who has given millions to the party, a chief executive of a company criticised earlier this year for failing to pay the minimum wage and the high-profile founder of a lingerie firm.

There is no fixed number of seats in the House of Lords, so the new list expands its total to 826 members, whom the British refer to as “peers.” None of them are elected. The new appointments strengthen the House’s status as the world’s second-largest legislative chamber, just behind China’s National People’s Congress and ahead of the European Parliament.

Public criticism of Wednesday’s honours list grew quickly. “Every detail of the dissolution honours betrayed contempt for the public,” thundered a Guardian editorial, adding that Cameron had become “a shameless practitioner of the tawdry old art of government by patronage.” Among the appointments is former Conservative Member of Parliament Douglas Hogg, who left the House of Commons in 2010 after a parliamentary-expenses scandal revealed he claimed over £2,000 ($3,000 in U.S. dollars) to clean the moat of his country estate. The Scottish National Party, which favors abolishing the Lords, condemned the appointments as “a sorry list of rejected politicians, cronies and hangers-on with big chequebooks.”

Handing out sinecures to campaign donors and political supporters isn’t limited to David Cameron or the Conservatives. British newspapers derisively referred to Tony Blair’s appointments as “Tony’s cronies,” and his Labour Party found itself embroiled in an alleged cash-for-honours scandal toward the end of his tenure. Nor is the practice uniquely British: In the U.S., for example, Democratic and Republican presidents alike often reward their supporters with ambassadorships.

But that comparison has limits. It’s one thing for the Obama administration to install donors in largely vestigial positions throughout Europe, but it would something else for the president to appoint them to, say, the U.S. Senate or the federal judiciary. Yes, the House of Lords isn’t quite as powerful as either of those bodies, but it’s not a strictly ceremonial one either. The Lords can propose, amend, and temporarily block legislation; they also collectively received £20.7 million (almost $32 million in U.S. dollars) in allowances and expenses last year.