Resignation honours are the worst, but all patronage is bad

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 23rd August 2023

The fact that Liz Truss’s short-term premiership can result in lifetime appointments to the house of House of Lords has rightfully angered many. But it is just an example of business as usual in Westminster, taken to an extreme. All Prime Ministers have the power to appoint who they like to the House of Lords, while in theory, they could use this to appoint a chamber of experts, again and again, the few leading minds appointed to the Lords act as chaff to distract from the core business of political patronage.

Patronage is a system where positions are handed out, not due to the recipient’s merit, but their support for their political patron. It bears repeating that patronage is a bad idea. By definition, patronage results in a less qualified person being appointed to a job.

Patronage impacts the work of the Lords and the Government

This impacts the quality of work produced, especially when the job is to revise government legislation put forward by the peer’s political patron. When someone is specifically placed in the Lords because the government trust them to support their legislative agenda, they are not going to call out unworkable or ill-thought-through policies.

But patronage doesn’t just impact the ability of the Lords to scrutinise legislation, it discourages those working in politics from speaking freely and criticising their boss’s ideas. If your boss could give you a tax-free job for life, would you speak out against their bad ideas? The impact of a bad policy idea may only become apparent years down the line, by the time everyone who supported it has been amply rewarded.

The high cost of political patronage

This impacts the careers of less politically-connected people, who don’t get ahead when they call out bad ideas, but it also has a cost to the public. The academic Patrick Dunleavy labelled the UK as “a state unusually prone to make large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes.” It is all too regular to see major policies introduced at great cost in the UK, and then fail and have to be withdrawn at equally great cost. He identifies a few causes, including an elite preoccupation with speedy policy-making which gives inadequate scope for legislative scrutiny and the failure of internal checks and balances inside the executive. Patronage arguably plays a role in both of these.

Resignation Honours takes all these negative trends to an extreme

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure” as Enoch Powell famously said. This fact makes resignation honours particularly egregious – as they are appointments made specifically because a leader has lost the support of their colleagues.

When it’s clear that someone has lost the support needed to continue as prime minister, why drag out the inevitable? But resignation honours actively encourage people to support a leader who is on their way out, and increase their support as the inevitable approaches, in an attempt to curry sufficient favour to win a place in the Lords.

The whole system needs to be ripped up and replaced with a new settlement. We could have a smaller, elected second chamber that is accountable to us all.

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