What makes for a stable and resilient society?

The strength and resilience of the United Kingdom’s democratic institutions come from centuries of tradition and gradual reform. But a wave of antiestablishment politicians and voters would now throw away this rich heritage and replace it with brand new structures.

An Oxford quadrangle - United Kingdom’s democratic institution
Oxford’s legendary lawns are the result of centuries of careful tending, much like other respected British institutions. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • British political institutions have come under fire
  • Some would overhaul them for the sake of anti-elitism
  • This approach disregards their crucial role in society

Are institutions like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords archaic, elitist, undemocratic anachronisms, or part of the glue that holds society together? Are religious values part of the glue or inimical to a secular society?

Many of the Oxford and Cambridge University colleges are distinguished by the beauty of iconic swards of carefully manicured grass lawns. Showing around visitors at Worcester College, a gardener, not known for modesty, was heard to tell the admiring group that the college’s beautiful lawn “is generally considered to be the finest in Oxford or Cambridge, and therefore in Britain, and therefore the world.”

Asked how this feat had been achieved, he responded that “first you have to sow the seed, then you have to tend it, then you have to mow it lovingly, then you have to roll it. Go on doing that for 200 years, and you too can have a lawn like ours.” Of course, the moral of the story is that institutions are not created overnight and that, like the Oxbridge swards, they, too, need to be lovingly tended, with the secret of their successful cultivation handed on from generation to generation.


Many liberal democracies have forgotten the story of the Oxbridge lawns and, craving immediate results, have abandoned patience. It has led to Afghanistan’s Taliban saying to the West, “you have the clocks, we have the time.” In Afghanistan, we should have proved them wrong. In countering their ideology – and that of other totalitarians – we must not make the same mistake again. Embedding the rule of law, human rights, democratic governance, and civil society will always require patience and perseverance. This, in turn, needs the cultivation of leadership in settings that will inevitably be open to the charge of elitism, but that is not an argument that should be conceded.

Instead of hacking down the institutions, we must encourage incremental reform.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are fine examples of institutions that function on the basis of encouraging excellence. While they must not rest on their laurels (or even on their hallowed turf and manicured lawns), let us at least recognize that within their walls their scholars have contributed richly and disproportionately to the common good. Denigrating excellence and merited achievement has become a cheap sloganeering jibe.

Easily sniped at for “elitism,” these two institutions have produced an astonishing 187 Nobel laureates, the majority of our Supreme Court judges, and 42 of the UK’s 55 prime ministers. Over the centuries, their clever brains have come up with everything from the reflecting telescope to webcams, lithium-ion batteries, the development of penicillin and Covid vaccines – even the first rules for football – and much more. Yet, in an increasingly febrile “woke” debate, we can unthinkingly lurch into diatribes about elites and peripheral issues rather than recognizing that institutions like these are the glue that binds societies together.


In 1852 already, a Royal Commission that examined entry to both of these illustrious universities identified access by poorer students as an important challenge. The wheels turned slowly but turn they did. Evolution is always a better remedy than revolution – and in recent decades, far more has been done throughout British society to entrench meritocracy. For instance, nearly 70 percent of Oxbridge students now come from schools in the state sector. So, mine is a plea for renewal and reform – not for ripping down our institutions. It is a plea to recognize the rarity of excellence and notable achievement without destroying what makes for the good.

The American philosopher and essayist Henry David Thoreau once asked, “How can you expect the birds to sing when their groves are cut down?” Instead of hacking down the institutions, we must encourage incremental reform, always building on their strengths and encouraging new shoots. Without nurture and care, they will become etiolated and wither.

Parliament houses viewed from a London embankment - United Kingdom’s democratic institution stable society
For the sake of tackling perceived elitism, many would do away with long-standing and trusted institutions without a clear notion of what should be put in place instead. © Getty Images

Afflicted by stagnation – and a lost remembrance of the spirit and reasons that underlay their inception – institutions can all too easily ossify. Political institutions are no exception. I have written before about the pitifully low membership of political parties – hovering at around 1 percent of the electorate in the UK – and the estrangement of the political classes from citizens. Judging by the causes that preoccupy some political activists compared with the real-life challenges facing the electorate, they often seem to live in parallel universes. This drift away from their founding principles produces a “Labour” Party that no longer connects to working people, a “Liberal Democrat” Party that becomes illiberal on matters of conscience, and a “Conservative Party” that no longer conserves or contests Big State government. All of which creates a vacuum into which the “antiestablishment,” anti-elite populists can easily march.

At its worst, aided and abetted by disastrous economic circumstances, this produces an enfeebled Weimar Republic. At their best, our democratic institutions – derided by totalitarians from Beijing to Tehran, from Moscow to Kabul – still have remarkable resilience and are capable of renewal. When demonstrators stormed Capitol Hill, smug Chinese Communist Party cadres – like their newfound friends in the Taliban – poured scorn on the “weak” United States. But unseemly and abhorrent as the invasion by demonstrators was, it did not prevent the peaceful transfer of political power in the U.S. This was not a sign of weakness but of resilience. Twitter removed former President Donald Trump’s account from its social media platform. Would China’s Weibo have the liberty to remove President Xi Jinping’s account? This is the difference between institutions based on the rule of law and dictatorships based on the rule of force.


In 1630, John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the U.S., described America as “the city on a hill.” It was a phrase from the New Testament on which Winthrop told his fellow Puritans they should build a generous community animated by its faith – “for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville was captivated by how this marriage of faith and politics had created such fine “city on a hill” institutions in the U.S. and supercharged society with the gift of civic virtue – evident in its robust civic life and voluntary endeavor. Ronald Reagan insisted that faith was intrinsic to the heroism of the volunteer, to activism, and to the idea of community. He believed that “America was built on the voluntary principle” and that the country’s religious faith was the engine room in which this spirit was generated.

America, the late president said, “was created by men and women who came not for gold but mainly in search of God. They would be a free people, living under the law, with faith in their Maker and in their future. It has been written that the most sublime figure in American history was George Washington on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge. He personified a people who knew that it was not enough to depend on their own courage and goodness, that they must also seek help from God – their Father and preserver.”

In both houses of parliament, daily proceedings begin with an act of prayer.

Religious impulses also motivated Europeans like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gaspari and Jacques Maritain, as they worked on or provided the intellectual rigor for the reconstruction of postwar Europe. They, too, knew that time-honored institutions were based on beliefs, values, and the cultivation of virtue – and did not come about without hard toil over many generations. Many of us have been fortunate to live in societies touched by Greek ideas of democracy, Roman codification of laws, and Judeo-Christian ideals. So many of our institutions – from universities and schools to hospitals, hospices, and charities – have their origins in these three convergent streams. Scratch beneath the surface of our finest institutions, and these foundational beliefs are never hard to find.

Take, for example, the UK’s phenomenal charity, The National Trust. Formed in 1895, with almost 6 million members (its president is the Prince of Wales), it now owns almost 250,000 hectares of land, 780 miles of coast, and over 500 historic houses, castles, archeological and industrial monuments, gardens, parks, and nature reserves. Its three founders made no secret of their Christian faith. Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (a Lake District Anglican clergyman), Octavia Hill (a Christian Socialist) and Sir Robert Hunter believed faith was linked to the common good and institutional action. 

Or take that other great British institution, the British Broadcasting Corporation. As a parliamentarian, I would often go to the old Broadcasting House, from which the BBC would “broadcast” – a word still used by gardeners to describe the scattering of their seeds. John Reith, the BBC’s first director general, placed a plaque on the entrance wall proclaiming the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate, and entertain”; and stating that the building was “dedicated to Almighty God”; that those who listened to its broadcasts might be the recipients of “a good harvest”; that “all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence”; and that the recipients of the broadcasts rooted in honesty might “tread the path of virtue and wisdom.”


Preeminent, though, among our British institutions are our legislature – the Parliament of the United Kingdom – and the Church of England. Westminster was the spot chosen by Benedictine monks on which to build their great abbey of St. Peter – which has been at the heart of British life for a thousand years. Both the House of Commons and House of Lords sit in chambers modeled on a Christian church – not least because the first permanent home of the Commons was the Church of St. Stephen. After the fire of 1834, which swept through the Westminster Palace, and again after the Luftwaffe blitz in May 1941 that destroyed the Commons Chamber, the shape and size of the Christian church of St. Stephen have been retained – Winston Churchill telling Parliament that “We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us.”

For 18 years, I served in the House of Commons and since 1997 have served in the House of Lords. Half of my life has been spent in elected office – at local or parliamentary level, and half in an appointed position in the unelected chamber. Neither – like their members – is perfect. Yet they complement one another and create a whole greater than either of its separate parts. Both branches of the legislature are still shaped by a belief that there is more to our existence than a simple random act of being thrown together.

An Oxford quadrangle stable society
The author, Lord Alton of Liverpool, chairing a hearing on human rights violations in the House of Lords. © GIS

In both houses, daily proceedings begin with an act of prayer (and have done since 1558). In the House of Lords, an Anglican Bishop entreats God to “send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations” and he prays that peers will lay aside all private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, and honor God, uphold religion and justice, the public wealth and work for the safety, honor and happiness of the Queen.

A good number of peers would still agree with Lord Tennyson’s belief that “more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of.” In our deeply conflicted world, it is instructive that members of the House of Lords from Christian, Jewish, Islamic and other faith backgrounds stand together in recognizing that this is a moment in the parliamentary day that unites legislators rather than divides them. Notably, on both Victory in Europe Day and Victory over Japan Day, Churchill personally led Members out of parliament to its parish church of St. Margaret’s in a collective act of prayer and thanksgiving to mark the end of the conflict. The buildings shape the institution.

The first thing that a new peer will see as they take their oath in the House of Lords is the painting by William Dyce that hangs above the throne – and beneath which, at the State Opening of Parliament, the monarch delivers the Queen’s Speech. Depicting the baptism of King Aethelberht of Kent in 597, it is set opposite a painting of another king, kneeling in prayer before Christ’s cross. The picture is “The Spirit of Religion.” Nearby, in the Central Lobby, are wonderful mosaics of the four patron saints of the United Kingdom. And if you tire of looking up, gaze down at the floor where the tiles have a verse from the Psalms inscribed on them: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” In the aptly named Moses Room, where we hold many of our committee hearings, hangs the 1784 painting by Benjamin West of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. 

These are not incidentals. Their power is illustrated through the flesh and blood achievements of remarkable men and women. Think of William Wilberforce, the MP who led the antislavery movement, energized by his faith. Or Lord Shaftesbury (Ashley Cooper), the Christian parliamentarian who used his platform in the House of Lords to pioneer the Factory Acts; to stop women and children being sent down the coal mines; to prohibit boys being used as sweeps to climb inside chimneys to clean them; to oppose the opium trade; to promote free schools for poor children, and to pioneer asylums for the care of the mentally ill.

Civic duties

Today, a favored line of the politically correct is that people with religious beliefs should either renounce them or stay out of politics – and that institutions, like Shaftesbury’s House of Lords, are undemocratic and should be abolished. Such assertions are wrong and need to be challenged. And, in doing so, we should be clear about what proponents of abolition would put in their place. Rather than community politics, the advocates of this new Nihilism favor identity politics. We are not to be shaped by what has gone before, or by the institutions that  govern us, but by a “wokeism” that sees institutions and the established order as a hostile and worthless world to be rejected and overthrown.

Perhaps Covid-19 will leave us with a greater appreciation of the strengths of our families and communities.

Instead of a constructive debate about how to become a more egalitarian society, how to counter obvious injustices, how to encourage proud localism and subsidiarity, we degenerate into a self-hatred that used to be called “class war” but has now become a war on society itself. Its adherents prefer to pull down a statue of an odious man – or topple a decaying institution – rather than grapple with the laborious task of reform and renewal. They prefer to boycott contradictory voices rather than engage in respectful arguments. This toxic environment is further poisoned by internet trolls who strive for attention through anonymous offensive messaging and harassment. Into such voids, malignant forces easily enter.

In a different age, and in complete contrast, the neglected Oxford philosopher, T. H. Green (who complemented his academic work with the humdrum work of serving as a local councilor), a member of the British Idealist movement and principal proponent of social liberalism, held that the collective goal must be to form consciences and that human progress cannot be achieved in isolation but only through interaction with other citizens in the social community. Perhaps Covid-19 will leave us with a greater appreciation of the strengths of our families and communities, of the nature of our priorities, of interdependence.

Green had no hesitation in insisting that each of us has civic obligations and political duties and that the cultivation of “self-regarding virtues” is no guarantee of moral goodness if the pursuit of such leads us away from the community and its institutions:From this fact arises the ground of political obligation, because the institutions of political or civic life are the concrete embodiment of moral ideas in terms of our day and generation. But, since society exists only for the proper development of Persons, we have a criterion by which to test these institutions—namely, do they, or do they not, contribute to the development of moral character in the individual citizens? Green is underlining the role and place of institutions in a liberal society. He is not putting all his faith in the simple process of elections and elected office – important though these things are.


A modern constitutionalist with a blank piece of paper would not set out to invent the British House of Lords but might well see the virtue of a bicameral legislature – and would certainly admire its ability to moderate and improve legislation and provide sound second opinions. Once the principle of two houses is accepted the issue surely becomes whether it is desirable to have two elected houses. However, once the question, “do we need a House of Lords at all?” has been posed – and it was considered by a royal commission established in 1999 – the MPs who favor replacing the House of Lords with a second elected house balked when they realized it would have the same legitimacy to insist on legislation and political priorities as the lower house.

That would radically reduce their own powers and be a formula for paralysis. Since the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act – born out of a conflict between the two houses – the Lords has not had the power to kill a bill (except in the case of a bill to extend the lifetime of a parliament beyond five years). After going back and forth between both houses up to three times, the Commons can insist on its decision. But often, before that happens, an agreement is reached between both houses on a modified amendment.

Far from making the Lords ineffectual, this recognizes the supremacy of the elected house while preserving the role of detailed scrutiny and the expression of contrary opinions – often unvoiced in the Commons. When a government has a large majority – like Boris Johnson’s government enjoys – this often leads to the Lords’ amendments being defeated and for the Lords being seen as a mere irritant. But as I discovered over the past year, it is not impossible to force the government to think again.

It is a fallacy to believe that a democratic and open society is simply about elections.

I moved an amendment stating that trade deals should not be agreed with states credibly accused of genocide. Although opposed by the government, it was passed by three-figure majorities in the Lords (and received vocal support from senior peers from all sides of the house). In the Commons, many Conservative MPs – including a former leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith – voted against their own government, reducing the government majority of 80 to a slender margin.

After some parliamentary ping-pong, it was agreed to establish a special committee to examine cases of genocide and for parliament then to consider the implications. This will lead to an inquiry into the Uighur genocide taking place in Xinjiang. This example underlines the point of the Lords. It is there to exercise sober judgment and utilize expertise (often from appointees drawn from professions and occupations separate from party politics). It is less beholden than the Commons and reliant on the political impulses of the day. It is better placed to give prudent consideration based on experience and wisdom to legislation and issues.

And it can give a second thought to measures that are too often pushed through on the hoof, in a pell-mell rush by an elected house with other preoccupations. Like the other institutions I have mentioned, the second chamber of parliament should not be allowed to become sclerotic. I have seen it change during my time as a member and favor further reform – including a cap on the number of members. But it would be a mistake to jettison what it does well, and it is a fallacy to believe that a democratic and open society is simply about elections.

As a student, I was elected to a city council. It still had unelected aldermen as members. Former councilors brought years of wisdom and experience to the council’s proceedings. Their appointment as aldermen also made way, in their wards, for fresh blood to be elected as councilors. The past was honored while making way for the future. Following the enactment of new local government legislation, the aldermen were abolished on the grounds that they were not “democratic.” But that is a very narrow understanding of what makes for a democratic society. Something important was lost.

I hope that the same mistake is not repeated and that, like the Oxbridge colleges, we will recognize that the creation of beautiful lawns requires generations of careful cultivation.

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