The need for a federal senate instead of the house of lords

The UK has become a semi-federation as a result of devolution to three of the four UK nations, but we still lack most of the institutions and safeguards that a federal system needs and can provide. One of these is a federal-type senate as the second chamber of our semi-federal parliament at Westminster.  Nick Clegg’s newly published proposals for a leisurely and partial ‘reform’ of the House of Lords over the next dozen years or so do nothing to address this need. They were rightly dismissed by Martin Kettle in the Guardian of 3 June, with the argument that outright abolition of the second chamber would be preferable to the Clegg plan. On 6 June, the Guardian published my letter advocating neither abolition nor the Clegg plan for reforming the Lords, but instead a federal-type UK senate. The published version of my letter omitted a couple of points from the text I had submitted, which, for the record, read as follows:

Martin Kettle is right to dismiss Nick Clegg‘s hotchpotch of proposals for reforming the House of Lords (Nick Clegg’s House of Lords reform is folly. Abolition would be a better option, 3 June), but surprisingly omits to consider another option besides abolition: a second chamber on the pattern of the Senates of such successful federations as the US and Australia, with equal representation for each of the UK’s four nations.  With devolution to three of our four constituent nations, we have become a semi-federation, but we still lack most of the safeguards offered by a fully-fledged federal system.  A UK Senate with, say, 20 members elected by PR in each of the four nations would give Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland much needed protection against the constant threat of being outvoted by the English members, just as the smaller Australian states such as Tasmania are protected by equal representation in the federal Senate against domination by New South Wales and Victoria.

Full federalism would entail other safeguards against English domination too, but this would be a vital one.  The UK Senate could have much the same limited functions as the present House of Lords and since it would not produce the government, nor include ministers, it could never threaten the primacy of the House of Commons. If the United States can manage with 100 Senators, two from each state, we could surely get by with 80, instead of the 831 members of the present House of Lords (!).  There’s no need to wait for the completion of the federal project (i.e. a parliament and government for England):  a federal-type Senate could be established within three or four years, given the will.

I try not to miss any opportunity to point out the huge advantages that a fully federal system would bring to all the UK’s four nations, and the fact that once our political leaders pluck up the courage to recognise the logical conclusion of the half-completed devolution process by instituting a separate parliament and government for England — and sharply reducing the powers and functions of the Westminster parliament accordingly — we shall have a de facto federation on our hands, whether we like it or not.

Our present semi-federal system (devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) has come about primarily to satisfy the legitimate demands of the Scots for more power over their own internal affairs and much less meddling and interference from the over-centralist government and parliament at Westminster.  Because England, with some 84% of the population of the UK, is so much bigger than the other three nations put together, there is a natural tendency for England to dominate the affairs of all four nations.  Devolution, by transferring powers in domestic matters from Westminster to three of the four nations, does offer those three a degree of protection from being dominated by England, as well as the obvious benefits of bringing decision-making closer to the people whose lives are affected by those decisions.  But Westminster still retains sweeping powers in all four nations, and Scottish resentment of this is clearly one of the factors in the victory of the Scottish National Party’s achievement of an overall majority at the elections of May 2011 — a convincing victory by a party committed to full independence for Scotland even while a majority of Scots, according to all the opinion polls, still prefer increased autonomy for Scotland to full independence and secession from the UK.

So further safeguards against the dominating power and wealth of England are required if relations between the four nations are to be placed on a sound, fair, democratic and durable footing and the integrity of the United Kingdom preserved from disintegration.  Further devolution of powers in all domestic matters is certainly one ingredient in this.  But the now near-universal support for reform of the second chamber offers a golden opportunity for another.  A federal-style second chamber at Westminster, with equal representation for each of the four nations regardless of population but with the limited powers of the present House of Lords, would provide an important further safeguard against the dominance of England.  As I argued in my Guardian letter, a UK senate could well be no bigger than 80 members, 20 from each of the four nations, compared with the 831 members of the present House of Lords.  Even if there were to be a new separate (but small) parliament for England, there would still be fewer parliamentarians in the UK as a whole than we have at the moment: so the argument that no-one wants even more politicians does not apply.

There remains one argument for the existing House of (unelected) Lords: that the presence in the so-called Upper House of eminent and acknowledged experts in their field, from retired army generals to gynaecologists, adds value to the debate on legislation as it passes through parliament.  Lord Winston, for example, is a great expert in human fertility with experience in other medical fields, and undoubtedly speaks (and votes) with special authority on such matters when they come before Their Lordships.  But it’s not easy to see why he should be given the privilege of speaking and voting in our national law-making body on such matters as, for example, defence or foreign affairs, on which his opinion is doubtless as good as anyone else’s, but not necessarily any better.  The same thing applies to other Lordships appointed for their expertise in specialised fields.  Such experts could easily be invited to participate in debates on questions within their field of specialised knowledge, both in parliamentary committees and indeed in plenary debates on the floor of the second chamber (why not?), but there is no reason for them to be appointed as members of the chamber or for them to have the right to vote in it.  That should be reserved to those who have been directly elected, either by First Past the Post in the case of members of the House of Commons (until the people, in their wisdom, decide to change the electoral system), or else by proportional representation in the case of a new federal-type senate.  The senate could best be elected for longer terms than the House of Commons, with a third or a quarter retiring every so many years, as in the case of the US Senate, so there would be no question of the two chambers duplicating each other;  and the senate, although directly elected, could never challenge the primacy of the Commons, since it would not produce the government, ministers would not be eligible to sit in it (although they could be required to participate in its debates and to answer its questions), and above all it would no more be able to nullify the decisions of the Commons than the present House of Lords:  only to delay them, as now.

(There should be no need to set out here the arguments against granting representation in either chamber of the national parliament to priests, mullahs, rabbis, or other representatives of any religion or sect, unless they are prepared to submit themselves successfully for election like anyone else. )

The benefits of a federal-style senate, which could be introduced forthwith, followed over the next several years by a gradual move to a fully federated United Kingdom, are so obvious that it’s mystifying that no major (or indeed minor) party has spotted the opportunity to pick them up and run with them.  With all our politicians mesmerised by the pursuit of the middle ground, it seems that we are condemned to mediocrity and a failure of imaginative, progressive or radical thinking, for all time.  How can we wake them up?  Perhaps the Scots will do us all a favour by giving the Westminster mafia a terrible fright, and forcing them at last to think the currently unthinkable.  But time is running out!


6 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    Eminently sensible, Brian, thus inevitably doomed to oblivion.

  2. Roland Smith says:

    Brian, I can see a good case for a House of Lords/Senate of the kind you propose if it were introduced at the same time as an English parliament (of the need for which, however, I remain to be convinced).  But if it were introduced without there being an English parliament, the effect would be that legislation affecting only England would need not only to pass through the House of Commons, with its substantial minority of members from other parts of the Kingdom, but also through a Senate in which three quarters of the members were non-English.  For that reason, I think that the proposal as you have now presented it would be unworkable, and would never be accepted.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this highly pertinent comment, Roland. You make a perfectly valid point — one which incidentally also applies to a lesser degree to the present House of Commons and House of Lords, in both of which non-English MPs and peers participate in law-making on matters that solely affect England. I entirely agree, of course, that a Senate on the lines I propose would work much better if introduced at the same time as, or immediately after, the creation of a separate English parliament (and government). Otherwise it would run into exactly the problem you describe. This would force us to devise a complex solution, such as allowing only the senators elected in England to vote on questions or draft legislation declared by the Speaker of the House of Commons to affect only England, with the other senators permitted to take part in debates on such matters but without a vote: or else in the case of votes on questions affecting only England, and only for such votes, weighting the senators’ votes in proportion to the population sizes of their respective nations.

    The need for such unsatisfactory devices would usefully highlight the absurd anomaly whereby England alone of the four nations still doesn’t have its own legislature or government and so has no powers to govern itself in the way that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do, and whereby the parliament at Westminster and its UK government have to attempt to function simultaneously in the mutually incompatible roles of federal organs for the whole of the UK on matters not devolved to the three devolved nations, and at the same time operate as a legislature and government for purely English matters, despite the composition of both being entirely inappropriate for the latter function. This is just another way of pointing up the (currently unanswerable) West Lothian Question, to which the only possible answer is a fully federal system for the four nations. Unfortunately there’s now a real risk that the Scots will opt for full independence and secession from the UK before our mediocre political leaders have woken up to the need to offer a full-fledged federal alternative.

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, I greatly agree that establishment of an upper-house Senate must be preceded by establishment of an English parliament, and I like the idea of a Senate in which the four nations are equally weighted.  But in addition, are the twenty delegates of each nation each to represent a constituency within that nation – huge in the case of England, relatively tiny for Ulster?  Also, whether or not each senator represents a constituency, how are the candidates for office to be presented to the electorate?  By parties?  Are we to have  a Senate in which all the worst features of the Commons are repeated – the excessive prevalence of (failed?) lawyers and businessmen, the elevation of party loyalty to religious status accompanied by the pernicious whip system and the treatment of members as lobby-fodder, the pretence that anything the Other Lot put forward is inevitably anti-social or plain stupid, the ignoring of the fact that on any particular issue there will be a range of opinions which will transcend traditional lines?  If not by party affiliation, how then are candidates to be selected?  By public nomination (producing a senate of TV personalities, footballers, and pop stars)?  On the basis of recognised achievement – but recognised by whom, since the names of leaders in their fields are so often unknown to the mass of electors, especially where these leaders are academics?  Who, in other words, would you like to see on the selection boards? 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. I agree that some at least of your questions would need to be answered in the course of the establishment of a federal or federal-type Senate. It would be prudent to commission research, perhaps by a Royal Commission, into the electoral systems used for other federal bodies in comparable democracies and to learn lessons from their practical consequences, as a basis for an informed national debate on how its members should be elected, although a form of PR is obviously indicated. Moreover it’s quite possible and desirable for each of the four nations to decide for itself how its senators should be elected: the federal constitution would lay down a few basic principles to be observed, but there’s no reason why the senators from England should necessarily be elected under the same electoral system as those from Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland. To weigh the essential proposal down with preconceived conditions about the minutiae of the electoral system or systems, before the simple principle of having such a body to replace the House of Lords at all has even been discussed and adopted, will be to sink it before it’s even been launched. First things first! And let’s please remember that we aren’t inventing the wheel: there’s plenty of practical experience of operating federal systems out there, and we shouldn’t succumb to the ancient English vice — no, not that one — of assuming that we have nothing to learn from a bunch of foreigners. In many cases their systems work pretty well while ours is bust.

  4. JANE HAWORTH says:

    I have been advocating a federal senate for some time now – letters to the Times etc.

    We have a complete mish mash of a constitution which replaced a more than adequate system.  Voters in England have had no say in any of it.  We continue to have Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs sitting in the “English Parliament”

    There is no point in doing anything about the Lords as they are at present without dealing with the wider constitutional matters and problems arising from an inequity of powers between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.  Wales, England and Northern Ireland must be given equal powers within their own borders.  Their parliaments must have full tax raising powers to fund devolved activities.  The Federal Government emanating from the new Federal Senate should raise taxes to fund the non-devolved activities for which it would have responsibility.

    I am not sure about your suggestion that there should be equal representation from the states of the Federation because England, which would provide the lion’s share of the funding could be dictated to by the other states  with their smaller populations either individually or collectively.  However richer and moire populous states in the USA seem to manage with equal representation in thre US Senate.

    Is there an organisation for people of our views or are you it?

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this. I agree in general with what you say, and specifically with most of it. Where we differ is, I think, over the role of the federal Senate. You seem to envisage that the House of Commons would become (or in a sense remain) a parliament for England, with the federal Senate, replacing the present House of Lords, becoming the federal Parliament, both presumably continuing to sit in the Palace of Westminster. I don’t think this would be feasible, on various grounds, including especially the certainty that it would perpetuate the existing confusion between the UK and English parliaments. At present the Houses of Commons and Lords both attempt to perform dual and incompatible functions, as a parliament for England responsible for everything, and simultaneously as a quasi-federal parliament for the whole of the UK, resposible for everything not devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A full federal system would necessitate the establishment of a new, separate parliament for England, probably not in London, and not necessarily comprising two chambers — that could be decided later. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords (reconstituted as a Senate) at Westminster would become solely the federal parliament for the whole UK, responsible for a much reduced range of subjects (see my response to your separate comment on this). They would be the equivalents of the House of Representatives and the Senate, together comprising the federal Congress in Washington DC.

    The four UK nations would need to have equal representation in the federal Senate as a protection for the three smaller nations against being railroaded by the Senators elected in England, who would be able to outvote the other three if representation was in proportion to population. The three smaller nations (Scotland, Wales and N Ireland) would not be able to force through laws or policies against opposition from England, because they would not be able to get them through the federal House of Commons where representation would be proportional to population. Equal representation for all four nations in the Senate would however protect the three smaller nations against the abuse of the English overall majority in the Commons to push through policies opposed by the other three nations. They would have a blocking veto, but an overall majority in only one of the two federal chambers. As you say, it works very well in such democratic federations as the US and Australia, from both of which we could and should learn a lot — and from numerous other federations too. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

    My letter published in today’s Times (29 Aug 2011) briefly describes the kind of Senate that I advocate. I’ll put a copy of its text in a new Ephems post shortly.

    Finally, there are various organisations that advocate a separate parliament for England, but very few of them seem interested in the federal UK which would result from this; and some are chauvinist, petty-nationalistic, right-wing Little Englanders actively opposed to strengthening or even continuing the Union with Scotland. Others, such as the Federal Union, are serious bodies which advocate federalism but don’t campaign actively or specifically in the political arena for a UK federation. I am certainly not an organisation myself! But I hope that the threat to the survival of the United Kingdom posed by Scottish separatism may eventually force the UK political establishment to look seriously at the one reform, a federal system for the whole UK, which would give Scotland the virtually complete autonomy which many Scots perfectly reasonably demand, but without causing the disintegration of our country.

  5. JANE HAWORTH says:

    The powers given to the Welsh, English and Northern Ireland parliaments must be the same as those enjoyedby the Scots.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I certainly agree that all four nations in the federated UK should have the same powers in the same subjects, but I envisage that these should be much more extensive than those currently devolved even to Scotland. The nations should have ‘residual’ powers — meaning that they would have full powers over everything except those subjects specifically reserved to the federal all-UK level, principally foreign affairs, defence, external trade and whatever else the four nations agreed should be centrally and uniformly administered on their behalf by the federal parliament and government at Westminster. For example VAT (sales tax) would be for the nations, and not necesarily set at the same level in each nation, whereas income tax would probably have to be federal and uniform throughout the UK.

    (I hope you are the much admired Ms Haworth of the English National Ballet, by the way?)

  6. JANE HAWORTH says:

    Sadly, I am niot the Ms Haworth of the English National Ballet.

    As a welshwomanthough living in England, I do not think that I could ever be accused of being a chauvinist “Little Englander”.  There is a Welsh expression “chwara teg” (fair play)  This should apply to all the constituent parts of the UK.  I am not sure where the F for federal should go without causing offence.

    Brian writes: Thank you again, Jane, even if you aren’t the English National Ballet’s Jane Haworth. I’m sure however that you are the Jane Haworth who has an excellent letter in today’s Times about the article by Professor Bogdanor and my reply to it (see and, about a Senate to replace the House of Lords. I’m all for fair play, whether in Welsh or any other language, and I agree that the abbreviation for a ‘Federal UK’ will need to be chosen with care. BTW, I’m a great admirer of the Welsh: Nye Bevan, Neil and Glenys Kinnock and David Lloyd George are among my greatest political heroes and I have a son called Owen despite none of us having a drop of Welsh blood, as far as we know. (I’m also a warm admirer of the Scots and one of my oldest friends is from Belfast, so I’m a natural-born federalist.)

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