We are currently confronted by the prospect of an Act of Parliament coming into force within a few weeks that will change the composition of the House of Lords, introducing a badly flawed electoral system for the majority of its members, and taking no account whatever of the constitutional implications for the UK parliament of the referendum on independence for Scotland due to take place in barely two years’ time. The government’s Bill which proposes this major but inadequate change to one of the two bodies which make our laws is apparently to be hustled through with virtually no serious public consultation, no consideration of the role of the federal parliament’s second chamber in safeguarding the interests of the smaller of the four nations which make up the UK, and no provision to enable further changes to be made in the light of the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum without unravelling the entire “reform” now to be imposed on us.
Today’s Guardian (5 July 2012) publishes a letter from me pointing out the sheer folly of introducing a relatively radical reform of the House of Lords when the whole constitutional future of the UK will be affected one way or another by the still unpredictable result of the Scottish referendum. My letter, as published in the Guardian, is a much compressed version (compressed by me at the Guardian‘s request but still, I submit, well worth reading at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jul/04/lords-reform-an-opportunity-missed!) of a rather longer letter that I submitted a few days ago, whose text was as follows:
You are right to argue that almost any reform of the House of Lords, even the government’s deeply flawed proposals (bishops? 15-year tenure? 450 members?), would be better than the status quo (Democracy versus the ditchers, Editorial, June 27). But the timing of the government’s Bill is patently absurd. It takes no account of the constitutional implications of the Scottish referendum on independence or devo max in 2014, whose result may well set the UK irrevocably on the path to a full federation of its four nations. It doesn’t even recognise that we are already halfway down that path. Both a federation and a semi-federation such as we already have demand a quite different kind of second chamber from either the current House of Lords or a new version of it in which election of some of the membership is merely substituted for appointment, as envisaged by the government’s proposals. We already need a second chamber on the lines of the United States and Australian Senates, and that need will become even more obvious and pressing if Scotland votes in 2014 for full internal self-government within the UK, which seems from the polls to be the likeliest outcome. Alternatively, should Scotland secede from the United Kingdom, we shall be in a whole new constitutional ball-game, to which half-baked reforms to the House of Lords made now will be almost wholly irrelevant.
Instead of rushing into a major constitutional change without proper preparation or consultation, we should be spending the time between now and the Scottish referendum on proper research, including a study of the second chambers in comparable Western democracies, both federal and unitary; consulting with the leaders and parties of the three devolved nations and England about how their interests can best be protected and promoted in a new second chamber; only then publishing a new green or white paper setting out a series of options for public discussion; and holding a referendum to establish which of the options enjoys the greatest popular support. A first step might be a Royal Commission, a constitutional convention or a Speaker’s Conference to map out the various steps leading to a properly considered reform which takes account of the radical constitutional changes on which we embarked with devolution, deferring final decisions until we know the result of the Scottish referendum. The present mad rush, dictated purely by the internal politics of the coalition, is unseemly and likely to be self-defeating. By all means let us rid ourselves of the present indefensible all-appointed House of Lords, but let us make sure that we put in its place something which reflects the needs of a partially devolved Britain and which will not be made obsolete by unpredictable events in Scotland in barely two years’ time.
Britain has traditionally been governed not only as a unitary state but also under a grossly over-centralised system. Scottish resentment of an overwhelmingly English government and Parliament constantly meddling in Scotland’s internal affairs has led to the rise of a popular independence movement to which partial devolution was the imaginative and constructive response of Scottish leaders of all political colours and of the then Labour government at Westminster. Partial devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has become increasingly popular in those three nations, leading to widespread demand for the grant of further devolved powers. In the case of Scotland, this demand takes the form of ‘devo max’, or full internal self-government, as a constructive alternative to full independence, currently enjoying greater support than independence. Full internal self-government for Scotland, if chosen by the Scottish people in the autumn of 2014, will inevitably prompt demands for the same status in Wales and Northern Ireland, and (more controversially) for devolution and full internal self-government, with its own parliament and government, for England. The UK has already become a semi-federation since devolution; that process has been temporarily interrupted, leaving a host of anomalies crying out for resolution; its logical destination can only be full federation for the whole of the UK. It is impossible at present to predict precisely what kind of federal system we shall want or need in advance of the Scottish referendum in 2014. If Scotland votes for full independence, the rest of the UK will need a different kind of constitution from the four-nation federation that will be appropriate if Scotland becomes fully self-governing within the UK. It follows that now cannot be the right time to introduce important changes to the way we appoint or elect members of the House of Lords.
A large part of the problem of securing a sensible, durable and democratic federal parliament for the UK arises from the widespread ignorance in Britain of basic federal principles, aggravated by an apparent inability to recognise that we are already more than halfway into a federal constitution. These misunderstandings are well illustrated by the winds of protest and condemnation whipped up by the suggestion in earlier posts here that a federal UK needs a federal second chamber (replacing the House of Lords) on the lines of the United States and Australian Federal Senates, with equal numbers of senators elected from each of the constituent units of the two federations. This is an essential safeguard for the smaller units (‘states’ in the US and Australia, ‘nations’ in the UK) against domination in the federal sphere by the much larger units, such as California, New York State, New South Wales, Victoria – and above all England. The democratic principle of representation in rough proportion to population size is protected in the other federal legislative chamber (House of Representatives, House of Commons) where in the Australian and British systems real power resides, both formally and because that is where governments are formed and held to account. (Difficulty in grasping these basic principles of federalism is also reflected in well-meaning suggestions in the press and elsewhere for turning the [federal] House of Lords into an English [lower tier] Parliament, confusing the two levels which are at the heart of a federal system.)
It can’t be said too often that we already have a semi-federal system, and that a full federal system for the UK is almost inevitable – as well as highly desirable. If our political leaders, parliamentarians, political commentators, editors, academics and other opinion-formers continue in ignorance of what federalism needs and demands, we shall continue to commit damaging blunders in seeking to reform or even just improve our constitutional system. Instead of ramming through an ill considered and deeply flawed reform of the House of Lords as proposed in the government Bill, we should spend the time between now and the Scottish referendum in a campaign of public education in federalism. A good start, as suggested in my original letter to the Guardian, might be the appointment of a Royal Commission or other formal body charged with making and publishing a detailed analysis of the second chambers in other democratic federal countries, and spelling out the lessons to be learned from them in the circumstances of the United Kingdom following whatever turns out to be the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in late 2014. Already we are running out of time for that badly needed exercise in public education.
Update (pm 6 August 2012): Nick Clegg has announced this afternoon that the prime minister has decided to abandon the LibDems’ House of Lords Reform Bill, and that in retaliation (not Mr Clegg’s word, but that’s what it amounts to) the LibDems will vote against the Tories’ plan to reduce the size of the house of commons and have the constituency boundaries re-drawn to the advantage of the Conservative Party by a speeded-up process in time for the election scheduled for 2015. This is very bad news for the Coalition, marking a fundamental humiliation of the junior partner by the Tory right-wing Neanderthal tendency, but very good news indeed for the country. With luck it will allow time for a fundamental re-think about the place of the second chamber at Westminster in the context of devolution, the Scottish independence/devo max referendum in 2014, and the constitutional future of the UK as a whole. And with a bit more luck it should spell the end of a shameless attempt by the Tories to gerrymander the House of Commons to their own advantage in time for the next election — something the LibDems were prepared to go along with, to their everlasting shame, in exchange for Tory support for their ideas about reform of the House of Lords (the kind of cynical horse-trading that makes the wheels of coalition government in a hung parliament go round). So: a good day for democracy, for once!
If Labour has its wits about it, now is the time for an offer of collaboration with the LibDems on a completely new approach to reform of the second chamber in the context of the whole constitutional future of the United Kingdom. Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan have a golden opportunity to seize the initiative by offering a national constitutional convention to be set up immediately after the next general election to debate proposals for constitutional reform, including the replacement of the House of Lords by a wholly elected second chamber, to be drawn up jointly by the Labour and LibDem parties between now and the next election.
The full text of Nick Clegg’s statement on all this is at