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!