831 Lords into 80 Senators: if not now, when?
The government’s proposals for House of Lords ‘reform’ are a nonsense, but that’s no reason to give up on more sensible and progressive options for change. Devolution has brought us half-way into a UK federation: the near-universal recognition of the need to reform the House of Lords offers an excellent opportunity to establish a federal-type second chamber on the pattern of the many successful federal democracies around the world, namely a Senate with equal representation for each of the units which constitute the federation — in our case the four nations of the UK.
Professor Bogdanor, our leading constitutional expert, has recently dismembered Mr Clegg’s proposals for reform of the Lords in an article in The Times (protected by a paywall), but concluded that the present House of Lords was doing little harm and might do some good, so it was best to leave it alone — an argument against reform of any kind used by conservatives down the ages. I offered my federal-type alternative in a letter published in The Times on 29 August 2011:
Sir, Professor Bogdanor (“100 years on, the Lords is doing fine as it is”, Opinion, Aug 18) is surely wrong to argue from the obvious unacceptability of the government’s proposals for House of Lords reform that we’re therefore permanently stuck with this anachronistic, undemocratic body. The Professor asks how, “in a non-federal state”, voters can be represented in two differently elected chambers. But in a recent book he has himself described our post-devolution constitution as “quasi-federal”, and the experience of many federal democracies suggests a valuable role for an elected second chamber representing the UK’s four nations.
As in, for example, the US and Australia, each nation should have equal representation in a federal-style Senate, with (say) 20 Senators elected from each: 80 in total should be quite enough — the Americans manage with 100 — compared with the present 831 members of the Lords. House of Commons primacy would be safeguarded by the Senate’s strictly limited powers (as now) and by the Commons’ role as the sole maker of governments and home of ministers. Equal Senate representation would help to limit England’s predominance, long a source of anomalies and discontent. A federal-type Senate would encourage resumed progress towards the inevitable, and highly desirable, eventual destination of a fully federal UK, providing the only durable answer to the West Lothian Question and other anomalies arising from half-completed devolution, and the best chance of saving our country from disintegration as a result of Scottish secession.
I had offered the same proposal in a letter in the Guardian only two months or so earlier, and reproduced it in a blog post at the time (“The need for a federal senate instead of the house of lords“, 7 June). In that post, and in responses to some of the comments appended to it, I argued the case both for a federal-style Senate instead of the House of Lords and also for a federal United Kingdom as the logical destination of the process of devolution on which we have embarked, but which is now stalled, despite the serious challenge to the status quo posed by the demand of the SNP government and parliamentary majority in Scotland for independence and the disintegration of the United Kingdom. There’s no need to spell all that out again here now.
I should however issue just one clarification: some of the comments on that earlier post, and two or three messages that I have received since the publication of my letters in the Guardian and The Times, have mistakenly supposed me to be recommending that the existing House of Commons should be converted into an English parliament, equivalent to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh Assembly, etc., while the House of Lords should become a single-chamber federal parliament, both bodies presumably continuing to sit in the Palace of Westminster. This would in my view solve almost nothing and indeed would create new problems and fresh confusion. The concept of a federal parliament in the whole of which all four UK nations would have equal numbers of representatives, irrespective of population size, would be obviously absurd: it makes sense only in the context of a second chamber (like the US Senate) where the other chamber is elected on the basis of population size, either more or less exactly as under Proportional Representation (PR), or roughly as in the UK House of Commons and the US House of Representatives.
A UK federation certainly does require an English parliament: we can’t go on indefinitely with the nonsense of a Westminster parliament elected (or, in the case of the House of Lords, appointed, God help us) and constituted as a parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, but simultaneously functioning in its spare time as a parliament for England (without anything remotely resembling an English government to accompany it). The fact that most English people blithely assume that the parliament at Westminster, with members elected to it from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is nevertheless at heart an English parliament, only adds further confusion and resentment to the hopeless muddle we are currently in. If and when we wake up to the need for a proper federal system, a new parliament — and, just as important, a new government — will have to be established in and for England, concerned purely with English internal affairs. It’s unlikely to be situated in London, for that would risk continuing confusion between the English parliament and government on the one hand, and their federal all-UK counterparts at Westminster on the other. It would also fail to satisfy the strong feelings in some regions of England that London is too far away and too London-centric to understand or cater for their needs. The Westminster parliament and government would continue to be responsible for those all-UK matters which the four nations will have agreed should be handled centrally and uniformly – principally foreign affairs, defence, external trade, and some (but not all) kinds of taxation.
But there’s no reason for us to have to wait for these changes to be agreed and brought into operation — that will take many years. We can replace the obviously undesirable House of Lords with a federal-type Senate, if not tomorrow, then as soon as the necessary legislation can be prepared and passed, if necessary using the Parliament Act to force it through a probably recalcitrant House of Lords. It would be a huge improvement in our constitutional arrangements: it would signal a willingness on the part of England not to use its disproportionate size and wealth to the detriment of the three smaller nations or in a way that involves constantly interfering in their internal affairs: it would improve the ability of the second chamber, with its new democratic credentials as an elected House, to hold the government to account, despite its iron control of the House of Commons: and it would symbolise our country’s quasi-federal status, reminding Professor Bogdanor and others that the devolution process is only half completed. There’s more work to be done.
Post-script: Ephems is going on holiday now for the next three weeks or so, with only sporadic and partial access to the internet. So there will be no responses to comments for a while. Some of the questions and objections that this post is likely to prompt are already answered, e.g. in the June post mentioned earlier, especially in responses to comments there. These still hold good, in my opinion anyway. Others will just have to hang in the ether: I don’t promise, or even intend, to deal with them all, or any of them, on my return. Those posting comments in Ephems for the first time, or the first time for a year or two, may have to wait longer than usual for their comments to be ‘approved’ for publication in this blog. For any such delays I apologise.
And now to finish the packing.