It has always been a mystery to me how Britain can claim to be a modern, twentieth-century democracy and have its parliament’s second chamber chosen by prime ministerial patronage. The only other country with an appointed second chamber is Canada, based on the British tradition.
Every other democracy with a second chamber elects its members. As a parliamentarian, I find it difficult to accept that Britain is so behind in this matter. Other European countries either have no second chamber or one that is either directly or, as in the case of the French senate, indirectly elected.
Even those countries which, like Britain, have undergone minimal disruption by war or revolution throughout their history have managed to come to a democratic conclusion. Sweden has a unicameral system as does Denmark; both countries evolved peacefully towards this state.
Yet Britain is unable to get anywhere with this thorny problem. Members of the upper house who gained their place by heredity lasted far too long. Now we have a truly messy mish-mash of appointees who got there by virtue of their relationship with the prime minister. Just to add to the mix, there are also 26 Church of England bishops whose status is a historical remnant of the landed wealth of the medieval church.
There is no way the current state of affairs can be viewed as an edifying way to run a country. Indeed, I am reminded of those robber barons who came to England with William the Conqueror and were rewarded with tracts of the English countryside, not to mention royaly dispensed titles. The current situation whereby the 21st century equivalent of William the First’s cohorts gain advantage is the same in principle, if not in practice. A second chamber appointed by the prime minister is positively feudal, its antecedents brought into sharp relief by the strange costume peers wear for formal events and the Lords’ quaint customs.
The powers of the House of Lords are almost as murky as its composition. While it can certainly influence government, its real role is to scrutinise legislation. Yet this is constantly under threat as successive prime ministers seek to pack the Lords with their own place men and women. Tony Blair created 162 Labour peers while David Cameron has already appointed 47 Conservatives. The result of prime ministerial attempts to neuter the Lords is that the upper house now has 792 members, compared to 650 for the House of Commons (probably to be reduced to 600) and a mere 754 for the European Parliament.
The case for reform of the second chamber is, I believe, irrefutable. As ever, the current debate is being dragged down by various vested interests, namely the Lords themselves, those in government who find the present set-up to their advantage, Tory right-wing Eurosceptics who bizarrely think a referendum on Lords reform can also be a referendum on EU membership together with woolly well-wishers who respect the peers who are experts in their field. There are, of course, also those who think the current economic malaise makes this a bad time to introduce constitutional change.
The debate about the powers of the second chamber strikes me as a rather clever red herring. The argument that an elected second chamber would challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons is both arcane and obstructive. Of the 13 countries in the EU which have second chambers, four of these are directly elected. Interestingly three of the four are in former Communist countries. These three and the other, Spain, all seem to manage quite well, as does the United States, home to the world’s most high-profile dual camera system.
The United Kingdom, or at least its constituent parts, are old and proud nations. Our distinctive customs and ways of doing things should, of course, be preserved when they are beneficial. However, we must learn when to let go of the past. Reforming the House of Lords to make it a modern, elected second chamber is well overdue. Achieving this would be a credit to our country both now and for a long time into the future.