“When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he ignored the enormous possibilities of the word reform.”
If the Conservative Party still has anywhere suitable for the carving in stone of an essential motto, I humbly submit that Roscoe Conkling’s above-quoted jewel be strongly considered for inclusion.
‘Reform’, like ‘modernisation’, is a word to whom nobody can object. Who doesn’t want reform? Who doesn’t want things to be modern? This cunning linguistic formulation allows people to paint change as desirable, even inevitable, even if on closer inspection it isn’t actually effective.
I mention this because this morning’s Sun reports that Theresa May, in response to David Cameron’s discreditable resignation honours, is mulling the possibility of an elected upper house.
This is a really bad, not to mention deeply un-Conservative, idea – and if it does indeed get advanced as part of the Government’s programme then the rebels who killed it in the last Parliament must kill it again.
Few would claim that the current arrangements in the House of Lords are working particularly well – not least because Liberal Democrat peers are actively subverting it in order to act like senators and oppose, rather than merely scrutinise, legislation.
That should be the first hint that the possibility of having an elected Lords which still fulfilled its expert, subservient function is for the birds.
Yet there are plenty more. A new Senate would almost certainly be elected by some form of PR, filling the red benches with representatives of parties that, for various mixtures of high principle and self interest, firmly believe in electoral reform.
Is it plausible that members elected on what they considered to be a superior democratic mandate would be subservient to the Commons? It seems a remote prospect.
Nor would the expert function last long either. Once access to the Lords was decided by election the only peers remaining – barring some holdout mechanism for an unelected remnant – would be the inexpert, partisan ones.
What you’d end up with would essentially be a duplicate Commons, which down the line would entail legislative gridlock and even more constitutional wrangling.
It can’t be said often enough: objecting to an unelected second chamber does not, in itself, make the case for an elected one. It merely makes the case for abolishing the House of Lords.
That’s why Steve Hilton was so wrong to say, as he did in a recent Times (£) article, that: “until we have a fully elected legislature, we cannot call ourselves a true democracy.” The supreme element of our constitution, the Commons, is elected. It is not essential – indeed it is sub-optimal – for all parts of it to be so.
Rather than being a defect, being unelected is essential to the proper functioning of an advisory arm of the constitution. It enhances the second chamber’s role in our Parliamentary democracy, just as the Queen’s hereditary position does hers.
“Just the same, but with democracy” is simply not an option. A mandate changes the nature of the institution and the character of the people occupying it.
Stripped of the empty rhetoric about the niceness and modernity of elections, what exactly is the case for a Senate?
We already have a strong and maturing system of political legislative scrutiny via Westminster’s committee system – and if one wanted more partisan politicians to hold the executive to account, stop cutting the number of seats the Commons
That would also dilute the percentage power of the payroll vote. “How can we have several hundred more sort-of MPs who are less able to scrutinise the Government?” is not a question anybody is asking.
None of this is to say that the system is fine as it is. Far from it: Tony Blair was the constitutional equivalent of a surgery addict, trying to twist Britain into the United States with all the success of that lady who wants to look like a cat.
Just like devolution, Blair’s ill-planned ‘reforms’ to the House of Lords have created an open-ended bloat which is putting the constitution under strain – and thrusting it constantly back into the limelight.
The Conservatives must, with a steady hand and sharp scalpel, try to fix the damage as best we can.
For the Lords this should include clearer codification of its advisory function, reform of appointments so that the balance of power always rests on the crossbenches, and a sharp one-time cull of the partisan peers.
(It should not focus primarily on the size of the House: a large cloud of expert peers who only turn up when they’re needed, and only get paid when they turn up, is a perfectly sensible system.)
But to abolish the House of Lords and invent a Senate (which is what actually happens, even if you’re only ‘electing the Lords’) would be an act of vacuous vandalism. Burning down a dirty house is more newsworthy than cleaning it, but not wiser.