By Lord Lamont of Lerwick.
A favourite quotation from Disraeli used to be that “if change is not necessary, change is unnecessary”. Perhaps it rings a little complacent today. We are all modernisers now. But this common sense observation was simply a more elegant variant of the colloquial “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Coalition are about to embark on the massive undertaking of legislating to “reform”, come would say ”abolish”, the present House of Lords and replace it by a predominately elected one. This project threatens to bring the mother of all Parliamentary battles, the gumming up of Parliamentary business, not to mention much bitterness in both Houses. What a largely bemused public will make of it, remains to be seen. People may not be so indifferent if politicians seem to be obsessed with their own concerns at the expense of discussing jobs and growth.
Few Conservative Ministers are openly enthusiastic about “reform”. The main argument they put forward is that the Liberal Democrats need a win after their defeat on the AV Referendum.
The Liberal Democrats are understandably keen because in a bicameral system with proportional representation for the Lords, they would hold the balance of power possibly on a permanent basis.
But the key question ought to be; “Will the House of Lords do its job more effectively if it is directly elected as proposed by the Government under a system of proportional representation?"
The main argument put forward by the advocates of change is that an elected House will be more “democratic” and more ”legitimate”. I am not sure how widespread public concern is. During the twenty five years that I was an MP, I don’t recall receiving a single letter or representation about the House of Lords.
The argument about “legitimacy” or “democracy” is somewhat overdone since the Lords has only limited powers. It does not make laws. That is the prerogative of the elected, democratic House. The Lords revises, invites the Commons to think again, but if the Commons is determined its will prevails. The Lords cannot vote on money bills, that is financial legislation.
It is difficult to see how the present, limited role of the Lords would be improved by an elected House composed of yet more professional politicians. We have so many layers of elected representatives: The European Parliament, Local Government, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Parliaments, Police Commissions, on top of the House of Commons. Do we really need more elected politicians with their blue, red and yellow scarves, not to mention their expensive offices, secretaries and research assistants?
The Deputy Prime Minister, who favours a 100% elected Second Chamber, talks about the House of Lords being left over business from 1910. But the Lords has changed radically with the abolition of the vast majority of hereditaries and the creation of Life Peers. The style of the House of Lords is completely different from that of the Commons. No party has an overall majority. Because of the Lord’s limited role and the presence of a large wedge of Cross Benchers, the atmosphere is more detached, less political and often better informed. The membership of the Lords does not just consist of former politicians but also former Law Lords, Chiefs of Staff, Nobel Prize winners, Chancellors of Universities, historians, eminent surgeons and senior businessmen. Brilliant but senior figures like Lord Mackay, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, or Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal are not likely to stand for election at this stage of their life.
Party Whips are less effective in the Lords, precisely because the nominated members are largely without ambition. They are more independent precisely because they are not elected and are not going to worry if the “Whip” were to be removed from them.
Incidentally the Government’s idea of making members of the House of Lords stand for one single term of election for fifteen years seems to destroy the argument that this would make them accountable. Elected politicians are accountable if they have to run for re-election based on their past performance. They will not be accountable if, as suggested by the Government, they are elected only once.
The relationship between the two Houses is nuanced although there is no doubt which House has the final say. The British Parliament at the moment is really a modified, uni-Cameral system. If it becomes a real bi-Cameral system with two elected Houses, the balance of power between the two must alter. Members of an elected will regard themselves as just as democratic and “legitimate” as MPs.
If there are to be two elected Houses, gridlock similar to what happens in the USA seems probable, not least when the two Houses will be elected on different electoral systems and at different times. Even if the present conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses was written into Law, inevitably the Lords would eventually challenge the Commons and demand more powers. We have seen how the Scottish Parliament, once established, has been able to obtain more powers including over taxation, even before the referendum on independence. It is easy to imagine a deadlock between two elected Houses turning into negotiations to change the relationship between the two.
At present, governments are formed on the basis of which party commands a majority in the House of Commons. This could change to which parties can put together a coalition to have a majority in both Houses at the same time. This would give the Liberals a huge and permanent, enhanced role in politics.
Paddy Ashdown recently suggested an elected House of Lords could have prevented the Iraq War. This sits oddly with the Government’s claim an elected Lords would have an unchanged relationship with the Commons. But what would happen if the Commons voted for a war and the elected Lords opposed it?
Britain has had a surfeit of constitutional change in recent years: The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, elected Mayors and fixed term Parliaments. Many of these changes will have unintended consequences. Devolution was meant to end, once and for all, the debate about Scotland but it didn’t. Lords reform will also have unpredictable consequences. How about the Prime Minister being in the Lords? It might be a good idea to digest the recent changes before embarking into the unknown in pursuit of change which few people really want.