For over 100 years, the need to reform the Upper House of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, has been mooted. Sometimes vocally, sometimes as a muttered threat. Governments of both hues have come and gone, attempts have been made, and the Lords continue to live to fight another day. It, rather than we, appears to have discovered the secret of eternal life.
Tony Blair had most success in noising it up, but he managed, either on purpose or by compromise, to replace one tribe of unelected, unrepresentative members with a different set. His shift to appointees has been seized upon with glee by the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has since coming to power in 2010, stuffed the red benches with his own cronies – 117 of them to be exact.
And yet, for all the faults in its DNA, the House of Lords does and has served a purpose. During the welfare reform bill, when Tory MPs could see no evil, Lib Dem MPs would not hear of any evil, and Labour MPs lost the power to speak out about such evil, charities and organisations turned to the Lords. They found a willing audience. Indeed, the most remarkable moment of drama during the passage of the bill was crafted by a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
As the architect of the Child Support Agency in Thatcher’s Government, it was he who led the charge against the worst aspects of the coalition government’s changes, not least that parents with care will have to pay a hefty ransom to have maintenance calculated, collated and paid. Taking the mouths from babes was never so apt. His partner at arms, Lord Newton, a former Social Security Minister in the Tory Government, said at the time: “The proposition … that, if it is not practicable [to make private voluntary arrangements] people should be charged for getting justice and reasonable support for their children, is bordering on the indefensible.” We all cheered, if somewhat discombobulated at having to rely on their Lord and Ladyships to inject a dollop of fairness into the debate on the future of welfare.
Over the years, the Lords has played its role with aplomb in holding the upstarts over the corridor to account, especially when unassailable majorities meant that opposition was muted on measures that did not stand up to scrutiny. But, it is still a crony club, and is an anachronism in any modern legislature.
Needless to say, like ferrets in a sack, the cross-party Joint committee of Lords and MPs cannot agree on what a future second Chamber should look like. Agreeing on the voting system for the purported 80% elected Chamber appears to have been beyond them. The Committee (or rather, the majority of members who support an elected Chamber at all) “agrees with the government’s proposal for election under the STV system.” Uninvited, it adds its own views on how to make this work: “in addition, it recommends that voters who wish to vote for candidates by political party rather than individually should be free to do so. The Committee recommends that the STV system currently used in New South Wales should be adopted. This allows voters not only to rank individual candidates, but to vote by party and also to rank the parties so as to control where “excess” party votes are allocated.” Should be fun.
Of course, for many up here, such wrestling with voting systems and other niceties all seems a tad irrelevant. As one of the opponents of any reform, Lord Hennessy, pointed out, such deliberations are pointless until after 2014 when Scotland might not be part of the Parliament, and new calculations on numbers and the like might be required. Many of us don’t care about the Lords because many of us don’t expect to be around to witness its new dawn.
Which begs the question? Given that it’s taken 100 years and more to come up with a rather imperfect design for a revising chamber upon which everyone has a different opinion, will we be able to come up with something better for independent Scotland?
Yes. If it’s down to the SNP, there won’t be one.
Policy on such matters is a bit of a moveable feast of late and certainly, the party acknowledges that it is for the Scottish Parliament, post a yes vote, to draft a new constitution for independent Scotland, but according to its draft text for a written constitution, last revised by the late Sir Neil MacCormick, “the Parliament of Scotland shall be a single-chamber Parliament“, to be elected by single-transferable vote.
I used to support this. But recent events suggest that a second, revising chamber might not be a bad idea. We might want a second opinion further down the line on controversial proposals and legislation. Right now, none of us can ever envisage a Scottish Government wanting to privatise the NHS, but things, and times change. Imagine if we had our very own version of the ConDems railroading through health service reforms that no-one voted for? Wouldn’t we want brakes to be applied by a revising chamber?
Moreover, until it happened, none of us reckoned on a single party winning a majority under the partially proportionate voting system we have. Supposing the SNP, happy as it is with having found the formula to break the electoral bank, decides against changing the voting system for the Parliament in our brave, new independent world? While STV should ensure that no one party dominates the others (and who knows what parties we might have once we’ve all got used to independence and political re-alignments have occurred), but what if we proceed beyond 2016 with the current mix of first past the post and additional vote? We could, yet again, have a majority government. In such an instance, a second chamber – a Senate? – might be viewed as a necessary check and balance rather than another costly democratic layer of governance, that many presume it to be.
We might not want what they’ve got, with all its imperfections and the headaches caused by trying to create a modern structure fit for purpose, but when you consider the problems that might arise in independent Scotland from only having a single Parliamentary chamber, suddenly the case for a second one becomes much more compelling.