Here comes Labour’s next train wreck

Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, is the most competent minister in a decaying government; that is why he is chosen to introduce the most preposterous policies. He has an endearing habit of blurting out unseemly truths; we should not assume that he is unaware of the absurdity of some of his own proposals.

By William Rees-mogg (London Lowdown)

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Published: Mon 12 Feb 2007, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

His latest offering is a White Paper on House of Lords reform. In the brief House of Commons debate on his statement, he observed that ‘a manipulation of the defective system led to the train wreck last time’. What he was introducing to the Commons was the next train wreck.

There are two major faults in the White Paper proposals. The first is that senior government figures do not know what they should do; the second is even if they did know what to do, they would not want to do it.

The most powerful figure in the government is Chancellor Gordon Brown; no policy can be achieved unless he wants it to happen —and perhaps not even then. There is no evidence that he has made up his mind on what reform he wants for the Lords, or when he would want to introduce it. Perhaps, like so many other sensible people, he would prefer the whole issue to go away.

Tony Blair has never been keen on further reform of the Lords. He is now in the unbecoming position of being prime minister in name when the authority of his office has already passed to his heir presumptive.

We are back to the 18th Century, when George III had one court and one government, and the Prince of Wales had another court and was, in effect, the Leader of the Opposition. The constitutional position of Brown is much the same as that of the Prince of Wales when he became Prince Regent.

It is wrong to introduce a major constitutional reform on which there is no consensus between the parties and no consensus inside government. Straw has been put in an impossible position. He is merely the engine driver of the next train wreck and he knows it.

A further difficulty is that no party has decided what function the House of Lords ought to perform, other than its present function, which it performs well.

When one reads the White Paper, it becomes clear that the government knows only what it does not want. It certainly does not want the Lords to challenge the Commons; it does not want a House of Lords that has no valid experience and does not represent the different groups and regions in Britain.

The White Paper goes on, rather lamely, to admit that these are indeed the virtues of the present House of Lords. The most important paragraph emphasises the merits of an all appointed House, merits that would not be replicated in an elected House.

‘Appointment would mean that the composition of the Lords did not replicate the Commons at all. It would provide the maximum opportunity for those with sufficient experience of the outside world to gain a seat and it would help ensure that the House properly reflects the diverse population of the United Kingdom.’

This is an accurate description of the present Lords. So, one might think, there should be no substantial change to a system that meets Parliament’s basic needs so well: legislation should be revised professionally, the Executive should be challenged, the second chamber should be less party-political than the Commons, the average quality of peers should be high, the two Houses should not compete directly with each other. We have the Lords we want; why change it?

The argument on the other side is that there is a sort of magic about democracy that gives authenticity only to democratically elected bodies. This does not seem to apply in Europe. It is true that nominated bodies do not have a claim to be representative. But there are a wide variety of nominated bodies that do have authority.

Would Britain benefit from having a strong upper House, like the American Senate? Some people think it would, but no one should imagine that an elected Lords would accept its present limited status. The Lords cannot discuss tax, cannot ultimately block the Commons and does not seek to overrule the Commons, though we fight pretty hard on issues of personal liberty.

An elected senate would discuss tax, would block the Commons, would regard itself as the equal of the Commons, if not superior, and would demand the right to examine ministers. A senate would change the whole constitution of Britain.

A senate with elections by a party list system, such as the White Paper proposes, would not have the benefit of greater personal independence. Any party list system would fall into the hands of the party whips. The Lords might even become more politicised than the modern House of Commons.

The creation of an elected senate would involve a transfer of power from the Commons to the upper House, a reversal of the constitutional process by which the Lords in the 20th Century lost its powers to the Commons. The Commons has already transferred power to Europe; does it want to lose powers back to the Lords as well?

Some think the new senate could still be controlled by a written constitution, which might say the senate could not overrule the Commons or discuss tax.

From the point of view of the Commons, that has little attraction. Constitutions have to be interpreted by supreme courts. Members of the Commons do not want to be delivered into the hands of the new senators; still less would they want to lose their ultimate sovereignty to members of a constitutional court.

There is one other theoretical case for a directly elected senate. That is the federal case.

A federal union to replace the UK could extend the powers of separate parliaments for Scotland, Wales, England and, perhaps, Northern Ireland, with a new UK senate as the federal core of the new system. This could happen if the English were to insist on having their own parliament. It is only a remote possibility, but it could be brought nearer if the Lords were to become partially or wholly elected. If the basis of our Parliament is changed, the question of an English parliament can scarcely be avoided.

At present, most peers who have worked inside the existing constitution of the Lords favour only limited reforms. Naturally, most peers of all parties want to continue the useful work that they enjoy; it is conducted in an atmosphere of mutual courtesy, which is rare in modern Britain.

Many members of the Commons do want to introduce election for the Lords. They should, however, recognise that any elective system can be created only at the expense of their own powers, which have already been eroded by the transfer of power to the European institutions.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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