The Death of Clegg’s Lords Reform
Nick Clegg’s House of Lords reform is dead, and for that, I am glad. The Liberal Democratic Bill was an unappetising mess of compromises and fudges: 90 appointed peers remained, while four-fifths of members of a reformed, 450-member House of Lords were to be elected for one 15-year term, chosen by an open list proportional system and representing whole regions of the country rather than single constituencies. The reactionary swathe of the Conservative Party who up-ended Clegg’s plans may have been correct this time, in raising the question of what this Bill would have done to the United Kingdom’s delicate constitutional settlement.
Our present system of government — unique amongst the nations for its democratic character and functionality — relies upon a succession of well-known but uncodified agreements between the various branches and chambers of office for its stability, and various pieces of legislation which lay out the rights of man and citizen. The Habeas Corpus Act 1679 made law the right to a free and fair trial, building upon the right set down in the Magna Carta, which noted that “no Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land”. The Bill of Rights 1689 sets limits on the power of the monarch and outlined the scope of Parliament’s role. The Parliament Act 1911 establishes the supremacy of the Commons, the elected chamber, over the Lords, the appointed, advisory side of Parliament.
In seeking to revolutionise the House of Lords, transforming it from an appointed to an elected body, Clegg threatened to upset the fragile balance of our unwritten constitution. It is evident that it is impossible to radically reform one element of government without doing the same of all the others. If we wish to have two elected chambers, then by extension we are duty bound to convene a constitutional convention to formulate a single, codified document which not only enshrines our rights and freedoms but also makes clear the limits of governmental power and the role of each branch as they relate to each other.
In so doing, we have to ask ourselves a number of pertinent and pressing questions. Do we wish to have a unicameral or bicameral legislature? and if the answer if the latter, should both chambers be elected? and should one have supremacy over the other? It seems sensible to assert that, if the solution is two elected chambers, then they must have parity. Under Clegg’s proposal the House of Lords was in danger of coming a resting place for failed politicos and second-rate orators incapable of making it to the Commons.
Next, the executive. Should the head of state by purely ceremonial? and should that person continue to be a member of the Royal Family? Should we elect our head of state? or should he or she be chosen by the Members of Parliament? Then there’s the still-unresolved West Lothian conundrum, the question of the actual nations of the United Kingdom. Should we move towards a federal system ensuring some kind of equality between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland? Do the English therefore require a parliament of their own with separate tax-raising powers?
And whither the church? Should our new constitution with a Bill of Right demand a Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state? Is it right that the head of state is also the head of the church? and that bishops not elected by the public at-large sit in the Upper House? Should religious organisations have any role in state schooling? The British (or at least the English) are a naturally conservative-with-a-small-c people, as demonstrated by the defeat by referendum of Nick Clegg’s voting reform Bill (which I voted in favour of, by the way), and are rarely up to answering such questions — gradualism and caution are in our nature, nor revolution or rapid change. There may come a time when such a position become untenable, when we may have to address these inconsistencies, these problems. But, till then, all political parties should keep the constitutional question in mind and not be so brazen when it comes to the effect Lords reform of any other change of this kind may have on our most laudable system of government.