A good case for the existing House…

“The Lords should be a place for people who are public spirited, have political and ideological affiliations and want to serve the country, but who also want to continue to lead a life outside politics. It should be for people who want or need to work and have neither the desire nor the inclination to be an MP.”

Sounds like a good case for the existing House of Lords. Who said it?  Nick Clegg, House of Commons, 9 July, column 35.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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6 Responses to A good case for the existing House…

  1. Lord Norton,

    I also find this debate on Lords Reform fascinating, since the proponents of Lords reform often rely on the same arguments as proponents of Senate reform in Canada. Our upper chamber has always been appointed; the governor general appoints senators on the advice of the prime minister. It seems that since Anthony Blair’s reform of 1999 and the elimination of hereditary peerages, the House of Lords has become more like the Senate of Canada. It’s not a coincidence that the literature on Senate reform took hold from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when the Senate became too activist and in effect turned itself into a confidence chamber by voting against or holding up key government legislation and thus matters of confidence. We needed a Salisbury Convention. I still support some kind of reform of the Senate, but not the “Triple-E” mantra (“equal” number of “elected” senators per province, which would supposedly make the Senate an “effective” check on the Cabinet). In Canada, it is right-wing Romantics from the western provinces who supported that proposal most strongly, whereas in the UK, it seems that left-wing Romantics are most likely to support reforming the Lords into an elected Senate.

    Speaking of which, I rather like the Salisbury Convention and the Parliament Acts, and I agree with you that Clegg’s Lords Reform Bill contains several problems. First, electing members to a single, non-renewable term of 15 years, or 3 Parliaments, would in fact render the Lords *less* accountable and would bring the worst possible outcome: these new Senators — “elected Lord” is a bit of an oxymoron — would be emboldened by their popular election, yet the electorate would never be able to hold them to account if they make foolish decisions. Second, as you’ve pointed out, the Lords Reform Bill does not contain a dispute resolution mechanism for resolving the deadlock that could easily arise between two partisan, elective chambers. The rationale for the Salisbury Convention would disappear. Third, Clegg’s bill would federalize the new Senate of the United Kingdom, which seems redundant and counter-productive. The government should instead devolve power to local levels and finally resolve the Westlothian Question.

    As the Senate of Australia shows, an elected upper chamber irrevocably alters Responsible Government. The elected Senate of Australia has resulted in a system whereby one-quarter of cabinet minister sit in the Senate; combined with the principle of collective ministerial solidarity, the Senate now acts as a confidence chamber. (Look to Fact Sheet 10 from the website of the Senate of Australia for the citation). Despite Clegg’s assertions to the contrary, the Salisbury Convention would not withstand an elected Senate, because the rationale for that convention would have disappeared. Conventions are politically enforceable norms that derive from and support an underlying principle. In this case, the Salisbury Convention arose out of the recognition that the Commons forms the legitimate democratic element of the tripartite Crown-in-Parliament, precisely because the Lords remains an unelected chamber. The moment that the Lords becomes elected, the underlying principle that sustained the Salisbury Convention irrevocably changes, and therefore the convention itself ceases to exist. Why is that so difficult to understand?


    • Lord Norton says:

      James W. J. Bowden: Many thanks. Your points are well made. It appears that in Canada the same confusion exists between the benefits of reform and the negative effects of electing a second chamber.

      In describing supporters of an elected second chamber in the UK as ‘left-wing Romantics’, you are possibly being a little generous…

      • Well, I mean “Romantic” in the political sense, as opposed to Enlightenment rationalism.

        I’m writing an article on the history of Senate reform in Canada, which includes comparisons to the Australian Senate and the House of Lords. No one thinks of how an elected chamber alters Responsible Government, and the principle that Cabinet is drawn from the Commons. I’ll ensure to include your work against Lords Reform!

      • Lord Norton says:

        I will be very interested to see the finished product.

  2. I will let you know when I can pursue that project in earnest; I’m still writing my thesis on Crown powers under the system of responsible government. You may also find my upcoming piece on loyal opposition and responsible government of interest.

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