Make the Lords Stand for Election? First, Let’s Sit and Think

First published in The New York Times, March 17 2007.

When I visited Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, I found senior people in the Coalition Provisional Authority largely uninterested in events in the province where I was based. They focused on writing a draft constitution for Iraq. Paul Bremer III was excited about the document and thought it could be a source of national pride. But very few Iraqis had been consulted. They did not think it would bring a more effective government and felt it would be dangerously disruptive. I was reminded of this when I read about the vote this week to turn the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber.

Britain’s unwritten constitution has adapted incrementally over centuries to challenges to the political system. The House of Lords once represented hereditary noblemen against the king; its power was later limited by the House of Commons. Recent changes have been positive.

It is now, like the Canadian Senate, essentially an appointed house, consisting of senior community leaders, generals, academics, business people and retired ministers, with a small rump of bishops and hereditary nobles. Members serve for life; they can scrutinize and delay, but can’t veto bills. The House of Lords is much less powerful than the House of Commons or the prime minister. Its primary role is as a watchdog.

On Monday, the House of Commons voted 337 to 224 to introduce elections for the members of the Lords. On Wednesday the Lords objected. An elected Lords would bring changes in fundamental constitutional relationships that have not been adequately considered.

Two elected houses make sense in a federal system, where the lower house represents individuals and the upper house the states. But Britain is not a federal country. Both houses would probably duplicate the same principle of representation. An elected Lords would have the democratic legitimacy to demand more power at the expense of the Commons and the prime minister.

There would be other, more eccentric, consequences: an elected house would exclude the bishops, severing the constitutional connection between the state and the Church of England, a subject over which governments were destroyed in the 19th century. It would remove the remaining 92 hereditary peers, who now serve until their deaths. The queen would then be even more of an anomaly. These changes, perhaps overdue, would be fundamental and should not be entered into lightly.

Real constitutional change should be driven by crisis and necessity. The United States achieved change on this scale only through revolution. That crisis created the opportunity for the Founding Fathers to define their basic philosophical principles and write a new constitution, which remains to this day both a cornerstone of national pride and also a formal political instrument, governed by strict rules.

But in Britain there has been no such crisis. In fact, most believe that the House of Lords is being a good watchdog. It has recently publicized and defended principles of justice and liberty against the government’s human rights and terrorism legislation. Even the reformers want to preserve this positive function. Their problem is not with what the House of Lords is doing, but with how its members are chosen.

The reformers believe that they can change the selection processes without changing the outcomes. They fail to see that these things are connected. It is because the House of Lords’ members are appointed for life that they have an independence that allows them to challenge party policy.

Meanwhile, the British public is largely frustrated with elected politicians and not enthusiastic to see more of them in the Lords. Voters understand that the House of Lords remains anachronistic, irrational and imperfect, but feel no pressing need for change. This has encouraged the Lords to vote overwhelmingly to remain an appointed house. The party leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have evasively favoured a hybrid house: partly elected, partly appointed.

In Britain, the grand banner of democracy is cloaking flimsy and unnecessary policies. There is room to make the appointments process more transparent, representative and non-political. But in reality, an elected upper house would make sense only in the context of a new written constitution that redefined the separation of powers; the relationship with the lower house, the church and the monarchy; and deep issues of national identity. But to do that would require the rigor, seriousness and courage of the Founding Fathers.

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