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Tue, 04 Feb 2003

The camel of parliaments

I confess, I'm baffled.

Way back in the mists of time, England -- it hadn't conquered Scotland, or even Wales -- was governed by a monarch. The king was attended by his nobility, who sat in the House of Lords to advise him. A little later, as the feudal model devolved towards modernity, the great and the good of the non-nobility were delegated to go and sit in the house of Commons, therein to advice their king on such sensitive matters as the raising of revenue for the exchequer.

Mostly this system worked. I say "mostly" -- when it broken down, in the 1630's and 1640's, the consequences were spectacular (and fatal for the king). The outcome was one of the first truly modern governments in Europe -- a monarchy in form, but one where an elected House of Commons held the reins and in extremis had the ability to chop off the king's head or chase him into exile if he overstepped his authority.

With the ascendancy of the House of Commons complete -- as it has been since the passage of the Parliament Act (1945), which formalised the Commons' ability to override any grumbling by the House of Lords, you might think that such a customary system was stable. But no: in 1997, New Labour came to power with a mandate to reform the House of Lords, to turn it into a relevant second chamber of the legislature, one able to meet the needs of a modern revising chamber without the clutter and deadwood of cobwebby hereditary Lordships who had acquired their seats through genetics rather than energetic good works.

Well, they just screwed the pooch.

There is no set constitutional mechanism in the UK for installing a new gearbox in the engine of national politics. Playing it by ear, the Blair government first legislated away the right of the hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. That left a bunch of life peers -- appointed by the Crown at the nod and wink of the Government of the day, incumbent for life, chosen from the ranks of the great and the good. Many of the life peers are highly competent politicians -- many of them are former prime ministers and cabinet ministers, given the job as a sort of sinecure to while away their twilight years -- but with the will to reform it became glaringly clear that the whole concept of appointing the House of Lords as an act of political patronage had no place in a modern democracy.

Today, the MPs in the House of Commons just exercised a free vote -- one where no party whip applied, to tell them what line to toe -- on the way they thought the House of Lords should be constituted. A motion to make it a 100% elected upper house failed by 17 votes. A motion to make it 80% elected and 20% appointed failed by 3 votes. Very few MPs voted to abolish the house completely, or (Tony Blair's control-freak favourite) make it 100% appointed. In fact, in the end none of the options for reform passed the house.

Here's my alternative suggestion:

Make it a jury. Using a lottery based on the electoral register, every year select a group of citizens equal to 20% of the population of the chamber. Give them a year of training in basic constitutional law, and the support of a non-political civil service department, then stick them in the house for five years. (Give them a salary and a pension at least as good as whatever they were earning before being selected for parliament -- we don't want the best and the brightest to have a motive for actively avoiding service in the House of Jurors.) Their job is not to originate law, but to act much as the House of Lords did in the late 19th century -- as a brake on the professional politicians sitting in the House of Commons.

Give the people a direct role in government.

Today, about 80% of MPs are lawyers or professional managers. They are not representative of the public at large, nor are their concerns those of ordinary citizens. They probably wouldn't like the idea of having to explain their policies and legislation to a house of citizens -- but it might help keep them in better touch with the people they are supposed to represent, and in extremis prevent or delay blunders such as the Poll Tax.

And wouldn't politics be a bit more interesting if every 18 year old left school knowing that there was a one in a thousand chance that during their lifetime they would be required to sit in judgement over the proceedings of parliament -- and that almost certainly someone they knew would end up in such a position?

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posted at: 21:19 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


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