Why Reform Britain's House of Lords?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 22 1999 5:04 PM

Why Reform Britain's House of Lords?

Chatterbox, a citizen of the United States who has a somewhat limited understanding of how they do things in the United Kingdom, is baffled by the commentary coming out of Britain concerning the future of the House of Lords. As was widely publicized, the Labor government earlier this month evicted 666 very Monty Python-ish hereditary peers ("Binkies") from the upper chamber, temporarily leaving 92 and otherwise putting the House of Lords in the hands of about 500 politically appointed life peers ("day boys"), whose title and membership dies with them. A lively discussion has now begun about how to complete the reform of the House of Lords, which for most of this century has had the power only to delay legislation. The scenarios under consideration tend to emphasize making membership entirely or partially elective, which would make the House of Lords more democratic, and then giving the upper chamber greater power than it currently enjoys. If nothing is done, the House of Lords will persist as a patronage tool for whichever party happens to control the House of Commons.

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What Chatterbox doesn't understand is why Britons don't kill the House of Lords outright. From this side of the Atlantic, the U.K. has long appeared to be ruled by an essentially unicameral parliament. Making it unequivocally unicameral would seem to be a small and eminently sensible step--one that Labor embraced throughout the 1970s and 1980s. (Click here to read the House of Lords' own compendium of major 20th-century proposals to reform or abolish the chamber.) Instead, the talk is drifting in the direction of turning the House of Lords into an anglified U.S. Senate. Wouldn't this give the U.K. a government far less streamlined than what it enjoys today? Chatterbox can't imagine why any country that didn't already have a Senate could possibly want one. (Click here to read an excellent recent column by the Washington Post's Mary McGrory about Sen. Robert Byrd's nearly successful attempt to use his power to filibuster to promote the decapitation by mining companies of mountains in West Virginia. See also Thomas Geoghegan's The Secret Lives of Citizens [click here to buy the book], which makes an excellent case for abolishing the U.S. Senate.)

Seeking guidance, Chatterbox queried Christopher Hitchens, the Vanity Fair and Nation columnist, who is British by birth and an admirably uncompromising small-r republican. In an e-mail, Hitchens likened the ejection of the Binkies to building a bridge "from the middle of the river."

First ought to come the point of principle: do you want a hereditary head of state or inherited seats in legislatures? Then and only then does one have a constitutional discussion about which alternative to adopt. Brilliant as they are at avoiding anything that smacks of principle, the Blairites now have a second chamber with almost a hundred "chosen" hereditary peers, and the remainder a bunch of party appointees. Nobody could conceivably have designed such an outcome if they were writing a Constitution. And so of course this pre-empts (as it may be meant to) the persistent argument over whether Britain ought to have a written document with an appended Bill of Rights. It also avoids the ticklish subject of the Windsors, who are now the only family in the country with political power by right of birth.

Concerning unicameralism, though, Hitchens seemed unenthusiastic. He said it was "fine by me, but most big decisions in modern history have been taken without reference to Parliament and so I suppose that one chamber is as easy to bypass as two."

Chatterbox next queried Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, who not long ago wrote a compelling "Talk of the Town" piece endorsing Gov. Jesse Ventura's plan to turn Minnesota's legislature unicameral. (At present, the only unicameral state legislature in the U.S. is Nebraska's.) Chatterbox will give Hertzberg the last word:

There was a lot of sentiment for abolition back in Lloyd George's day, the last time Lords reform really had traction. Lloyd George himself wanted to get rid of the thing, but he had to settle for the Parliament Act of 1911, which scaled the Lords' power down from being able to kill legislation outright to being able to delay it for two years (reduced to one year in, I think, 1940). [1949, actually.]

Several things have happened since then. For one, the relatively toothless post-1911 House of Lords lulled people into thinking it was a good idea to have a delaying or amending chamber as a safeguard against overhasty legislation. For another, a certain amount of bicameral delusion has seeped over from America. The trend in British constitutionalism at the moment is away from absolute parliamentary (i.e., House of Commons) sovereignty and toward divided sovereignty of various kinds--parliaments for Scotland and Wales, stronger local governments with elected mayors, the European parliament. Abolishing the second union-wide chamber outright would go against what a lot of people assume to be the spirit of the times.

Personally, I'd like to see them abolish the Lords and I bet Tony Blair would, too. The idea of an elected second chamber sounds all nicey-nice and democratic, but the more democratic legitimacy a second chamber has, the stronger the possibility of gridlock. An appointed second chamber would have less legitimacy, therefore less power, therefore less likelihood of gumming up the works.

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