One of the things that sets the United Kingdom apart from other nations is its lack of a single written constitution. In some ways this is something to be proud of. However, one of the main consequences is that it makes altering the constitutional makeup all too easy.
As has been noted here before, House of Lords reform is generally not needed.
Apparently Cameron “has told his own MPs that he is willing to reduce the number of elected peers to win their support. The concession came less than a day after 91 of his MPs mounted the biggest revolt since the Coalition was formed in 2010. The proposals caught Mr Clegg’s team off-guard last night, with one aide saying: ‘This is not something that has been put to us. We are going forward on the basis of a Bill as it is.’” The report goes on to say that “ If no deal is done by the end of the summer, he will withdraw the Lords Reform Bill entirely, putting the Coalition at risk”. While this might be taking it too far, the Coalition would certainly come under increased strain.
Cameron, in order to juggle both Lib Dems and his own backbenchers must try to please both camps. How successful he is will set the tone for the rest of his term in office. The piece adds that “Cameron said there would be no deal with Labour – who had threatened to vote against last night’s motion despite backing the Bill’s Second Reading – because they ‘cannot be trusted’. He told the influential 1922 committee of MPs in the Commons: ‘There is not going to be endless haggling with the Lib Dems either. We are going to have one more try to see if we can secure a way forward and achieve a smaller elected element’”.
Others have noted the lack of communication on the part of the government.
It has been argued by Peter Oborne that the “U-turn over House of Lords reform marks a decisive shift in the national political landscape. Old certainties are being dissolved, new working assumptions are emerging. The first of these concerns Ed Miliband, who was almost universally written off as a hopeless case 12 months ago. He is the overwhelming beneficiary of the recent series of fiascos. Were a general election to be held tomorrow, all opinion polls suggest that he would secure, if not a landslide, then certainly a very comfortable governing majority”. Tellingly he writes that “Cameron, who at first seemed so capable and sure-footed, is coming to resemble John Major after the economic debacle of 1992, or Edward Heath after his U-turns in the early Seventies: adrift and at the mercy of events”.
He goes on to distinguish three different groups “of Conservative MP overlapped in this massive and potentially government-destroying revolt. The first comprises those who detest David Cameron and have done so from the very start. Many of them are driven by class resentment, personal envy and disappointed ambition”. The second he says are “driven by dislike not of their leader, but of the Coalition. Well led and increasingly an organised block, they have come to convince themselves that the Liberal Democrats lie at the heart of the Government’s problems. The fact that there is very little evidence for this view does not deter them”. He adds that this group think that “once their beliefs are put into practice, the party’s electoral problems will vanish”, a view which is of course garbage. Lastly he describes “the Conservative intellectuals, of which an unusually large number entered Parliament at the last election – not necessarily a good thing. Many of these are fond of the Prime Minister, and wish him well. They are driven by the remorseless force of their own logic into opposing what they – correctly – perceive to be Nick Clegg’s intellectually catastrophic plans for an elected second chamber”.
He concludes that “the members of these three factions have little in common. But they are bound together by a shared rejection of the fundamental premise which lay behind the grand bargain that brought the Coalition together two years ago – namely that two great political parties with honourably divergent traditions should compromise and even on occasion act against their own most deeply held beliefs in order to serve the national interest at a time of economic emergency”. He says that the remedy for this is that Cameron “could speak out loudly and publicly for the Coalition, thus recalling the marvellous idealism when two warring parties came together after the last election. Mr Cameron has never sounded more statesmanlike than when he made his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to the Liberal Democrats in the fusty surroundings of St Stephen’s Club in May 2010. Never before or since has he so completely spoken for the nation as a whole, and I believe that the Coalition government is far more popular among ordinary voters than tribal Westminster activists understand”.
The Economist has argued that “big shifts in power within the Lords, such as the one that made Labour the largest party there in 2005, go largely unremarked on. Yet the House of Lords is powerful: it can delay legislation for longer than the upper houses in France and Spain, both of which are elected. Governments frequently cut deals with the upper house for the sake of speed. These trades are not trivial. But for the Lords, Britain would have abolished trial by jury in some terrorism cases and inciting religious hatred would be a criminal offence”. The piece gets to the numb of the point that “Fully 92 hereditary peers still sit in the Lords, together with 26 Anglican bishops. The remaining 700 are appointed in a process which often gives the prime minister huge powers of patronage. Tony Blair appointed 374 lords during his decade in office. David Cameron has packed the chamber at an even faster rate. This process is rightly distrusted”. The piece concludes interestingly that “the place works fairly well. The Lords often scrutinises legislation that the Commons has not had time to look at (it has carved out an important role examining edicts from the European Commission). It also has some virtues the Commons lacks. The Lords contains more people with impressive private-sector experience than the Commons. Members are astonishingly polite to each other”.
Yet, the logic of the Liberal Democrats is correct. An unelected second chamber is undemocratic. However, logic does not enter into large parts of the British government, thankfully. The problem is compounded by the fact that parties need a majority in the Upper House so are forced to create hundreds of peers after each general election. This demeans the peerage. Instead, peerages should be awarded for exceptional service to society with experts from all walks of life so honoured, as is currently the case, instead of the usual host of political apparatchiks from all parties. By limiting the peerages created, to a dozen or so a year, it would end any pretense of party politics and simply by a place for experts.
Alternatively, to please everyone, or perhaps no-one, tricameralism could be created. A properly elected senate and commons, and the expert peers of no more than 100-200. Of course this position would not have occurred if previous ill thought out tinkering had not happened, which may not have happened at all had there been a single written constitution.