Let’s reform the House of Lords – but not Nick Clegg’s way

7th May, 2012 1:30 pm

Like most democrats, I strongly favour a wholly elected House of Lords, but the government’s draft Bill for Lords reform and the parliamentary joint committee’s report on it, now published, make a terrible mess of the job on almost every count.

First, there’s no need for us to re-invent the wheel. Other western democracies have serviceable legislatures in which both chambers are wholly elected: we should not be so insular and arrogant that we can’t learn anything from them. For example, both the government’s Bill and the joint committee’s report are obsessed by the far-fetched fear that an elected second chamber will challenge the “primacy of the Commons” – far-fetched, because the Commons’ primacy is guaranteed by its role as the creator and home of governments, by the tight limits on the powers of the second chamber and by the provision that in the event of conflict between the two Houses, the Commons will always prevail.

Both Bill and report advocate reserving up to 20% of the seats in the reformed chamber for appointed members, mainly (they argue) because of the need to preserve the supposed pool of expertise residing in the present membership of the House of Lords. But why should an eminent ex-gynaecologist have anything special to contribute to a debate on Trident, and how would a gallant retired Admiral contribute special expertise to a debate on abortion? A reformed second chamber should have easy access to specialised expertise as and when it needs it, subject by subject. Experts don’t have to be members of either house of parliament, unless they have fought and won an election to it. (And what on earth, or elsewhere, is the special expertise that the bishops are supposed to possess and contribute?)

Both Bill and report are self-evidently wrong to propose that:

  • a reformed House of Lords should have between 300 and 400 members (far too many),
  • there should still be a cohort of ex-officio Church of England bishops in it (an insult to Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, flat-earthers, Seventh-Day Adventists and a few million unbelievers), and that
  • its members should be elected for 15 year terms (far too long. Five years would be ample. It’s not meant to be a retirement home any more).

We need more long-term, out-of-the-box thinking on this. As the UK is now, since devolution, a semi-federation, the second chamber needs to be a federal-type Senate on (for example) the American and Australian models, with equal numbers elected from each of the four UK nations — e.g. 20 each, giving us a total of 80 Senators, just a tenth of the size of the present House of Lords. The US, with five times the UK’s population, manages quite well with 100 Senators. Equal representation for the four UK nations would provide a much-needed safeguard against constant bullying and interference by much bigger England in the internal affairs of the three smaller members of our semi-federation. Without the prospect of safeguards like this, Scotland will sooner or later exit from the Union and the UK will disintegrate, causing incalculable damage to the interests of all its peoples. Anyway, as a brave minority of the joint committee has pointed out, it’s ridiculously premature to try to design a new second chamber of the UK parliament before we know whether the Scots are going to vote in the autumn of 2014 to secede from the UK.

Any reform as radical as this, affecting the very structure and perhaps functions of the central legislature, will obviously need to be submitted to a referendum. If so I suppose I’ll vote Yes even if the changes proposed are woefully inadequate, as they clearly will be. But it looks as if there’s going to be a great row over the question of a referendum on Lords reform, with the Europhobe right already advancing the novel proposition that if there’s a referendum on House of Lords reform, there should jolly well be a referendum on UK membership of the EU too. That will put the wind far up the LibDems, and others. So probably the whole thing will soon be gridlocked and indefinitely shelved (again).

What a pity that we don’t have a bold, reformist, left-of-centre party willing to argue for real change – no UK nuclear deterrent with no-one to deter, no aircraft carriers for ill-conceived foreign adventures, whole-hearted participation in the European enterprise, willingness to make the case for increased, not reduced, public spending to revive demand in the economy and speed growth and recovery, a determined attack on gross inequality, a much bigger contribution to the national finances from the obscenely rich than from the hard-pressed poor, legalisation and control of hard drugs, restoration of local government control of state education and a review of the public schools’ charity status, re-nationalisation of the NHS and of the state-rescued banks, a bonfire of New Labour’s most illiberal legislation, a carefully managed move towards an eventual fully federal UK with a parliament and government for England… Oh, and a wholly elected, democratic, small and effective, federal-style second chamber of the legislature of the United Kingdom.

Some hope!

A longer version of this post appears here.

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  • Good for you for coming out with a coherent proposal.  This is exactly the boldness I think we need.

    I have some questions around your proposal, however, which I wonder if you would be so kind as to address:I wonder, however, if you have any evidence to support your assertion that “Equal representation for the four UK nations would provide a much-needed safeguard against constant bullying and interference by much bigger England in the internal affairs of the three smaller members of our semi-federation”.  I am no expert in this, but the worst “bullying” I have heard about was the passing of TB’s foundation hospital bill using Scottish MPs, not the other way around.

    Also how will this system impact/tie in with the current powers of Holyrood?

    Finally, are you confident that 80 “New Lords” can provide anything like the level of scrutiny that the current system permits?  Especially if (and I am making an assumption here) they are scrutinising legislation from Holyrood (and Welsh/Northern Irish regional assemblies) as well as Westminster.

    (edited to put the paragraph spacing back in: why does it go wrong sometimes?)

    • Brian

       David, I have tried to respond to your questions in a separate, over-long comment posted late last night, and in other responses to other comments today.  In a fully federal system, the federal legislature (our house of commons and senate) and federal government at Westminster would have no authority or function in matters reserved for the government and parliament of Scotland (or of Wales, Northern Ireland or England).  That is of course already the case, except for England which has no parliament or government of its own and lacks the benefits of devolution.  The 80 federal Senators would be just as well equipped to perform all the functions of the federal second chamber as the 100 Senators in Washington DC, provided that they are given adequate staff, office accommodation, research facilities and budgets to enable them to do the job.  They would be able to call on specialised expertise as and when required.

  • Carl

    England has 80%+ of the UK’s population, but should have only 25% of seats in the upper house? I thought this was supposed to be a democratic proposal.

    A cynic might think that your view was influenced by the fact that Tories do badly in Wales and Scotland.

    • Brian

       Thanks, Carl, for making your point so pithily.  I accept that those brought up in the UK system find the idea of equal representation in a federal second chamber counter-intuitive, or worse.  But please see my responses to the same point made by (e.g.) Stuart Brown and Jack Bonner.  As for the suspicion of party bias, I think my advocacy of a separate parliament and government for England (in which Labour might well struggle ever to win a majority) as an essential element in the move to a federal system, is sufficient answer.

    • Brian

       Thanks, Carl, for making your point so pithily.  I accept that those brought up in the UK system find the idea of equal representation in a federal second chamber counter-intuitive, or worse.  But please see my responses to the same point made by (e.g.) Stuart Brown and Jack Bonner.  As for the suspicion of party bias, I think my advocacy of a separate parliament and government for England (in which Labour might well struggle ever to win a majority) as an essential element in the move to a federal system, is sufficient answer.

      • Mike Slater


        Your federal system only works if the the constituent parties generally have broadly similar make up’s outlooks and mutual respect for each ofthe other parties. The problem is that the Scots and Welsh and  at least half of Northern Ireland have a visceral dislike of England. The likelyhood is that the minor (in population terms) parties would join forces, creating a purpetual state of war between them and the English parliament. It would be the perfect example of a very small tail wagging a very large dog.

        • Brian

           Mike: on the contrary: a federal system is expressly designed to allow each federal unit to govern itself independently of the others, and independently of the federal level.  There would be no basis for a “state of war” between the parliaments of the three smaller nations on the one side and the English parliament on the other, any more than the legislatures of Western Australia and Queensland gang up on or wage war against the legislature of New South Wales.  Tensions and disputes between the second-tier ‘nations’ and the federal centre are natural and inevitable in any federal system, and indeed occur already in our existing semi-federal system:  but in a fully-fledged federation the constitution provides mechanisms for resolving them peacefully, refereed by the Supreme Court.

          At the federal level the federal house of commons, responsible for all-UK matters such as foreign affairs and defence (but not for the internal affairs of the four nations), is bound to have a large majority of English MPs, so they will be in no danger of being outvoted by the minority elected from the other three nations, any more than they are already.  It’s only in the proposed second chamber of the federal parliament that the English Senators will not have a majority of the seats (each of the four nations will have 25% of the seats in the federal Senate, but only in that chamber, with its very limited powers compared with the house of commons). 

  • Redshift

    England should be split up in these proposals to give the north a voice. Otherwise, very good.

    • But this is exactly the problem. Brian thinks it is important that Scotland’s voice is heard, but seems indifferent to the North (of England) having its own voice. Well, I might argue that the west country needs ITS own voice, a midlander that the midlands need its own, and so forth. Where do you decide, in this arbitrary regionalism, which areas qualify for separate representation and which don’t? The four ‘nations’ would be acceptable as long-term established entities, but I think are disqualified by virtue of the enormously skewed vote-weights that would result. But any break-up below the national level would be fairly arbitrary and impossible to show to be free of gerrymandering — as another commentator argued — are you really in favour of the north having its own voice as a point of principle, or because that voice would be overwhelmingly Labour?
      Better, in my view, to keep regional representation in the Commons, and make the senate a truly proportional chamber with exactly one, equally weighted, vote per voter, regardless of where they happen to live.

      • Brian

         I’m not at all indifferent to the voice and needs of the north of England.  But the solution can’t be to pretend that the north of England is a ‘nation’ on a par with Scotland or Wales, especially when that pretence would entail splitting England into five or more fake ‘nations’ for federal purposes, which would be bitterly opposed by those who value the identity of England as such, and which would turn the whole federal project into just another kind of local government arrangement.  The need for *all* the English regions to be heard and their voices heard ought to be a matter for an English government and an English parliament (both probably based in Birmingham or Manchester) to address.  

        The present system is dysfunctional not only because it’s a hopeless mishmash of unitary and quasi-federal (hence the West Lothian Question), but also because the parliament and government at Westminster, nominally operating as the parliament and government of England (for which their composition alone is totally inappropriate) and also simultaneously as the parliament and government of the whole of the UK, are too busy posturing on the world stage, bombing and invading foreign countries, and squandering the nation’s resopurces on a nuclear deterrent that doesn’t deter, to have time left over to cater for the needs of England, needs which are much closer to people’s real lives than 90 per cent of the agenda of the Westminster parliament and government.  The micro-level but hugely important needs of England are neglected because England doesn’t have its own English parliament and government in the way all three of the other nations now do.  It will be up to an English parliament and government, when they are at last created, to tackle the problems of the north of England, the north-east, the west midlands, Cornwall, and the rest.

        In a nutshell, the Westminster organs should manage all-UK affairs which are best managed on an all-UK basis;  the governments and parliaments of each of the four nations should manage each nation’s internal, domestic affairs, without interference from either Westminster or the other UK nations.  Neither the present system nor the Clegg/coalition proposals for house of lords reform does anything at all to disentangle the current constitutional mess.

        • Right, agreed we are going to have a federal system then it should be properly split up. I’m totally with you there. But that is a different issue to representation within the national-level senate. What I was protesting against, both above and in my other comments, was the suggestion that the national UK senate be regionally weighted, which I am adamantly against for the reasons given. Yes there are federal units, but it is there that the power to regionally differ lies. The national-level government should then be exactly that: and a Scottish voter’s opinion should carry exactly equal weight in the national legislature as an English, Welsh or N. Irish voter.

          • Brian

             Stuart, please see my response to your other comment about this.  Here I find the classifications confusing.  The usual practice is to refer to England, Scotland, Wales and NI as the “nations” of the UK, and to the government or parliament of each (except England, which has neither) as the “national” parliament or government (equivalent to the “state” government or legislature of, say, California or New South Wales).  But in your comment here I think you are using “national” to refer to the federal or all-UK level.  If so, your demand for equal weight to be given to every vote regardless of Scottish, Welsh etc origin is satisfied by the composition of the federal chamber where it really matters, i.e. the house of commons. 
            Equal representation for each of the four UK nations would apply only to the second chamber, which would only have delaying powers in any conflict with the Commons, as now, as well as being competent only in matters not allocated under the constitution to the four nations and their legislatures and governments. It seems to me eminently sensible and unobjectionable.
            PS:  I reckon that the US Senate was generally a successful, effective and much respected body until the Republican party started to exploit the separation of powers to paralyse the system whenever it chose to do so instead of working to conciliate and compromise in the ways intended by the Foiunding Fathers.

  • Interesting arguments, but I have some differences.
    1. Equal representation from the four federal units is profoundly undemocratic. Northern Ireland has about 2 million people, England 52 million[1]. Given your proposed 20 senators, that’s 100,000 electors per NI senator, but 2.6 million per English senator. This is just unacceptably large difference in vote weight for me; it seems ludicrous to promote the reformed Lords as a “democratic” chamber and then weight the voting system so skewedly. Quite the opposite, I would argue for an entirely proportionally-representative elected Lords.
    2. I don’t really understand the requirement for reduced numbers. The more senators there are, the more they will truly represent the make-up of the British population.
    3. I also support the longer terms. A key factor for me is that one should only be able to serve a single term in the reformed Lords (and also that there be no ministerial appointments therefrom). This will free the senators from a lot of the power of the whips: the relative independence of the existing Lords being one of the few arguments in its favour. However, single, five-year terms will necessarily prejudice the pool of those willing to stand for election in favour of those with “independent means,” as ordinary folks are less likely to put aside their professional lives for such a short period (see also 5 below).
    4. With longer terms, elections could also be staggered with a third being elected every five years. This way the Lords would better represent overall trends of UK voters desires, and be less open to event-based swings.
    5. A key factor for me is that the senators should actually have to turn up, serve, and vote. As non-regionally-representative and non-ministerial they will be free of constituency and governmental duties, and they should therefore be expected to do their job and legislate! A house of part-timers who vote only when they fancy it, and don’t contribute to the hard and less glamourous grind of the detailed analysis and committee membership is unacceptable to me.
    [1] http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/population-estimates-for-uk–england-and-wales–scotland-and-northern-ireland/mid-2010-population-estimates/index.html

    • Brian

       Stuart, do you think you could find a citizen of the United States or Australia, with long experience of their respective constitutional systems, who would argue that their systems of government are “profoundly undemocratic” because their federal second chambers are composed of equal numbers of members elected from each of the constituent units (‘states’ in both cases) of the two federations — or because the federal US Senate is too small to do an effective job?  In this type of federation, the first chamber (our house of commons) is “representative”, its membership being broadly proportional to the population that elects it; the second chamber is “a states’ house” with different functions, including the vital function of protecting the smaller federal units from being overridden by the superior numbers of the bigger.

      We should have the humility to recognise that we can learn valuable lessons from the experience of other western democracies whose systems work a great deal better than ours — most of the time, anyway!

      • Certainly, Brian, when other countries have successful systems we should learn from them, but I very much dispute that that includes the U.S. Senate!

        The U.S. system overall certainly has huge things in its favour – the separation of powers being the most obvious. However, I do not see it as a given that the U.S. Senate does work better than a more representative chamber, whether or not Americans themselves complain. You say that it protects the smaller states from being overridden by the larger states. But let’s look a bit at demographics: here’s a list of the ten states with the highest proportion of non-white population, and their corresponding rank in overall population size:
        Hawaii: 40; California: 1; New Mexico: 36; Texas: 2; Nevada: 35; Maryland: 19; Georgia: 9; Arizona: 16; Florida: 4; Mississippi: 31. Average rank: 19.

        And here’s the ten states with the highest proportion of whites, and their corresponding rank in overall population size:

        South Dakota: 46; Wyoming: 50; Kentucky: 26; Montana: 44; Iowa: 30; North Dakota: 48; New Hampshire: 42; West Virginia: 37; Vermont: 49; Maine: 41. Average rank: 41.

        Look a bit skewed to you? The total population of the ten smallest states is 9.3 million: less than the individual population of each of the ten largest states. 9.3 million people of whom 73% are white get to elect 20 senators.

        The total population of the ten largest states is 169.3 million people, of whom 57% are white. Also electing 20 senators between them. Is it any surprise then, that in the entire history of the U.S. Senate there have been a total of 21 non-white senators? Do you think those non-complaining Americans are the majority white politically engaged upper classes? They don’t have a lot to complain about.

        Now, my question to you is: what is so special about regional difference of interests that justifies skewing the vote weights so massively in favour of whites? Is the price of this supposed regional equality – enormous disenfranchisement of racial minorities – worth paying? Why should there not be skewing to ensure that non-whites, who are staggeringly under-represented in the Senate, have their interests protected? What about women? Gays? Different religions? You see my point here? Any decision to weight a democratic system, however done, disenfranchises as much as it protects. And, given the weighting is done by the powerful, is likely to reflect their overall interests. Is this the kind of democracy you wish to emulate? It certainly is not for me. The only thing, it seems to me, that we could learn from the U.S. Senate is how to keep the priviliged elite disproprtionately well-represented within a veneer of democracy.

        [Data in this is taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States#Breakdown_by_state and mashed through an Excel spreadsheet which I can send anyone who wishes to see it.]

        • Brian

           Stuart, these are extremely interesting statistics, but I can’t for the life of me see what possible relevance they have to the American states’ representation in the federal second chamber.  US Senators are elected by universal adult suffrage in each of the 50 States of the federation:  there’s no more reason to expect (or demand) that any particular ethnic group should be proportionately represented among those elected than there is to expect proportionate representation for dentists, women, the disabled, persons with below-average IQs, or any other group.  It’s up to groups which are under-represented to press the political parties to choose more representative slates of candidates, and to punish them at the ballot box if they fail to do so.  This is all part and parcel of politics in action and has nothing to do with equal vs. proportional representational representation by the constituent states or nations.

          The basis of the composition of the chamber is geographical because the US federation is a federation of geographical states, just as the “United Kingdom” is a semi-federal union of four geographical nations, none of which ought to be subject to domination by any other, regardless of the relative size of their populations.  Equal representation for each state or nation regardless of population size is an excellent device for preventing the big from riding rough-shod over the small. It would only apply to a UK Senate with its very limited powers compared with the house of commons, and the very limited powers of both of them compared with the parliaments of the four constituent nations once they all have full internal self-government.  It’s the principle of subsidiarity made flesh.

  • Mark Myword

    Actually Brian, if Cameron had any sense, and wanted to save himself some hassle, he would put any proposals for HoL reform on hold until after the scottish referendum. Whatever happens in 2014 will have profound implications for the constitutional future of the UK including the HoL. What are the possible outcomes in 2014? First is independence for Scotland, second is additional devolution for Scotland within the UK. Either of those changes will affect the governance of the remaining UK. It is already the case that primary scottish legislation is not subject to HoL scrutiny, neither is that of NI. Wales will want further devolved powers along scottish lines – will they want HoL scrutiny of their legislation? I doubt it. Will the English accept that only they must have this ancient assembly overseeing their affairs?  Your proposal is along the right lines – but can only come about after the scottish situation is resolved. Then there should be a UK (with or without Scotland) constitutional convention to propose a future settlement, to be ratified by referendum. Cameron has a historic opportunity to promise cross-party consultation to establish such a convention and to agree its terms of reference – whether he has the historic vision is another matter.

    • Brian

       I entirely agree, M Myword.  The completion of the devolution process by moving to a fully federal system will require not one but several referendums, a constitutional convention for the whole UK and another for England, probably a Royal Commission or Speaker’s Conference, and extensive legislation by the UK parliament and the devolved parliaments.  I don’t think the whole process could be completed in fewer than 20 years.  The need now is to establish a wide consensus on the broad objective of a federated UK, with the details to be settled gradually, stage by stage, over the two decades.  I have said in my original post that it’s absurdly premature to design a new second chamber at Westminster before we know whether Scotland is going to remain part of the UK.

  • Daniel Speight

    The 15 year terms are quite scary. It gives the senators, or whatever we call them, too much independence from the electorate.

    • AlanGiles

      Exactly. When you see the damage the Coalition has inflicted in two years, God knows what mischief could be perpetrated in 15.

  • Nice to see Labour supporting something similar to UKIP policy here!  

    However, rather than giving all 4 Home Nations equal representation, it would make more sense to have it based on digressive proportionality, so that the other 3 Home Nations could overrule England if they all voted together, but still gives England more representatives – as it should have.

    • treborc1

      Real UKIP that, England must have more votes in case the others voted against you.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        Which is a bigger number, 60 million on its’ own, compared with 3.5 million, 2 million and 1 million all added together?

        • treborc1

          Then get your own assemblies and stop dictating to others.

        • Brian

           Nation        Population (2010)     Percentage (2010)
          England                   51,809,700                 83.8     
          Scotland                     5,222,100                    8.4     
          Wales                          3,006,400                  4.8     
          Northern Ireland     1,789,000                    3.0     
          United Kingdom     61,827,200              100    

  • I like the role that cross-benchers have to play- experts in their own field who offer a refreshing look at politics, and are not afraid of the party whips. I certainly don’t want another partisan House of Commons, the Lords is a chamber that deals with the nitty gritty- gets into the detail of the bill. They shouldn’t have to worry about elections- that’s what the Commons is there for. 

    I therefore do believe that Clegg is right to have a partially elected chamber- there’s then no worries about which is the superior chamber (I would argue that with a PR electoral system, the Lords would become the superior chamber by far) and we maintain the good cross-benchers who have a lot to offer our democracy. We don’t want another chamber of MPs- we need a chamber to give the government a bit of trouble so it cant pass bills willy nilly.

    • Brian

       The independence of the elected members of the second chamber is easily protected by providing that they serve for one term only.  There’s room for argument about how long that term should be; that’s a detail to be settled in the course of the long negotiation of a whole new federal system.  Whatever the answer to that might be, 15 years, as proposed by the government in Clegg’s deeply flawed Bill, is far too long.

  • Brumanuensis

    Brian, as someone who argued in favour of an almost identical set of proposals in the comments section here ( http://labourlist.org/2012/04/the-case-for-a-lords-referendum-is-strong/ ) I am rather pleased to see them being advocated by a person of your stature.

    As I said – at great length – there, the point about equal shares being ‘unfair’ is misguided, because as long as the primary House of Parliament, the Commons, retains primacy and is elected according to a proportionate formula, then the status of the reformed Lords is not objectionable in se. As long as it fulfills a different function and is wholly democratically-elected, the fact that it does so according to a different formula from the Commons is not important.

    • Bill Lockhart

       There is nothing remotely “democratic” about a chamber in which some electors’ votes are represented with 11 times more power than others.

    • Brian

       I enthusiastically applaud your spirited defence of the concept of equal representation for each of the four UK nations in a reformed second chamber at Westminster, in numerous comments and replies to others at http://labourlist.org/2012/04/the-case-for-a-lords-referendum-is-strong/.  Spot on!  Most of the objectors seem to be under the impression that we are proposing equal representation for each UK nation in the house of commons, which would indeed be undemocratic to the point of absurdity.

      I see no reason not to adopt this solution as soon as the Scots have decided whether to stay in the UK; no need to wait until we have a fully federal system for the whole of the UK, including a separate government and parliament for England, all of which (as I have acknowledged elsewhere in this thread) will take at least two decades.  A strong argument in its favour is that a UK Senate on this pattern will fit with a minimum of disruption and revision into the federal constitution which must be the logical culmination of the still significantly incomplete devolution project. 

      And incidentally the Westminster parliament (house of commons and current or reformed second chamber) is already a semi-federal institution, which can never have any revising or other powers in respect of the parliaments and governments of the three devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and NI (four when England also has its own separate parliament and government).  As in any other federation, the Supreme Court should have the power to settle disputes between the national and the federal organs over which has the competence in a particular subject or issue.

  • Brian

    I’m grateful for a number of thoughtful and thought-provoking comments already posted.  To reply fully to all of them would require a 200-page thesis on the theory and practice of federal constitutions, which I have neither the time nor the inclination to write.  So just let me make a few condensed points in reply to some of the queries.

    The justification for a Senate comprising equal numbers of members elected from each of the four UK nations is fairly simple.  The United Kingdom is currently threatened with disintegration, with pretty strong support for secession from it in Scotland. Scots who don’t want total independence almost all want far more powers over their internal affairs to be devolved from the Westminster government and parliament.  Wales and Northern Ireland are also demanding greatly expanded powers to be devolved to them.  The unmistakeable reason for all these demands is a strong desire in all three of the smaller nations to escape from the constant meddling in their internal affairs by England, going back for centuries.  Unless Scotland secedes and the UK breaks up, sooner or later these demands will have to be satisfied (there’s no conceivable justification for rejecting them), and when they are, the demand for equivalent self-government for England will similarly become irresistible.  The result will be a fully federal system for the whole UK, completing the half-finished process already reached with devolution.  The reform of the house of lords which alone makes sense is one that anticipates these developments.

    The principle of equal representation in the federal second chamber for all the federal units (states, nations, provinces) is well established in the United States and Australia, and has worked well for hundreds of years.  It constitutes one of the two main safeguards against domination of the whole federation by the single biggest unit or combination of bigger units, California, Texas and New York State in the US, New South Wales and Victoria in Australia and England in the UK, swamping the interests and wishes of the smaller ones.  It guarantees that the smaller states can’t be outvoted **in the federal second chamber** by just one (or one or two) big ones, in the way that they can be, and often are, in the other federal chamber (House of Representatives, House of Commons) where representation is roughly proportionate to population. 

    The other safeguard is that under a federal constitution no one state or nation within the federation can legislate for the internal affairs of any other — just as since devolution the Westminster government and parliament can’t any longer pass laws or make decisions affecting matters devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

    This in turn means that the scope and powers of the federal government and parliament (those at Washington DC, Canberra and Westminster) are greatly reduced, covering only the subjects that are bound to be managed jointly for the whole country and not devolved to the lower-tier units:  these are principally foreign affairs and defence, although in practice the units will voluntarily transfer some of their powers to the federal level for practical convenience, for instance where uniformity of standards or practice throught the UK seems desirable or necessary.  So the federal (Westminster) second chamber or Senate will have no powers at all over (e.g.) education, health, crime, children’s affairs, or any other matters which are the responsibility solely of the separate parliaments of the individual States/nations.  The volume of its work will be hugely reduced once all four nations are fully self-governing (which is why there’ll be no need for a huge second chamber:  the federal Senate of the entire United States has only 100 Senators, but they all have generous provisions for staff, research, use of external experts, etc.). 

    People often say that the UK can’t become a fully fledged federation because of the overwhelming size of England, geographically and in population, much bigger than the other three put together.  But in fact this is precisely why we need a federal system — to protect the three smaller nations against permanent domination by England, the domination which has led inexorably for the demands for devolution, more devolution, and perhaps in the end for independence from England.  Those in England who can’t see how England’s dominance of the whole UK feels to the peoples of Scotland, Wales and NI need to go and talk to the Scots, Welsh and N Irish and try to see an English-dominated House of Commons and UK government through their eyes.

    In the UK Federation (not, please, the Federated United Kingdom — embarrassing initials) neither England nor Scotland will have any powers to dictate to the Welsh in purely internal Welsh matters: all four nations will be fully internally self-governing.  As for federal matters such as foreign affairs and defence, although there will still be a huge preponderance of English MPs in the federal house of commons (elected in proportion to population), equal representation in the second chamber for all four nations will prevent the English from steam-rollering treaties, defence agreements and other federal matters through parliament against the wishes of the other three nations, however much smaller they might be.  It will be a useful discipline for the English to begin to pay more attention to the interests and wishes of the rest of the country before rushing legislation through a parliament which they control by sheer force of numbers.

    Sorry to write at such length.  It’s late at night and I don’t have time to make it shorter.  Good night, all!

  • Ideally, I’d prefer a unicameral parliament and proper devolution for areas of England – the Hannah Mitchell Foundation are advocating devolution for the north which I strongly support. I think that with less to do, the Commons could easily do the work of both chambers, given that many decisions would be removed from their grasp

    • Brian

       Mike, your suggestion leaves unresolved all the anomalies and inconsistencies of our present constitution, with devolution for three out of four of the UK nations but none for England, and the Westminster government and parliament trying to perform two completely incompatible functions at once — acting as a semi-federal government and parliament for the whole country except for subjects devolved to the three smaller nations, and simultaneously as the unitary government and parliament for England on every conceivable subject, despite not having been elected by an English electorate.  We are stuck half-way into a federal set-up, but too timid (and ignorant) to go the rest of the way.  This ridiculous mess is undemocratic, full of anomalies and injustices, unsustainable, liable to lead to the disintegration of the United Kingdom, but capable of being reformed — given political leaders with imagination and courage, if any such could be found.

      • Mike Homfray

        No – I support regional devolution. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation suggests this could be pan- northern and clearly other regions could look at their arrangements. But it would have to have clout. Not the half baked nothingness of a talking shop offered to the north east in the last government. I would see these assemblies as having the power of at least the Welsh assembly. You will never get an English parliament accepted by Labour. We are not going to be permanently dominated by That London and the south east

  • Brian

    It would be useful if at least some of those posting comments here would focus on the multitude  of defects and nonsenses (or on the positive features, if any) in the government’s (i.e. Mr Clegg’s) house of lords reform Bill and the Joint Committee’s report on it, and not just on arguing about the minutiae of the federal-style Senate which I propose as a better alternative.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas


      I am certainly not looking to provoke an argument with the most courteous and engaged of  article writers on LL, but I do feel that your comment above is partisan and defensive.  Understandably, you wish to protect your argument, but to me at least in gauging the defects and nonsenses in either the Clegg proposals or your counter-view, the most egregious is your equal representation for the 4 nations concept.  I would not describe that as “minutiae”, it is to me massive and on its’ own overwhelms the faults of the Clegg proposals, which certainly are not perfect.

      I do hope that my words are not taken as aggressive; they are certainly not intended as such.  However, I must be true to my feelings on your proposals.

      Thank you, however, for taking the time and trouble to post your views.

      • Brian

         I apprfeciate your kind words, Jaime, and I apologise if I sounded either partisan or defensive in my earlier appeal for more focus on the government’s proposals for house of lords reform and a bit less obsession with just one item in my own modest counter-proposals.  The main thrust of my original post was to expose the defects in the Clegg Bill and the joint committee’s report on it.  It’s not false modesty for me to point out that my own ideas for a different kind of second chamber are of no real consequence, since no political party is going to take the slightest notice of them, and anyway even if nice Mr Ed were to notice them, he’d regard them as hopelessly radical and controversial.  The government’s rickety proposals, by contrast, are quite likely to end up on the statute book, or at any rate the subject of a referendum, so it seems to me more important to encourage a critical debate on them than to go round and round in circles discussing mine!

        I’ve been more than  willing to defend my own suggestions both generally and in detail, as the square footage of my responses to comments in this thread will testify.  I have defended them without, I hope, being defensive about them, and certainly without being apologetic.  ‘Minutiae’ was perhaps an exaggeration:  the idea of equal representation for each of the four nations in a reformed second chamber is, though, only one element in the “Nations’ Chamber” that I envisage (cf. the second chamber of the German Bundestag), even if the most controversial.  I expected it to be challenged, but I hoped for more debate on Mr Clegg’s ideas as well.  Why keep those bishops?  Why should they have a say in the laws of our country?  Do we really want 300 or 400 politicians elected for 15 years each, without ever having to face the electorate again to give an account of themselves?  *Fifteen* years?!  Three or four times as many members on the UK payroll as the Senate of the US, whose population is five times ours? Why should there be unelected ‘experts’ sitting in our law-making body just in case the subject of their expertise might very occasionally crop up in the proceedings of parliament?  Doesn’t anyone have any views on these and other daft propositions? 

        That’s really all I was trying to say.  Over to you!

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas


          our polarised views on equal national representation aside, there is much we agree upon.  As an example, I happen to be a practicing Christian, but I see no place for the Church in law-making or -debating, so your views on the Bishops I endorse.

          I also agree in the overall numbers.  Something like 100-150 would do well, elected on a proportional basis to national votes at GEs.  Let UKIP have several Lords, even the BNP one or 2.  It is undemocratic to deny that.  I would also like to see an additional 50 or so “expert Lords”, people like Lord Winston.  Perhaps 2 per Department, nominated one each by the Sec of State and his or her Shadow for the duration of the Parliament, and also paid for their efforts.  Their votes however should be constrained to matters on which the nominating department has primacy.  As much as I admire Lord Winston, his views on agricultural policy or defence are not why he is the man he is, and he should have no more say on those matters than a farmer or a soldier.  His voice is valuable in medical debates.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas


    I’d probably agree with your view of a federal system as a matter of principle, but I cannot agree with your prescription for equal representation of the four nations.  Given the population disparities, it is fundamentally undemocratic, and as an observation, unlikely to ever be agreed to by English voters who are together nearly 85% of the population.

    There may be some mileage in looking at the county level, as all of the nations have counties.  There would probably be arguments over old counties or modern metropolitan areas, but they should be surmountable.

    Giving 75% of the votes in one chamber of Parliament to 15% of the population is ridiculous.  It has the same democratic legitimacy as the many injustices of representation of more than 100 years ago, of rotten boroughs, double votes for businessmen and university students, or none at all to women.

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