The House of Lords
The Royal Commission Takes Evidence
In the cool May evening breeze The Stars and Stripes fluttered alongside the Union Flag outside the New Connaught Rooms in London's Covent Garden. Inside a peculiarly British affair was getting under way. The Royal Commission on reform of the House of Lords was starting the third of three public hearings that day - in the Coronet Room. By July it will have visited seven other towns in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, returning to London for the final hearings on 27 July.
Of the commissioners on the platform with the responsibility for advising the government on whether Britain's legislature should be democratised, two were "Lords" and one a "Lady." Which is to say, themselves legislators-for-life. Their defenders might point out that the "Lady" was once a trade union general secretary. But others would remember the phrase often attributed to union leaders who have taken the same path: "The working class can kiss my arse, I'm in the House of Lords at last!"
The evening's proceedings were not impressive. Fewer than one hundred citizens were present. The session was scheduled for two and a quarter hours. In fact it ended after 90 minutes. But this was the third session of the day and perhaps the commissioners had had enough. Four witnesses gave evidence (in one case as a duo) and each was questioned by members of the commission. At the end brief statements were invited from we the audience. A questionnaire was circulated.
The first witness was Tony Benn, MP, Labour Party left-winger and inveterate proposer of constitutional reform. Though no admirer of Mr Benn, I have to report that he was the only anything like forceful advocate of democratic government to be heard. He called for the reformed chamber to be a fully elected Senate or Council of State. But despite the democratic legitimacy that this would give, Mr Benn did not ask for the Senate to have the increased power that should flow from that. He did foresee a future federal Britain, however, in which the House of Commons became the Parliament of England and the other chamber a federal legislature.
"Lord" Hurd asked Mr Benn what he would object to in an appointed legislative chamber if the appointments were made by an independent committee. In response Benn asked rhetorically what it could be that makes the British feel that they are unfit to choose their own legislators. Nor was he impressed by Hurd's suggestion that an elected legislature would lack expertise. Parliament could take all the expert advise it needed, he said. But he was nervous about having "experts" govern the country.
"Lady" Dean, the one-time trade union leader, was worried that citizens who already stayed away from the polling booths for local and national elections might be overwhelmed by the right to elect senators. "There's a crisis of indifference to the democratic process," she seemed to be saying. "So let's remedy it by junking democracy." But Benn had not given up on elected government. He replied that he was in awe at democracy. The bottom line was that it allowed us to remove those law makers we do not want by means other than assassination.
Transport workers union leader Bill Morris seemed worried that the reformed chamber would not really be able to check the Commons if the same party had a majority in both chambers. He wanted Benn to be precise about which chamber would prevail when they disagreed. His main reservation about democracy was that an elected chamber might not reflect the ethnic and gender make-up of Britain. Benn, however, would not concede that the commissioner's implied alternative of a chamber carefully selected from on high, was an acceptable shortcut to a diverse legislature. Rather he saw the idea as a step towards apartheid.
You know what you like, but we know what you need.
I had come to this meeting partly from a sense of duty, half-expecting to doze. But if Tony Benn's contribution had kept me awake, the next witness had me and others shaking with amusement and bemusement.
This was "Lord" Halisbury, a former vice-chancellor of what was Brunel University, in London. "Thank you Lord Chairman" were his first words, a signal of his refusal to concede anything to modern attitudes.
The legislator-for-life began with an explanation of the difference between representation in the statistical sense and "professional" representation. MPs represent their constituents in the first sense, he said but physicians represented their patients in the second. We have MPs to give us what we want, his "Lordship" went on, but professional representatives give us what we need. A drunk might like another drink at the pub. But the doctor would know that a spell in detox what was needed. Likewise we have the Commons to give us what we want. The other chamber should give us what we need! To ensure that it did, 450 of its legislators should be "professional men" appointed by 91 chartered professional institutions. They would be, "Lord" Halisbury assured us, "men of the world." The rest would be drawn from military officers, the civil service and the law societies. Twenty to forty would be appointed by the main political parties.
To their credit the commissioners did not seem to have much time for this tomfoolery, though they showed the restraint that, no doubt, is required of royal commissioners. One wondered if this privileged role in the process of national government might not have a rather bad effect on the professional groups which would appoint the legislators. Another worried that this idea was unfair to the majority of the population that would be left out in the cold. Don't worry, replied "Lord" Halisbury, these legislators would merely be applying their disinterested expertise to deciding what good for the rest of us.
The big idea of the evening needed a duo to propose it. Anthony Barnett, founder of the Charter 88 constitutional reform group and writer. And a Mr Carty of the Demos think tank. They sought to persuade the commission that the best way to select the members of the second chamber was by lottery. They would pull names off electoral registers, half male, half female, but otherwise at random to form groups of short-term legislators, or "citizen juries," which would each scrutinise a particular bill that the Commons had passed. But these random representatives would have some special powers. They would be able to require that legislation was written in clear English. They would rule on whether the consequences of the proposed legislation were likely to be significantly other than the elected law makers claimed. And they could block legislation that they considered unconstitutional - an idea with interesting possibilities in a nation that does not have a written constitution!
These "citizen juries" might not manage the same quantity of legislation as more conventional legislators but the quality of their work would be higher, Mr Barnett told "Lord" Wakeham the commission chairperson. But he told Bill Morris that he was not confident that the lottery legislators could take over in the second chamber all at once. An "experimental" approach and "flexibility" would be necessary. The half-baked character of his idea was confirmed when he acknowledged that he had nothing to say about whether the bishops of the Church of England and the senior judges should be guaranteed seats in the reformed chamber. He was "leaving that to you," he told the commissioners.
Prof. Anthony King made his first contribution of the evening the most scathing. He scorned the claim of the witnesses that good ideas are first ignored, then ridiculed and finally accepted. Just not so, he said. And he asked whether they were really suggesting that an idea that was ridiculed was therefore a good idea.
Anthony Barnett showed himself to be something of a believer in the efficacy of expert advice. A random selection of voters would certainly not produce a representative cross-section of the population, Prof. King told him. Mr Barnett said that he would acknowledged Prof. King's expertise on that, "to some extent." Prof King asked how the lottery legislators would decide what proposed laws were unconstitutional. They would receive expert advise to guide them, Mr Barnett replied.
In the end the two could not agree. Prof. King accused the pair of wanting to turn the second chamber into an "adventure playground" with their highly experimental and unfinished proposal. The commission needed to get things broadly right the first time, he insisted. But Anthony Barnett was equally certain that the world was changing too quickly for the commission to be able to recommend a long-term reform.
With the evidence finished the commission wrapped things up very quickly, with little time for contributions from the floor and none of the promised closing remarks from the "Lord Chairperson." The final speaker from the floor, a young man, had just a question. "Is there any need to be trying to reinvent the wheel?" he asked poignantly. It seems that loyalty to feudal forms of government is still far from dead in Britain.