This blogpost is in conjunction with the Elect The Lords campaign, who recently made a Pledgebank appeal to blog about Lords reform, which I signed. It marks the anniversary of the first Parliament Act, according to which
it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis
In the beginning, there were barons. In the time of the Normans – and the Anglo-Saxons, for that matter – the people who mattered were the people who owned land and commanded allegiance; the monarch was essentially Top Baron, the capo di tutti capi. Taxes were collected, percentages were taken and favours were granted; it was a system.
Over time, the distinction between monarch and barons grew stronger; in reaction, the barons began to operate as a power in the land in their own right, independent of – and sometimes in opposition to – the Crown. Simon de Montfort took things further in the thirteenth century, buttressing his own power base with the support of commoners (landed gentry and knights of the shire, that is). Another century and the ‘commoners’ are themselves seeking collective representation, so that they can also make demands of the Crown – although not the kind of demands made by Wat Tyler, of course. (They weren’t that kind of commoner, either; these people were about as ‘common’ as the average Cheshire magistrate – who is of course their direct descendant.)
There it is: we’ve got a House of Lords and a House of Commons, and we’re not even up to the Tudors. Members of the House of Commons are even elected, although the electorate is small and rather select. Subsequently the balance of power tipped still further against the Crown; you could say it tipped quite decisively on the 30th of January 1649, although that date isn’t generally celebrated in histories of parliamentary democracy. By the eighteenth century, anyway, Parliament is starting to run things; this is when we start hearing about the Ministers appointed by the Crown, chief among them the Prime Minister.
In the nineteenth century, after the unpleasantness in France, we started to hear about democracy. By 1900 the electorate of the House of Commons is a pretty high proportion of the adult male population; getting there only took a couple of mass movements, a few years of near-insurrectionary agitation and a dead Prime Minister. (The assassination of Spencer Perceval had nothing to do with any of this, but it must have concentrated some minds.) Another mass movement and a world war, and even women are voting. Never let it be said that reform is impossible. (Never let it be said that it’s easy, either.)
The vote for all adults (aged 21 or over) was finally conceded in 1928. All this time, the House of Lords had been sitting there unreformed, preserving its ancient traditions and generally getting in the way – more and more so as the House of Commons becomes more representative. The decisive confrontation had come in 1911, when the Lords and the King, under duress, conceded the supremacy of the Commons – and endorsed the project of replacing the House of Lords with something more representative.
And then nothing happened, for 94 years.
To put it schematically, from Simon de Montfort to Edward VII there were always two sides: a ruler on one side, an opposition with its own power base on the other. It’s King vs Lords; then King vs Commons; then the 30th of January 1649 (although, as I’ve said, we don’t really speak about that). Then 1688, after which it’s not King vs Parliament so much as Parliament vs King; and finally 1911, when it’s decisively Commons vs Lords (and King). But what should have been the final victory of the Commons was never pressed through. What happened instead, oddly, was that a new opposition developed: Prime Minister vs Commons. In the penultimate stage of this development, under Thatcher, the unreformed House of Lords was even brought into play on the Prime Minister’s side. Still more bizarrely, in the Blairite final stage the Commons were so thoroughly managed that the Lords began to seem a bastion of liberty, due process and free speech, if not democracy. Perhaps this is the final act in the re-centralisation of government power in Britain: Prime Minister vs Lords. It’s not hard to see how that one will play out – particularly given that the Prime Minister has inherited the Crown’s power to pack the House of Lords with his own capi. And the barons, the damned stupid barons…
Ninety-four years after the Parliament Act, arguing for a democratically-elected second chamber isn’t particularly hard: it seems like a reform whose time has come, to put it mildly (ninety-four years!). Given the background I’ve sketched out above, it’s also a reform which would have some very far-reaching consequences. Replacing the current bodged-up medieval absurdity with an elected second chamber would instantly create a massive counterweight to the power of the Prime Minister – perhaps more massive than we can readily imagine in these diminished times. (Think of the ‘control orders’ debate, only with the aura of democratic legitimacy which Ken Livingstone gained when Thatcher started threatening the GLC and a free-spokenness somewhere between Lord Hoffman and George Galloway. Something like that.) It would also open several cans of democratic worms in the House of Commons itself – if members of the second chamber are elected on a fixed date and with a proportional system (and I can’t see why they wouldn’t be), what about the Commons? For both these reasons, it’s vanishingly unlikely to happen, unless a lot of people shout for it loudly and persistently – and even then, it’ll be pretty damn unlikely.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth shouting.