“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 3 Friday 19th September 2008



This week


·        Why An Elected Lords Is Not Good Civic Republicanism



News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





Why An Elected Lords Is Not Good Civic Republicanism


Within our Legislature (Parliament) we have a Separation of Function between the Commons and the Lords. Simplifying, the Commons is there to create and enact legislation whilst the Lords only amends legislation. Membership of the Commons is determined by popular election, membership of the Lords currently by appointment, inheritance or special position (e.g. bishops).


This kind of “bicameral” system is good constitutionally. But it only works properly if the method of selection for each chamber is completely different. If they are produced by the same or nearly the same constituency (Cameron’s Tories propose this) then there will be a merging of powers, not a separation. This fact alone suggests a case for the second chamber not being chosen by election like the Commons.


The July 2008 White Paper on Lords Reform predictably comes down on the side of having an elected second chamber on the grounds that this would be more democratic. This is true. It would be more democratic. But from the Civic Republican point of view it would also be less republican.


Currently the Lords’ method of selection is not ideal, to be sure. But it could be improved with two achievable reforms: (1) scrap the hereditary element (2) make the appointment procedure fair and free of political meddling.


The key to understanding the republican advantages of an appointed second chamber is to appreciate two things (1) democracy is not the same thing as republicanism (2) only an appointed institution can have real independence from the Executive. New Labour and the Tories understand this very well and this is why they wish the second chamber to be elected. They understand that by this means they can bring it under control of the Executive. As it is constituted now the Government does not like the Lords. It is constantly a thorn in the Government’s side as it tries to bulldoze through legislation. An elected chamber would be an acquiescent puppy by comparison.


As Michael Portillo says: “Although many lords are party nominees, collectively the chamber eschews partisanship. With good numbers representing the smaller parties and large numbers of crossbenchers, the government of the day has no majority. It must persuade to get its way.”


It is true that the equivalent chamber under the US constitution, the Senate, is elected. But it has to be, for it is able to pass legislation. It is a fundamental constitutional principle that only the peoples’ direct representatives should pass the laws they are subject to. The Lords only amends legislation and no one is proposing to change this.


To understand why Civic Republicanism places such great value on appointed institutions, look at another one that we already have -the Judiciary. Judges are appointed on the basis of merit, experience and qualification and once appointed it is effectively for life. It is this security that gives them independence and authority. It puts them outside of the democratic polity and enables them to protect citizens from an overbearing government. A properly appointed House of Lords, with members appointed for life, would achieve a similar independence.


In a Republic, democratic institutions exist alongside appointed, or “civil”, institutions. Both have a part to play. One of the great virtues civil institutions have over democratic ones is that, not being subject to periodic elections, they can take a long term view. This is why they are crucial to a republican constitution. A fundamental fault with the Kingdom is that it is plagued by short-termism. This prevents any long term programme for public services, for instance. This is a direct result of our overreliance on democracy with its short cycle.


Another great virtue of having members of a second chamber appointed for life, that is seldom recognised, is that it acts as a restraint on corruption amongst the elected politicians for it gives them a chance of a continuing lifetime involvement in public life when they loose or resign their seat. Few countries have this and so there is a tendency for elected politicians to line their pockets when in office while the going is good. Sad, but true.


Finally, we should not forget the fine work done by the Lords Select Committees. This work benefits from the kind of individuals (i.e. not all career politicians) that (in spite of all current Executive meddling) make up the Lords.


We could fiddle around with the names of the second chamber and its members as the White Paper wants to do. But frankly what is the point? There is a virtue in preserving tradition if we can. And there is going to be enough change with the introduction of a full Republican Constitution for people to absorb without making changes that we do not need.


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…….Until next week