Changing Tack

It’s good news that Tory misgivings over half-baked proposals for Lords reform may now mean a LibDem veto over proposed changes to constituency boundaries. In our view, MPs, if we really have to have them, must represent the will of communities, not arbitrary blocks of territory filled with numbers.

The LibDem proposals for the Lords were so bad that one wonders where all that party’s brains have gone. It used to be home to clever, creative thinkers, who would never have suggested an elected chamber where the members are free to get up to whatever mischief they fancy for 15 years with no possibility of ever facing the electorate’s wrath. Elected, moreover, to represent those ghastly Prescott zones the Coalition pretends not to believe in.

We commend our own proposals for a Wessex Witan, first published in 1982, which were for a two-chamber regional legislature of Assembly and Senate. The balance of argument in favour of bi-cameralism in Wessex, we explained, is based on long-standing usage in British constitutional practice, on the extra manpower made available for committee work, and on the possibility it offers for the direct representation of local authorities, academic institutions and the professions. The devolved Parliament of Northern Ireland (1922-72) comprised a House of Commons and a Senate but its successor, the Northern Ireland Assembly, is uni-cameral. So too are the Scottish Parliament and the London and Welsh assemblies.

The idea that an elected second chamber at Westminster is ‘a good thing’ has taken off to the point where it’s now considered rude to ask why. Having more politicians must mean more democracy, mustn’t it? Well, no. It depends what they do, and especially whether they cancel each other out, so that all we get is noise. The first duty of a good legislature is to make good laws. And for that to happen, it needs to be composed of the best folk to make those laws. Quality matters. That is why campaigns to make our elected bodies more ‘representative’ in a purely statistical sense are so stupid. As well as being insulting to the voters by demanding the screening and filtering of the candidates for whom they’re allowed to vote. Let’s have more women, more minorities, more disadvantaged. Yes, if they’re the best candidates for public office. And if they’re not, then let’s not have them. Allow the voters to decide.

Which, in broad terms, is fortunately how those responsible for executive decisions are still elected. But there is more to organisation than executive decisions. Just as in left/right brain theory, so organisation has its own executive/sensory nexus. Current decision-making needs to be shadowed by other thinking focused on monitoring and review, research and longer-term development. Short electoral cycles are notoriously poor at delivering that. They’re all about advantage and cover-up. Posterity doesn’t have the vote.

A non-elected second chamber can help redress the balance, provided that those who comprise it are there on merit and widely respected for their expert knowledge and experience. Its role isn’t to stop bad laws, but to query them. It isn’t to pick a fight with the first chamber, but to remind it of the bigger picture. It isn’t to govern, but to scan the horizon.

You can have politics. Or you can have wisdom. Ideally, if we can manage it, we need both. Clegg’s proposals guaranteed more of the first and less of the second. And all the while they reinforce the crazy idea that only by gathering folk up and taking them to London can good self-rule be achieved. Successful constitutional reform requires more searching questions about what the Lords is for. But first there must be an answer to the question of what Parliament itself adds to our quality of life in Wessex that we ourselves could not more satisfactorily achieve by other means.

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