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Gale's View

June 8th 2011

Just before the Whit recess the Deputy Prime Minister launched the House of Lords Draft Reform Bill.  The measure was, it has to be said, not well received on either side of the House of Commons and I detect no great enthusiasm for it, not surprisingly, in the Upper House either.
 
Since Mr. Blair decided, for partisan reasons, to meddle with something that was not broken, reform of the House of Lords has remained on the back-burner as “unfinished business”.  Certainly, if you were  starting from scratch and creating a new legislature, you would not have invented a body of men and women made up on a hereditary basis of the heirs of the children of monarchs born on the wrong side of the blanket, some representatives of the Church of England,( the Lords Spiritual,) a few superannuated judges,( the Law Lords), former Members of the House of Commons “kicked upstairs”, retired Trades Unionists and Captains of Industry who may or may not have given generously of their funds to political parties  and the ageing great and the good from the armed services.
 
And yet it worked.  For all its faults and peculiarities and eccentricities and foundation upon privileges and divine rights the fact of the matter is that in terms of wisdom, expertise, quality of debate and value for money the old House of Hereditary and Life Peers did a good job as a reforming and revising chamber.
 
Rather like servicing a car, though, the trouble is that when you tinker with what is under the bonnet it often does not seem to function as well as it did before.  In its present state, with a significant number of remaining hereditary Peers, The Church, the Judiciary, the Military and Life Members, the show goes on but inevitably there are those who want to “finish the job”. By which they mean “kill it off”.
 
We now have, therefore, as a sop to “democracy” and in the wake of a failed AV vote, an attempt to create an elected second chamber. Almost but not quite.  Because the authors have lacked the courage to go the whole hog there will still be provision for 80% of 300 “senators” to be elected with the remaining 20% still “appointed independently”. Plus some Bishops from the Church of England.  These worthies, it is suggested, would be elected or placed for “ a single term of three parliaments”, which means fifteen years!  You begin to see, perhaps, why this proposal was given a summary thumbs down.
 
So let me try, once again, to suggest an alternative on the basis that to do nothing is not an option.
 
The Scots want a referendum. I would give them one but I want all citizens of the United Kingdom to have the right to vote. I suspect that the surprising result would be that we would cheerfully support Home Rule provided that the new nation was self-funded and paid for its own university fees and retirement care and other benefits currently funded by the English taxpayer.
 
We then abolish both the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  In their place we create an English parliament elected on a first-past-the-post ballot and sitting in the Commons chamber. There will also be Welsh and Northern Ireland and Scottish parliaments. This answers the “West Lothian” question
 
To serve the union of the United Kingdom, which I value highly, we elect a Senate of two members drawn from each of the Counties of the four nations.  This body would itself then elect the Prime Minister (the four national parliaments would each have a First Minister) and would take responsibility for macro-taxation, defence and foreign policy only. All other issues including Social Benefits, Education, Healthcare, Transport and so on would be dealt with locally and paid for out of national taxes. The monarch would, of course, remain as the hereditary Head of State for the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
 
Mad?  Unrealistic? No more so, surely, that what is on the table and, with a bit of finesse and fine-tuning I believe that we could have and eat the cake that we are prepared to pay for.

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