The hundred years war

23 May 11
Philip Johnston

Attempts to establish an elected House of Lords over the past century have all ended in failure. So don’t hold your breath over Nick Clegg’s draft Bill

This year marks the centenary of one of the great constitutional battles of British history, the clash between the Commons and the Lords over which should wield most power. The genesis of this titanic struggle was the refusal of peers to accept Liberal chancellor David Lloyd George’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’, thereby challenging the 200-year-old custom and practice that the Lords would not veto financial measures.

Their Lordships lost – and the Asquith government’s 1911 Parliament Act not so much clipped their wings as cut them off at the legs. It was made explicit that the Lords would have no say over finances and that if they tried to block Commons legislation, the elected chamber would get its way after a two-year delay (reduced to one year in 1949).

But this was never intended to be a permanent measure. Indeed, the preamble to the 1911 Act makes its temporary nature clear when it says that ‘it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords, as it at present exists, a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis’.

And there matters stood for almost 90 years until the hereditary peers were removed by the last Labour government, apart from 92 who remained, elected – literally – by their peers.

Did that fulfil the ambitions of 1911 for a chamber ‘constituted on a popular basis’? True, none of its members are elected, but that does not mean it is undemocratic or ineffective.

However, in a world that demands legitimacy, an unelected Upper House fails to provide it. So, once again, an attempt is to be made to inject an elected element into its ranks. And, once again, it will fail.

Fittingly it fell to another Liberal, Nick Clegg, to announce proposals on May 16 to conclude the unfinished Lords reform. But unlike the drama of 1911, Clegg’s draft Bill was greeted with indifference. The enthusiasm of constitutional reformers was punctured by the Alternative Vote referendum fiasco; for everyone else the subject seems irrelevant.

Moreover, the proposals for a house of 300 members serving 15-year terms and elected by proportional representation every five years leaves so many questions unanswered that it is hard to see any agreement being possible.

Is any of this worth the candle? By the time these reforms emerge next year, the appetite for pursuing them will have abated. Even some Liberal Democrats accept that they have no realistic prospect of success. After all, in 2003, Leader of the Commons Robin Cook put seven options for change before MPs, ranging from a wholly elected Lords to a variety of partially elected schemes. Each one was voted down.

Thirty years earlier, Richard Crossman’s attempt to reform the Lords foundered on the very question of ‘Who governs?’, which was also at the heart of the 1911 crisis. What the coalition’s proposals do is reopen an argument that was settled a century ago in favour of the Commons. Why mess with it merely because it all looks a bit outdated?

Moreover, the Commons should consider that a senator elected by PR could claim greater democratic authority than an MP who sneaks in with 38% of the popular vote.

For more than 50 years, even when the Lords was dominated by Conservative peers, Labour governments have been able to get their laws through via the Salisbury Convention, under which legislation enacting a manifesto promise will not be held up unduly. It is a classic British fudge, but it works. The Lords does its job as a revising chamber. Ask those coalition ministers whose legislation is taking a hammering in the Upper House, like the Home Office’s plans for elected police commissioners.

Ultimately, the question for the coalition is how much political capital it is prepared to spend on something that has vexed governments for a century. Judging from the responses to Clegg’s white paper, it will be another 100 years before anything happens.

Philip Johnston is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph

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