Europe isn’t the only question on which the Tory Party is in danger of tying itself in knots; they seem to have a similar urge for self-inflicted damage when it comes to reforming the House of Lords. And there seems to be at least a degree of overlap between those who regard reform of the Lords as a dry irrelevant constitutional issue, not to be embarked upon at a time when the economy should be the central consideration, and those who regard reform of the UK’s terms of membership of the EU as being an absolutely vital and urgent question.
It made me wonder whether they’re not both to do, at least to a degree, with the question of where power lies, or is perceived to lie. The fear of the opponents of reforming the Lords is that an elected chamber would have a democratic legitimacy which would make it a rival to the Commons; and those who want to turn the UK into some sort of associate member, at best, of the EU are forever talking about ‘repatriating powers from Brussels’.
The common thread is that, in both cases, they want to see all power residing in one place, the Commons. It’s no coincidence that some of them are also strong anti-devolutionists. There’s an irony of course. It’s certainly true that the Commons has lost a lot of power in recent decades. But most of it hasn’t gone to the Lords, to Brussels, or to the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, however – it’s gone to the Executive. And it’s been ceded by the legislature to the executive by the MPs themselves, who have allowed successive governments to take more and more power away from them.
The problem with the government’s proposals for reform of the Lords is that they don’t go far enough. If we didn’t have a second chamber, I can’t believe that anyone would suggest that we needed one (there is, for instance, no serious suggestion that either Wales or Scotland need an additional chamber). The role of the second house has evolved largely by accident, from a place where the aristocracy were represented to a place where laws can be revised or delayed (but not too much).
All of the proposals for reform seem to take its existence as a given; they only deal with how its members are selected. But if the Commons did its job properly, and was less beholden to the Executive, we wouldn’t need a second chamber at all. The logical position for those who fear an elected chamber is to call for abolition, and to make the Commons more independent of the Executive. They seem, though, to want to pretend that they have the real power rather than actually seek it.