I was talking to an old Trotskyist the other day who works as a lobyist for various causes in Parliament and he admitted that the House of Lords is unimaginably superior as a legislative chamber to the House of Commons. He admitted that any democratic reform of the Lords will be for all practical purposes a disaster removing one of the few fully functioning and effective parts of the Constitution. Nevertheless, he is convinced that either the Lord’s must be elected or abolished altogether. Why? Because there is no other source of legitimacy than the ballot box and however practically damaging it may be pragmatic functioning reality must bend to the prevalent theory of the popular origin of political legitimacy.

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Now the prevalent theory of the popular origin of political legitimacy is false. As Leo XIII teaches,

“Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.” Diuturnum §5

Man is a social and political animal he inhabits by his very nature a law-based society and so the state derives its existence and authority from nature and the Author of Nature. Nevertheless, as Leo goes on to say,

“It is of importance, however, to remark in this place that those who may be placed over the State may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude, without opposition to or impugning of the Catholic doctrine. And by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of ruling are not thereby conferred. Nor is the authority delegated to him, but the person by whom it is to be exercised is determined upon.”

So there is nothing in these principles to exclude democracy or a democratic element in a mixed polity. In fact, rather the reverse. The very fact that man is a social and political animal means that (all other things being equal) human flourishing is well served by the fullest practicable participation of the multitude in the political life of the State. But there is no necessity that both houses of the legislature be elected, nor any need to sabotage a perfectly good system on the basis of a false and pernicious theory of popular sovereignty quite alien to British constitutional tradition.

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This being said, when the Lords rested on unbroken tradition it was a lot easier to maintain its position. Now that Blair has fiddled with it and turned it into an appointed chamber of life peers it is harder to defend it against further alteration. Once ‘reform’ is begun it is necessary to produce reasons for the preservation of a settlement that is anyway novel. This is not easy. As the Irishman said ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. Even if there had been no reform it would be very difficult to justify in the abstract a hereditary chamber of aristocrats originally designed to represent the actual powers in the land in a society based on agrarian and feudal military foundations at the end of the twentieth century when none of these forces have any longer any weight.

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It seems highly likely that the English Parliament was originally developed in the image of the Dominican Constitutions in which there is a chapter of the the rulers (Priors or Prior Provincials) and a chapter of the representatives of the ruled (the Definitors, two from each house or province). Legislative proposals are read three times and must secure the assent of both chapters. The ‘First English Parliament’ met in Blackfriars Oxford under the auspices of Simon de Monfort who knew St Dominic as a child and whose father was the commander of the Albigensian Crusade. Were one to apply the Dominican logic to the Lords one would need to rearrange the country back into Shires and Boroughs with directly elected Lord Sheriffs and Lord Mayors who would both exercise executive functions in the localities and sit in the Lords.

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Advantageous though such a system might be if one were starting from scratch it is not at all in the spirit of British constitutional development to create such a scheme on the basis of a theory and impose it on existing reality. In the Lords as it stands we have a great pool of experience and knowledge broadly representing ‘the establishment’  in a way which does in a sense correspond to the traditional function of the chamber. Whether or not its democratisation is strictly necessary (it isn’t), in the current political climate it is necessary to avoid outright abolition. As I see it the present chamber has three advantages:

1. The members serve for life and so cannot be controlled by the party machines.

2. The members are far better educated and informed than the MPs.

3. As non-politicians or elder statesmen their judgement is less clouded by ambition.

This is why The Lords is so much more effective than The Commons as a legislature and these are the three assets one would wish to preserve if possible while engineering ‘democratic legitimacy’ for the upper house.

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My solution is therefore as follows:

A) Keep the existing House of Lords under that name and appointed exactly as it is now.

B) Arrange all the Peers into party lists based on the parties who already have representation in the Commons and then an additional list for the Cross Benchers.

C) Rank each Peer in the list according to how long ago they they were raised to the Peerage.

D) Fix the number of Lords of Parliament (i.e. able to sit in the Chamber and vote) at 800 (or whatever the physical capacity of the chamber is).

E) At every House of Commons General Election the exact percentage of the national vote that each party achieved is calculated and that percentage of the upper chamber will be filled by each list of Peers until the next general election starting with the longest serving and ending with the most recently elevated.

F) The percentage of spoiled/illegible ballot papers and votes cast for parties who secured no representation in the Commons will be allotted to the Cross Bencher list.

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This system would retain all the advantages of the current chamber while constituting the purest form of Proportional Representation (the ‘List System’) and so securing full democratic legitimacy. On the other hand because the individuals themselves would not have stood for election personally it would preserve the supremacy of the Commons. Using the date of elevation to determine seniority of the Party List would ensure the Peers remained immune to pressure from Party machines and the existing pool of experience and knowledge would be retained in tact. There would be no need for the confusion, expense  and embarrassingly poor turnout of additional PR-based General Elections.

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