2007 - 2021

Second Chamber, Second Thoughts

Britain's Queen Elizabeth delivers her speech during the State Opening of Parliament at the House of Lords in LondonThe Conservative Government’s House of Lords defeat over Tax Credits provides a timely reminder that essentially what we have here is a fragile Government with a small majority, representing a Party that presents a public image of being upbeat and popular, but is actually insecure, has narrow appeal, limited popular authority and is riven with deep divisions.

The Government was defeated in the House of Lords because the Chancellor chose to use a statutory instrument to enable the politically controversial Tax Credit measure, rather than using the more orthodox or scrupulous route for a major change of this kind; a Parliamentary Bill. David Cameron and George Osborne did not present a Bill to Parliament, no doubt because a Bill would face much closer scrutiny in the House of Commons (including from Conservative MPs with small majorities or representing the less well-heeled, or perhaps even those simply possessing a greater sense of fairness or decency) than the devious but convenient ploy of a statutory instrument, adopted by the Chancellor.

On recognising defeat in the House of Lords, George Osborne said this:

“David Cameron and I are clear that this raises constitutional issues that need to be dealt with…. …. However, it has happened, and now we must address the consequences of that. I said I would listen and that’s precisely what I intend to do. I believe we can achieve the same goal of reforming tax credits, saving the money we need to save to secure our economy, while at the same time helping in the transition. That is what I intend to do at the Autumn Statement. I am determined to deliver that lower welfare, higher wage economy that we were elected to deliver and the British people want to see.” (Reported in dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-3289269/George-Osbornes-tax-credit-cuts-face-Lords-showdown: 27th October, 2015)

This statement is extraordinary. The central acknowledgement is clear: “I believe we can achieve the same goal of reforming tax credits, saving the money we need to save to secure our economy, while at the same time helping in the transition”, which can only mean Osborne believes he can both achieve his budget objectives and ameliorate the impact on those worse affected – it either means this, or it means nothing.

So, let us reflect on this statement. Let us leave aside whether the Autumn Statement will live up to the claim George Osborne makes; that is unknown, and, although David Cameron’s replies to Jeremy Corbyn’s six plain questions on the matter at PMQs are carefully worded to be less than illuminating; for the moment, let us be generous, let us show that spirit of magnanimity the Conservatives have so notably failed to rise to; let us take what Osborne says at face value: he can achieve all the welfare cuts required while simultaneously, significantly ameliorating the impact of the measures on the worst affected citizens.

The question that hangs over the Government is a simple one: why did Osborne not make this adjustment to his proposals in the first place? Why did he need to face defeat in the House of Lords to discover an amended, effective and less severe solution? All Osborne is going to do now, is remove measures that were intended to exact egregious, worthless penalties on helpless people. Why were these people selected for this treatment? Why did he draft the Statutory Instrument in such a way as to produce needless adverse effects on ordinary people? Why was he prepared to inflict serious financial suffering on his fellow citizens, when in some significant cases this was clearly, and by his own admission, unnecessary? Why would anybody, still less a responsible, senior Government Minister do such a thing?

Osborne’s proposals were thoroughly objectionable to the Second Chamber; a Second Chamber which, we need scarcely be reminded, consists of a very carefully selected or self-selecting segment of society, people either chosen by politicians or otherwise representing a privileged elite; a Chamber that is not a hotbed of radicals, but rather contains all too many neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, and has always and inevitably been a notably very conservative institution: yet this narrow constituency has produced a defiant rebellion and voted against the Government’s proposals.

This is the time when the Unionist insistence on the siren appeal to the “something for nothing” attack on all ‘welfare’ finally comes home to roost. These semi-excluded citizens, up to 3 million targeted by Osborne’s measures, who are so easily, and relentlessly packaged and labelled as ‘scroungers’ by both politicians and media, have always been taken for granted by politicians in power; politicians who only carry out these measures because they are sure the people targeted will accept their political punishment in silence, or at worst react only with inertia or despair, but not with any political expectation of anything better, or offer any threat or penalty to the careers of the politicians who make the decisions. Politicians can abuse such people with impunity, and the politicians know it. Why do politicians do this? Because they can; they are confident that this very carefully targeted section of society (so often ‘softened up’ by the media first), may be disposed of without politicians conforming to contemporary, conventional standards of political respect, or any commonplace standards of respect at all.

Respect like this; the respectful tabling of a Bill, a special and selective privilege reserved for people who matter to politicians wishing to hold their seats; measures in a Bill which we can be sure will be carefully scrutinised before being passed into law by the forensic, militant representatives of people who are, in the immortal words of Oliver Letwin MP, the “families with sharp elbows” (the people who vote for Letwin); statutory instruments, on the other hand, are reserved for people who don’t count; people whose elbows are worn down, or never thought elbowing others was an intrinsic part of politics or fairness, or would ever dream of elbowing anyone; or if they thought of it, knew they would never be allowed to ‘get away with it’ if they did try to elbow anyone aside. They know what would happen to them if they attempted to lock elbows with the “families with sharp elbows”; the sharp elbows that own the politicians.

This so-called constitutional ‘crisis’ is also a reminder that a bicameral parliament has its uses even in Britain’s decaying apology for a modern representative legislature. Nevertheless the basis of the Second Chamber’s authority, the House of Lords, much like the traditional authority of Westminster itself, has almost collapsed.

The fact that the only answer Conservatives can think of to solve the credibility deficit is to flood the Second Chamber with hundreds of yet more peers (in a chamber already awash with redundant, superannuated politicians and other subsidised, self-employed members on a scale unknown in any democratic country of comparable – or any – size, anywhere in the world), reveals only the intellectual inadequacy residing at the heart of the Conservative Party; but we knew that.

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, exuding a thin, fogeyish constitutional wisdom that is no more than an insipid parody of Dicey, defends the government; but reveals only that he is ‘making smoke’ for a Conservative Party that has reduced itself to unseemly constitutional scavenging of a fairly low order. Statutory instruments were devised as a minor administrative convenience, not as methods to facilitate life-changing measures affecting the British people; until it was discovered that they might also offer Governments a way to deflect awkward questions or proper scrutiny of major policy issues in the House of Commons, and even better, simply avoid altogether what would otherwise be inconvenient or difficult legislation, or any disputes that would disturb the smooth, bland public relations operation that seems to have become the sole public purpose of Government.

Rees-Mogg therefore does the House of Commons a profound disservice by defending this use of statutory instruments, which represents a far worse misuse of Parliamentary procedure than the House of Lords Tax Credit vote; it is a hidden assault on the rightful place of the House of Commons to manage major political change. The implications of the measure are precisely the opposite of Rees-Mogg’s elaborately disguised subterfuge.

In 1407, 1671, or 1678 (dates Rees-Mogg loves to recite as an incantation that for the casually unthinking, miraculously turns ancient constitutional lead into modern gold), they had no conception of “statutory instruments” and no understanding that a “money bill” might be interpreted as being an instrument devised solely to ‘pass’ (perhaps ‘pass-off’ is the operative term) a critical new form of quasi-legislation without recourse to full parliamentary scrutiny and enactment. Erskine May notes that, “rejection of [a supply bill which is not a certified money bill] is permissible” in the House of Lords, although “it has virtually ceased to be practical”; to which last, it can only be said that, after all, it has turned out to be practical – as David Cameron has found out. There are circumstances that trump even 1407.

It should be added here that what is a ‘money bill’ is decided not by Government, but is “certified”. It is certified exclusively by the Speaker. The Government is therefore trying to ‘pass-the-buck’ for using inappropriate methods to enable controversial issues; cynically placing the increasingly exposed and unfortunate Speaker in the same invidious position he now finds himself in over EVEL. Incidentally, and parenthetical to this discussion, the Scottish people have now been warned by this resort to statutory instruments over Tax Credits; exactly the same kind of cynical political scam will happen hereafter, mutatis mutandis, to everything that is devolved to Scotland post-Smith Commission and the Scotland Bill, but is then found to be inconvenient to the interests or operations of central government; which we may calculate means – potentially just about anything of moment that arises between Holyrood and Westminster.

Then there is the small matter of the Salisbury Convention (named after Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 5th Marquess of Salisbury; 1893-1972), which “ensures that Government Bills can get through the Lords when the Government of the day has no majority in the Lords”. Under the Salisbury Convention the House of Lords will not contest a measure that has appeared in the elected Government’s election manifesto.

All the Conservative Party required to do to silence the House of Lords on Tax Credits was to announce its intentions on Tax Credits in the 2015 General Election Manifesto. It did not do so, and it did not do so quite deliberately and with calculated cynicism; for Cameron and Osborne did not wish the public to be able to work out just how toxic, how casually indifferent to misery their proposals were – at least before the election. Worse, David Cameron made explicit public, broadcast interview statements during the campaign that would lead any fair-minded critic to believe that Tax Credits would not be affected in the way the Government now intend. Indeed throughout the campaign demands were made that the Conservatives provide information on what specific measures would be pursued to produce £12Bn of expenditure savings. The Conservative Party blankly refused.

Finally on this tiresome matter of slippery, wriggling Conservative dissimulation; Rees-Mogg now in some confusion, threatens the House of Lords that the Conservatives will create 100+ new peers, leading inevitably to House of Lords reform – which, of course, and with typically urbane aplomb, if equally unflappable incoherence, he opposes. Hoist by his own petard, the British public may only respond to Mr Rees-Mogg, George Osborne and David Cameron with a richly deserved rejoinder: “bring it on”.

So let us look briefly at some genuinely fundamental issues, and equally briefly at some possible solutions. I shall deal with them only in the broadest terms, the mere sketch of ideas that have too infrequently been explored, but that are more radical than anything the Conservative Government or Party (or Labour for that matter) have ever contemplated in the way of reform.

The Conservative Government was returned to power in the 2015 General Election on a turnout of 66.1% (representing a steep decline in elector participation from the 80%+ turnouts once achieved, when the British people imagined Parliament might actually represent their interests, and automatically awarded it their trust). The new Conservative Government managed to win only a modest 36.9% of the vote in 2015, just sufficient to establish a government, but only by defeating political opponents who were even more unpopular than the Conservatives. This is political failure feebly packaged as success.

This method of ‘government by the least unpopular’ to which we are now reduced in Britain, produced only a small Commons majority for the Conservatives, which was in turn derived from the derisory support of only 24.4% (0.661 x 0.369) of the total electorate. This is less an example of democracy in action in a free society, than playing close to the margin of what can reasonably termed ‘democracy’ at all. Less than a quarter of the British people voted Conservative (or to put it another way, more than 3-out-of-4 of the British people did not vote for this government).

Parliament defines the outcome as “democracy”, but this kind of ‘democracy’ is a mere shadow of the past, when governments actually commanded respect and secured decisive popular authority, or compromised; governments could command authority because they represented the majority of the electorate, or were required to join a coalition to access power and compromise, or simply remained in opposition. The parliamentary system has since decayed, loss of trust is now habitual, and we are now moving electorally towards a new standard, a new quasi-democratic convention; government legitimised by nobody.

The Conservative Government is attempting to govern alone with the identifiable support of less than 1-in-4 of the British people; yet as long as they control a small majority in Parliament through the skewed effects of FPTP and falling turnouts, they may do precisely as they like, in spite of diminishing support from the British people.

The system no longer functions, and the strains are already showing in Parliament. Yet, how low would public support have to sink (% of total electorate voting for the governing party) before the politicians acknowledge the current electoral system is unsustainable: 20%? 10%? 5%? Nobody at all? Meanwhile the British people are voting with their feet: deserting the current Westminster Parliamentary system in droves, as recent general elections demonstrably show (politicsresources.net/area/uk/uktable).

Here are two proposals for change, for consideration by anyone reflecting on the future of the British electoral system and the structure of the Second Chamber. The first I draw deliberately (if ironically) from the precedent of the 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum, in which a late Labour amendment to the Bill (tabled by George Cunningham MP), deviously placed a floor of support of 40% of the electorate, for the vote to succeed. The consequence of this was to defeat a measure for a devolved parliament that had the support of over 50% of the votes cast (and was itself in breach of all the standard Westminster election conventions, which still prevail today); but soon after this defeat of the devolved Parliament proposals, there was the 1979 General Election: Scotland was immediately left completely unprotected from all the worst effects of Thatcherism that followed, and had no institutional ability, politically to mitigate the damage that was wrought on community, economy and polity. Nevertheless the Labour strategy in 1979 offers an interesting precedent applicable to current circumstances, and all we need do is to make a slight adjustment to the principle to ensure the British elector is at the centre of future government thinking.

Any government elected to power on less than a 60% turnout, or any party that forms a majority Government in the House of Commons, but has received fewer votes than represents 30% of the total electorate, should be required to hold a new General Election within two years. Such a requirement, to return before full-term ill-supported Governments to seek a new mandate from the electorate, provides one simple and effective check on the unlimited exercise of power in Parliament. This would also require all governments to work much harder to encourage the electorate, and notably the sceptical, to vote; and it may also usefully oblige all political parties to take real public opinion into account on major issues – or even simply listen to the public – far more than currently obtains. It also places a premium on the requirement to govern only through wide consent.

Second, there is a clear contemporary concern about the democratic deficit which the House of Lords represents; so far, so unexceptional. At the same time democracy alone does not exhaust the legislative or parliamentary concerns of a free society. One issue to which I wish to draw attention here is the nature of political ‘reality’. I mean by this the need for our political system to reflect not only a democratic aspiration, but to offer a public mirror that is a representation of the underlying reality of the exercise of politics and power in Britain; how things actually work in our society and culture, not the PR gloss currently supplied by politicians. Our Parliament should not merely display the formal attributes of politics, but the substance; what is real.

In the past, the pre-Union Scottish Parliament represented the three great contemporary sources of power; the ‘Three Estates’ that even gave the Parliament its title. The Thrie Estatis consisted of the powers spiritual (pre-reformation prelates), temporal (the peers) and effectively the ‘commons’ (Burgh commissioners): this was a rudimentary but effective attempt exhaustively to represent all the sources of real power in the contemporary polity, under the Crown. It lacked more than a semblance of democracy, but when a Parliament was called it provided a reasonably exhaustive representation inside Parliament of contemporary ideas on political reality both inside and outside Parliament.

In the 21st century we have turned history on its head. We celebrate democracy but in most cases hide from public scrutiny both the exercise of power and its sources. In Westminster democracy has in consequence become more an exercise in public display, a public relations exercise which too often is reduced to the lowest common denominator: ‘inexplicable dumbshows and noise’, as illustrated in the routinely querulous PMQ. Meanwhile real power in both politics and society has retreated from view; it has become hidden, is exercised behind closed doors, protected by commercial privacy, secrecy laws, the elusive art of the lobbyist, the elevated pretensions of Government that smothers many of its critical activities under a cloak of Official Secrets and unchallengeable assertions. The show of democracy has virtually replaced the show of power in Parliament; for it implies what is clearly not true, that all power is exhausted merely by democratic representation.

In Westminster the hidden nature of power is represented best perhaps by a curiosity; the Remembrancer, the vestigial reminder of an older power, but also a symbol for a great modern, uncomfortable truth. Here is the City of London’s official description of the Remembrancer:

“The Remembrancer is one of the City’s four Law Officers and the Office is responsible for the maintenance and protection of the City’s constitution. He is the City’s Parliamentary Agent and the Parliamentary Agent for the Honourable the Irish Society, and the City’s Chief of Protocol. The Office was created in 1571. In its early years it was closely allied to the Monarch and the Court, and this is reflected in some of its functions today which include liaison between the City and the Royal Households. The Office acts as a channel of communication between Parliament and the City. In the contemporary context, this means day to day examination of Parliamentary business including examination of and briefing on proposed legislation and amendments to it, regular liaison with the Select Committees of both Houses and contact with officials in Government departments dealing with Parliamentary Bills. Liaison is also maintained with the City Office in Brussels and other Member States’ permanent representations in relation to draft EU legislation.” (cityoflondon.gov.uk/keycityofficers)

Matters have moved on since 1571, and Parliament has now largely become the obedient creature, the docile servant of the City of London, which exercises its self-interest virtually out of sight of the public. At the same time popular democracy has become largely a public relations exercise (how easily politicians move and recycle themselves in different ways, at different times between politics, the PR business and the City). It is through the operation of the ingeniously self-assembled, but obedient Westminster Cartel, the cosy unspoken consensus of the Political Parties of the Union, and now largely the mere tokens of myriad vested interests, but too rarely ‘the people’, that this disgraceful assault on authentic democracy, and the misrepresentation of power, has been allowed to grow out of control.

The British public is aware of this, and although – save in Scotland – it has not managed yet to effect concerted political action, the electorate has responded in kind: the public does not believe its interests are authentically represented in Westminster any more, and thus large swathes of the public now either do not vote at all, or their vote has simply fragmented (adding UKIP and the Greens as current alternatives in a fracturing party system) towards a tipping point that is beyond the control of the Westminster Cartel.

In our current political arrangements we have a proportionally represented unicameral Scottish Parliament (that still ‘apes’ the conventions of Westminster too much), and in Westminster a bicameral Parliament consisting of a ‘Commons’ that still uses an outmoded FPTP election system; and a Second Chamber best described as a quasi-coelacanth: a living fossil. It is striking that the only current (non-vested) argument for a non-elected Second Chamber that has any traction, is that Westminster is enriched by the presence in certain critical debates, on very important and often difficult, controversial and complex matters, by the presence of “experts”; for example only, geneticists or very distinguished members of the medical profession who bring their knowledge into the public domain over such matters as (say) ’cloning’. I use this one example only for the sake of clarity and brevity. This need for experts however relies entirely on the arbitrary and occasional ennoblement of the appropriate people by politicians on an ‘ad-hoc’ basis, and it establishes a single expert’s authority on the relevant subject in the House of Lords, effectively for life.

Meanwhile the House of Lords appointment norm is the quite breathtakingly cynical appointment-for-life of a mixture of sacked, failed politicians, the crass rewards of patronage (unchanged since Walpole, who “governed by party attachments” in Edmund Burke’s lame excuse) and the almost automatic ennoblement of rich men, whose sole contribution to public life may be lavishly to fund the political parties they choose to support. I shall not plumb the depths of pointlessness by trying to rationalise the continued existence of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords in the 21st century, or explain the needless demand for an over-inflated title more risible than plain ‘Senator’.

I have considerable sympathy for the aspiration to appoint experts, but none for the execution of this aspiration by Governments. I would prefer to observe two quite separate developments.

First, it would be better to recognise powerful but unelected institutions, great forces in our society, who exercise great power over many people whether elected or not, and to some extent at least oblige them to make both their positions and their demands on society or of politicians, public and openly debatable. These institutions should be drawn into the Second Chamber, as a matter of duty. They will be reluctant to speak; but you will find that they will speak, when their real interests are at stake; and perhaps lobbying access to Government should be withheld if they do not do so. And it is as well for the public if that opinion on important public matters is known; for you may be sure that both the opinion, and the influence that may go with it, is being whispered somewhere, is having an effect on your politics and life, somehow. The precedent for a presence of powerful unelected forces is of course not just the history of the ‘three estates’, but is amply demonstrated by the current position of the Remembrancer; who appears to sit in both the Lords and Commons. The current Remembrancer (since 2003) is Paul Double, a former barrister, who, it appears, never gives interviews. He does not speak either, but presumably that is because there is no need for the Remembrancer, nevertheless sufficiently to influence government.

Second, I believe that “expertise” should be recognised and harnessed not randomly, but systematically. I am advocating a Second Chamber that may well have an elected element (I shall leave that issue to one side here for others to debate), but that also draws from an “ex-officio” pool of resources. What do I have in mind? Let me take examples using the brief medical illustration I used above, as a model.

There should be an ex-officio member of the Second Chamber appointed by (for example) the Royal College of Physicians and from the Royal College of Surgeons of England (in Scotland, this would be the Scottish equivalents). Institutions given this ex-officio access to the Second Chamber would appoint their representative from within. I would apply the same principle to the other professions, and to the major universities. I do not pretend that selection of the appropriate institutions is not difficult (by some measure of scale, power or influence), but the broad test should be the impact of the institution on society, and especially in the area it operates (for example the degree to which it is a monopoly), or the nature of the knowledge it possesses. In most, but not all cases, this is not quite as difficult as it may appear. It will require a wide public consensus, but in many cases this can be achieved. Once this is established, this initial cohort of institutions can then build a structure for a fair and open system of both assessment and renewal of membership. It will never be perfect, but nothing in any constitution is perfect.

Perhaps the choice of ex-officio representative in an institution should change with the issue at stake (for example a geneticist on cloning, a cancer specialist on drug supply, demand and pricing). I would also apply the same principle I have suggested in medicine or related fields, to business, commerce and industry; extending membership to – merely as an example -the largest twenty companies of the FTSE-100 (I appreciate this position is intrinsically volatile, so would require regular review, perhaps on a rolling 2 or 5 year cycle, with special arrangements for sudden change). I have not forgotten trade unions (at least the largest); and public sector bodies like the NHS, although public sector bodies (and the Civil Service itself) present special difficulties as they may be managed by Government, directly or indirectly.

Review of ex-officio membership (it should never be in perpetuity) would be undertaken by the Second Chamber as a whole, and perhaps in some cases may be subject to a wider referendum. As time passes I envisage that we will be able to carry out such referenda more incisively with the public, using modern telecommunications media hardware and software.

There are many, many problems with this idea, but it is the very purpose of it that creates the extreme but telling difficulty, and the probable discomfort with this on all sides; it attempts to make what is implicit in our polity, explicit; what is closed in our society, open; what is concealed from public scrutiny, revealed; what is hidden, public. It will not work in every case and it will no doubt create its own conundrums; but that, of course is the unwavering nature of reality. Power is real and it should make us uncomfortable; but its activities should always be in the light, fully in the public eye, for in the immortal words of Lord Acton “Power corrupts”: period.

Comments (18)

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  1. leavergirl says:

    These jokers don’t really run things. They are a big part of the Spectacle though, and the more you stay glued to it, the better for them. It makes them appear legit.

    The real government is composed of unelected/unselected people: all sorts of bigwigs, of mostly financial-bankster persuasion, along with heads of companies, military, and bureaucracies. What are y’ gonna do about them?

  2. David Milligan. says:

    Great and enlightening article regarding Statutory Instruments and the British constitution. Osborne obviously thought he could take a shortcut to prevent a prolonged Commons debate and it backfired in the Lord’s.However , now that this has been brought to public notice perhaps he will think again about trying this sharp practice. your’s David Milligan.

  3. Phil says:

    Yes, nice analytical exposition of red-robed-irrelevancies.

    BUT, Followers of Bella might be advised to devote time to asking whether, and just how, our own Holyrood Parliament would be improved, once Independence comes, by designing a second chamber for ourselves.

    Many governments from around the world offer examples to pick and choose from, or to prove / disprove the basic notion of a revising chamber.

    The more credible and complete the story of Scottish Independence becomes, including proposals for sensible and relevant structural changes, the more acceptable to doubting voters the concept of Scottish Independence becomes.

    1. leavergirl says:

      Phil, first ask whether you want a second chamber. Some political scientists claim that a second chamber guarantees that radical reform becomes almost impossible.

      1. Phil says:

        @leavergirl; Thanks, I think an Independent Scotland should search to find examples of what benefits do exist from a second chamber and if these might benefit Scotland then try to discover what disbenefits might occur, and finally after some real-world comparisons decide if a model for Scotland can be devised and supported.

        Using the constitutional melee the Westminster system offers certainly emphasises one avenue to be avoided. Osborne seems to see the second chamber, and almost all else within the Palace of Westminster, as mechanisms to exert control, and not as methods to achieve better governance of our society.

        Osborne does not prove the case for avoiding a second chamber.

  4. tartanfever says:

    ‘Osborne’s proposals were thoroughly objectionable to the Second Chamber’

    The Lords had other voting opportunities that day, the first was to vote behind a fatal motion that would have booted the tax credit cuts out of the park for good. Instead they decided to vote for a delay.

    In other words, the Lords do not find the tax credit cuts objectionable, they just want them implemented in a little while with a bit of tinkering.

    I wouldn’t describe the Lords reaction as ‘thoroughly objectionable’.

    ‘Quite agreeable’ would be more accurate.

  5. Paul Codd says:

    Delighted to see these kinds of proposals getting pitched and discussed. Perhaps the selection of who those societal actors are to be included in a second chamber is something that could also be crowd sourced via national debate and elections. As a national rather than local election there could be a very long list of candidates with voters able to up-vote and down-vote specific groups. Terms could be long, but with a proportion (say 10-30%) being relegated every season, or year or so, to make way for new entrants, as in football leagues, with a complete overhaul/renewal of the list every 5 years. There could be a maximum of 2 terms for any 1 individual. They’re there to represent a specific national constituency they come from (eg. a particular faith group, age group, industry group, or other minority group) therefore the individuals cannot become career politicians. There could be limits on the extent to which the representative is able to claim to truly represent the group they come from. Perhaps they must poll their members on big issues. Perhaps their role is truly to lobby and lead the debate inside and outside the chamber, rather than vote, with votes being counted from the memberships of these groups, not the representatives as individuals.

    I’d still like to see a stronger case being articulated for the existence of a second chamber and I’m mindful that it is likely the greatest improvements will come from increasing the penetration of democracy into the core business of the primary chamber, rather than changes around the fringe, committees and other chambers, no matter how radical these may be. But these too could also add up to greater than the sum of their parts.

    1. John S Warren says:

      I am grateful for your engagement with the idea. I believe there is a place for a second, revising chamber because so much legislation, even when well-intentioned, may be badly drafted or ill thought through. I believe, for example that the Fraud Act (2006) is a complete disaster that totally failed because it addressed all the wrong issues; indeed it has proved virtually unusable in the wake of the Credit Crunch (I do not think the few people charged and found guilty for criminal activities before or after the Crash – so far – were even charged under the Act). The House of Lords did not appear to materially improve the Act, but it should; or at least it should have done better.

      On Scotland there seems to be an ‘orthodox’ view that smaller democracies can use alternatives to a Second Chamber, but I think we need to explore that issue. Orthodox views are quite often wrong.

      1. leavergirl says:

        The radical Pennsylvania (drafted and passed in the Revolutionary days) constitution only specified one chamber. Look, the House of Lords did nothing to improve the bad legislation you mention. Waste of good money, second chambers, IMO. Look also at US states that only have one chamber, and whether that has improved or hindered things. I believe Nebraska is one of them. There are probably others.

        1. John S Warren says:

          In the context in which he worked, and given our own preoccupations with what is important in the 21st century, I still think Madison did a brilliant job drafting the American Constitution; perhaps especially in comparison with the British Constitution. But this is ‘neither here nor there’.

          More relevent, here and now; what I wished to do with this article above all is develop a discussion; and given the response so far, I have failed. Perhaps you would develop your ideas on how we may effectively review, interrogate and improve legislation proposed by the primary legislative Chamber, without a Second Chamber? I should emphasise that I have no axes to grind about a Second Chamber; that is not the point I am trying to make, it is merely a method of delivering results. We need to start thinking imaginately in Scotland: so lets do it here and now. So please develop your ideas a little, I need more meat on the bare bones you are providing. How do we do this?

          1. leavergirl says:

            Ok, I hear you. More to come.

          2. leavergirl says:

            Well, here are my thoughts. Bella will not work as an environment for a good discussion of these issues. Here, things quickly fall off the radar. I think it would need its own forum somewhere, perhaps on googlegroups or yahoogroups, or some other venue. Would Common Ground host it?

            Then, I think the discussion ought to be about whether there is need currently perceived for a second chamber in Scotland. Why? Do people perceive it as something that ought to be high on the list of priorities? Would leaving a unicameral legislature in place be simpler, with everything else going on?

            Your argument is that it encourages the powers that to be out there, in the open, discussing things. Would that really work, or do you simply create a combative, uncooperative atmosphere where everything turns into a one upmanship game between the two chambers? Would the powers that be actually use it for democracy’s sake, or would they see it as another element of subversion within the democracy game? Should there be a chamber for every powerful group in society, like one for bankers and financiers, one for the military? Seems counterintuitive somehow. Or were you suggesting a chamber for the intellectuals, whose expertise both in the technical sense and thinking-stuff-through sense could be tapped? That’s another divide in society.

            Since so many countries and states are unicameral, it probably isn’t necessary, and may only be seen as a need in deeply riven country. Here is what the encyclopedia says:

            “The principal advantage of a unicameral system is more efficient lawmaking, as the legislative process is much simpler and there is no possibility of legislative deadlock. Proponents of unicameralism have also argued that it reduces costs, as even if the number of legislators is the same as it would be in a multicameral system, there are fewer institutions to maintain and support.

            The main weakness of a unicameral system can be seen as the lack of restraint on the majority, particularly noticeable in parliamentary systems where the leaders of the parliamentary majority also dominate the executive. There is also the risk, depending on how seats are allocated in the legislature, that important sectors of society may not be adequately represented.

            Approximately half of the world’s sovereign states are presently unicameral.”

            It may be simpler and easier to look how to assure a robust exploration of issues within the unicameral system, drawing on the experience of places like Denmark and New Zealand, Nebraska, and perhaps inventing something new to throw into unicameralism.

          3. John S Warren says:

            Thank you. Let me begin with the debate itself. “Common Ground”? I am not sure whether that would have the appropriate readership; it is principally “a catalyst for change in people’s attitude to nature and the land”, if I have the right website. It is now base in Dorset (so in or close to Oliver Letwin’s constituency). Projects and interests seem to include Wild Swimming, Fields, Parish Maps and the Green Man? I am not sure where this is going, but perhaps I simply lost the plot somewhere.

            Bella Caledonia provides the opportunity for a writer to develop an idea at greater length than a typical newspaper or magazine (or even what we find in the typical website). Perhaps I simply over-egged the pudding with this issue. I take your point, but given the overwhelming presence of the mainstream media we must do what we can with the tools at hand; we certainly need to develop more ways to stimulate political participation. I take your point in this since; anything that is to be achieved will be led “from the bottom up”. It is active participation of ordinary people that produces change, not the activities of politicians, who are by nature followers rather than leaders (the idea that politicians lead is largely an illusion; there are exceptions but they are very rare).

            On the Second Chamber, I was principally writing about Britain and not Scotland. I believe that “ex-officio” membership of the Second Chamber (replacing the House of Lords) could be viable. I do believe expert input can be valuable (but should not be the last word). I do believe the Finance Sector should be represented BECAUSE it is powerful, but I do not think widespread private (effectively secret and unreported) lobbying of Parliament or Ministers (or even MPs) should be so casually allowed – as is routine under the present rules. I do not believe that “commercial sensitivity” should be an adequate excuse to exclude the public either. This does not mean that representative institutions of ordinary people should not be represented.

            I also believe that transparency is almost as critical as democracy itself; because more often than not the undemocratic becomes the norm only because there is insufficient transparency.; without transparency I doubt if there can be genuine democracy.

            In Scotland I am not sure about a Second Chamber, but I think the case for and against is still to be adequately debated. It is conventional wisdom that second chambers are not required in smaller states. You referred to New Zealand and Denmark. As I understand it New Zealand was bicameral and changed to a unicameral parliament in 1950 because the Upper House was solely royally-appointed hitherto, and was understandably considered to be no longer relevant. Denmark eliminated its second chamber in 1953 (may these dates be in part be a function of a general post-war cultural reaction against the ossification of politics maintained by past institutions, and discredited by the war – I suspect a Second Chamber would be considered an obvious anachronism, representing a past over-ripe to be discarded). In Denmark Louis Massicote in Baldwin and Shell (eds.), ‘Second Chambers’ (2006: p.160) suggests that the subsequent absence of government majorities in the First Chamber, and stronger parliamentary committees have acted as a “counterweight” to the absence of a reviewing Second Chamber. Clearly that dependable absence of Government majorities cannot be relied on in Holyrood.

            Well, now we have the beginning of a debate; what we need is some more participants!

          4. Phil says:

            Thank you Mr Warren.

            But: “Clearly that dependable absence of Government majorities cannot be relied on in Holyrood.” As the Holyrood seats occupied by the opposition only know how to pronounce one six letter word – SNPbad – what we also cannot depend upon is any section at all of the media to exercise the rigour, analysis and honesty that we once knew as journalism.

            Do we have to build Independent Scotland knowing that Global Capital and their ownership of the media will perennially oppose the very existence of our new nation?

          5. John S Warren says:

            I think the Scottish people have learned a great deal about how the world, and politics actually works in Britain over the last three years; scales have fallen from many eyes, and I do not say that as a criticism of those who were surprised, disappointed or shocked by the experience: the strength of feeling in Scotland in the Referedum and the following General Election has surprised and unsettled the British media, the Wesminster Cartel and the wider neo-liberal UK clique, into revealing more than they would wish about their underlying nature.

            You can be sure that nothing will change; from a Unionist perspective the Scotland Bill is not designed to enhance the governance of Scotland so much as compromise the SNP – it is party political more than it is ‘constitutional’. Expect the volume of negative media stories to be turned up rather than down over the next six months, for it is a function of the current stock method and basic purpose, and of Unionist weakness as much as strength.

            The source and extent of change will ultimately depend on the effort, resilience and determination to prevail, of ordinary people in Scotland; and on nobody else. The politicians will tend to follow the lead they are given; it is the skill of government to make this look as if they are leading.

          6. leavergirl says:

            My mind snipped. I meant Common Weal. Apologies. About platforms: blogs also lose focus with each new post. You would need a dedicated forum where contributions stay timely.

            I did not realize that you meant Westminster. In that case, my input would focus on whether anything can move that leviathan, and whether talking about it would be a waste-of-time-and-effort kind of exercise. Changing an institution that wedded to the status quo is virtually impossible in peaceful times. Do you figure there is significant support within Britain to do away with Lords?

            A small point: the Greens don’t wish to bleat ‘SNPbaad’. But then, strictly speaking, they are not “the opposition.” I am in favor of institutions shaped in such a way that partisanship and vainglorious bloviating is set aside and yes, nation building comes to the fore. Part of that has to do with the character of people who comprise the institution, but institutional design plays an important role.

          7. John S Warren says:

            Yes, I do think the Leviathan can be reformed; and yes, I think there is significant support for reform. No Unionist-UK party represents very significant parts of the UK population to any extent at all any more; hence the loss of credibility of Westminster, the falling election turnouts, and the fragmentation of party support; none of which can realistically be turned round soon, or probably at all. The larger parties represent a shrinking segment of the UK population and have a much looser call on their supporters than the binding commitments of the past. The parties are in decline and do not know what to do.

            There are however, powerful political forces (the Westminster Cartel as a Cartel) whose interests are served by the status quo. This is a reminder that political parties do not necessarily serve the interests or wishes of the electorate; it is also an illusion that political parties in government serve ‘all the people’; it is an illusion they strive to cultivate, but invariably they serve the often narrow (usually vested) interests they represent. They extend their concern more widely only so far as they require to move to survive in power; and will renege on anything they have to do for people they do not represent at the drop of a hat (as soon as/if they can get away with it).

  6. Phil says:

    The value of discussions like this – whether on Bella, or Wings, or Ginger Dug, or Derek, or wherever – is that contributions are just that and contribute to a clearer and clearer story of what Independent Scotland might be built from.

    A uni- or bi- Cameral legislature will be important, but so also will be the layout of Local Authority provision, so also building economic efficiency upon the transport system Independent Scotland inherits. Bella is as good a place as any to debate the principles and development details of any facet of the Scotland its citizens want to live in. All arenas for discussion will be needed. Thinking that a single host can be brought to fully contain a mini on-line constitutional convention is wishful.

    Now, @leavergirl predicts; a “combative, uncooperative atmosphere” -this needn’t be produced by a bicameral legislature, probably that atmosphere would pre-exist as a means for groups to attempt domination.

    Do we aspire to “a chamber for every powerful group in society”? I do not think this is the proposition. This mode of selection might well form some part of the membership of a second chamber.

    “Simpler” is oft mentioned, but is simpler always better?

    The advantage of Mr Warren raising this legislative architecture, and leavergirl’s response is that the thinking focus moves toward positive nation building and off from gloating over problems in the other party’s public personae.

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