Monday, 23 April 2012

A pointless referendum

Should there be a referendum on reforming the House of Lords?  The argument that there should be is easy to make: the topic may be one to which most people in this country are yawningly indifferent (unlike, say, our continued membership of the EU, which merely makes some people bored rigid, which is different), but it is constitutionally quite important. 

The British people as a whole (as opposed to the Scots, the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland) have never in history had an opportunity to vote on the manner in which they are governed and how legislation is passed.  Parliament long preceded the advent of democracy.  Extensions of the franchise, and changes to the powers and composition of the House of Lords, have always been made by Parliament itself with scant reference to the people.  The only partial exception was last year's sad little referendum on the voting system, which evinced enthusiasm only among Westminster chatterers and in a few weird, out-of-the-way places like Cambridge.  So you could say that a referendum this time is long overdue.

Daniel Hannan worries that without a referendum the House of Lords reform will be a cross-party stitch-up.  The proposals currently on the table certainly look rather like that.  Neither the Coalition nor the Parliamentary committee that has been looking at the issue have even plucked up the courage to get rid of the bishops, for example, despite the obvious absurdity of having a small group of religious leaders made ex-officio legislators -- an anomaly that will look all the more absurd in a predominantly elected chamber. 

But would a referendum make that much difference anyway?  There's a chance that it could be lost.  Hannan writes that "the best incentive for supporters of change to come up with an improvement on the status quo is the knowledge that they will have to convince the country."  It does not seem obvious to me, however, that the government's proposals are intended to change the status quo, so much as to preserve it.  The new house will be smaller, and have a large elected element, thus making it more "legitimate".  But the party nominees will no doubt be the same type of political also-rans who can't get elected to the House of Commons (Baroness Warsi, for some reason, springs to mind) while Crossbenchers will continue to be appointed on much the same basis as before. 

This is, surely, deliberate.  It is a means of preserving the substance of the present house while changing its appearance, above all so as to preserve the pre-eminence of the House of Commons.  An elected Upper House, whatever it's called (my own preference is for "Upper House") risks unbalancing the present constitutional arrangements by being more "legitimate", and thus more difficult for the House of Commons to ignore.  Its perceived legitimacy, and hence power, would only be increased if, unlike the House of Commons, it could claim to have been voted into being by the people.

Of course Hannan is right that these proposals represent little more than an Establishment stitch-up.  But they would be no less of an Establishment stitch-up if presented to the people, merely one that is more difficult to unstitch.  Take the continued presence of the bishops, reduced in number but, ironically, increased as a proportion of the whole.  (And since the bishops never attend the Lords en bloc anyway, the reduction in their numbers will essentially mean that those who remain will have to neglect their diocesan duties so as maintain a visible episcopal presence in the chamber.)  Perhaps one day a government will finally conclude that the absurdity of the arrangement outweighs any benefit the bishops bring to debates; or perhaps the Church of England will finally be disestablished.  If the reformed house is merely a creature of statute, getting rid of the remaining bishops would present few difficulties: just pass a bill. 

But if the new arrangements have been voted in by the people, a good argument might be made that any changes equally would need a referendum.  Indeed it would be constitutionally, or at least democratically, improper for a decision of the people as a whole to be undone by a simple Act of Parliament.  So either an expensive referendum will have to be carried out regarding the status of twelve bishops, a question compared to which AV looks as popularly engaging as the final of Britain's Got Talent, or the bishops get to stay because it would just be too much trouble to ease them out.