After 350 years, we should sort out the Lords - again

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THREE HUNDRED and fifty years ago this week, on 30 January 1649, Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. There was little jubilation among those present, rather a feeling that such unpleasantness could have been avoided if the King had been less intransigent when confronted with a genuinely reformist parliament. Six weeks later the House of Lords was abolished by a majority vote in the Commons.

Rather than resolving the problem of who ran the country, the events of 1649 sparked a furious debate at all levels as to how the new constitution should operate. From the Diggers, who took Cromwell's idea of a "commonwealth" at face value, to the Lords themselves, who argued that executing the King had somehow gone against the natural God-given order of things, the English struggled for eight years with the hitherto uncharted practicalities of how to run a society along democratic lines. Various compromises between the old and the new were tried but, once Cromwell had died, a vacuum of power appeared and in 1660 the monarchy returned with the House of Lords in tow.

Abolition, done in haste, proved to be a mistake. Charles II celebrated his restoration in the same Banqueting Hall from which his father had emerged to be executed, but the age of absolutism was over. The upheavals of the 1640s had put England firmly on the road to government by parliament.

This month, in London, a group of land reformers gathered under the banner "Diggers 350" to discuss and celebrate the events of 1649, particularly the cultivation of waste land by the Digger community on St George's Hill in Weybridge. One of the radical aspirations of the English Revolution was the removal of the "Norman yoke", based upon the notion that, before 1066, the Anglo-Saxons had lived as free citizens, governing themselves. The Norman Conquest deprived them of this liberty and established the alien tyranny of feudalism.

This belief is not borne out by history. Just as the British invented baseball whereas the Americans were clever enough to codify it, so a loose feudalism had been practised in England before the Normans came in and enshrined the system in law. Before the Conquest the country was administered by ealdormen, each of whom was in charge of a shire. After the Battle of Hastings these local lords were replaced by the friends of William I.

However, the notion that Anglo-Saxon Institutions had been essentially democratic persisted. To the Diggers, the survival of Norman French in the legislative language of England gave an edge to their demands; with the presence in the House of Lords of the remnants of King William's feudal aristocracy, ranting against the "Norman Yoke" had contemporary resonance.

Even the barons themselves were not above evoking a pre-Norman utopia. At Runnymeade in 1215, they called on King John to re-establish the rights of free men as they had been in the time of Edward the Confessor. By pointing to this tradition, the radicals of the 1640s were able to shake off the accusation that they were dangerous innovators and insist that they merely desired to restore ancient rights.

Thus, all the way back to the Magna Carta, there is a continuity of dissent and reform in this country that continues to frame the aspirations of modern campaigners. Charter 88 takes its name in part from the Chartist movement of the mid 19th century and this year the Common Sense Club will be mounting a campaign to have a statue of Tom Paine erected in London.

While their Lordships encourage deference to custom and practice, it is this rival tradition of initiation that has brought progressive change to our society.

Personally, I am opposed to the idea of a house of nominees and trust that the Royal Commission will equip whoever replaces the hereditaries with a democratic mandate. However, I feel the time has come to do away with the notion of an "Upper House" and all the patriarchal baggage that goes along with it. Once we remove the titled from their benches, "House of Lords" loses all its meaning. Let's not replace them with a "House of Peers". Why are we so psychologically attached to the notion of an "upper" house, an august body separated from the people by appearing to be "above" the House of Commons?

For more than a century now, sovereign power has rested solely with the Commons, and the idea of a senior chamber brings with it stale images of superannuated politicians snoozing their way through debates. I am not, however, suggesting that we should abandon the bi-cameral system of government, merely that reform can be achieved without having to create a democratic replica of the present arrangements.

Would it not be possible to set the Law Lords up in a supreme court, send the bishops home to their parishes and give the important job of revising government legislation to the proposed regional assemblies in England and the national parliaments in Scotland and Wales? By giving each region its own senate, with a clearly defined role of revising parliamentary legislation, we could avoid the rivalry that is bound to arise if two democratically elected national assemblies meet simultaneously in the capital.

The fifty senators sitting in each region would be linked by information technology for their daily deliberations, constituting a debating "chamber" of around 400 members (considerably fewer than the present House of Lords). Such a plan would decentralise the legislative process and offer the benefits of devolution to the English shires. With elections by proportional representation in the middle of parliamentary terms, this could invigorate local political debate. It would give the marginalised regions a voice alongside the metropolitan elite who currently make up so much of our political class. Some of our enlightened noblemen might even care to put themselves before the electorate.

It would be a fine irony if the powers of the House of Lords, whose members refused to defend the democratic rights of local government in the 1980s, should be superseded by elected local officials, men and women who would be the 21st-century equivalent of the ealdormen, those local representatives of our Anglo-Saxon kings.