Are we grown-up enough yet for the smack of weak government?

Look around the globe and find second chambers with a quarter tribal elders or one-third voodoo magicians
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WELL, SINCE no one else is waiting for the bloody Royal Commission before putting their oar in about a reformed second chamber, neither will I. Hague's lot will soon be bruiting abroad their proposals for a replacement to the House of Lords (can you bear the suspense?), and - more importantly - an advance leak of the Government's own initial, tentative, just-thought-we'd-run-these-past-you thoughts appeared in several newspapers (including this one) on Tuesday. At this rate the Natural Law Party will have published its own call for a permanently elevated, yogic chamber, before the commission's head has so much as been nominated.

Let's stick, for the moment, with Labour. What Tony Blair and Lord Irvine seem to be mulling over is a chamber made of life peers, a sprinkling of MSPs (members of the Scottish Parliament), MWAs (members of the Welsh Assembly), MEPs and other mmm-ing acronyms from Scotland, Wales and the European Parliament and a job lot of councillors selected to represent English regions, all supplemented by one-third of members directly elected in a manner yet to be advised. I presume the Law Lords will stick around, unless the Lord Chancellor has plans for a British supreme court, but I'm unclear about the bishops. There is also a suggestion that life peer "overcrowding" might be dealt with by bringing in an age restriction of 70 or 75. Since we are talking about the House of Lords I should perhaps clarify that this would be the upper, not the lower, limit.

Let me tell you why this particular Tone and Derry show is not so funny. I have sat on this kind of body before, and there ain't a lot to be said for it. Sixteen years ago I was the "youth" representative on something called the "BBC continuing education council". For all I know this august body meets still, but may no longer be composed of a bishop, a rabbi, a couple of headteachers, a guilded townswoman, a man with a beard from the Open University, an Indian lady from the commission of racial equality, a chain-smoker representing the Scottish TUC, a camper with the Boys' Brigade and a retired pharmacist from Chelmsford Rotarians, all chaired by the distinguished head of a former North Country polytechnic.

Now and again copious papers, headed with a BBC crest, would fall through the letterbox, containing the minutes of the last meeting and the agenda for the next one. Our sessions, in the Art Deco council chamber at Broadcasting House, were attended by the looming presence of Lord Reith (in portrait), an imposing BBC matron straight out of Richmal Crompton and an inexhaustible supply of coffee and biscuits. There we discussed educational programmes and made suggestions. These were treated in lapidary fashion, noted down and carted off. We felt flattered.

It was all very serious, and part of the constitution of the BBC; I daresay the debates we had were very informed and set at a suitable distance from the immediate concerns of programme-makers - who would doubtless have benefited enormously from our wisdom had they been heeding it. Alas, they were not. While we were chatting they had shows to make and a corporation to run. We merely existed to turn days into agendas and agendas into minutes.

Why should anyone have heeded us? We had no power. But we were an important part of a fiction that the public was somehow involved in the BBC. Now Labour wants to institute a similar fiction - that the executive is under scrutiny - by setting up a sort of government advisory committee.

It will probably cite some second chamber somewhere else in the world, similarly bizarrely constituted and rated a great success. And indeed, look around the globe and you will find just about every permutation you can think of: chambers with one half shamans; a quarter tribal elders; one-third practising voodoo magicians. We will be advised to take heed from the Canadian experience, and heart from the Taiwanese Upper Diet; to consider the Vanuatu Chamber of Volcanoes.

I say let's do none of these things. I am tired of endless nonsense about New Zealand. They change their minds there every five minutes, anyway. Instead let us consider two simple questions. What should a second chamber do in Britain, and how should it be selected? I believe that the answer to the first is that it must act as a restraint on the executive, as a check on and a balance to the elective dictatorship of the majority in the whipped House of Commons. The second chamber should be the place where the government is invited to reconsider, and where its appointments and actions should be most heavily scrutinised. Furthermore, to fulfil these functions legitimately in the eyes of the government and the people, the second chamber must be - preponderantly - directly elected.

There are two problems here. The first, smaller, one is that such a chamber may lose what has been called the "deliberative" element. This quality was defined by Walter Bagehot as best belonging to "an assembly in which the mass of members have nothing to lose, where most have nothing to gain... where no one has a constituency, where hardly anyone cares for the minister of the day, [which] is the very assembly in which to look for... independent criticism". Sounds like nice work if you can get it.

The second problem is more fundamental. Power is one of those remarkable things - a completely finite substance. There is only a certain amount of it about; so for one person to have more of it, another must have less. If a second chamber is to have an enhanced ability to scrutinise and block, it follows that the Commons (or rather, the Government acting through the Commons) will suffer additional limitations to its power.

My own answer to the first problem is to set up a chamber, of which 85 per cent or so of the members will be directly elected by PR from regional lists (including the nations of Scotland and Wales), and a further 15 per cent nominated by civic bodies (the BMA, BBC, political parties, charities, the CBI, religious groups, the Royal Academy, national newspapers, sports associations, unions, shamans etc) as ex officio members, participating in committees, but not voting.

As to the second, we should be clear. If the upper chamber is not any kind of threat to the supremacy of the Commons, then it isn't worth having. And if it isn't elected, it will not be able to challenge the lower chamber. For those who extol "strong government" above all else, this may well be preferable, in which case they should stop pretending that they want a second chamber at all. We would do better to save the money expended on a toothless consultative committee and, instead, blow it all on focus groups and royal commissions.

For myself, I do not believe (as Tories and Labourites appear to) that their administrations have monopolies on truth and wisdom. We Britons are grown-up enough, I think, to cope with the smack of weak government.