If only I had been married to Princess Margaret

`This is a bold leap forward from the 17th century to the 18th century'

IN NEW Labour's New Britain we presume that the people who pass and amend the laws by which we live our lives have to meet certain criteria by which they justify their position. And it has to be said that, for most of us, the achievement of having once been married to Princess Margaret is not in itself quite enough. If every ex-spouse of the Royal Family were in the House of Lords, on recent form that wouldn't leave much room for anyone else.

The fact that Lord Snowdon (who failed to turn up to any debates in the last two full sessions of Parliament) will be part of the modernised House of Lords is symbolic. It is, of course, a great step forward that Labour is abolishing the hereditary principle. Lord Callaghan thinks this is a good idea, and so does the leader of the House of Lords, his daughter Baroness Jay. But of the 92 hereditary peers remaining in the Upper House, a majority are Tories. This has been seen as a price worth paying to get stage one of the legislation through Parliament. But leaks from Lord Wakeham's proposals for the future of the Lords suggest that only one-fifth of the new House of Lords will be directly elected, the rest being appointed by an "independent" commission. This is a bold leap forward, from the 17th century to the 18th century.

The House of Lords needs to be made more relevant. It has been suggested that one way to do this might be fill it with people with whom the British people feel some affinity. But somehow I can't quite picture the idea of Lord (Chris) Tarrant sitting in the Speaker's chair, asking frontbenchers who face a tricky question whether they'd like to phone a friend. Another suggestion has been that the chamber should be wholly elected.

This sounds fine in theory, but given the recent turnout in the European elections I can't imagine people on Britain's council estates being enthused as they listen to the distorted voice of the canvasser on their entry- phone urging them to go out and vote for Viscount Sir Rupert de Billiers Farquarson-Twistleton-Stewart of Roxborough and the Glen. Anyway, by the time the returning officer had read out all the names of the lords who were standing for election it would be time for the next general election.

We need a second chamber that does what it does now, namely revise and delay, and act as a check and balance against the increasingly docile and compliant House of Commons. But it cannot do that effectively if it is packed with appointees of the prime minister of the day, or with the descendants of the bastard offspring of the king of 400 years ago. The House of Lords must be democratic. Indeed, the fact that part of our legislature is not elected means that we are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, but for some reason there has been less outcry about this than about the loss of One Man and His Dog to satellite television.

At the last general election Labour got 43 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives got 30 per cent and the Liberals 17 per cent. This should be how the political composition of the House of Lords is made up. Each party should have an allocation to fill according to the size of its popular vote at the general election, with cross-benchers making up the arithmetic. How those parties chose to fill their red benches would be up to them. They could be elected by party members, or they could be appointed by the party leader. Yes, there would be patronage and favours, but not all from the one person or committee. Instead of the Lords having a permanent Tory majority, they would have a permanent anti-government majority, but one that would reflect the way that the British people voted as a whole.

There would still be a place for former MPs. Because, whisper it not, parliamentary experience is in fact quite useful for a house whose primary function is to amend and oversee the legislation coming through from the Commons. And, if they wanted, the Tories could still have the appropriately named Baroness Strange, who does such a marvellous job with the flowers. Say what you like about the democratically elected second chambers of other Western democracies, but none of them has a member who can arrange flowers like Baroness Strange. The scheme would make the house democratic without losing its most effective members.

I told this plan to a friend, who said he had read that Billy Bragg had been proposing the same idea. So the proportionally allocated second chamber now has the backing of a singer-songwriter from Essex and an occasional TV gag-writer. Sadly, that's not enough to get it talked about in the places that count. If only one of us had once been married to Princess Margaret. Then we'd have the right to propose it in Parliament.

The writer is the author of `Things Can Only Get Better'

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