Leading Article: Wanted: a clear vision for the new constitution

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The Independent Culture
AS IN a proletarian version of the Glorious Twelfth, the Government is planning to cull hundreds of hereditary peers, beating them out of the parliamentary process and shooting down their rights to vote on legislation. This may be ending centuries of tradition, but the move is long overdue. It effectively addresses unfinished business from the beginning of the 20th century, when Lloyd George and Asquith began to clip the wings of this anachronistic body. Operation of the hereditary principle in the process of governance is nowadays rare, associated only with remote aboriginal societies. That it has taken until the dawn of the 21st century to eradicate it from our system of government is something future historians will no doubt puzzle over.

In any case, with its reforms of the Lords the Government has, as with Scottish devolution, responded to the clear opinion of the voters. Failure to do so would have risked losing the opportunity for another generation, something that our strained body politic probably could not have coped with.

But this haste has exposed a deep flaw in the Government's approach to the vital issue of constitutional reform. It is the problem of piecemeal steps taken without a clear idea of where it will all end. Dealing with one part of the machinery at a time risks grinding against the other cogs. Worse, it runs the risk of having to rework the reforms, so that the whole process becomes an iterative one.

The House of Commons, for example, is there to provide a government, and, in an imperfect way, to reflect the strands of public opinion. Altering the voting system may make it more "representative" and less susceptible to the dangers of one-party elected dictatorship. If so, then the need for the upper house to act as a check is diminished, as is the case for it to be elected by proportional representation. If elected by PR, it could end up with a "superior mandate" to the Commons. But will the voting system be changed before, after or at the same time as the Lords is reformed? The new upper house could easily be transformed into a chamber that reflects "federal" interests. But how will it represent England and its regions?

The Government is expected to set up a Royal Commission to look into the future of the upper house, and will take into account existing devolution. This is welcome, but its terms are too limited and, moreover, it is no substitute for proper political leadership. What is lacking is a clear idea of where the Government believes we should be heading with our constitution. Is the United Kingdom now destined to become a federal kingdom? What will be the role of the new English regions as they grow up? What will their relationship be with local government? Do we want to belong to a politically unified Europe? Does the rejection of the hereditary principle not raise similar questions about the survival of the monarchy?

If, during its long years in opposition, Labour had taken the constitutional agenda a little more seriously a little sooner, we should now be in a position where we could discuss the merits of the Government's vision of a new constitutional settlement. Instead we are left with debating an "interim arrangement" for the Lords. The immediate problem is that the Government may succumb to cronyism and push for an upper house with a large degree of patronage. This would damage the credibility of the whole reform programme. The Government would do well to resist the temptation of turning the present anachronistic House of Lords, indefensible though it may be, into Mr Blair's poodle. Instead, it should present the nation with a clear vision of how it believes we can modernise our political system.

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