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Leading Article: Send the lords a-leaping and head for the Senate

Suppose just for a moment that, among all the other zesty things Tony Blair did within days of taking office, he had said: "No more knighthoods." Suppose he had dropped the whole rickety, deference-ridden Christmas tree of gongs and baubles. In the Young Country, nobody would be called officially Sir or Lady. All former Tory ministers and ex-permanent secretaries would be, well, former Tory ministers and ex-permanent secretaries.

Ludicrous, of course. He would have to consult the Queen, who would never have agreed. It was not in the manifesto. It would voluntarily surrender an important lever of patronage. But, above all, it would have "implications". The entire Establishment wing of voluntary activity would be up in arms. What about CBEs, OBEs, the imperial orders allegedly democratised by the previous government? What, above all, about titles in general? If no Sirs, what about Lords? And if no Dames and knightly-spouse Ladies, what about Lady peers? Which brings us to the weekend's announcement that legislation is being drawn up to reform the House of Lords.

It has often been argued, both by opponents of reform and by some of its supporters, such as this newspaper, that changing the House of Lords cannot be separated from other aspects of modernising our democracy. Opponents argue, in the way of true conservatives everywhere, and as Enver Hoxha did when he warned against the slightest deviation from the strict path of Stalinism in Albania, that it will all end "in a bucket of crabs".

Our argument has always been, on the contrary, that if one part of the undemocratic encrustations of our system is swept away, then the illogic of other parts will be exposed. Eventually, the dominos of deference will fall. But there are dangers in proceeding piecemeal, which seems to be how the Government is approaching the most ambitious programme of constitutional reform since 1832. We pointed out recently that it was not ideal to have Roy Jenkins discussing the finer points of proportional representation for the Commons in isolation from consideration of the future of the second chamber. But both the possibility of electoral reform and the certainty of House of Lords reform are part of a wider picture still, and will have implications for a range of issues, some of which have not even begun to be discussed.

Now is the time to broaden the terms of debate about where we might, as a nation increasingly assertive of its democratic rights, be headed. Because there will be "implications" for, among other things, the honours system and the monarchy.

The debate will not be led by Mr Blair, who has added the title "conservative radical" to the list of oxymorons by which he may be described ("liberal authoritarian" and "principled opportunist" are others). Apart from strengthening No 10 and the spin doctorate, and appointing a series of "task forces", he has left the structure and nomenclature of government surprisingly intact. To take a minor example of how this conservatism has cut across the attempted "rebranding" of Britain, it cannot have helped Geoffrey Robinson in his travails that he has been lumbered with the antique title of Paymaster General.

Nor does it help Mr Blair stake a larger claim to modernity for him to reduce Lords reform simply to the removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Upper House. It may be true that if you ask a focus group whether men (mainly) should have a role in drafting legislation because their father had a title, they would say No. Whereas, if you ask them what they think about the House of Lords, they would probably say it is a good thing, if they have an opinion at all.

The Government needs to say more about what a reformed second chamber would be like, and how it will, if not affect the price of milk, at least enhance democracy for all. That point was underlined by the official briefing that Mr Blair has set a deadline of 1999 for the hereditaries to go. The linking of democratic reform to what Stephen Jay Gould called the "precisely arbitrary countdown" to the new millennium throws into sharper relief the contrast between New Labour's conservatism and its radicalism.

We cannot go into the next century with a House of Lords which has simply been stripped of peers who owe their ermine to accident of birth, leaving an unreformed assortment of political appointees deposited like sediment by layers of patronage in the past, plus bishops and judges.

It needs to be said now that, if a mere number is to have any significance at all in secular Britain, that in the 21st century we should have a democracy in which sovereignty lies with the people, equal in respect. We should not have Lords, Ladies or Sirs. And we should have a Senate or Upper House which is largely elected.