19 Sep 2014

The unmentionable House of Lords: key to a federal Britain?

So David Cameron is bounced into a federal Britain by Scottish events. Amid the panic of “saving the union”, constitutional reform proposals have been flooding out of the front door of No. 10 without, it seems, much consultation with anyone.

Back-of-the-envelope policies from a prime minister of a political party still brandishing the word unionist in its name may not instill the greatest confidence that much will change.

But Mr Cameron has sought to assure us today that he is serious.

We cannot forget, however, that the scale of promised reform was only offered to Scotland after voting had actually started. Panic does not necessarily make for robust reform, but it may have to provide the basis for moving on.


In his remarks today Mr Cameron never mentioned the parlous condition of the House of Lords, now bursting at the seams with its membership heading towards 1,000. The Lords can initiate a little and block a lot, but only for a year.

It is unelected, and increasingly there is the strong whiff of money buying some appointments, and reward being given to time servers. Dozens of newer appointments have been involved in funding the political parties, leading to strong suspicions of “cash for honours”.

The time for Lords reform is well overdue.

Members of the House of Lords wait for B

Should Mr Cameron succeed in his plan, then the Lords could easily become the seat of the federal British parliament. The overcrowded Commons will lose at least 100 MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in becoming the English parliament.

Hence, in one fell swoop, the Lords would be reformed and the Commons reduced in size. But Mr Cameron seems not to want to mention this option.

The Lords is currently a place of patronage, where party leaders can reward MPs for giving up their Commons seats, and cabinet ministers are sent to enjoy a not unlucrative retirement.

The reason given for not electing the Lords was a desire not to conflict with the already elected Commons. That problem disappears once the upper chamber deals solely with federal issues of fiscal policy, foreign affairs, and defence.

In the 21st century it has surely become clear that all our legislators need to be elected.

But nothing will sustain in any of the reforms unless the UK finally writes them all down. A written constitution remains essential.

Follow @jonsnowc4 on Twitter.

Tweets by @jonsnowC4