It sounded like a good idea, if not exactly the great one which Nick Clegg claimed when, in his first major statement as Deputy Prime Minister, he unveiled a programme of change last week which he rather hubristically claimed bore comparison with the Great Reform Act of 1832.
There are to be new constituency boundaries, more equal in size, with fewer MPs. Good. There will be fixed term parliaments so political parties can't tinker with timing to their individual advantage. Good, good. There is to be a referendum on a proportional voting system for the House of Commons. Good, good, good; all voting systems build in unfairnesses of some kind, so let the people decide. And the House of Lords is to be replaced with a second chamber elected by proportional voting. Woaaahh! Hang on there a minute.
Of course an unelected second chamber is a blatant anachronism in a 21st century democracy. But it is worth pausing before Lords aleaping to Mr Clegg's back-of-the-envelope conclusion. The political theory may seem self-evident, but the Lib Dem new boys should begin by looking at what the House of Lords has been and done in recent decades rather than proceeding from abstract philosophical principle.
The vast bulk of hereditary peers were ousted from the Lords in 1999. Between then and the end of 2006 the second chamber stopped the juggernaut of the Blair and Brown governments, with their massive Commons majorities and their ruthless whipping machinery, no fewer than 350 times. Some of this was procedural, ensuring that the elected chamber – or rather the executive which controlled it – had to stop to think about what it was proposing. But some of it was substantial. The Lords stood up in defence of jury trials and threw out plans to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days.
Throughout both the Blair and Thatcher eras the House of Lords provided the detailed check on the executive that a neutered Commons failed to be. Again and again, it saved the nation from bad or ill-prepared legislation. "We are there to stop too much tripe getting on to the statute book," as one longstanding peer put it. The House of Lords was the only brake on the excesses of Thatcher and Blair for three decades. It has been far more than a revising chamber; it is a countervailing force.
Would it be so under a wholly elected second chamber? There are good reasons for thinking it would not. The independence of the Lords is rooted in the nature of its membership. The modern peerage is made up of a huge range ofexpertise: scientists and surgeons, lawyers and landowners, businessmen and bishops, novelists and nurses, spies and former diplomats. Their title is a recognition of excellence or eminence in their field. This brings great skills and proficiency to policy issues, parliamentary committees of inquiry and the revision of laws. It offers considerable real life experience to counter the myopia of professional politicians.
But it also brings free-thinking and independence of mind which do not characterise the whipped party political process. Because of their age, in most peers ambition has been replaced by wisdom, which is why many of them are content to speak and vote only when their particular expertise is required. Their lifelong tenure ensures their independence. They are beholden to no party or lobby but conscience and commonsense. Not all fit such a description – some are there only because they have funded a political party or played tennis with a prime minister – but the description holds good of enough of them. Our House of Lords is sui generis. It ought not to work, but it does.
What would an elected second chamber be like? It is no use saying that existing Lords' members could stand for election; most wouldn't. They are past the time in life where they need to been endorsed or seen to achieve. They would retire to their books, telescopes and gardens. Their replacements would be career politicians, probably second-rank ones at that – young politicos en route to the Commons, superannuated local council cronies, and representatives of each party's grateful dead. It would be a place of seedy deals and the low politics of party whips. That is a notion attractive only to party managers who would breathe a sigh of relief at an upper house that would not rock the leadership's boat. The chamber which is supposed to be the final check on executive power would now be firmly within its control.
And what of the electoral cycle? Mr Clegg is said to favour a Senate in which members sit for 15 years. A third would be elected every five years. Presuming those elections would be mid-way through the newly-fixed five-year Commons cycle, that would subject Westminster to periods of barely two years between elections, a paralysing process. But even if they coincided they would alter the political dynamic. At present the 1911 Parliament Act limits the blocking powers of the upper house on the ground that an unelected house should not prevail over an elected one. But if both houses were elected there would be no logic in opposing the repeal of the Act since both houses could claim equal legitimacy. That opens the way to the deadlock of the United States bicameral system.
Those who seek to reform the House of Lords need to face up to its role in how politics actually works rather than appealing to the shallow idealism of sixth-form political theorising. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on this. Wiser heads have already spent far longer considering the options than the 10 minutes the Lib Dem-Con coalition negotiators spent discussing House of Lords reform. There was a Royal Commission on the subject in 1999. And in 2005 a cross-party group of senior MPs (including Kenneth Clarke, Paul Tyler, Tony Wright, Sir George Young and the late Robin Cook) published a report. Both suggested retaining a significant percentage of appointed peers within a mixed system.
When Tony Blair began his reform of the House of Lords in 1999 he did not have a thought-through replacement. Ironically the outcome has not been that bad. Nick Clegg should not make the same mistake but nor should he rush into replacing nurse with something worse.
At present he has the folly of haste written all over him. David Cameron said before the election that reform of the upper house was "a third-term issue" but Mr Clegg wants a review of different options for Lords reform done within six months and a law passed within three years.
He may legislate in haste. But it will be the nation which repents at leisure. The House of Lords may be an affront to political theory but then the bumble bee, according to the basic principles of aerodynamics, should not be able to fly. But it does.