David Lloyd George questioned in 1909 why ‘’500 men…chosen accidentally from among the unemployed” should “overrride… the deliberate judgement of millions of people”. The House of Lords, established in the 11th century, has drawn criticism as an unelected chamber of Parliament; a line of criticism resulting in eventual, hesitant reform. The Life Peerages Act of 1958, and the replacement of the Law Lords with the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in 2009 were both attempts to redress the ‘birth-right politics’ that have historically characterised the second chamber. In spite of these reforms, the chamber remains the exception to the democratic principle underpinning our national sovereignty.
In a report carried out last year by the SNP’s Tommy Sheppard, not one of the 87 Scottish peers is in favour, or even sympathetic towards Scottish independence. This jars spectacularly against the 45% of Scots who voted for independence in the 2014 referendum- a total of 1,617,989. Thus, the ‘homogeneity amongst Scotland’s peers is remarkable and bizarre’, a conclusion drawn by Sheppard. Peers do not sit for re-appointment like their Commons’ equivalents, and are elected by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. This disconnect between Scotland’s public and its Lords representatives pertains to a wider argument on political representation; in the absence of public election the chamber fails to capture the opinion of the constituents it serves. Ruth Davidson MP, the former Conservative Party Leader for Scotland, has met with controversy upon her recent peerage appointment, denounced as ‘the worst kind of cronyism that only highlights the rotten Westminster system that is detached from reality’ by SNP MP Pete Wishart.
Relations between Westminster and Holyrood already proving hostile, Scottish independence would most likely not result in a Scottish equivalent of the House of Lords. Ergo, should Scotland gain independence in a subsequent referendum, the House of Lords would cease as a bastion of power over Holyrood. In an era of new independence, the future of the individual members of the House of Lords is rather more uncertain than the fate of their Commons’ colleagues, for Lords’ members sit by virtue of their peerage and do not represent territorial parts of the UK. If Scotland were to secede, these peers of the United Kingdom would continue to have a right to sit in the United Kingdom Parliament- as long as they are deemed to be ‘resident, ordinarily resident and domiciled’ in the rest of the UK as per the Eighth report by the Constitution Committee (‘Scottish Independence: constitutional implications of the referendum’). By this logic, a Scot living in an independent Scotland could hold a life peerage in the House of Lords if they were willing to be taxed in both countries.
A YouGov poll from 2018 revealed that the overarching attitude towards the House of Lords is apathy. 35% of those surveyed hold no positive or negative opinion, whilst there is even split between positive and negative opinion with the remaining 65%. However, the amendments that the second chamber has passed during the (European) Withdrawal Bill are seen to be improper, with many people thinking it would be illegitimate for the Lords to amend laws proposed by the Commons regarding the Brexit process.
It would be naive to dismiss the hold the House of Lords has on Scotland and the rest of the UK as symbolic, as given its power to pass and veto what would be Acts of Parliament, it proffers genuine influence over areas such as healthcare and education. A more sinister point about the fallibility of our democratic system in the context of the second chamber would be the roots of its members; as a post-aristocratic strata of government, the House of Lords has a history of being undeniably right of centre. In the Labour government of 1974-49, 230 pieces of legislation were defeated by the chamber- as a party designed for the working-class, there was a severe lack of Labour members within the House. This is reflected today with the plight of Scottish independence; all Scottish Peers were against independence, with the majority being privately educated men over sixty. The notion of a privileged social demographic acting as a regulatory government body poses an assortment of contradictions. Size control- ensuring that no singular political party dominates and that the House is no longer vulnerable to ‘’packing’’ by the executive are all essential in revising the House, yet a wider debate necessitates asking what our second assembly chamber should be for.
Most liberal democracies have bicameral governmental systems; as of 2015, 40% of the world’s national legislatures are bicameral. Hypothetically, the House of Lords would appear to act as part of the UK’s sketchy and inadequate system of ‘checks and balances’. Yet, as enactment of primary legislation often requires a concurrent majority- i.e. a mutual agreement between the two chambers, the House of Lords would seem to hold an inordinate, quasi-illegitimate influence over Westminster decisions. Countries such as the US, Australia and Germany practise federal bicameralism, whilst we are one of the remaining proponents of aristocratic bicameralism- perhaps an inherent juxtaposition.
Whether the history of the House of Lords is causative or symptomatic of the disconnect between the public and the controversial second chamber is debatable, whether the chamber meets the criteria for liberal democracies with bicameral legislature is less so- frankly, it does not. Should the chamber in its entirety be abolished or reformed in relation to the UK as a whole is a separate debate to its effect on Holyrood; yet the contradiction of unelected ‘’officials’’ as players in the power dynamics of a democratic country is starting to crystallise as being illegitimate to the values of democracy. If we are truly aiming for a foil to the House of Commons, then a legitimate, democratically elected second chamber needs to be constructed.
Image: via WikiCommons