Scotland, UK federation, and the House of Lords (with new update 6 August 2012)

We are currently confronted by the prospect of an Act of Parliament coming into force within a few weeks that will change the composition of the House of Lords, introducing a badly flawed electoral system for the majority of its members, and taking no account whatever of the constitutional implications for the UK parliament of the referendum on independence for Scotland due to take place in barely two years’ time.  The government’s Bill which proposes this major but inadequate change to one of the two bodies which make our laws is apparently to be hustled through with virtually no serious public consultation, no consideration of the role of the federal parliament’s second chamber in safeguarding the interests of the smaller of the four nations which make up the UK, and no provision to enable further changes to be made in the light of the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum without unravelling the entire “reform” now to be imposed on us.

Today’s Guardian (5 July 2012) publishes a letter from me pointing out the sheer folly of introducing a relatively radical reform of the House of Lords when the whole constitutional future of the UK will be affected one way or another by the still unpredictable result of the Scottish referendum. My letter, as published in the Guardian, is a much compressed version (compressed by me at the Guardian‘s request but still, I submit, well worth reading at!) of a rather longer letter that I submitted a few days ago, whose text was as follows:

You are right to argue that almost any reform of the House of Lords, even the government’s deeply flawed proposals (bishops? 15-year tenure? 450 members?), would be better than the status quo (Democracy versus the ditchers, Editorial, June 27). But the timing of the government’s Bill is patently absurd. It takes no account of the constitutional implications of the Scottish referendum on independence or devo max in 2014, whose result may well set the UK irrevocably on the path to a full federation of its four nations.  It doesn’t even recognise that we are already halfway down that path. Both a federation and a semi-federation such as we already have demand a quite different kind of second chamber from either the current House of Lords or a new version of it in which election of some of the membership is merely substituted for appointment, as envisaged by the government’s proposals. We already need a second chamber on the lines of the United States and Australian Senates, and that need will become even more obvious and pressing if Scotland votes in 2014 for full internal self-government within the UK, which seems from the polls to be the likeliest outcome. Alternatively, should Scotland secede from the United Kingdom, we shall be in a whole new constitutional ball-game, to which half-baked reforms to the House of Lords made now will be almost wholly irrelevant.

Instead of rushing into a major constitutional change without proper preparation or consultation, we should be spending the time between now and the Scottish referendum on proper research, including a study of the second chambers in comparable Western democracies, both federal and unitary; consulting with the leaders and parties of the three devolved nations and England about how their interests can best be protected and promoted in a new second chamber; only then publishing a new green or white paper setting out a series of options for public discussion; and holding a referendum to establish which of the options enjoys the greatest popular support. A first step might be a Royal Commission, a constitutional convention or a Speaker’s Conference to map out the various steps leading to a properly considered reform which takes account of the radical constitutional changes on which we embarked with devolution, deferring final decisions until we know the result of the Scottish referendum. The present mad rush, dictated purely by the internal politics of the coalition, is unseemly and likely to be self-defeating. By all means let us rid ourselves of the present indefensible all-appointed House of Lords, but let us make sure that we put in its place something which reflects the needs of a partially devolved Britain and which will not be made obsolete by  unpredictable events in Scotland in barely two years’ time.

Brian Barder

Britain has traditionally been governed not only as a unitary state but also under a grossly over-centralised system. Scottish resentment of an overwhelmingly English government and Parliament constantly meddling in Scotland’s internal affairs has led to the rise of a popular independence movement to which partial devolution was the imaginative and constructive response of Scottish leaders of all political colours and of the then Labour government at Westminster. Partial devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has become increasingly popular in those three nations, leading to widespread demand for the grant of further devolved powers. In the case of Scotland, this demand takes the form of ‘devo max’, or full internal self-government, as a constructive alternative to full independence, currently enjoying greater support than independence. Full internal self-government for Scotland, if chosen by the Scottish people in the autumn of 2014, will inevitably prompt demands for the same status in Wales and Northern Ireland, and (more controversially) for devolution and full internal self-government, with its own parliament and government, for England. The UK has already become a semi-federation since devolution; that process has been temporarily interrupted, leaving a host of anomalies crying out for resolution; its logical destination can only be full federation for the whole of the UK.  It is impossible at present to predict precisely what kind of federal system we shall want or need in advance of the Scottish referendum in 2014. If Scotland votes for full independence, the rest of the UK will need a different kind of constitution from the four-nation federation that will be appropriate if Scotland becomes fully self-governing within the UK. It follows that now cannot be the right time to introduce important changes to the way we appoint or elect members of the House of Lords.

A large part of the problem of securing a sensible, durable and democratic federal parliament for the UK arises from the widespread ignorance in Britain of basic federal principles, aggravated by an apparent inability to recognise that we are already more than halfway into a federal constitution. These misunderstandings are well illustrated by the winds of protest and condemnation whipped up by the suggestion in earlier posts here that a federal UK needs a federal second chamber (replacing the House of Lords) on the lines of the United States and Australian Federal Senates, with equal numbers of senators elected from each of the constituent units of the two federations. This is an essential safeguard for the smaller units (‘states’ in the US and Australia, ‘nations’ in the UK) against domination in the federal sphere by the much larger units, such as California, New York State, New South Wales, Victoria – and above all England.  The democratic principle of representation in rough proportion to population size is protected in the other federal legislative chamber (House of Representatives, House of Commons) where in the Australian and British systems real power resides, both formally and  because that is where governments are formed and held to account.  (Difficulty in grasping these basic principles of federalism is also reflected in well-meaning suggestions in the press and elsewhere for turning the [federal] House of Lords into an English [lower tier] Parliament, confusing the two levels which are at the heart of a federal system.)

It can’t be said too often that we already have a semi-federal system, and that a full federal system for the UK is almost inevitable – as well as highly desirable.  If our political leaders, parliamentarians, political commentators, editors, academics and other opinion-formers continue in ignorance of what federalism needs and demands, we shall continue to commit damaging blunders in seeking to reform or even just improve our constitutional system. Instead of ramming through an ill considered and deeply flawed reform of the House of Lords as proposed in the government Bill, we should spend the time between now and the Scottish referendum in a campaign of public education in federalism. A good start, as suggested in my original letter to the Guardian, might be the appointment of a Royal Commission or other formal body charged with making and publishing a detailed analysis of the second chambers in other democratic federal countries, and spelling out the lessons to be learned from them in the circumstances of the United Kingdom following whatever turns out to be the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in late 2014. Already we are running out of time for that badly needed exercise in public education.

Update (pm 6 August 2012):  Nick Clegg has announced this afternoon that the prime minister has decided to abandon the LibDems’ House of Lords Reform Bill, and that in retaliation (not Mr Clegg’s word, but that’s what it amounts to) the LibDems will vote against the Tories’ plan to reduce the size of the house of commons and have the constituency boundaries re-drawn to the advantage of the Conservative Party by a speeded-up process in time for the election scheduled for 2015.  This is very bad news for the Coalition, marking a fundamental humiliation of the junior partner by the Tory right-wing Neanderthal tendency, but very good news indeed for the country.  With luck it will allow time for a fundamental re-think about the place of the second chamber at Westminster in the context of devolution, the Scottish independence/devo max referendum in 2014, and the constitutional future of the UK as a whole.  And with a bit more luck it should spell the end of a shameless attempt by the Tories to gerrymander the House of Commons to their own advantage in time for the next election — something the LibDems were prepared to go along with, to their everlasting shame, in exchange for Tory support for their ideas about reform of the House of Lords (the kind of cynical horse-trading that makes the wheels of coalition government in a hung parliament go round).  So:  a good day for democracy, for once!

If Labour has its wits about it, now is the time for an offer of collaboration with the LibDems on a completely new approach to reform of the second chamber in the context of the whole constitutional future of the United Kingdom.  Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan have a golden opportunity to seize the initiative by offering a national constitutional convention to be set up immediately after the next general election to debate proposals for constitutional reform, including the replacement of the House of Lords by a wholly elected second chamber, to be drawn up jointly by the Labour and LibDem parties between now and the next election.

The full text of Nick Clegg’s statement on all this is at


9 Responses

  1. Richard Thomas says:

    Brian, I am liable to make further observation when I have read your Guardian letter and thought through what you have written although I am bound to say I can’t find anything to disagree with in your posting as  regards the potential for a federal Britain.
    One admittedly parochial point from north of the border comes to mind that might add further complications to the Scotland/UK relationship is the prospective referendum on Europe. It seems to me that the UK Government is storing up trouble with Edinburgh for itself by its dalliance with a placatory referendum on its relationship with the EU.  Scotland is relatively free of the foaming mouthed europhobes who are given free voice by elements of the London media; maybe this is because we do not have a large Tory faction anywhere in our body politic and there is a strong possibility that there will not be negative vote on Europe here.   If Scotland votes for independence in the autumn of 2014, presumably scots voters will participate in the UK referendum on Europe which I have read may be held with the 2015 General Election because until the legal and constitutional ties are severed the two countries will remain part of the UK.  The potential implications of this may warrant a very long posting but simply put might be said to cast doubt on the legitimacy of any vote.  If the scots vote no to independence but there is a marked divergence in the voting on Europe, then Alex Salmond gets a mighty weapon with which he can fight the UK government. 
    The whole thing looks typical of the London politicians acting with blind disregard for the Scots.  Plus ca change.

  2. BrianB says:

    @Richard Thomas:  Thank you for your interesting comment.  I agree that Europe has the potential for being the joker in the pack, given the evident differences in attitudes to Europe between Scotland and England (but not necessarily in the rest of the UK).  Personally I think any UK government would be mad to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU when the future of the Eurozone remains so uncertain, which it will be for several years.  But the pressure for such a referendum from the far right is intense and probably mounting.


  3. ObiterJ says:

    This is not the time to be messing around with this Bill. 
    (a) the UK is struggling to weather the economic firestorm.
    (b) a referendum on either independence or devo-max has already been agreed with the Scots and the outcome is uncertain
    (c) the UK’s relationship with the EU is changing but we do not what the eventual outcome will be.  It is entirely possible that different views on the relationship will be taken between London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.  Thus, the relationship with Europe may no longer be “one size fits all.”
    Against this uncertainty, Parliament should not be getting into a Lords reform on this scale.  Possibly some less draconian reforms might be possible – e.g. removal of Bishops and the remaining hereditary peers and not replacing either.  Also, I would wish to see removal of peerages for those convicted of serious criminal offences.  Reforms on this scale could be made quite readily were there a mind to do so.
    Even if the above issues did not exists, the reform bill contains numerous problems. For example, no member of any democratic legislature should have a 15 year tenure.  Further, the government can have 8 Ministers BUT, as I read the Bill, a Minister would become a Lords member for 15 years even if he or she ceased to be a Minister.  in this subtle way, the government could rapidly build up its cronies.
    I agree that the UK is – DE FACTO- a semi federation now.  There is an ostrich like mentality in the London political class to recognise this.
    A study of other federal systems would be useful but the information is readily available and ought not to really require a body as formal as a Royal Commission or similar.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. On your last point, I agree that there is ample information available about the second chambers of other western democratic federations’ second chambers, but it’s scattered and needs to be brought together in a document produced by a formal body to focus attention on it, to assert its relevance to the UK, and (most importantly) to draw conclusions from it about lessons to be learned in the context of the UK’s future constitution by studying the problems that have arisen in other countries (such as the deadlock between the two chambers of the federal Australian parliament in 1975) with an analysis of how such problems were dealt with and the extent to which similar problems could be averted in our own institutions. Such is the ignorance in Britain of federal principles and so great the reluctance to admit that we might benefit from studying the experience of other comparable countries that it will need to be done at a high level and commissioned by a formal, prestigious body, if it’s to have any impact on thinking.  

  4. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    Re your update of 6 August, it must be helpful to delay reform of the Lords until both the future of the Eurozone and devolution within the Uk are clearer, assuming that these issues are capable of being clarified within the near future. So, yes, perhaps the Tory right-wingers have on this occasion served the national interest! In any case the prospect of the majority of the members of the second chamber being elected on the basis of party lists was anathema to many – including myself.

    But surely your description of the proposals to redraw constituency boundaries for a smaller House of Commons as ” a shameless attempt by the Tories to gerrymander the House of Commons to their own advantage…” is a travesty of the actual position and , as is so often the case, merely a reflection of your own political stnce? It has been a fact that for the past few elections Labour has required a smaller share of the national vote to achieve a majority of seats in the Commons due to the unequal numbers of voters in rural and urban constituencies. It is the task of the electoral Commission periodically to review boundaries so as to achieve maximum possible electoral fairness. Surely you would not want any party to be able to benefit from a lack of electoral equality? However, given your obvious hope that there will soon be a new Lib- Lab pact, one cannot but wonder whether your glee at the Clegg retaliation is motivated by anything other than partisan gain. What about the national interest in electoral balance?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Jeremy. I naturally don’t accept that my condemnation of the Tories’ attempted gerrymander reflects nothing but my narrow party allegiance. Of course constituency boundaries should as far as possible be so drawn as not to give any party an unfair advantage, although because of the distribution of the parties’ support as between town and country this can rarely be achieved completely. For many years the boundaries seriously disadvantaged Labour because Labour votes were concentrated in the great industrial cities where they had huge majorities, while the Tories won most of the much less populous rural seats, often with much smaller majorities. The acme of this was of course the 1951 election when Attlee’s Labour party won many more votes overall than Churchill’s Tories, indeed more votes than Labour has ever won at any election before or since (even more than in 1945!), but lost the election, precisely because of having ‘wasted’ so many votes in the cities. Later the advantage swung to Labour (mainly because of post-war movements of population from the inner cities to the suburbs and countryside) which in turn won a general election under Harold Wilson with marginally fewer votes than the Tories — a kind of rough justice, perhaps. Swings and roundabouts, anyway. The point though is that Labour has by no means always or even usually enjoyed its current advantage from the boundary demarcation.

    The Tories’ plan for a boundary review to their own advantage is however open to at least three objections. First, it proposes to abandon the existing principle that boundaries should strike a balance between the nearest obtainable equality of population between constituencies on the one hand, and the cultural, geographical and historic identity of individual constituencies on the other. Respect for the latter principle has resulted hitherto in some constituencies with strong natural identities, such as the Isle of Wight and the Scottish islands, having much smaller populations than some of the city seats. The Tories want to make the boundaries commission ignore the second principle and concentrate purely on mathematical equality, even if this entails such nonsenses as carving off a slab of Hampshire and adding it to the Isle of Wight to bump up the numbers. This seems to me to amount to cultural vandalism and contempt for history and common sense. It will also necessarily result in some geographically enormous constituencies in, for example, Scotland where the population is widely dispersed. Secondly, the whole process of boundary revision is to be telescoped under the Tory plan, greatly reducing the scope for public hearing of appeals against the commission’s proposals — purely to ensure that the next election can be held on the new boundaries. Under the existing regulations the next review would not be completed until after 2015. There will thus be inadequate time for resolving disputes and correcting mistakes or anomalies. Thirdly, the Tory plan includes a reduction in the number of constituencies from 650 to 600. The LibDems and others have pointed out that this will change the ratio of back-benchers to members of the government in favour of the latter, further strengthening the executive’s control of the house of commons and reducing the scope for rebellions. The LibDems were prepared to swallow this provided that the house of lords would also be reformed by making it wholly or mainly elected, thus giving it greater status for holding the government to account and challenging it when necessary. But with the abandonment by Cameron of the plan for Lords reform, the strengthening of the executive’s grip on the commons becomes unacceptable.

    I agree with you that the house of commons is far too large (although the house of lords, with 812 members, is even more absurdly bloated). But the time greatly to slim down the commons is when we get a separate parliament for England and Westminster MPs can hand over 90 per cent of their constituency surgery duties to members of the English parliament, which will have full responsibility for all English internal affairs. Anyway, a reduction from 650 to 600 still leaves the chamber far too big. Independent analysts calculate that the abolition of 50 seats and their reallocation to neighbouring constituencies will result in both the LibDems and Labour losing a substantial number of seats and the Tories gaining a corresponding number. (This is in addition to the gain for the Tories from the greater equalisation of constituencies at the expense of the character and coherence of traditional constituency boundaries.) It’s difficult to think of any justification for the reduction to 600 MPs other than the advantage it’s expected to confer on the Conservative party.

    And finally, a general and important point. Traditionally, a proposal for a change in the whole basis for demarcating constituency boundaries and for a change in the overall size of the house of commons has been the subject of consultation between the major parties, leading to a consensus in favour of the changes proposed. In this case, the consultation was only with the LibDems, after the election, in the context of the Coalition Agreement; the LibDems (who would suffer from the boundary changes even more than Labour) disliked the plan but were persuaded to agree to it in exchange for Tory acceptance of the LibDem plan for Lords reform and a referendum on the electoral system. As far as I can discover, there was no consultation with Labour or with the nationalist parties, all of which I believe oppose the plan.

    In the light of all these objections, you might perhaps agree that it’s the Tories who have been trying to play party politics with the constitution for their own partisan advantage, and that you don’t have to be a Labour supporter to object to what they were planning to do. /i>

  5. David Campbell says:

    It’s a pity this topic has run into the sands. Your vision of an elected Senate of the regions ( regions rather than nations, I would hope) is so much more attractive than the strange hotch-potch of the Clegg Bill.
    I am not convinced that action should be suspended until after the Scottish Referendum. Regional interests will be a reality whether or not Scotland leaves the Union. And the argument works both ways. If Scottish voters knew what the reformed second chamber would be like, we would be helped to make up our minds. Some of us might feel the arrangement was of no interest to Scotland, and be strengthened in our preference for independence. That, on the whole, is the effect of the Clegg Bill. Others might feel reassured, and be more likely to vote for the Union. The distinction between a federal and a semi-federal arrangement is something of a red herring – a theoretical point of the kind which has been used to sidetrack reform for a hundred years. Devo-max may well not make it onto the ballot paper. In any case, the beauty of the British constitution is that it evolves. We should be prepared to play to that strength.
    To take this a step further, one forum where your ideas ought to be kept alive is the Scottish referendum campaign. Some of the pro-union propaganda is so airy fairy at present – and, on occasion, so tendentious – that even an old-fashioned unionist like me can feel alienated. One for your friend, Mr Darllng? Get the 3 pro-Union parties to accept that the Clegg Bill is dead; draft a simple prospectus for a fully elected Senate reflecting regional interests; and challenge the Nationalists to a debate. The argument would be constructive, the context unionist. It might be necessary to ask if a second chamber is needed at all. If Westminster published bills for wide consultation before bringing them onto the floor of the house – as we try to do in Scotland – the revising role of the second chamber could disappear. And if devovled governments were among the consultees, that would be a considerable reassurance.

  6. Brian says:

    @David Campbell: Thank you for your comment. I certainly agree that a commitment to a UK second chamber in which Scotland would have a significant say — in fact, in which Scotland would elect a quarter of the membership — ought to offer an important inducement to the Scots to vote to remain in the Union at the referendum due to be held in late 2014.  But I’m afraid I disagree about the idea of a “Senate reflecting regional interests”.  I regard a UK Senate comprising an equal number of members elected in each of the four UK nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (on the patterns of the successful democratic federations of the US and Australia) as an intrinsic element in the completion of the devolution project by moving to a fully fledged federation of the four nations, with full internal self-government (or devo max) for each of the four.  Any attempt to carve up England into ‘regions’, each of which would then be treated as if on a par with Scotland, would in my view be disastrous both for England, where it would face angry rejection, and for Scotland, which would rightly regard it as a thinly disguised form of local government. (If you envisage carving Scotland up into regions also, then it would indeed be indistinguishable from some kind of local government reform.) It would kill any hope of an eventual federation stone dead.  We should be offering Scotland, as an alternative to independence, full internal government as the next step to full membership of a democratic UK federation; a federal Senate would just be a part of it, although a significant one.

    As for feeding this policy into the campaign against a Scottish vote for independence in 2014, I’d be strongly in favour of that, if only eventual federation was the policy of the UK government or of any UK political party.  Unfortunately it’s not.  Nor is there any other vision of a more democratic and more durable form of the union of the four nations.  No UK party, AFAIK, has even begun to think through the implications of leaving devolution unfinished — ‘inchoate’ in the proper meaning of the word, which has nothing to do with chaotic — with its numerous anomalies and contradictions, while the Scots lean ever more understandably towards secession and the disintegration of the UK as we know it.  As of now, we have no settled or committed policy to offer Scotland as a better alternative to independence.  Our political masters in the UK lack the imagination, energy and courage to start taking the looming danger seriously and to come up with a radical proposal for dealing with it.  But federation is not just a way to buy off the Scots: it’s the right and logical culmination of devolution, and the only durable, democratic kind of relationship between the component parts of our country that will both work and keep us together.

    But I have spelled all this out in enormous detail in numerous posts on this blog and in Labour List, and this is not the place to do it again!

  7. David Campbell says:

    My model is Germany, and I would see Scotland divided into 2 regions, the Highlands and Islands and the much larger Lowlands. This approach is embodied in our development agencies and works well. My basic instinct is that we should stop designing solutions from a South East English perspective and listen to what the regions have to say.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. You make a perfectly plausible case for a particular kind of local government reform, but it does nothing to promote a durable, democratic and popularly acceptable constitutional relationship between the four nations of the UK, nor to resolve the many anomalies which currently stem from the interruption in mid-flow of the devolution project on which we have embarked. As for local government reform, and the kind of regionalism that you recommend, that should obviously be determined by the peoples of the four nations through their respective governments and parliaments — which in the case of England will need to be established first. There’s no reason why the English majority in the Westminster parliament should dictate to the Scots what form their local government organs should take, nor why the Scots should tell the English what kind of local government they want. Each of the four nations may well choose something quite different from the other three.

  8. David Campbell says:

    Your distinction between “regionalism” and nationalism is artificial. Bavaria is just as much a nation as North Dakota, and  German federalism just as valid as the American and Australian models. Understanding these models will of course be useful; but our constitutional arrangements should be rooted in our own history. In this context, it’s not “England” which has become overmighty, but the South East. An elected Senate would need to redress this extremely unhealthy internal imbalance, as well as the imbalance between England and Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland can speak for themselves.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I’m afraid I have nothing to add to my response to your comment at

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