An all-party proposal to replace the House of Lords is about to appear. It is being led by Nick Clegg and the guiding spirit is Jack Straw. The word is that they will call for an (eventually) elected chamber to be called ' The Senate'. How unoriginal can you be?
In a pre-emptive strike against the report, Timothy Garton Ash in today's Guardian has a fine time puncturing the utterly corrupt and contemptible crony chamber we have today. He then goes on to reject the idea of its capture by the political parties as a step backwards. He is right, of course. He then comes up with his own solution. Ah, Tim, there have been so many! (Including my own modest one.) But he misses the critical point, the one which the machine that runs Westminster is well aware of. All reforms and replacements and in between schemes for the second chamber will be powerless before the executive leviathan unless and until they are set out as one entire half of parliament which has to be redefined as a whole. Leave it as it and you can fiddle (or burn) the upper half and... you are leaving the whole as it is.
Peter Carty and I tried to make this obvious point in our book The Athenian Option. No, we actually did make it, more than once. Established thinking, however, prevents it from being registered. And Tim goes along with this received failure of wisdom. For example, you have to empower the Commons to be the legislative chamber, so that the second one can scrutinise it. But today, we have two legislative chambers. Retain this structure and it follows that the upper house has to be controlled by party whips. If it is taken in isolation from the Commons, there can be no democratic reform of the House of Lords
Calling it a 'Senate' is a classic, spin doctors way of evading this. New Labour always wanted Britain to become like America without having to have a constitutional revolution. What could be 'more radical' than 'replacing' the Lords with a Senate? But what a betrayal of the English tradition - that we have to reach across the Atlantic to bring back a term consciously modeled on Rome so that no one mistook the new republic as looking to Greece and democracy?
Surely, whatever it is, we can call it something that is rooted in our own traditions?
OurKingdom will award a copy of Steve Pincus's 1688 The First Modern Revolution to the reader who suggests the best new name for a second chamber however it is organised.
PS: My approach to a new upper house would include this proposal by The Earl of Clancarty from an 11 October debate (starts 3.14 pm) in the Lords:
a modern reformed House of Lords should recognise that, rather than being a lesser other place, it could be celebration of public involvement in government. Rather than narrowing down politics to tighter control by professional politicians, should we not be opening up our second House to the British people? If we retain an appointments system to introduce expertise and life experience into the Lords, should it not be decoupled from party-political involvement, perhaps by bringing ordinary citizens into government of their peers through a jury system