Independence remains the only realistic way of escaping the House of Lords’ influence

“The idea of abolishing or reforming the House of Lords, which arguably enjoys far more political support than any form of federalism, has been one of the most consistent dead-ends in British politics for over a century.”

STOP THE PRESSES – David Steel has had an idea.

According to early reports, the former Liberal leader will devote a speech next Tuesday to arguing in favour of the House of Lords being replaced with a senate elected by proportional representation. This, he will contend, would be the “keystone to federalism”, which Lord Steel believes should be pursued as a “more acceptable” alternative to Scottish independence. You may be forgiven for reaching for the aspirin, or perhaps something stronger.

The idea of Steel arguing against the House of Lords is risible on the face of it – not just because he defended the institution in 2007 as containing “not just a bunch of experienced retired MPs, but a whole raft of individuals with specialist knowledge and experience”, but also in light of analysis carried out by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard in January, which found Steel to be the most expensive peer for British taxpayers (£58,492 claimed in exchange for 99 days in attendance at the chamber).

Yet in fairness, Steel’s implication that the House of Lords’ stubborn continued existence does the cause of the Union no particular favours is not without merit. Upon publication of his report, Sheppard noted that amongst Scotland’s 87 lords, 22 are hereditary peers, and that this “institution which remains a hangover from history” – in which the SNP historically does not take seats – has been a miserable failure when it comes to representing the political makeup of Scotland, particularly in recent years.

Steel’s preferred model for this new senate would be a 500-member upper chamber, 400 of which would be chosen on a party-political basis by proportional representation, with allocations from each of the UK’s constituent nations. My preferred model would have racing stripes painted down the side and dispense free candy floss and hot dogs to visitors, and is about as likely to come to fruition. Granted, Steel’s suggested replacement would be less offensive to democracy that the Lords’ present form, but then almost anything would. This does not ameliorate the other problems facing this idea, both practical and in principle.

First, as Ben Wray pointed out in Source Direct last month, federalism – the lonely cause which Steel’s latest brainstorm seeks to animate – “represents no genuine social forces” or mass movement in the UK, and only intrudes upon our political discourse as “a technocratic wheeze to de-politicise the independence v union debate.” Even if advocates of federalism – there are whole dozens of them – disagree with that analysis, Steel’s design faces a more immediate problem: the idea of abolishing or reforming the House of Lords, which arguably enjoys far more political support than any form of federalism, has been one of the most consistent dead-ends in British politics for over a century.

The tone was set by the Liberal government of 1911, whose introduced their Parliament Act by regretfully stating: “…Whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation.” Since then, the Lords has been subject to periodic tinkering – most notably by the government of Tony Blair – but remains emblematic of the British state’s historic resistance to significant reform. Steel may be expected to criticise former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s “inadequate” attempts to do something about the Lords during his time in government, but that inadequacy was entirely par for the course.

It is worth wondering who exactly Steel’s plan is supposed to appeal to – presumably, those desperately seeking a means of frustrating support for Scottish independence, as it is hard to perceive as a good faith offering to independence supporters themselves. No need to break up Britain, guys – just hang on and wait for the abolition of an institution which has resisted all other attempts for over 100 years.

If Scottish voters wish to escape what Tommy Sheppard called “the perverse status quo” the House of Lords represents, then independence remains a far more realistic option than suspicious notions like those of Steel.


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