As the debate continues over proposed reform of the House Of Lords – an idea that has been around for rather longer than the UK has had universal suffrage – there has been yet another exhumation of one John Enoch Powell and his supposedly great speech to the Commons in 1969, not long before then PM Harold Wilson abandoned a previous attempt at change.
This time, the pundit first to the quote has, for a change, not been Simon “Enoch was right” Heffer, but former Tory MP Jerry Hayes, who has helpfully included Powell’s allusion to the United States, which shows where The Great Man went wrong. Powell’s argument, far from making reform of the Lords impossible, merely illustrates his interpretation of how different countries work. Here are his words:
“There can be no elective second chamber in the legislature of a unitary state. Wherever elective second chambers exist, they exist in federal states, where one chamber represents the component parts as such, and the other chamber represents the whole population, as such. The classic case is the United States. The proposition is axiomatic, because it is self evident that there cannot be two alternative equally valid representations of the same electorate”.
In the USA, there are indeed two “alternative equally valid representations of the same electorate”, which produce the House of Representatives and Senate. The size of electorate varies between House and Senate seats, and indeed between different state representations within the Senate, but they are equally valid, as is that which returns the President, and at a remove the Supreme Court.
That is the whole point of the governance of the USA: the Constitution imposes checks and balances against the potential abuse of power, and also, it has to be conceded, allows a partisan approach to result in legislative gridlock. But at least Powell took an intellectually rigorous approach to this issue.
That is more than can be said for many opposing the current legislation, for whatever reason: far easier to call out the ECHR, anyone connected with the EU who is not directly elected, and the judiciary for being “unelected” when the Fourth Estate comes looking for a quote, than conceding the nonsense of hereditary and appointee members of the second chamber.
I do not know whether the proposed system would work more effectively than that currently in place, but I do know that there is no other modern Western state which uses the same method to populate its Senate or revising chamber of Parliament. On that last point alone, those opposed to the proposed reform could at least stop and think before giving it the thumbs down.
Alternatively, party politics and tribalism will prevail and we will get nowhere again.