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After Expenses: Is it time to abolish the House of Commons?  

1) Green Energy - How to not use it
2) Railways - History and Future
3) A Silly Story
4) Cinderella
5) Croess
6) The House
7) How to Control Your Government
8) After Expenses: Is it time to abolish the House of Commons?
9) Say "Yes" to the EU
10) Dihydrogen Monoxide - An Appeal
11) The Train Operator's Guide to Getting Students Drunk in a Brewery
12) The Well
Department of Comment, Satire & Tripe

The Honourable Members of the House of Commons are increasingly in a position where the electorate say "A plague on your House" - so what does the Commons do to justify its continued existence?

Those with an interest in screwing up the constitution have a fondness for noting that the House of Commons is the only part of the English legislature which is elected. Elections let everyone have their say and decide which party's representative they want to have representing them. In 2010 about 65% of the population took advantage of this right and, given current headlines, seem to have actually all been drunk at the time and consequently unable to appreciate the possible impact of a party doing what it had been threatening to do for years (be it cut stuff or go into coalition with a party which did better). Let's use that as a starting point for an argument to abolish the Commons - the electorate are mostly idiots or bewildered and, given half a chance, will elect the wrong person.

Our gloriously democratic system means that, every four to five years, the population of this country is supposed to look at a load of issues which they don't understand and asked if they'd like them to be slightly improved at massive expense or left to rot at very little cost. They try to understand them. But they're not exceptionally good at it. This isn't helped by the fact that many issues can only be understood if you are willing to sit down and actually read up on them. If you want, you can look up details of various arguments on global warming - for and against, is carbon dioxide good or bad, will the Severn Barrage save or destroy the world? - and then cast a vote based on carefully weighing up the factors. That's that issue sorted.

But wait a moment. Global warming affects transport policy. If you like your car, deciding to vote for the party which is going to crack down on global warming probably means that they are going to crack down on your car. It will cost more to drive and eventually you will be forced to get rid of your car because you can't afford it any more. Oh dear, says the voter. I like my car. I don't want to have to ride on Screwup Bus Co.'s buses all the time. Is global warming really all that much of an issue? After all, quite a lot of voters live more than 1 metre above sea level - why should they care if Canary Wharf is flooded? It's only occupied by negligent bankers anyway.

As you look at the possibility of losing your car, you may be forced to decide that, for the good of the planet, you will abandon it - except that means that you need shops, railway stations, schools, hospitals and post offices to be convenient for where you live. Therein lies a problem, because it is quite possible that the party which wants you to ditch your car is also the one which has noticed that your local school is part of Harold Macmillan's legacy and wants to knock it down because Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister a very long time ago now. The new school is going to be paid for by that nice developer who is building a housing estate on the other side of town, which means that the school will be on the other side of town, out of walking distance, although it will cost the taxpayer generally less to build. Your children will have to go to school on a bus operated by Screwup Bus Co., because they bid least to operate the service - mostly because they got their buses in a job lot from Cheap Scrap.

Once you have totalled up all the issues around throwing away your car and finding out that Screwup Bus Co. will become a major part of your life if that lot get in, you decide to screw the planet, which can probably look after itself and, if it can't, at least Screwup Bus Co. will be drowned under the rising waters. Instead you decide to look at law and order. Your experience with law and order is the incessant line of speed cameras which keep trying to take your picture every time you drive to work and the thieving scroats who nick the signalling cable every time you catch the train to somewhere special. You want to vote for the party which will take the weight off the individual - except, upon closer examination of the small print, it becomes apparent that this promise is primarily aimed at the proprietor of Cheap Scrap, who everyone down the chip shop knows perfectly well is buying the copper off the scroats who are nicking the signalling cable. Don't want to vote for them.

The third party is promising to do something about Cheap Scrap (at enormous expense) and build the school themselves (at equal expense) and put up taxes to pay for it. This will mean that you won't be able to afford your car, so you'll have to use Screwup Bus Co.'s buses - except they're probably going to be withdrawn because this party will also crack down on rubbish bus operators at the same time as they deal with naughty scrap merchants. Oh dear. No buses. Never mind, they're promising a new railway in 8 years time, although that rather depends on their still being in power in 8 years time.

The troubled voter will eventually either follow everyone else or vote for the party that they always vote for. Occasionally they will go for a one-issue party, since they allow voters to bury their heads in the sand about all the other policies in the election. Oddly, the other policies are generally the important ones.

But why should the voter have to think about policies about which they know nothing? Surely a good Government is one which you don't notice? One which quietly goes about its business, taking about a fifth of your money off you and carefully spending it on a selection of schemes for the public good. It is pretty obvious which areas should have Government input - the big chunks of life which are essential to this society but which are almost inevitably monolithic organisations way behind the times, with nice timetables which keep going wrong and causing inefficiencies. The Big Five are the police and court systems, the National Health Service, schools, defence and the railways. They are all sufficiently necessary to the smooth running of the nation to need to be supported and can all have some private input but need the Government to keep them running.

However, the main job of the courts is to enforce law, although they used to be quite fond of making it and the appeal courts still do occasionally (to much controversy, but often doing a much better job of it than Parliament). The NHS is employed to help patients recover or, if they insist on dying, to do so in a peaceful manner - something which needs public funds and some public oversight to make sure that the funds aren't spent on trips to the Caribbean but not politicians poking in and telling doctors how best to do open heart surgery. Schools appreciate Government money to pay for books, computers and the occasional teacher but tend to find the Education Secretary's expectations that every year group will be better than the last somewhat wearisome, particularly when they aren't. The various armed forces never really seem to benefit from Government involvement in where they spend their money, be it unmodified Land Rovers, helicopters with password-protected kit but no passwords, or instructions to remove all warships from the vicinity of the Falkland Isles. The railways now need Government funds to pay for their rural branchlines, commuter services and new express trains since the coal traffic slumped after 1913, but don't seem to work very well when the Government is around.

One point to make is that elected politicians, through no fault of their own, are obliged to be seen doing things - a Government which sits back and lets things trundle along happily will be lambasted as a "do nothing" Government and great suggestions will be made that other parties could do a much better job. People who tend towards leaning over the expert's shoulder and saying "let me help" will tend to rise higher than those who draw their salary and do stuff-all.

Of course, if you encourage politicians to do less by cutting their salaries - on the basis that if they do nothing and get paid for it the Press will get paid a lot for writing articles of about the length of this one about "gross waste of public money" - you will find that the people who come into the job are those who will lean over people's shoulders and tell them what to do for very little money. Such people are likely to be worse than those who explain what to do for a lot of money. Some of them will be hidden gems, but mostly they will just be people who want to change everything. You will simply get a lower quality of meddler.

Alternatively you remember that, back in the days when it was still represented, the windswept hilltop, ancient tree and sheep pen that was Old Sarum managed to return a quite respectable string of MPs, all elected in due accordance with the law by the constituents (varying in number between 5 and 11, none of whom lived in the constituency, in which respect they were perfectly represented by their MPs). Although the seat was an affront to democracy, its MPs were of a fair quality by the standards of the time (which were slightly poorer than today's, it not being unreasonable for an MP to sit for 40 years and only enquire during that period about whether a window could be opened) and the main issue was that the main landowner held undue influence in Parliament - after all, he had two MPs, while neighbouring Salisbury had none at all. It was their fault; they should have stayed in Old Sarum rather than all moving out some 300 years before the seat was abolished in 1832.

Those with an interest in constitutional law will be looking at this and thinking "this prat's confusing Parliament and Government again". It's an easy mistake to make. Government ministers are drawn from Parliament - generally from the House of Commons and invariably from the party which most recently won an election. The party with an overall majority in Parliament forms a Government, so your choice of MP (much as it's not supposed to be) is nowadays essentially a choice of Government and who will be leading that Government, particularly as it has been increasingly popular to claim that the Prime Minister (a position which technically does not exist) obtains a mandate by winning an election, not by being able to maintain a majority in the House of Commons (the current occupant can claim the latter but not the former). The tight ties of the upper echelons of the executive to the legislature are a major part of our constitution, ensuring as they do that Her Majesty's Government can do whatever they like because of the fact that, having decided policy, they can then vote for it and instruct their fellow party members to do likewise. This ensures that any silly policy can get through regardless of the opinions of the Opposition, although the Opposition is generally expected by the Government to take the blame when the idea goes up the spout - "They supported it too!" being the most frequent excuse for failed Government policy.

The same idea does not work so well in the House of Lords. Whipping is rather less frequent (the term refers to Members being told how they should vote, as opposed to the more popular idea of flogging them - a policy which could be taken in two directions) and a lot of the Lords sit as crossbenchers, not belonging to any party. It is not infrequent that those who do belong firmly to a party disagree strongly with the policies which that party is attempting to implement in the House of Commons, with the Tory Government of the 1980s being subjected to the ritual embarrassment of a very old man getting up and explaining why Thatcher's policies were stupid and it had all been much better when he had been Tory Prime Minister until he had been forced to resign in 1963 because he was going to die. (No doubt Thatcher wished he had, but Macmillan instead went on to run the family publishing company and become the oldest ever party leader at the time of his death 21 years later.) The absence of this whipping and the level of independent thought means that the Lords are very good at gauging public mood and sitting on unpopular or bungled ideas - the legislation widely known as "42 Days", which was defeated by a majority of around 2 to 1, is the most recent example. Oddly, none of these guardians of free speech and the right to gently snore on red leather benches have ever been elected to their post, leading to there being quite a few bad eggs in amongst the good stuff.

Obviously, if the Commons was abolished some slight alterations would have to be made to procedures in the Lords. They are currently banned from debating the Budget, which would have to be changed because otherwise there wouldn't be any taxes. The current admittance procedures tend to require Members to be nominated by one of the main parties in the Commons, which of course wouldn't work if the Commons wasn't there. The Lords, as the quieter chamber, tends to be able to devote more time to reading Bills, which would have to be reorganised if they found themselves as the main chamber (or not, since if it took two months to get Bills through the Lords that would mean that the Government had to be very careful about which Bills they were). The role as guardians against stupidity might have to be scaled down and some of it moved elsewhere, but keeping them as unelected peers would ensure that substance was important in getting in.

You see, when you are appealing to confused voters, it is very important that you can get your message across. A message explaining in-depth what you are going to do in terms of cumulative growth, law enforcement expansion and proactive development of SATS takes a long time to make, bores Jeremy Paxman and tends to make life difficult for the voters, who aren't sure if you're promising something new or what they've already got. Once you get in several people will be paid lots of money to work out what you did mean so that when you deviate from it due to changing economic circumstances the newspapers can run out headlines about broken election promises. The message "Change" can be put across in various pretty ways, doesn't take long to make and doesn't commit you to anything much apart from being different to the person who was there before you. This means that it is now generally more popular in elections for the parties to stand on the basis of "Change" or "More of the same" which is a) very difficult to judge if you don't want to change everything and b) rather boring.

This boredom is reflected in turnout, which now wanders around at about 60% of those on the electoral role nationwide bothering to vote. Of course, some people are not on the electoral roll, in a misguided belief that a) people notice this and b) politicians might realise that they need to do more than simply repeat "Change" in order to get more people to vote. So at least 40% of the population would not alter their voting habits if the House of Commons was abolished. Since hardly any political parties have ever been elected on such a large proportion of the electoral roll as 40%, this can be taken as a sufficiently large sector of the population to start enacting important legislation based on what might be their wishes. Certainly there is no reason as to why they should be expected to pay for an organisation which they never use.

While the populace ignores the frequent calls from politicians to turn out and vote, the Lords busy themselves with doing helpful things. Several are members of the Government, where they are avoiding rows over expenses and seem to be getting fairly positive press - indeed, the only member of Government to be publically congratulated for doing something sensible in 2008 was Lord Andrew Adonis, Transport Minister, who went for a train trip around the UK on an All-Line Rover ticket and spotted several points for improvement - more staff, better station facilities and better promotion of the All-Line Rover (but as soon as Adonis got back the Association of Train Operating Companies upped the price of the ALR by 25%, so that's the end of that idea). We'd like more like him - so would the Government, it seems, as he was been promoted to run his department. Unfortunately such people, with real passion for the job, seem to be rather hard to find - particularly in the Commons, where their passion is for representing people and doing good. Being parked in what is invariably a career-killing job like Transport (and railways in particular) is inevitably going to disrupt that and demand knowledge which they don't have and won't have until shortly before the next reshuffle.

Now if the Lords remained unelected there would have to be a different way of arranging for new members. Just now the method is that people are generally appointed to life peerages for doing good, although it is not clear what that good is and if you stopped ordinary people in the street they probably either wouldn't have a clue or would say that it was based on if they'd donated money to a political party recently. This article is going to propose a general test. New members must be of good character and not the sort of person who you look at and think "corrupt little twerp". They should have done something worthwhile for society at large and shown flair and passion for it. They must have ideas and opinions to express and debate - because basically the House of Lords should be a very large debating chamber where people bring in their ideas and develop them into solid policies for Government funding. Of course, this isn't a scenario where you turn up, make a suggestion, get money and resign - you would be expected to keep producing good ideas, putting in thoughts and generally showing a passion, not only for your chosen subject, but for allowing your knowledge and wisdom to benefit everyone else too.

Selection would aim to include as many opinions as possible - for example, Arthur Scargill could be invited in to explain why trade unions are useful rather than proving to the minds of the right-wing that they are a nuisance. Those who are particularly fond of publicly moaning that politics provide no benefits at all could find themselves on the receiving end of a "stand up or shut up" letter inviting them to join the Lords and campaign internally for change rather than waving banners off the roof - good examples of such people would be the blogger known as Guido Fawkes and the top brass of Plane Stupid. Those who refused to join in could easily be identified as moaners who couldn't actually be bothered to change anything and thus could be sidelined and ignored.

Naturally the wishes of the people would still need some representation and this would come in the form of a set of very large seats - maybe 100 or so, each represented by a bunch of Lords and Ladies with interests in various broad subjects like security, law and order, health, education, industry and transport plus a few specialist topics. This would allow people to contact their selection of peers with general worries and get a response from someone who knows what they are talking about in a way which, for all their efforts, an MP simply cannot comply with. As peers are already styled as "Lord (or Lady) Surname of Somewhere" there should be no problems on the title front; the Somewhere will simply be a place in the seat which they represent.

Of course, with the peers now forming the main section of Parliament a backup will be needed to act as the "root out the weird stuff bit" and happily our Parliamentary system already has one. Back in the Tudor period the unusual system of "king-in-Parliament" developed, hence our system where members of the Government sit in Parliament. In those days the King (or Queen) also sat in Parliament occasionally and was expected to approve all of the legislation passed by Parliament. She still is. In this was Parliament obtained the supremacy over everything else which it still has. The result is that technically the monarch forms a third section of Parliament as well as sitting in the Government and thus is banned from participating in the other bits.

Therefore it would not be a massive step to lift the role of the monarch out of the general drudge of consitutional monarchy which it currently finds itself in and give the monarch a small circle of the cream of British knowledge as advisors on finance, development and international relations, as well as generally guiding said monarch through the benefits and effects of the latest idea from the Lords. Possibly there could be a few nice PowerPoint presentations and question and answer sessions dotted around ideas so that the monarch and former electorate can be introduced to why the Lords want to do something and so that suggestions can be made. While those Lords who proved to be total idiots or failed to comply with the ethics policy of being "jolly good eggs who would be happy to explain their latest idea to anyone" would merely be thrown out, advisors who completely screwed up and plunged the country into deep depression would be stripped of their land, titles and pensions and placed in long-term store in the Tower of London, on the basis of constitutional tradition, and American tourists would be invited to come and look at them as a general reminder of what happens to people who aspire far beyond their capabilities, vision and levels of common sense.

This constitutional settlement would have many benefits. It would turn the country into a meritocracy where you get to the top based on ability to lead and follow rather than ability to make nice speeches. It would save millions of pounds a year on MPs' expenses and the Lords could be housed in the surplus office space. It would make Government more open to those with ideas and less dominated by dogma. Finally, it would result in an organisation which does not believe that its duty to its citizens is best dealt with by reducing their liberties and imposing sticky red tape.

(Ironically in March 2011 pro-Government politician Ed Milliband lambasted less pro-Government David Cameron with claims that Government-free Belgium was doing a better job at stuff. This was not exactly supporting Milliband's calls for more Government. Rather, we would submit that the fact that Belgium is still there suggests that Governments are optional.)

A. Pratt does not believe in the existence of a good Government

Last modified 14/03/11

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