David Steel on the Scottish referendum and reforming the House of Lords

David Steel 200Yesterday evening, Lord David Steel delivered a lecture on Lords reform and the forthcoming Scottish referendum. He called for a wide constitutional overhaul, including reforming the House of Lords into an indirectly elected chamber.

Speaking earlier to Scotland Tonight, he called for a grown-up debate about whether Scotland wants to be a separate nation or not. He rejected David Cameron’s assertion that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks and Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that fuel bills will come down, saying such comments obscured the real issues of the campaign.

In his lecture, Lord Steel lashes out at the changing nature of the Commons, deploring that Prime Minister’s Question Time has become “Prime Minister’s Insult Time”. He regrets that “belligerence and stridency are the order of the day” in Holyrood and condemns the growth of spin doctors who:

Daily bombard party activists by email with “lines to take”… all favourable of course – nothing critical such as the universally hostile editorial coverage of the last peerage list.

Turning to the 2014 referendum, he anticipates a “no” vote and laments that the “debate will have dragged on for three years to the stupefying boredom of most people.”

The debate has also distracted the Scottish government from giving priority to deep-rooted problems in Scotland such as the pervading poverty and unemployment disfiguring so many of our public housing estates.

Even more distressing is the lack of debate on what kind of country we want to be. A few brave souls have tried to enter that territory. One strongly pro-independence thinker and a friend of mine even argued that one case for independence was to let clapped-out England float off to sink in its own mess. What a miserably selfish argument – I would argue that one reason for staying with the UK is precisely to give it the benefit of Scottish experience.

Decrying the way that our democratic institutions and citizens’ rights have grown “higgledy-piggledy”, David calls for a written constitution and a more federal approach to government.

He is critical of last year’s attempt to reform the Lords.

Unfortunately the authors of last year’s attempt at Lords reform by the coalition government either ignored – or possibly were ignorant of – the history of the subject. Their bill predictably foundered in the House of Commons on the arguments of MP’s against creating a second elected Chamber which could threaten the supremacy of the House of Commons.

He condemns the government for continuing to appoint to the Lords under the patronage of the Prime Minister and the other party leaders:

That means that not surprisingly each party leader finds that those doing nothing for the party except writing large cheques somehow manage to catch their eye.

David Steel has an alternative. He envisages an upper chamber, a Senate, with 500 members. Four hundred members would be politicians elected by MPs, MEPs and members of the three devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The remaining 100 would be chosen by the same electorate, but would not be party political figures.

A convention could develop where in the Upper House each section did not vote on matters which did not apply to their own territory, thus partially answering the unanswerable West Lothian question. The powers of a reformed Upper House would remain as at present – in other words no veto, only delay, and the right to ask the Commons to think again, and no power over finance.

The Senate might also provide post-legislative scrutiny for Holyrood.

Lord Steele ends by quoting South African author and campaigner Alan Paton:

By Liberalism I do not mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.

David Steel’s speech in full.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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4 Comments

  • Graham Martin-Royle 1st Nov '13 - 2:42pm

    An upper house elected by those already in various parliamentary positions as envisioned by Lord Steele would have no democratic legitimacy and would be no better than the undemocratic institution that we already have.

    As for the “problem” of which house would have supremacy, I have never understood why the HofC should be able to stymie all attempts at creating a democracy just so that they can say, “we’re number one and don’t you forget it” to anyone else. If this is really such a problem, create 3 chambers and take the democratic view of each being equal and two outvote three.
    One chamber could be as the current HofC with an MP representing a particular constuency.
    One chamber could be federal with equal numbers of MP’s from each of the 4 nations that make up the UK.
    One chamber could be purely proportional representation UK wide, so that Scots or Welsh living in London for example, could vote for the SNP or PC. Non voters could also be represented, i.e. if only 70% vote then only 70% of the seats are taken up.

  • Paul Pettinger 1st Nov '13 - 3:41pm

    Lord Steel appears to be suggesting that the Party is suffocating under a mountain of uncritical hype and spin – I agree

  • Lord Steel is to be congratulated. He is critical of last year’s pathetic failure to reform the Lords saying –
    “Unfortunately the authors of last year’s attempt at Lords reform by the coalition government either ignored – or possibly were ignorant of – the history of the subject. Their bill predictably foundered in the House of Commons on the arguments of MP’s against creating a second elected Chamber which could threaten the supremacy of the House of Commons.”
    The principle ‘author’ of the failed bill was of course Nick Clegg. Thank goodness someone in the party is able to point out Nick Clegg’s appalling failure. After a general election in which all parties promised to reform the Lords, Clegg turned a consensus across the parties into a complete dog’s dinner. It was a total and abject failure. Any junior minister who had failed so spectacularly to deliver a government commitment would have been sacked on the spot. Lords reform was after all a central part of the Coalition Agreement on which both parties in the coalition and the official opposition party all agreed, along with the smaller parties. How Clegg managed to fail is still mind-boggling.

    David Steel goes on to condemn the government for continuing to appoint to the Lords under the patronage of the Prime Minister and the other party leaders:
    “That means that not surprisingly each party leader finds that those doing nothing for the party except writing large cheques somehow manage to catch their eye.”

    David Steel as a former party leader knows exactly what he is saying when he criticises this obscenity of selling seats in the House of Lords. David Steel is also the person who as a backbench MP in a very small party steered the very controversial abortion bill through parliament in the face of extraordinary opposition. He has to put it mildly a rather better record of parliamentary achievement than some.

  • Caroline Sanderson 13th Sep '14 - 12:03pm

    This is a direct appeal to David Steele – please, please, please would you speak up in support of the NO campaign. We need more Scottish voices, with experience, gravitas and respect in Scotland, rather than any more English politicians who are NOT helping the cause. I’ve voted Liberal/Lib.Dem all my life and indeed, voted for you when I lived in the Borders. I’ve never contacted you or the Party previously on any issue, but feel compelled to do so now with the vote likely to be on a knife-edge. PLEASE STAND UP AND BE HEARD – WE NEED YOU NOW, BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.

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