In my Stevenson Lecture at the University of Glasgow in January, I addressed the claim that election of a second chamber necessarily constitutes the ‘democratic’ option. This is often advanced by proponents of an elected second chamber as if it were self-evidently correct. I argued that it is not necessarily the democratic option, a point to which I returned in the debate in the House in June on the White Paper on Lords’ reform.
I thought it would be appropriate to solicit the views of a political theorist and so approached a colleague, Dr Colin Tyler, who specialises in democratic theory. Here is his response:
“You asked me to send you my thoughts about whether or not having an elected second chamber would help British democracy.
The conceptual points seem straightforward (even if often overlooked by the pro-reformers). Parliament is democratic to the extent that its pronouncements and actions (crudely, the laws it makes and the policies it pursues) are determined by the electorate through the decisions of the representatives they chose at properly-constituted and authorised elections. To the extent that such a process of determination is not reflected in Parliament’s subsequent pronouncements and actions, then Parliament fails to be fully democratic. The crucial point in the context of Lords reform is that what matters is that the outputs of Parliament can be traced to the will of the electorate as expressed through their representatives (as just described). Where these outputs enact something different to that will – or where they do not enact what the electorate will – then Parliament is not acting democratically.
To the extent that Lords reform will give the Lords parity with the Commons, it will divide sovereignty within Parliament, thereby making it harder for Parliament to act at all. (Witness the recent and on-going problems with the US budget). Consequently, democratising one part of Parliament (the Lords) will reduce the democratic character of the whole (Parliament). And ultimately it is the democratic character of Parliament that matters, not the democratic character of its constituent parts considered in isolation from each other.
Obviously, it depends on how one thinks of Parliament. Yet, as you can infer, I have very great concerns that, as with any complex institution, it is easy to focus on the parts while forgetting the whole from which they gain their function and worth
I am often struck by the fact that many who support Lords reform seem to wish to address these problems. However, always the solutions they propose are palpably inadequate, often smacking of a desperate wish that ‘democracy’ meant something different.
Of course, another option would be to abolish the Lords completely. The resulting unicameral system would be more democratic than the present system, but very possibly recklessly so. After all, how much more havoc could both Thatcher and Blair (and many others) have reaped had they not been held in check to some degree by the Lords?”