While Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom see it as merely political posturing, (minority) Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s call to disband the House of Lords and replace it with a senate whose membership would be tied to regional representation definitely raised my eyebrows this morning. First and foremost, it amazes me that a modern democracy could currently contain a body in which the preponderance of its membership is either due to inheritance (the limit of such inherited life peers is currently set at 92) or due to the arbitrary selection by either the monarch or the House of Lords Appointment Commission; finally, there are also 26 Lords Spiritual who are there due to positions within the Church of England (see this helpful Wikipedia article on the chamber’s make-up). While the actual power of the House of Lords was severely restricted by the Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949, it remains a functional part of a bicameral legislature, and thus clearly has tremendous symbolic power along with its limited legislative might. It has always been striking to me that an institution that bears within it modes of class elitism that stem back to the medieval era could continue to affect the workings of a modern state—but, then again, I as an American am continuously stupefied at the persistence of the British, or indeed any monarchy, into today’s age. If Miliband’s plans are indeed serious, then the May elections would seem to have truly massive stakes—a significant degree of modernization.
What particularly interests me in terms of this blog is the manner in which, as Danny Hakim’s analysis observes, Miliband envisions a legislative body analogous to the United States Senate as the replacement for the House of Lords. Clearly, Miliband wants to respond to the deep sense of geographic injustice throughout the United Kingdom that was a significant part of the debate about Scottish Independence: many feel that the London-centered Southeastern region of England has a massively disproportionate amount of power in the modern United Kingdom. The United Kingdom’s House of Commons, like the United States House of Representatives, links power both with region and with population (see this Wikipedia article for current constituencies, which include population figures, as well as this general article), and so it bears within it numerical biases based on concentrated areas of population. One of the key complaints about those seeking Scottish Independence (a subject about which I have written here quite a bit) was that, however much Scottish interests, conceived as a regional voice, tended towards progressive policies, the neoliberal tendencies throughout the rest of the England-dominated parliament steered all in an opposite direction—thereby creating a sense of a regional voice being rendered politically impotent.
The United States Senate is fascinating to consider in this story for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the United States Senate only became a body whose membership was directly elected in 1913, with the Seventeenth Amendment replacing the former appointment of members by state legislatures. Thus, if democracy is best measured by direct election, then the United States marks one stage of the United States becoming more democratic (6 years and two amendments before women were able to vote, by the way).
More critically for me, the United States Senate exists as a key compromise enabling United States dominance, according to which territory overrides population: no matter what the population or physical size of a state, each United States state gets two Senators. While many Americans are often frustrated by the fact that lightly populated states have a disproportionate influence in the Senate (the 2013 US Census Bureau population estimate for Wyoming, for example, is 562,658, and yet it has the same legislative representation in the Senate as California, with its population of 38,332,521; see this), this uneven arrangement is absolutely essential to United States history: territories were only brought into the United States with the understanding that their sparse populations would be compensated for by equal relationship within the Senate. To put it crudely, geography and population are balanced in the United States, with the idea that every vote is numerically equal being essentially alien to the system.
I will be very keen to follow the development of this debate about the House of Lords. I very much hope that it will attract the kind of intense attention that came with the debate about Scottish Independence. In some ways, I think it touches at a very fundamental question about modern states. Western states often bandy about rather vague notions of democratic exceptionalism to other regions of the planet, claiming that freedom and democracy are unquestionably central to Western states—even as such counter-democratic traditions as inherited peerships in the United Kingdom or such representative disparities born of historical pragmatism that constitute the United States Senate exist (and this is not even to mention the profound inequities about who is eligible for voting in the United States). The American media often pays strangely disproportionate attention to the royal family in the United Kingdom; I hope very much that some of that curiosity causes us to follow this story about the House of Lords and its rather fundamental debate about balancing population and region in a modern state.