Allan Massie: We need to take a second look at Holyrood

A body similar to the House of Lords could be useful to Scotland. Picture: Getty
A body similar to the House of Lords could be useful to Scotland. Picture: Getty
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THE last half-century has seen the practice of politics gradually becoming a full-time professional activity. Of course, there have always been full-time politicians.

In his study of 18th century politics, King George III and the Politicians, Richard Pares already distinguished between the professionals and the amateurs. Gladstone once remarked that you might as well start training for the ballet at 40 as for the Cabinet. Nevertheless 50 years ago there were still members of the House of Commons who might fairly have been described as part-timers, since they continued to pursue other occupations alongside their parliamentary duties. There were also many in all parties who came to politics late with a good deal of experience in occupations with little or no connection to the political world. This was even more true of local government, then essentially a part-time and unsalaried activity.

All this has changed, and it has done so for two reasons. First, more is expected of politicians. Their workload is heavier. Parliamentarians are expected to assume more duties in their constituency. They mostly hold weekly surgeries to deal with the concerns of their constituents. Local government has likewise become a full-time activity for most councillors. So we now have a wholly professional political class, many engaged in politics from an early age.

Second, the public has collaborated in this. Politicians are reasonably well-paid, even if the more able might earn more money doing something else. Consequently there is a demand that they should devote all their time to their political work. The demand is understandable. Yet the consequence is the further separation of politicians from those whom they represent. Politics plays a small part in the lives of most of us, but the insistence it should be the whole life of those we elect has contributed to the emergence of this exclusive political class.

Only the House of Lords stands apart. It remains a strange, and for many, anomalous institution. It is not democratic. It retains a small hereditary element, but most of its members have been appointed, not elected. Some find this offensive, others ridiculous. If the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has his way, the Lords will be reformed, and at least part of its membership will be elected, though by a system different from that of the Commons.

Yet the Lords as it is now plays a valuable role. It is not dominated by party, since many peers sit as cross-benchers. Many of its members never have been professional politicians, but bring to its debates specialised knowledge and experience beyond politics. Other members elevated from the Commons display in the Lords an independence of mind they did not always display in the Other Place. Any political journalist will tell you politicians out of office with no hope of future office, often speak more sensibly than they did while pursuing their political ambitions.

A second chamber has two functions: to revise legislation and to hold government to account. The Lords perform both functions well. Ill-drafted or ill-conceived legislation is often corrected, and for a long time now governments have been defeated in the Lords far more often than in the Commons. So, bizarre as it may seem, the unelected Lords is not only often a repository of good sense and judgment, but also more effective defender of our liberties than the Commons. The old adage applies: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Clegg’s reforms would make the Lords more like the Commons and it would, therefore, be dominated by the narrow political class.

Of course, if we vote for independence, the future of the Lords will be of no concern to us. Yet one of the things so far missing from the debate which Alex Salmond has launched is any discussion of the constitution of an independent Scotland. Is there a plan for a Second Chamber If there isn’t, why not?; if there is, what form should it take?

When devolution came into being, we were assured the Scottish Parliament’s committee system would provide pre-legislative scrutiny of parliamentary bills and hold the administration to account. I have met nobody who believes it has performed either of these functions effectively, and the reason for its failure is clear. The committees lack the necessary independence. They are dominated by the party chiefs. Their obedient members regularly take the party line. Accordingly the government is has its way. This is an obstacle to good government.

Whether we opt for independence, for further devolution, or for the status quo, this is matter requires to be addressed. A second chamber is necessary because legislation needs revised, government held to account and the political class made subject to scrutiny and restraint.

A second chamber for Scotland might be composed of three elements: members appointed ex-officio – university principals, representatives of the churches, business organisations, the STUC, NFU, and arts bodies, for instance; members appointed by an independent commission because of their distinction in various walks of life; and an elected element with the requirement those who stand for election free from party affiliation.

Members of this second chamber would receive expenses but no salary. Their sessions would be short and a quorum required. They would have the duty of approving legislation or returning it to the elected House for amendment and be empowered to command the appearance of ministers before any committee they chose to set up, and to examine them and their policies in detail.

Many object we don’t need another layer of government. Yet a chamber on the lines I envisage would not be that. On the contrary it would be a layer of counter-government, to make for better government. Meanwhile, as the referendum campaign gets under way, the case for a second chamber should be a subject of argument. Single-chamber government is government by the political class, and makes for elected dictatorship.