Clegg and the Lords

When Prince William and Kate Middleton took their wedding vows in Westminster Abbeyon April 29, 2011, the entire world tuned in. It seems like just about everyoneis obsessed with the lingering elements of aristocracy in the United Kingdom, with news about the Royal Family generating buzz in tabloids across the globe. But most people overlook the remaining power the British aristocracy wield through the House of Lords, the upper chamber in the British government. This unelected body of roughly 800 Lords, ranging from hereditary peers to Anglican Bishops, has undue power in Westminster and often stagnates the work of the elected House of Commons. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's suggestion to reform the House of Lords has merit and is a key policy for the Liberal Democrat Party. However, Clegg’s moves could destabilise the governing coalition and diminish the power of the House of Commons in the long term.

Ever since his impressive performance in the Prime Ministerial debates caught the eye of the British public, Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrat Party have suffered from high expectations. Clegg has had a difficult time pushing for major Lib-Dem policies since he took up the mantle of leading the minority partner of the governing coalition. He and many Lib-Dem members of parliament were criticized by young voters, who comprise a large part of their base, for abstaining on the vote to increase student tuition fees. Voters also chose to reject electoral reform, a major priority of the party. Polls have showed that popularity of the party has dropped to 10 percent from a pre-election 20 percent. Clegg himself has received most of the blame for the failure of the LibDems to deliver on its key goals. The most telling evidence is a recent poll thatshowed Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is currently more popular among Lib Dems than Nick Clegg is. It seems that the Lib Dem’s electoral chances have been ruined.

But an opportunity has arisen to salvage theparty’s reputation. Clegg is pushing for "Lords Reform," a plan that would reduce the house from 800 to 300 lords, 240 of which would be directly elected for single 15-year terms. Althoughthe previous Labour government abolished the vast majority of hereditary peers, the house remains an antiquated body from the Magna Carta era. The House of Lords cannot prevent bills from passing into law, but it has repeatedly delayed the government's popular welfare reform bill. Its ability to limit the work of the House of Commons contradicts Britain’s principles of liberal democracy and representative elections.

Clegg's move will undoubtedly be met by enough opposition to tear the ruling coalition apart. Although Labour officially supports an elected House of Lords, there is a significant number of old-party Conservatives as well as Labour and Lib-Dem MPs who adamantly oppose Lords reform. The Lords themselves have united against Clegg’s proposals, with a vast majority of Lords declaring the proposal unconstitutional. David Cameron will have to choose between reigning in his deputy and endangering his relationships with MPs and the Lords, either of which may weaken the coalition. Although there are many calling for Clegg to drop his proposals for the sake of maintaining the strength of the coalition, there is a chance that Cameron will make concessions on Lords reform in case the Conservatives fail to win a majority in the next election.

Clegg's proposal poses a problem that transcends political bickering. Although the Lords have severely delayed bills from the Commons in the past, ultimately the Commons wields the power to rule the country. The House of Lords acts as more of a review body, not unlike the Supreme Court of the United States. Electing Lords could give the House of Lords a degree of legitimacy which could compete with the Commons. One of the parliamentary system's greatest strengths is its ability to rule through coalitions to break deadlocks. Clegg's reform could create a serious contender to the power of the Commons, which may lead to a government of perpetual gridlocká la the United States.


Polls show that the public of the United Kingdom is ambivalent towards reforming the House of Lords. Therefore it is politicians, not the public, who will have to bear the burden of campaigning for Lords reform. It is probable that Clegg's proposal may be passed given that it has the support of most Labour and Lib-Dem MPs and younger Conservative MPs. The immediate dangers posed by his reforms do not outweigh the benefits of long-term reform for the UK. This is a country that deserves a political systemthat lives up to the principles of liberal democracy that it purports to endorse. Who knows, this may also be the perfect opportunity for the Lib Dems to use a major constitutional achievement to recoup its losses in time for the next election.

Heather L. Pickerell '15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.


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