In 1912, Herbert Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, declared that reform of the House of Lords would “brook no delay”. Well, 110 years later, it seems to have managed to “brook” quite a lot.
After endless rounds of tinkering but no comprehensive overhaul, the Upper House has 786 members, including 91 hereditary peers and 25 bishops. It is the institutional equivalent of a hoarder’s house.
Not surprisingly, therefore, much debate has already been generated by Sir Keir Starmer’s declared intention to abolish the existing chamber and replace it with an Assembly of the Nations and Regions in the first term of a Labour government — and rightly so. But it is important to see this ambition (the Opposition leader has left himself some wriggle room on timing) in the wider context of the 155-page report of Gordon Brown’s Commission on the UK, in which Lords reform is only one element in a 40-point plan.
The standard objection to proposals for constitutional change has long been that they are a side-show, a waste of political capital, a fixation of liberal intellectuals that distracts attention from the crunchier business of economic, social public service reform.
This is, and has always been, absolute nonsense. One only has to consider the huge impact of devolution — empowered by referendums, enacted by Tony Blair’s government— upon the structure of the United Kingdom to grasp how consequential institutional reform can be.
The rise of the metro mayors, notably in London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, has strengthened the argument for a fully decentralised system of government. The independence, respectively, of the Bank of England and the Supreme Court has been of the highest importance.
Brown’s report makes no claim to be the last word on what Starmer should do if he becomes prime minister — but it is a fine starting point for consultation before the next election, which would enable a Labour government to hit the ground running.
As Peter Hennessy, the undisputed master of British institutional history, has argued in a book of the same name, the UK’s uncodified constitution is its “hidden wiring”: the software that enables the machine to run. Though Brown stops short of arguing for codification on the model of the US Constitution, he argues for much greater transparency, accountability and devolution.
Perhaps the most radical principle binding his proposals is fiscal decentralisation, whereby the Scottish government would be able to borrow more, and local authorities could be granted “greater fiscal flexibility” and might “retain some of the savings they generate in taking people off benefits and into work”. Though such plans may not quicken the pulse, they represent a radical challenge to the centuries-old dominance of HM Treasury and the near-total centralisation of significant decision-making in Whitehall.
Above all, the study takes proper account of what I have called the “ethical crash” — a collapse of standards in public life that is every bit as damaging to the state of our democracy as the financial version of 2008-09. As Brown writes: “The Johnson administration of 2019 to 2022 saw constitutional norms and established expectations of propriety wholly disregarded, and the mechanisms for enforcing them found seriously wanting.”
Just so. And the next government’s first and greatest challenge will be to win back the public trust that has been so recklessly squandered in recent years. Brown is right to recommend the establishment of an Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code; the absorption of the cabinet manual, the principal guide to the practice of government, into the code; and the approval of the new document by Parliament.
If Starmer does indeed become the sixth Labour prime minister — and only the third Labour leader to win a general election — it is perfectly true that the first item in his in-tray will not be institutional reform.
But it should not be absent from his list of priorities either. And he was quite right yesterday to insist that “the sticking plaster approach” to the problem has failed abysmally. Short-termism and populism have been a disaster for this country. The most important test for the next government will be its ability to think in terms of the long haul — and to act accordingly.