Former Prime Minister John Major’s recent speech to the Ditchley Foundation attracted media attention because of his proposals for Scotland, which I’ve written about here.
However, Major also put forward some very interesting proposals for reforming how Parliament works. This got brief mention in the press – primarily his idea of appointing to the House of Commons some MPs who were experts in certain fields. While an interesting and rather controversial proposal, without having the actual text of Major’s speech before me, I was hesitant to comment on what he had said.
Major’s speech is now available on the Ditchley Foundation’s website, and it turns out Major had more in mind than simply appointing some MPs. Major is concerned with Parliament’s efficiency and effectiveness, which he believes can’t be improved via normal democratic means – or may even be undermined by increasing democracy by electing Lords. Part of the problem, Major believes, is that there aren’t enough MPs who are experts in key areas such as science, financial regulations, etc., and because of this, Parliament can’t legislate as effectively as it should. Major proposes widening the pool of talent prepared to enter politics by removing certain disincentives such as paying MPs a fixed and generous salary, but doing away with living allowances. But that is simply the tip of the iceberg:
We need, also, to attract to the Commons men and women at the top of their profession. It is one of the oddities of democracy that fundamental policy choices are made by men and women who, apart from the legitimacy of election and a native intellect, have no qualifications to make them.
How many MPs can bring direct knowledge to how banks should be regulated? Or how hedge funds work? Or are familiar with e-money? Or nuclear energy? Or the social and medical implications of embryology?
We would benefit from our legislators having more practical knowledge.
Of course we can hire specialist advisers, but that can never be as effective as influential, knowledgeable voices speaking with expertise in the Chamber, in the Committees, in the tea rooms, in Party meetings.
There is no solution to this dilemma that doesn’t cut across our traditions, and so I would do just that. Why not elect fewer Members of Parliament and appoint, on a basis pro rata to votes cast in the General Election, a similar number of Members without constituencies?
I know the familiar arguments against this – a few years ago I would have used them myself forcibly – but, on reflection, I now believe enhancement of the talent pool is so vital it justifies the changes.
If the Commons baulks at a further reduction in its Members then, as Douglas Hurd and I have argued before, let us appoint unelected Ministers, answerable to Parliament, but without being Members of it. Or, of course, let us do both. Douglas and I have argued also for fewer Ministers and fewer PPSs: we have far too many of each: they could be severely cut back.
One of the issues Major has identified is the difficulty of attracting people from a wide range of professional backgrounds into politics. I haven’t found data for the 2010 general election, but of the 650 MPs elected in the 2005 general election, 39% listed their occupation as “Professions”, which includes barristers, solicitors, doctors, civil servants/local government, and teachers (both professors and school). Nineteen percent listed their background as “Business” and 35% fell under the “Miscellaneous” category, which includes white collar jobs, politicians/political organisers, publishers and journalists. Only 6% were manual workers. While Major raises an important point, is appointing, rather than electing, MPs the solution?
Major’s proposal to “elect fewer Members of Parliament and appoint, on a basis pro rata to votes cast in the General Election, a similar number of Members without constituencies” might well appall on first consideration, but this isn’t really any different from MPs appointed from lists under some forms of PR. The difference here is that those appointed wouldn’t just be party hacks, but chosen for their professional expertise in specific fields. While I personally don’t like the idea of party lists, I might be more amenable to the idea of MPs appointed because of expertise rather than party partisanship.
Major’s alternative to the above proposal is to do away with the current form of cabinet government, wherein ministers are MPs chosen by the Prime Minister to serve in cabinet. Instead, Major is proposing something similar to the US cabinet, which is composed of unelected persons chosen by the President for their expertise in key areas. While perhaps less objectionable to some than the thought of appointed MPs, this would perhaps be a less ideal solution since cabinet ministers don’t normally serve on committees, and since they wouldn’t be elected MPs, they wouldn’t be in the House participating in debates. This option, to me, isn’t any different than that of appointing specialist advisors, which Major dismisses because that could “never be as effective as influential, knowledgeable voices speaking with expertise in the Chamber, in the Committees, in the tea rooms, in Party meetings.”
Major has a few thoughts on reform of the House of Lords as well. He does agree that it needs reforming; he completely disagrees that electing Lords is the way to go:
The case for election is democratic legitimacy. However, if we want an efficient legislature, the case against is far more compelling.
An elected Upper House would cease to be a revising Chamber and would demand more powers that could only come from the Commons. There would be confusion and conflict. We should be reducing the number of politicians and adding to their quality. An elected Lords would add more politicians and reduce their quality. That is a bad bargain.
Does anyone imagine that Chiefs of the General Staff, Cabinet or Permanent Secretaries, Captains of Industry, Chancellors of Universities, Professors of Medicine would stand for election?
Of course they wouldn’t, and elected replacements could never bring such a depth of knowledge to the scrutiny of legislation. If the answer is more elected politicians, we are asking the wrong question.
Again we see that Major is drawing a line between democratic legitimacy and parliamentary efficiency. He posits that the argument for an elected Lords is that this would increase their democratic legitimacy, but that this would be at the expense of parliamentary efficiency, which is his main argument against an elected upper Chamber. An elected Lords would demand more powers for itself, moving beyond its current role of revising Chamber; there would be confusion and conflict between it and the Commons; and more importantly, by electing Lords, we’d be reducing their quality.
This relates back to the problem of attracting persons from more diverse backgrounds and occupations to stand for election. Very few are interested in giving up solid careers for the ups and downs of politics. This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be interested in serving in some capacity, however, such as being appointed to the House of Lords. Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I do not think that electing Lords (or Canadian Senators) is necessary or even desirable, and so on this point, I agree with Major.
There have been calls by some to replace juries with panels of experts during complex court cases. The argument is that a “jury of one’s peers” simply cannot grasp the increasingly complex scientific and technical evidence presented during trials, both in high-profile criminal cases and in complex civil litigation in antitrust, securities, intellectual property, and product liability cases. It strikes me that Major is arguing the same thing with regards to Parliament, that elected MPs simply don’t have the knowledge, education and professional background to effectively make and pass laws dealing with increasingly complex scientific and technical issues. Because of this, he thinks it is important that there be some way to compensate for this gap, and that would be by appointing persons with the right expertise to play some role in the parliamentary process. The most obvious one would be to not elect peers, since this is already current practice and would be perhaps less objectionable than to trying to introduce the concept of appointed MPs or an unelected cabinet.
It is a pity that the media focused primarily on Major’s ideas about Scotland, because his proposals discussed here warranted more media attention than they received.