This link by Andrew Sullivan about a proposal to replace the House of Lords got me thinking about an issue that has fascinated me for a while.  How did government structures evolve as to their current form and how does a country choose a structure best suited for its needs?  Why do countries with a similar socio-economic background have differing successes with the same governmental system?  As Afghanistan founders in its presidential election and Iraq struggles to draft an electoral law these are pressing concerns in current affairs.  So this will be the first of a series of (non-academic) ramblings on the subject surveying the evolution of ruling systems through history.

Thomas Bingham’s proposal in someways is emblematic of the patchwork way the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution has evolved.  Most of its constitutional developments have been ad hoc attempts to address the problem at hand rather than a result of a comprehensive review of how and why things are the way they are.

King John abuses the nobility, get the Magna Carta.  Henry III squanders money on foreign favorites and wars (and a quixotic attempt to place his son on the Sicilian throne) get the Provisions of Oxford and Westminster.  Edward I wants money for wars in France and Scotland get a parliament.  Worried about a Catholic monarch, toss him out, restrict his successor’s power and bar Catholics from the throne.  Worried Scotland will break the personal union of the crowns when the childless Queen Anne dies. ram through an Act of Union. Expand the franchise as needed.  If the House of Lords gets in your way, cut down its power and alter its composition.  The United Kingdom did completely separate out its judiciary from Parliament until October 1, 2009 when it finally created a Supreme Court.  Until then it was a function of the House of Lords.

The piecemeal approach has generally worked, but there are some major inequities in the current system.  Even Thomas Bingham’s proposal does not address the problem created by devolution of powers to a Scottish and Welsh Parliament.  Scottish and Welsh ministers in Westminster can vote on solely English issues.  However, English MPs cannot vote on items devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.  The London based governments of England have historically been slow to address issues of concern in the far off regions of the country.

While England has some local government at the county level, with a population of over 50 million it appears to be one of the largest regions that has not devolved powers to provincial or state governments.  There is some opposition to creating regional parliaments based on the fear that it would fracture one of the oldest unified nations of Europe.  However, turning England’s regional assemblies into genuinely representative organizations would give it responsive local government like the Scots and the Welsh have.  This has been unsuccessfully tried before and a problem seems to have been a failure to explain the functions of the assemblies.

But it could be the underpinnings of a method to create a quasi-democratic alternative to the House of Lords instead of a body of blue bloods and lifetime appointees.  Like the original United States Senate and the Indian Rajya Sabha, the parliaments of Wales, Scotland and the regional assemblies in England could elect the members of an upper house who would serve as a check on a House of Commons where a government with a majority essentially has no restrictions.  Such a body would also be better suited to control parliamentary excesses than the existing House of Lords.  Since costs of a layer of government are a concern, these could be trimmed by cutting down the size of the House of Commons.  The House of Commons with 646 members has a 100 more members that both houses of the United States Congress for a population about one fifth the size.  With a devolution of powers, there is no reason for a Parliament that size.  This does not include the over 700 members of the House of Lords.

There are of course many pitfalls to the my armchair musings above and others may have proposed them before.  The Welsh (and particularly) the Scots will likely not be happy at being equated to an English region instead of a nation constituting the United Kingdom.  Trimming the House of Commons will require a number of politicians to set their sights for prizes at lower levels.  While some may grasp at the opportunity of wielding regional power instead of sitting on a backbench, many MPs may not look forward to the possibility of unemployment.  The concerns that this will just add another layer of bureaucracy  need to be fleshed out and addressed.

But it is a drastic overhaul of how the United Kingdom is governed.  It would also provide the first meaningful check on an absolute majority in the House of Commons since the 19th century.

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