The Times is running two letters under the heading, Should the Upper House be a Senate? (£). The first letter calls for a federal senate with equal representation for each nation of the UK. (Quite why the smaller nations should be disproportionately powerful, I do not know.)  The second calls for a chamber of representatives from “leading professional and other expert bodies such as the Law Society, the British Medical Association, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and so on.”

In either case, the call is for representatives with special interests, whether regional or professional. This is an old and wrong-headed idea.

Mises’ 1927 book Liberalism: The Classical Tradition deals with this in chapter 4, section 3.  (Ah – recess reading!)  Amongst other things, he writes:

A parliament composed of the supporters of the antiliberal parties of special interests is not capable of carrying on its business and must, in the long run, disappoint everyone. This is what people mean today and have meant for many years now when they speak of the crisis of parliamentarism.

As the solution for this crisis, some demand the abolition of democracy and the parliamentary system and the institution of a dictatorship. We do not propose to discuss once again the objections to dictatorship. This we have already done in sufficient detail.

A second suggestion is directed toward remedying the alleged deficiencies of a general assembly composed of members elected directly by all the citizens, by either supplementing or replacing it altogether with a diet composed of delegates chosen by autonomous corporative bodies or guilds formed by the different branches of trade, industry, and the professions. The members of a general popular assembly, it is said, lack the requisite objectivity and the knowledge of economic affairs. What is needed is not so much a general policy as an economic policy. The representatives of industrial and professional guilds would be able to come to an agreement on questions whose solution either eludes entirely the delegates of constituencies formed on a merely geographical basis or becomes apparent to them only after long delay.

In regard to an assembly composed of delegates representing different occupational associations, the crucial question about which one must be clear is how a vote is to be taken, or, if each member is to have one vote, how many representatives are to be granted to each guild. This is a problem that must be resolved before the diet convenes; but once this question is settled, one can spare oneself the trouble of calling the assembly into session, for the outcome of the voting is thereby already determined. To be sure, it is quite another question whether the distribution of power among the guilds, once established, can be maintained. It will always be–let us not cherish any delusions on this score–unacceptable to the majority of the people. In order to create a parliament acceptable to the majority, there is no need of an assembly divided along occupational lines. Everything will depend on whether the discontent aroused by the policies adopted by the deputies of the guilds is great enough to lead to the violent overthrow of the whole system. In contrast to the democratic system, this one offers no guarantee that a change in policy desired by the overwhelming majority of the population will take place. In saying this, we have said everything that needs to be said against the idea of an assembly constituted on the basis of occupational divisions. For the liberal, any system which does not exclude every violent interruption of peaceful development is, from the very outset, out of the question.

If there was a “crisis of parliamentarism” in 1927, how much more so today.  Our slow abandonment of the classical British doctrine of liberty has indeed created a Parliament which disappoints everyone.  Moreover, we have mostly abandoned policy making by elected representatives in favour of rubber-stamping the work of officials, whether national or international.

What is required is a Parliament which works in the general interest, not one through which particular groups try to advantage themselves by force of law. That means a Parliament committed to the ideals of liberty under the law, which in turn implies a public persuaded that we cannot all live at everyone else’s expense.

However we proceed, special interests will continue to have their opportunities to lobby: they do not need to be elected. It would be crass to make this old error.

One Comment

  1. I agree that we don’t want a chamber of special interest representatives.

    If we must have a second chamber then it must have democratic legitimacy if it is to act as a check (though not a block) on the Commons and initiate some laws. Since people complain about the lack of proportional representation when voting for MPs, the second chamber should rectify this deficiency. However, since using direct elections to select representatives for a second chamber would undermine the primacy of MPs, we need a system that is both indirect and proportional.

    The second chamber should therefore have just 300 members (half the number of the, to be reformed, Commons). We would only select these after each general election from those candidates who failed to win election to the Commons (this would prevent the list from becoming just another patronage tool for party leaders – since local constituency parties select most candidates).

    We would divide the seats between all the parties contesting the general election based on their total share of the national vote. Parties with less the 1% of the national vote would not get a seat. In the interests of fairness, Independents would count as one party.

    We would rank all the losing candidates for the Commons by the total number of votes they won in their local election. This would favour candidates who nearly won in constituencies where more people voted. This should encourage people to vote for a good candidate who is unlikely to win because they might still get a seat in the second chamber.

    Say the Conservative Party wins 33% of the national vote – we therefore allocate it 99 seats in the second chamber. Ms Blueeyes is their losing candidate with the most votes so she gets the first seat. Mr Bluenose also got more votes than most other Conservative losers – so he gets the second seat, and so on until we have allocated all the party’s seats to its top 99 losers, (the remaining losers don’t get a second chance).

    If Independents got 5% of the national vote – they would get 15 seats in the second chamber. Again, the losing Independent candidate with the most votes in their local election would get the first seat.

    We would not allow parties to replace candidates with other nominations – if a candidate dropped out then the seat would go to the next losing candidate down the list. This way, every person in the second chamber is a named individual who has at least stood in a general election and gained a reasonable number of votes. The overall makeup of the second chamber would be proportional but since none of the members would represent a constituency, they could not usurp the role of the MP.

    Second chamber representatives could naturally stand for the Commons in future elections – their role in the second chamber might help them build (or destroy) their political reputation with the electorate – somewhat reducing the advantage usually held by incumbent MPs and so making for fairer elections.

    Kind regards

    Huw Sayer