‘Replace the House of Lords with a citizens’ assembly, chosen by lot’ (again)

I know it’s an old idea (see Barnett & Carthy Athenian Option 1998/2008, ImprintAcademic), but here’s a letter in today’s (London) Times (Sat 21st May)

Citizens’ assembly

Sir,

Brian Harris (letter, May 19) is right to question whether the best cure for our dysfunctional Lower House is to create a weaker version in the Upper House. As he suggests, the last thing the public wants is more politicians.

A reform that would indeed mean “improvement, not a near duplication” would be to replace the House of Lords with a citizens’ assembly, chosen by lot from all members of the public (excluding political officeholders) willing to serve for a single fixed term, with adjustments to ensure fair representation by gender, age and region.

By virtue of its democratic credentials, such a popular assembly could be given greater powers to challenge the Commons. Even if these powers extended to a right of veto, there would be no conflict of legitimacy of the kind which, as Mr Harris points out, could afflict two elected houses: election and sortition are different but complementary modes of reflecting public opinion. It would thus be quite reasonable to require legislation to secure the approval of both houses.

Nonetheless, one could provide that an enduring deadlock between the two houses be resolved by referendum: that should encourage constructive compromise, as the Commons would no doubt be wary of trying the public’s patience by invoking such a provision too often.

CHARLES SCANLAN London NW8

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4 Responses

  1. p.s. I saw this by chance (!) in a paper copy of the Times. On-line version is behind a paywall, so generally unavailable.

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  2. An interesting proposal, but it incorporates two ironies:

    1) Calls for reform of the upper house are on account of the lower house being perceived as dysfunctional. This is a bit like going to the optician to fix an aching tooth.

    2) Given the argument that election is “aristocratic” and sortition “democratic”, the arrangement being suggested would lead to an aristocratic House of Commons and a democratic Senate/House of Lords.

    The other problem is that the Lords is a valuable source of experience and expertise and this would be sacrificed.

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  3. Why should only one-half of any government be democratic and democratically elected while leaving the other half in the same old corrupted Oligarchic state as always? The failure of BEL (BLANKET Election-by-Lot) in the Athenian “Golden Age” and again in the North Italian city-states of the “Renaissance” is what kept their EL from becoming global both times and ever since. The Brits’ word “Lords” and their reverence for government so “complexified” as to require some kind of “experience and expertise” (at lying, conspiring, soaking the people dry, defrauding, counterfeiting, treason, et al?) plus their obsession with their Royalty monkeys betrays their collective ignorance of anything more than democracy that is nominal only.

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  4. Who says that Athenian lottery-democracy ‘failed’? I though we looked to this as the Golden Age of Periclean civilisation. Universal sufferage here in the UK has (so far) not lasted as long.

    Agreed the N Italian experience of lot-democracy, especially in Florence is patchy. But San Marino and Venice clocked up centuries of experience of lot-selection amongst the elite ruling castes.

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