Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland rejected the Sinn Féin-supported Fine Gael-Labour government proposal to roll up the second house of the Oireachtas, leaving the proportionally-elected Dáil as the Republic's solitary parliamentary chamber. By all accounts, the constitutional referendum was a bit of a boorach, but as a consequences of the narrow vote for retention, Ireland's unreformed Seanad lives on, leaving the country in the bicameral column in terms of democratic states.
Like our own beloved House of Lords, with its dubious mixture of political appointees, a small phalanx of hereditaries and Church of England bishops, the sixty-soul Seanad is not directly elected by the Irish people, but are formed according to a dizzying array of protocols. The Taoiseach gets eleven. Historical elitism gives the graduates of certain Irish universities six more, while the balance of forty three more are plucked from obscurity by "vocational panels" of some sort.
Even to the outsider's eye, this doesn't sound ideal. I'm poorly placed to reflect on the internal fallout for Irish constitutionality and politics but the Irish referendum does pose interesting questions for those of us, looking forward to a Yes vote in 2014, and beyond, when thinking about the constitutional structures an independent Scotland could and should adopt.
Given our constitutional traditions and history, and the Nationalist plots to retain the Queen as head of state, it seems unlikely that a presidential system will hold many appeals for the new nation. Parliamentary democracy's almost certain to be the thing, and a good thing too, you might well think. But what sort of parliamentary arrangement? And what values ought to inform that choice? It's a big topic which I'm just going to dip into here, but I wanted to sketch a few of the issues we'll have to think about.
Firstly, and most elementarily, should we have a second chamber at all? Do we need one? If you look at democratic nations of similar size, the Danes get by with just their 179 MP Folketing, as does the 120-strong Israeli Knesset. On the other hand, U.S. states of parallel populations often maintain bicameral state governments. For instance, Colorado, with a population of just under 5,200,000 folk, supports a directly-elected governor, and a state House and Senate with 65 members and 35 members respectively. Coming in at 129 MSPs, devolved Holyrood will seem to many folk sufficient. Why multiply our politicians? Why have two chambers at all?
Use and convenience will may unicameralism attractive to many, but there are problems with the status quo. Holyrood's current procedures leave it particularly vulnerable to last-minute government amendments. Bills go through three stages. The first two involve extensive Committee involvement, including calls for evidence, scrutiny, debate. The third stage, by contrast, is usually raced through the whole chamber in a single sitting. It is commonplace for the government to attach new, entirely unscrutinised provisions at stage 3, meaning that wholly unscrutinised provisions hit the statute book. This is a recipe for mischief.
In a bicameral system, this wouldn't be possible in the same fashion, and the second revising chamber would have an opportunity to arrest the now irresistible speed at which a unicameral legislature can adopt new laws. Bicameralism is not, however, the only solutions to these challenges, but it is one potential way to make space for laws to be properly considered. On the other hand, some folk are understandably concerned that an elected second chamber would find itself in political competition with the first. Which brings us to the question of appointment.
Although it seems unlikely to be politically acceptable, we might consider the ideal if not the detail of the Irish Seanad model, forming a second chamber from knowledgeable sorts from different aspects of civic life, to inform our legislative process. Different appointment mechanisms might be considered. Alternatively, we sturdy democrats might favour direct election across the parliamentary board. If so, there is still the possibility that the two parliamentary chambers could be elected according to different franchises, to serve different constitutional goals.
For example, the Electoral Reform Society have recently mooted the idea that a revising chamber could be composed of a revolving group of average punters, selected by lot. Alternatively, we might take our inspiration from the Americas, and try to use a second chamber to reflect Scottish regional diversity. Holyrood's current set up means that the more-populous parts of the country politically dominate Scotland's lower-population, usually rural corners. For much of Holyrood's early history, this was represented in the rule of the predominantly urban Labour Party (albeit with more rurally-inclined Liberal Democratic allies).
Might an independent Scotland want to use a second chamber to even out these imbalances of population, giving minorities greater influence on the political process? This sort of thinking informs the American approach where, for example, seats in the federal House of Representatives are allocated on the basis of population, but every state, regardless of size, has two senators. Senators are also less-regularly elected than their House of Representative colleagues (and if I remember my United States constitution correctly, must by law be more ancient than your callow congressman).
A recipe for political gridlock? Maybe. But it is also an attempt to build safeguards into the democratic system so that the majority cannot always overwhelm the minority. Although the scale of the independent Scottish state would differ significantly from our American cousins, Scotland has its own geographical politics which we might want to take account of constitutionally. A second chamber could reflect these interests and values. We could even ape the provisions of the UK Parliament Act, allowing the populist "representative" chamber to override decisions reached by a second, regionally representative body. A veto isn't inevitable. Everywhere, there will be constitutional choices for the new Scotland to mull over.
If we achieve a Yes vote next September, we're going to have to think about all of these sorts of issues. Although the noisy voices of common sense will, as always, claim their preferred models are inevitable and obvious, a new constitution represents an opportunity to approach our politics in different ways, requiring us to think about the values we want to privilege in the process. For that reason at least, Ireland's abortive lurch towards unicameralism has lessons, and poses questions, for us all.