Thursday 26 January 2012
It is well over 200 years since that radical old democrat Thomas Paine damned the House of Lords as the ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny’. But there the Lords still sits, high above the common people, purporting to know better and know best. More worrying still, it seems that it is not just old reactionaries who like this antediluvian check on people power. Increasingly, it seems, those who might think of themselves as progressive are giving the Lords a lot of love, too.
The ostensible reason for the upper chamber’s burgeoning left-leaning fanclub rests on the series of defeats that peers have meted out to the Lib-Con government’s Welfare Reform Bill. So, earlier this month the Lords rejected government plans to make cuts to the employment and support allowance (a reworked form of incapacity benefit) which would have affected those too young and too ill to have made sufficient National Insurance contributions. Then, at the beginning of this week, the Lords, led by the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, rejected the proposal to cap total household benefits (including housing benefit, child benefit and child tax credit) at £26,000 - this apparently is the national average household income.
But they were not done yet: yesterday they roundly rejected coalition plans to charge single parents to use the Child Support Agency, if single parents couldn’t sort out maintenance payments from estranged partners themselves.
The sound of lords, be they bishops or the sickly residue of hereditary peerage, rejecting parts of the government’s attempts at welfare reform has been music to ears of those who, in short, are opposed to the Tory-led coalition. In fact, so strong is such people’s disagreement with coalition policies that they are prepared to overlook the fact the will of the elected is being overturned by the arbitrary will of the unelected. ‘The House of Lords’ deeply problematic lack of a democratic mandate was in the news again’, admitted the Guardian in a recent editorial. ‘But’, the paper continued, ‘this eccentric chamber of experience and expertise is at its best when confronting abject paucity of argument, which is what it has been doing with the [benefits] cap.’
Even that avowedly socialist publication, the The Morning Star, found itself overlooking its ‘principled positions’ on ‘democratically elected government’ to observe: ‘It is noteworthy that effective opposition to much of the conservative coalition’s legislative programme stems from the House of Lords, especially the Church of England bishops.’
So it seems that the House of Lords may be considered an affront to democracy. It may even be correctly grasped as a check on the will of politicians people have actually supported and voted for. But, because it is currently criticising and amending legislation along what are seen as agreeable lines, then all the stuff about democracy or what people might actually want can be conveniently forgotten. All that matters is that the Lords is doing what a particular set of activists and commentators thinks is right.
The upper house may no longer be the remains of aristocratical tyranny, stuffed as it is with political appointees plus a few bishops, but it is no less corrosive for that: it now imposes the tyranny of the righteous, a despotism of the self-proclaimed right-thinking. And to hell with what the rest of us might want. Whatever you think about the government’s benefits policies, the blasé attitude to democracy by those cheering on the Lords is pretty reprehensible.
It doesn’t stop at welfare reform, of course. Another left-leaning commentator writes hopefully of the possible failure of the government’s NHS reforms when those lovely lords get their hands on them. ‘[They] could yet be defanged in the House of Lords’ he trills excitedly, ‘where the unlikely former Social Democratic Party duo of Shirley Williams and David Owen have been waging guerrilla war against it for months. Or, given the scale of multiple Lords rebellions, there’s a chance the NHS bill could run out of time.’
While such lordly defeats of government legislation might be fantastic news for those who don’t agree with the government, what of those who actually support it - you know, the little people who voted for either the Lib Dems or the Conservatives at the last election? That’s the problem. The praise heading the Lords’ way comes from those who, feeling unable to influence political affairs democratically, in the court of public opinion, have decided instead to pursue their objectives undemocratically, through the House of Lords. Having lost the ear of the public, they are now whispering what they believe to be right into the ears of our supposed betters.
With regards to the various amendments being made to the welfare bill, the lobbying of assorted charities, campaigners and interest groups, many of whom have since issued Lords-licking statements, is palpable. Indeed, as the journalist Andrew Brown notes of the Children’s Society’s relationship with the Church of England, ‘the influence of the Children’s Society is clear in this [House of Lords] revolt: it is obvious that the bishops have been entirely influenced by the idea that they must protect children from sliding further into poverty.’ Elsewhere, as Patrick Hayes previously reported on spiked, the Trades Union Congress has been busy urging its multi-million members to write to various lords and baronesses in an attempt to get them to block the government’s healthcare reforms. If you can’t win an argument in the public sphere, it seems it is now okay for self-styled progressive, right-thinking types to have a word with a lord behind the democratic scenes.
Not that the latest bout of upper-house revolt has passed uncriticised. Sadly, however, the criticisms have largely focused on the fact that the benefits-cap revolt was led by the Lords Spiritual - that is, representatives of the Church of England. ‘We have the scandal of bishops of one particular denomination (a very small and shrinking one at that) who can directly interfere with law making’, thunders the president of the National Secular Society. What about ‘rabbis, or Seventh-Level Thetans’? Or ‘Quaker leaders, or humanist or atheist leaders?’, wonders a Telegraph columnist.
Yet the problem with the House of Lords is not that it is not inclusive enough, or that a few bishops can pore (and snore) over government legislation, rejecting this, amending that, while militant atheists cannot. The problem is far simpler than that. It is that the House of Lords, an insult to the democratic impulse every bit as rude as a monarch, continues to exist at all.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked
reprinted from: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12009/