Do democracy a favour
...and abolish the House of Lords. Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
A modest proposal for somebody’s election manifesto: don’t bother reforming the House of Lords, abolish it. Don’t elect it, or select it, or erect a security wall around it. Do democracy a favour, and demolish the second chamber altogether.
Sunday headlines announced that Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare is not to lose his seat in the Lords, since the Government is dropping its proposal to bar convicted criminals. This was a silly celebrity sub-plot to the real story – that the Government has shelved its plans for radical reform of the Upper House, in face of opposition from the, er, Lords.
Archer is the least of our problems. It is not only felons who should be forcibly removed from the Lords, or hereditary peers, but honest, hardworking life peers too. As they used to say at the other end of the class struggle: one out, all out.
A second chamber, however constituted, exists to block (aka ‘check and balance’) the democratic will of the first. In 1776 the English revolutionary Tom Paine grasped the historic essence of the question, describing the English Constitution as ‘the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials’. The Crown embodied ‘the remains of monarchical tyranny’, the Lords ‘the remains of aristocratical tyranny ‘ and the Commons personified the new republican materials, ‘on whose virtue depends the freedom of England’.
Paine helped to inspire the American revolution. Yet when the Founding Fathers came to frame the Constitution of the United States they were careful to include an upper house as a brake on runaway radicalism. The Senate is elected under a system that gives disproportionate weight to smaller, rural states which tend to be more conservative. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison spelt out the purpose of a second chamber – to guard against popular ‘ fickleness and passion’. ‘A necessary fence against this danger would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number and firmness might seasonably interpose against impetuous counsels,’ he argued in 1788.
The democratic case for abolition is given even greater power by the dire state of political life. Unable or unwilling to try to inspire an electorate they accuse of apathy, everybody with a cause or a grievance now wants to quit the field of public battle and retreat into the High Court or the Upper House, where they can appeal to ‘enlightened citizens’ rather than us ignorant ones. So the Right looks to the Lords to save fox-hunting, while the Left counts on the Lords to defend civil liberties. The solution to every issue is an inquiry, preferably headed by a law lord. And when, as with Hutton, the inquiry fails to provide the desired result, the demand is for another one.
The fashion for hiding behind lords and judges is entombing public life, turning politics into an unwatchably dull spectator sport. Little wonder that electoral turnouts and party memberships are plunging to new lows, or that the question of who becomes Prime Minister excites less interest than who will be the next England football coach. Getting rid of the Lords would not solve the problems of parliamentary government. But it could challenge the democracy-dodgers, forcing their arguments out of the ermined closet and into rough public debate.
New Labour has lost what little nerve it had to do away with ‘the base remains of ancient tyrannies’. Its faltering attempts to reform the Lords descended into farce a year ago, when the Commons rejected all seven options for electing or appointing peers. Now, in the midst of the Government’s phoney war with the Lords over everything from postal votes to asylum-seekers, the Deputy Prime Minister seeks to puff his way up to the moral high ground, declaring that ‘it should not be up to unelected people to make decisions’. Which would sound more convincing if it did not come from a Government in thrall to unelected quangos, inquiries, committees, lobbyists and omsbudsmen.
It would be a start if some of those supposedly rebellious Labour backbenchers stopped asking the Lords to fight their battles for them. During the chaotic Commons debate on Lords reform in February 2003, 172 MPs voted for an amendment demanding abolition. Their subsequent silence suggests that this was more an outburst of pique than a statement of principle. Yet anybody who wants to see far-reaching change in our political culture would surely do better to forget about such ephemera as fox hunting or top-up fees, and take up the public cudgels for freedom from tyrannies old and new. Let us hear less about the revolting spectre of Lord Archer, and more about the revolutionary spirit of Tom Paine.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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