Let’s hope the Lords have signed their own death warrant
The anti-Brexit ‘revolt’ by unelected peers makes a mockery of democracy.
Question: what could be worse than 350-odd unelected members of the House of Lords voting to thwart the will of the 17.4million people who voted for Brexit?
Answer: the way that some liberals in the UK hailed this anti-democratic ‘revolt’ in the Lords as if it was a noble blow for freedom and equality.
To anybody with a democratic bone in their body, however, the peers’ vote to defeat the elected government on Brexit surely ought to end the argument for abolishing the unaccountable House of Lords. The Lords should have signed their own death warrant this week.
On Wednesday, the Lords voted by 358 to 256 for an amendment to the Conservative government’s Brexit bill. The amendment would unilaterally allow EU nationals the right to stay in the UK after Brexit, regardless of whether the same rights are granted to British residents in the EU.
The vote was praised by liberal lobbyists and migrant campaigners as a stand against ‘racist’ Brexit and the xenophobic atmosphere they imagine has intensified in the UK since the referendum vote. In reality, it was an anti-democratic political stunt staged to try to derail Brexit, using EU migrants as human shields.
There is nothing racist about voting to leave the undemocratic, migrant-bashing European Union, even in the hands of a Tory government. Surveys show that the vast majority of UK voters, including most Leave supporters, want and expect EU nationals to be given the right to remain in the UK after Brexit. The government supports this; Tory prime minister Theresa May even offered German chancellor Angela Merkel an early deal on reciprocal residency rights, but Merkel refused to discuss such matters until the formal Brexit process begins.
The vote in the Lords had nothing to do with defending migrants’ rights, and everything to do with asserting the right of a few peers to interfere with democratic politics and hopefully overrule the electorate on Brexit. The ‘rebels’ in the Lords hope at least to slow down and divert the Brexit process, with the ultimate ambition to make any leaving deal with the EU seem such an unappealing mess that it will be rejected.
From the first, the House of Lords has been looked to by the defeated Remainers of the political class as the best hope of derailing Brexit. It was precisely the unelected, unaccountable status of Britain’s upper house that made it so appealing to those outraged by the revolting voters’ referendum verdict.
As Tory baroness Patience Wheatcroft spelled it out last year, the House of Lords was best placed to lead a ‘rebellion’ against Brexit because it is unrepresentative of the people. (The Conservatives, despite winning a majority in the House of Commons in 2015, had only a minority of 254 peers out of a bloated total of 798 in the Lords, while the openly pro-EU Liberal Democrats, then reduced to a rump of just seven elected MPs, could still boast 105 unelected members swanning about in the Lords.)
Baroness Wheatcroft gave the game away when she boasted that ‘with no constituents to fear’ the Lords would be freer than the Commons to vote against the wishes of the electorate. It is fear of the mass of constituents that drives anti-democrats of every political stripe to seek refuge in the Lords, while claiming to be upholding parliamentary democracy of course.
This vote is no aberration. It reveals the anti-democratic essence of the House of Lords. By coincidence, the BBC this week began broadcasting a behind-the-scenes documentary series about the upper house called Meet the Lords. Much of the critical discussion around the programme has focused on the ageing members who draw their £300-a-day attendance allowance without ever speaking in a debate or doing anything much other than eat, drink and sleep in the Lords.
The real problem, however, is that some peers don’t just doze but actively interfere in democratic politics. The first episode of the documentary focused a lot of attention on Labour peer Oona King, a failed politician elevated to the Lords after she lost her seat in the Commons (to George Galloway). King was depicted as a hard-working, modern peer standing up for the underdogs of British society against the Tory government while wearing trainers (at least until she quit the Lords at the end of the programme for a cushy YouTube job in California).
Yet the unelected King is an ardent Remainer who was committed to using the Lords to try to undermine or overthrow the Leave votes of millions of ‘underdogs’ and did far more than the dozy old duffers to discredit democracy. In the wake of the Brexit vote, she tabled a motion on a second referendum, insisting that most Leave voters ‘did not know what they were voting for’. It was the duty of the Lords, she claimed, to put the rest of us right: ‘To scrutinise the decisions of those with democratic authority – in this case, the British people – to bring more facts to their attention and to ask them to review their decision.’ In other words, we should do as the Good Lords intended.
Many critics of the archaic practices of the House of Lords would like to see it replaced with an elected upper chamber. It does seem absurd that unelected, unaccountable peers, sitting in what is the biggest parliamentary assembly outside the National People’s Congress of China – and even less democratic than that monstrosity – should have such power in a 21st-century democracy.
Yet the unelected status of the House of Lords at least reveals the real purpose of an upper house of parliament – to act as a counter to ‘too much’ democracy. Even elected upper chambers essentially exist to serve the same purpose. That was why James Madison, one of America’s Founding Fathers and later the fourth US president, explicitly argued for the creation of a less democratic senate, empowered to protect the people from themselves whenever they were ‘stimulated by some irregular passion’ or ‘misled by the wilful misrepresentations of interested men’ to ‘call for measures which they themselves will afterwards… lament and condemn’. The allocation of two senate seats to each US state, regardless of its population, was and is intended to help the smaller, rural and generally more conservative states counter the popular influence of the big urban centres.
The unelected House of Lords stands as an honest statement of the elitist role which other upper houses hide behind a quasi-democratic façade. The best solution to the problem is not to reform the Lords, but to abolish it altogether and give democracy freer rein.
It would be a start if the British left stopped looking to the Lords as some sort of liberal bastion of progressive politics, took a stand for popular democracy, and demanded that this ermined leftover of the Middle Ages be swept into the dustbin of political history.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.
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