Now give us a referendum on the House of Lords
We ditched the EU, now let’s train our sights on the upper chamber.
As Theresa May called out those who seem intent on impeding Brexit during her snap General Election announcement, there was a striking inclusion alongside the pro-EU predictables of the SNP and the Lib Dems – namely, the ‘unelected members of the House of Lords’, who ‘have vowed to fight [Brexit] every step of the way’.
And this is not the first time that May and other members of the Conservative Party have trained their sights on the House of Lords’ non-democratic constitution and anti-democratic leanings over recent months. Following the Lords’ amendments to the Article 50 bill at the beginning of March, long-time Eurosceptic Tory MP Bill Cash declared, ‘It is outrageous that these unelected people should undermine the vote in the House of Commons’. Likewise, John Penrose, the Tories’ former constitution minister, said, ‘People will find it hard to understand why the unelected House of Lords thinks [the bill the Commons passed] is wrong’. And, just to highlight the antagonism between the government and the Lords, May, in an attempt to impose her authority over the unruly element in her parliamentary midst, sat on the steps of the royal throne in the upper chamber to eyeball the Lords as they debated and, against her wishes, amended the bill.
The fact that the one-time party of tradition, the party that, as its name suggests, sought to maintain things as they are, is now at odds with that institutional brake on change, that bastion of privilege and political favour, ought to be striking. It certainly ought to have generated more comment than it has. Or at least it would have done before the EU referendum. But Brexit has volatilised the political landscape. It has awakened long-suppressed questions, questions of who rules us, and from where do they gain their authority – questions that the Tory government has almost, against its will, been empowered to ask.
And, at one level, the Tories, with the unlikely May to the fore, seem to be enjoying playing the anti-establishment role, as if emboldened by the popular mandate of Brexit in a way they were not by the General Election mandate. Indeed, they seem to be quite willing to pose as champions of the people, against institutions, like the House of Lords, which ‘check and balance’, impede and dilute, the democratic process. Yet, at another level, the mask slips. While May and her friends are happy to enjoy the Brexiteering postures, delighting in the rhetorical sallies against the ‘unelected members of the House of Lords’, their actions too often seem timorous, their convictions skin-deep. They like appearing as the voice of Brexit, but they don’t really want to be the voice of Brexit. So, yes May slams the ‘unelected’ Lords, but, in the same political breath, her spokesperson announces that she thinks it is ‘right’ that the Lords perform their ‘constitutional duty’.
Yet there is a real opportunity here for May to give substance to her pro-democracy posturing. Because it’s one thing to bemoan the existence of unelected lords, scrutinising, amending and obstructing the democratic will, but quite another to follow through on that critical impulse, and empower those the Lords’ existence inhibits – principally the Commons, but ultimately the demos. That is, May needs to stop talking about democracy; she needs to act as if she believes in democracy, as if she believes people really are capable of self-government. If she really thinks that the House of Lords is an obstacle in the way of the democratic will, then she should propose a referendum on it. In other words, if May really values democracy, she ought to entrust the demos with a decision on an issue of democracy.
Because that is what the House of Lords, in light of Brexit, now appears as: a question of democracy, a question of whether this ‘remnant of aristocratic tyranny’, as Thomas Paine called it, ought to be allowed to persist. Before Brexit, of course, there was no shortage of policy-wonking speculation about the role and nature of the House of Lords. There was talk of its reform, of tweaking its membership, even of plans to make it an elected upper chamber. But the questions and proposals were limited. They assumed that the House of Lords would continue; the only question, or problem, was how to legitimise its role, be it through making it more demographically representative or elected.
The aim was always the same: to increase its authority. That’s why every corruption scandal, every cash-for-peerages story, only intensified the establishment longing for a better House of Lords, not for its abolition. The questions asked of the House of Lords were instrumental, not existential. They questioned its reasons for not working, not its reason for being.
But no longer. By posing the question of who rules us, by invigorating a sense of political possibility, Brexit demands that we ask fundamental questions of our political constitution. It demands we look our diluted, compromised democracy in the face. And it therefore demands an interrogation of the House of Lords, an institution the pro-Commons radicals of the mid-17th century called ‘useless and dangerous to the people of England’.
May is unlikely to identify with the traditions of Cromwell, let alone the Levellers. But she doesn’t have to. If she really believes in the people, in the capacity of the demos to control and determine their future, then she could do worse than recall the sentiments of one of her more famous predecessors, a certain Winston Churchill: ‘As democracy becomes more numerous and educated, more varied, more complex and more powerful, it is necessary that the House of Lords should recede and retire. It is necessary that it should count less and less. Most men expected that gradually as things happen in our country the House of Lords would pass peacefully and painlessly away. That would have been a natural evolution, much better for us and much better for them.’
Given the Lords is not going to pass peacefully away, a referendum on its abolition is a chance for May to put her democratic credentials, not to mention ours, to the test.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.