2. Let’s abolish the Lords. For good

Beyond Brexit:

A programme for democratic reform

2. Let’s abolish the Lords. For good

It's time we finally put an end to this anti-democratic institution.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Brexit Politics UK

In the second piece in our five-part programme for democratic reform, Tim Black makes the case for abolishing the House of Lords. Read Brendan O’Neill’s introduction to the series here, and Mick Hume’s piece on why we must leave the European Union here.

If the people are to be sovereign, the House of Lords needs to be abolished. Again.

The first time arrived on 19 March 1649, during a hiatus in the English Revolution. Parliament was torn between the democratic, republican aspirations of the Commons and the feudal reaction of the Lords. Matters came to a head over the Commons’ desire to put King Charles I on trial for treason. The Lords resisted. The Commons countered with an act of parliament: ‘[We find] by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England.’ And with that, the upper chamber was gone. The Commons, as the elected house, had met the Levellers’ demand of 1648, and ‘made good the supreme authoritie of the people, in this Honourable House, from all pretences of Negative Voices, either In King or Lords’.

Even then, in 1649, the Lords’ abolition was overdue. For this is a political institution rooted firmly in feudal England, when councils composed of religious leaders and powerful land-owning noblemen – known collectively as Witans (or wise ones) – gathered to consult with Anglo-Saxon kings. This conciliar form of monarchic government developed during the 12th and 13th centuries, before the first English parliament (from parler, ‘to speak’) was established in 1295, comprising five groups: prelates, magnates, lower-ranking clergy, knights from the shires, and citizens from the towns.

Parliament was not divided into upper and lower chambers at this point. It did not need to be. The prelates and magnates were utterly dominant over the shires and boroughs, materially and politically. It is not until the reign of Edward III in the mid-14th century that parliament splits in two, with a powerful upper chamber comprising the magnates and clergy, established at the political expense of the lower chamber, featuring the virtually powerless but elected representatives of towns and shires.

But the feudal ground on which the Lords stood was cracking by the early 16th century. Wealth was ceasing to be solely concentrated in land – it was also being generated by trade, by merchants, by artisan producers. And the old feudal obligations were being usurped by the market. The barons and earls remained a significant force, but that force was waning. By the mid-17th century, they and their political expression, the House of Lords, were an impediment, a block on the power that ever larger numbers of property-holding – or ‘freeborn’ – Englishmen now wanted to wield for themselves. They were an obstacle to the development of democracy.

And so, just as the Lords had to be abolished then, if parliament’s authority was to derive from ‘the supreme authoritie of the people’, so the Lords has to be abolished now if we, the people, are really to take back control.

As we know, the ‘Other House’, as Oliver Cromwell called it, was resurrected alongside the monarchy in 1657, its political clout undiminished. In fact, it is not until the 19th century that power shifts, through the Reform Acts, back towards the Commons. That was largely down to an agitating working-class, in the shape, principally, of the Chartists, who led the charge for democratic change. And at every point, then as now, the House of Lords was experienced by the Commons, and by the ever-growing proportion of the people that the Commons represented, as an impediment to the exercise of democracy.

Examples of the Lords consistently acting against the will of Commons abound. In 1884, the Lords blocked moves by William Gladstone’s Liberal government to give the vote to all adult males, resulting in a compromise bill which left 40 per cent of men, and of course all women, without the vote. In 1909, the Commons voted through the ‘People’s Budget’, which promised to tax wealthy landowners, only for the Lords to block it. The words of Keir Hardie, the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, still speak to us over 100 years later: ‘[The House of Lords] is a betrayal of the core democratic principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who must obey those laws.’

Of course, today’s House of Lords does not have the powers it had in 1909. Precisely because of the Lords’ refusal to pass the People’s Budget, the Liberal government passed the 1911 Parliament Act, which stated that the Lords could only delay bills, and even then for no more than three parliamentary sessions, or two years.

And today’s Lords, thanks to New Labour’s 1999 Lords Reform Act, is no longer the preserve of prattling prelates and the heirs to aristocratic tyranny. Or at least not entirely: it is worth remembering that out of 778 peers, 92 are still hereditary and 26 are bishops. The feudal residue persists well into the 21st century. The rest are politically appointed life peers, their allegiances largely defined by the political stripe of the government that picked them. In place of heredity and posh bloodlines we have nepotism and cronyism. As a result there are 243 Conservative peers, 183 crossbenchers, 179 Labour peers and 96 Lib Dems. (That’s right, 96 Lib Dems acting in the interests of a party that won just 7.4 per cent of the vote at the 2017 General Election.)

But while its make-up and role has changed since the early 20th century, make no mistake – this is still a political body wielding considerable power over us, and yet we have no means to hold that power to account. It may not be able to block legislation, but it can scrutinise and amend and send back to the Commons legislation drafted by those we have authorised to act on our behalf. It has the ability, that is, to delay, to alter, to ‘correct’ the democratic will itself. This is not undemocratic – it is anti-democratic.

And it has deployed its anti-democratic power on countless occasions recently. The Lords defeated Commons legislation 60 times in the 2017-19 parliamentary session; 38 times in 2016-17; and 60 times in 2015-16 – that’s over 150 times in three years.

The argument made for the Lords today is that its scarlet-and-ermine-robed members possess not inherited or spiritual authority, but expert authority. And some do probably possess expertise, be it in business or science. But having authority in a specific field or endeavour does not translate into moral or political authority. A knowledge of the human genome is not a knowledge of how we ought to live. That is a judgement only we, as the demos, can make.

Others suggest the Lords plays a vital role by pausing hastily or badly conceived legislation. But if legislation is poorly drafted, the solution is for our elected representatives to draft it better, not have an unelected body redraft it on their behalf. Indeed, the very idea that we need a second chamber to do this compounds the problem the second chamber claims to address, because it infantilises the Commons. Abolishing the House of Lords would encourage the Commons to grow up.

Shamefully, many who in a previous political life would have abolished the Lords on democratic principle now rather like it on pragmatic grounds. They want to use it as a means to bash Brexit and preserve the EU status quo, just as royalists once used it as a means to preserve the feudal status quo. The lines are drawn today as clearly as they were then – between those who want the people to be sovereign and those who want the people’s will to be subordinate to ‘expertise’ or ‘wisdom’.

It is well past time we scrapped this affront to democracy. And this time, for good.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


John Millson

31st July 2019 at 2:01 pm

‘Abolishing the House of Lords would encourage the Commons to grow up.’ It’s not that the HoC is ‘infantile’ but having the ‘second pair of eyes’, the ‘second opinion’, helps us all in the end.

We need another chamber to help produce considered, well-made law. That wouldn’t be un-democratic.

Like in the US a second chamber running on a different electoral cycle, made up of older more experienced politicians, doesn’t seem a bad thing.

Yes, do away with titles and the all the ridiculous frippery, which like in high courts is there to intimidate the less powerful, but don’t do away with a second house altogether.

Ven Oods

30th July 2019 at 2:43 pm

But, where else would the likes of Kinnock and Archer spend their declining years?
That Winter Fuel Allowance only stretches so far, you know.

Marvin Jones

1st August 2019 at 12:10 pm

Make them sell their houses and put them in care homes. It is called equality.

Marvin Jones

27th July 2019 at 4:53 pm

Abolish these waste of space cadavers who get paid for having a daily siesta at our expense. We can use the enormous waste of money to sort out Social Care Torture, and plenty for other important causes.

Thomas Collier

23rd July 2019 at 3:34 pm

Yes abolish and have a unicameral system. Maybe keep the HL as a ceremonial chamber. Also, when Blair took out the Law Lords it was partly to allow separation of powers and increased judicial activism. Having the final court of appeal in Parliament meant laws both originated and were ultimately interpreted in Parliament. It stopped judicial independence being a means to unelected opposition and ensured the law interpreters were “under” the law makers. I would prefer the senior judges to be in Parliament and thus kept an eye on! So the HL could cease voting on and revising legislation. It could sit on ceremonial occasions eg the coronation. And revert to being the final court of appeal.

Paul Carlin

22nd July 2019 at 9:48 pm

I tend to disagree with the majority of ‘appointed/elected’ views which lean to the ‘elected’ side. This is because the great majority of people in the country have very little idea of who is actually the best possible figure (and brain) to sit in judgement of the frequently faulty decisions of the Commons. Few know the finest medical minds, the most successful businessmen and women, the leading academics in STEM, the leading engineers, the most penetrating military intellects. These must be appointed, and appointed by disinterested parties – never any politician.
Are there such disinterested parties? I believe there are, and even if the Civil Service has been polluted and tainted by political prejudice in recent years, it should still be able to name those in the categories above.

Stef Steer

22nd July 2019 at 9:14 pm

We could probably do without a second chamber as you suggest but in all honesty I would rather a check on the commons, I mean look at them now. The problem with the lords is that it is hereditary and appointed and it needs to become elected. I would suggest maybe 2 or 3 year terms and experts in a number of (say 12) areas of life. That are nationally elected and sure it will be party political but an element of expertise will also make it more than just a second commons.

Scott Michel

22nd July 2019 at 6:48 pm

If I read your essay correctly, you’re implying that English government should be unicameral. History’s experience with unicameral legislature is one of abject failure; it generally devolves into mob rule, itself an extreme version of democracy. HoL looks, from an American perspective, as the predecessor to the Senate. The Senate keeps the rabble in the House in check, if not in balance. What would be the replacement to keep Commons in check, if not in balance?

You make the error in your argument that the HoL serves no purpose except to obstruct: your “obstruction” is my “considered moderation”. You point out statistics but don’t go any further in the analysis. Why should those bills have passed? Why shouldn’t have Commons gone back to the drawing board to craft bills that the Lords would accept?

Furthermore, your example of when Lords was disestablished is the perfect example of why it shouldn’t. Unless, if course, you like direct democracy on the real border of mob rule.

I’ll agree with you that HoL could do with some reforms (but wasn’t that the point back in the 90’s, IIRC)? Throwing away the institution seems like a mistake.

Jim Lawrie

22nd July 2019 at 7:40 pm

Yes. We must be checked lest we become cheeky to our betters.

Scott Michel

23rd July 2019 at 4:01 pm

Yes, I realize you’re being cheeky. But all seriousness aside, bicameral legislatures work and foster better stability. Reforming the HoL sounds like it’s needed, but outright abolishment is lunacy.

Jerry Owen

22nd July 2019 at 4:48 pm

For me it’s 2/2 so far .. looking good !

Hana Jinks

23rd July 2019 at 2:52 pm

Jerry Oven-Kraut.

You may well have missed it, but l ended up having to turn Anti Moreswill into a dungeon-bitch.

Steve Roberts

22nd July 2019 at 4:27 pm

We are living through the most exciting political period for generations. The people have made their mark on society with the referendum result, a majoritarian result, we must not accept, ever, the tyranny of the minority in a democracy.
It is right we continue our fight for the enactment of the referendum result to leave the E.U. it must be at the forefront of any democratic demand, we now have an organised form that expresses our wishes and has placed it as THE priority if elected, that is The Brexit Party.
And yet we must be aware that the established order – not just the political class that is denying our sovereign will – will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo, they have many institutions some formally constituted, some informally unconstituted / conventions, they are all obstacle in varying degrees to thwart our will, they all need to be removed.
All democrats should support the removal of these obstacles, we the people are the sovereign masters of our destiny and anything in our way must go.
The H.O.L is but one of those obstacles, there can be no equivocation, it is a threat to our sovereignty and it must go. We need no checks and balances on our political power, it is ours to use as we see fit and as we instruct our representatives ,and if they do not they must go too, now and in the future.
Leave the E.U. Abolish the H.O.L.
That’s just a start.

Hana Jinks

22nd July 2019 at 6:18 pm

Ask yourself how it would be any different if BP gained any political power. UKIP aren’t controlled, are against globalism and don’t have fake news running interference for them. The globalists are destroying our societies thru leftism, and the antidote is British nationalism.

See how shameful they’ve made you feel about nationalism? As if it’s some kind of nazi thing? Shouldn’t the Japanese be lauded for wanting to preserve their society and culture? How about the Dutch?

They’ve allowed our countries to be invaded by philistines. They also want to see Britain destroyed.

Hana Jinks

22nd July 2019 at 6:20 pm

*ashamed, not shameful.

Keith Young

22nd July 2019 at 3:16 pm

I think we need to rethink what the second chamber should be for and how we constitute it. I think the second chamber can have an important and wider role in oversight of the government and non-government organisations. I think the second chamber should be based on advocated CAs rather than hereditary, elected or appointed.

The new chamber should be a central part of our democratic system, being a crucial element in the system of checks and balances that control the exercise of executive power. It should continue with its conventional role in deliberation, scrutiny and revision of the law. Like the current house, it would have powers to provide a limited delay of legislation. However, the new chamber would no longer have the power to initiate legislation. This is properly the role of the elected primary assembly either as government or through private members’ bills. The second chamber cannot be a source of law because it has no political mandate. In a sense, the role of legislative scrutiny is one of oversight. The new chamber would be given broader functions in relation to oversight including patronage and accountability. In a sense, its role is to represent the citizen body in the political process. It would have control of patronage and oversight of NGOs, commissions and other non-government organisations such as the BBC. I think the reduction of the powers of patronage of the executive is an essential reform of our political system.

However, the proposal is too complex for a comment to an article. It simply become a TL;DR.

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