Friday, 9 March 2007

In Defence of The House of Lords (I)

"Be it enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:"

I should like to explain to you why I advocate no reform of the House of Lords. Such reform is an affront to democracy.

'Democracy is not mandatory'

This is something to remember throughout my ramblings, or else it will make no sense. I do not believe that pure democracy is the best form of Government. Some un-democratic check is required to secure the safety of the state. We cannot entrust government entirely to the unenlightened. They should have a say. But not absolute power.

This well established in many democratic countries. Common Law countries often use the principle of a 'Supreme Court'. America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India are the foremost examples. The Supreme Court can declare 'unconstitutional' those acts passed by the legislature. Judges are appointed - by the President in America - not elected. They are bound to obey the Constitution, and the legislature, but in that order.

This principle was first established by Sir William Blackstone (remember him?). He had a great influence on the establishment of the American Constitution. However, it never found place
in the Law of his own nation. I think perhaps that it should. But I'll come to that in time.

One of the main reasons for this principle not being established here is the House of Lords. One must remember that the House of Lords has both judicial and legislative powers. At least until 2009. But I'll deal with the judicial situation in a later post: the Supreme Court debate is in itself interesting.

What we have, though, is a legiaslative House designed to be the 'watchdog of the Constitution'. We have no need of such a overseeing Court because we have an over-seeing Chamber.

The advantages of an undemocratic Chamber

You might now suggest that an overseeing Chamber could just as easily be elected. But I venture suggest that this is not so. Consider our illustrious House of Commons.

The Commons is full of professional politicians, whose livelihoods depend on pleasing the population every four (or five) years. Thus they never take unpopular policies. They do what the people want. Correctly so. But what if something popular is popular for the wrong reasons? Take capital punishment. It's expressly forbidden by international treaties and Charters. Yet nonetheless, the majority of the electorate have been shown actually to support the re-introduction. This - I suggest - is merely vindictiveness. There is no evidence at all in favour of it. But if we had pure democracy, hanging - and other laws like it - could soon take place. An extreme example could be suggested in the form of Hitler: he took power democratically and changed the constitution. Because the Weimar Republic had put no sensible safeguards in place.

I do not say that we should have no democracy. The people must play a great role in our politics. But not everything. This is my main objection to an all-elected 'Upper' House.

There is, however, another concern. Undemocratic elections. No-one can say that our 'first-past-the-post' system elects representative governments. I do not think that this is a bad thing. But imagine a 'Reformed Chamber' reflecting Tony Blair's huge majorities of the early years. Or worse, a paralysed Italian-esque Chamber unable to function without minority influences holding undue power.

Our present process

Jack Straw's suggestions can be boiled down to three principal principles:
  • An all-elected House
  • An all-appointed House
  • A hybrid House of various proportions

I would venture to suggest that an all-elected House is highly unadvisable, under the principles outlined above. It could only be acceptable accompanied by a Supreme Court Act, giving the new Supreme Court powers according to Blackstone's principles.

A hybrid House would be open to complex problems. Not only in its organisation, but also its running. How would the elected and unelected interact? Would parties nominate the unelected? According to Straw's principles, they woulkd do so for the majority of seats. Surely this simply extends the Commons upwards.


I would therefore venture to suggest that an all-appointed House is the best solution: and to keep it free from party influence altogether. Those who know me at all well will be able to predict my solution to the party-political concerns. But I'll explain those tomorrow. You've read enough already.


1 comment:

Gavin said...

I agree with you 100%, for once. Despite my constant attacks on liberal Anglicanism, the Lords Spiritual have got to stay. The hereditaries are the most democratic part of the system as they are unwhipped. Parties do not control them. Before the viscious and unecessary 1997 (or was it 98?) reforms swept away many leading figures in business, the media, the arts and other areas of British life whose real-life experience contributed immensely to legislative amendments. It's just a question of whether you can stomach those toffs swanning around in gowns and wigs because of birthright. There was no practical need to reform the Lords. It was class war.