Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An elected Upper House is an invitation to extreme politics

Depending on your viewpoint, this government has been guilty of causing a lot of damage to the country, but one thing that tends to get overlooked, in my opinion, is the constitutional vandalism which Labour have perpetrated on our institutions of government. No where has this been more apparent than in the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords.

There is no doubt that the idea of a fully elected Upper House is a popular idea. Elections mean democracy, right? Elected politicians means more democracy, right? An elected Upper House means a more democratic government, right?


The point of the Upper House is not to govern the country - that is what the Commons is for. The Upper House is the check and balance of that government. It's principal purpose is to hold the House of Commons to account to ensure that there is no abuse of power. This government's tendency to resort to use of the Parliament Act to override the will of Parliament is a clear sign of what can happen when the government no longer takes that check and balance seriously.

The Parliament Act has only ever been used seven times since it was first passed in 1911 - and only once by a Conservative government - and one of those was to amend the Act in 1949. Yet this government used it three times in its first seven years. This demonstrates the contempt that this Labour administration has for the instrument by which their power is limited and held to account.

That alone is a sign of supreme arrogance on behalf of this government, but worse still is their determination to destroy that check and balance for all time - because that is the aim and intention of the constitutional changes to the House of Lords.

It is framed as a progressive change that will remove an undemocratic anachronism, but that is not really what lies at the heart of Labour's determination to destroy the House of Lords. In the end it comes down to that old, tired and equally anachronistic Labour envy - the class system.

I know that I'm in a minority who think that an elected Upper House would be a bad thing - but that, in my opinion, is because few people actually think about the consequences. You only have to look at the USA for an example of the problems an elected Upper House brings.

In the USA, when both the Senate and the House of Representatives have a similar party political balance - e.g. Republican dominated - then this results in a highly partisan Congress and a President with almost limitless power. When the Senate is dominated by the opposition party this results in a President with virtually no power (the approval of both houses is required to pass legislation), although the President retains the power of veto.

We have already seen that this current government is only too eager to override the will of Parliament with it's use of the Parliament Act. Can you imagine the arrogance of an administration whose party dominated both Houses?

I know some people will argue that our politics is far too moderate for that to happen, but I am pretty certain that when those parliamentarians passed the Parliament Act in 1911 they could never have imagined that one day it would be used to force through a law to ban hunting with dogs!

The second reason why an elected Upper House is a bad idea is popularism. Politicians who are subject to election tend to do things based more on what will get them re-elected rather than what is right for the nation. As such they are influenced by two things. Firstly, but less importantly, they are influenced by what the electorate think. Much more importantly, they are influenced by what their party thinks.

Elected politicians who vote against their party tend to find themselves marginalised and, sometimes, deselected. So an Upper House which is dependent on party approval will be, obviously, far more partisan.

When an Upper House representative is ensconced in that position for life then they tend to vote more with their conscience than with the party. This is essential for a proper check and balance on the Lower House. It is vital that the Upper House remains largely non-partisan - an elected Upper House, no matter what you try to do to prevent that, will always end up as partisan.

An Upper House which is stuffed full of party stooges dependent on an election every few years also breaks the chain of consistency which we currently have. At the moment, the House of Lords rarely changes. Although this may appear, at first, absurd, it provides a very important link between the future, the present and the past.

We all know that as administrations change from Labour to Conservative and back again we tend to see huge swings in governmental approach - but thanks to an unelected Upper House, these huge swings have been tempered by the cool, calm and reflective nature of a non-elected chamber scrutinising legislation. They provide an important link with our traditions and heritage that ensures that no government is able to veer towards extremism.

Removing that linkage between past, present and future is dangerous in my opinion. Since the dawn of our democracy we have never had an extremist government. This is partly due to the nature of our politics which has been, for the most part, moderate - but it has only remained that way because of the Upper House. Quite simply, an extremist government could never hope to win power because they would always come up against the House of Lords which would moderate any extremism. That is the check and balance not just on our government, but on the whole political system.

Take that away and you open the door to extremist government. An elected Upper House will give a government unprecedented power and, as Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

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