Monday, May 18, 2009

The democracy lie

Over on The Times comment section, William Rees-Mogg believes he has a solution to the MPs expenses row - an elected House of Lords (no, I can't work out how that fixes the MPs expense abuses either).

I now believe that the parliamentary crisis can generate the energy to create a fully elected House of Lords. In some ways that would be less efficient and less well informed than the present House, and it will certainly be more expensive. Yet an unelected House lacks representative authority.

But the House of Lords is not supposed to be a "representative authority". That entirely misrepresents the role and purpose of our second chamber which is not to reflect party politics but to act as a vital check and balance to the House of Commons to prevent abuses of power and the concentration of power.

An elected Lords will not be able to do that. If we have an elected Lords it will inevitably end up dominated one way or the other by either the party of government or the party of opposition resulting in a government with no effective check and balance or one unable to operate effectively - a lame duck government.

Anyone who doubts this needs only to look to the USA to see what that means. In George W. Bush's first term the Republicans dominated both houses leading to an overly powerful president. In his second term the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives and Bush was dead in the water for the next two years.

And that is in the USA where representatives are free to vote according to their conscience whereas an elected Lords would be as prone to the whip system as the Commons where any dissent is ruthlessly crushed and any ambition is impossible unless you conform to the official party line. It's a recipe for disaster.

Over the last 12 years Labour has sought to undermine the Lords with "reforms" which were in fact barely disguised class warfare and amounted to nothing less than constitutional vandalism. The whole point was not to make the Lords work better, but to make it more compliant. When the Lords refused to play ball Labour resorted to the Parliament Act almost indiscriminately and then bullied the Lords with threats of more "reform".

I maintain that an elected Lords will not make Britain more democratic. It really makes me sick that so many people think that more voting will mean more democracy. It won't - it will just mean more power concentrated in party hands and lead to the final erosion of the only effective check and balance on our government.

That check and balance is vital to ensure that we have a properly accountable government and to ensure that no government passes laws which are contrary to the principles, traditions and history of our long held and hard won democracy.

There is a clear warning from history of how this can be used to subvert democracy. The (written) Weimar constitution was described as "on paper, the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had ever seen ... full of ingenious and admirable devices which seemed to guarantee the working of an almost flawless democracy." - but this did not stop Adolf Hitler rising to power and then using that constitution to entrench his power.

That could never have happened here because of the Lords - but if the Lords were elected? When an unscrupulous party attains power it is essential to have an effective check and balance to prevent that party abusing that power. Some might say that it couldn't happen here - I would argue that this Labour administration demonstrates that it already has.

Labour's motivation was not about making democracy work better - nothing could be further from the truth - it was about making the socialist advances of progressive liberalism over the last decade irreversible. Because so few people actually understand that true democracy isn't just about having a vote it doesn't surprise me that the moves are quite popular amongst the electorate, but it worries me that even staunch conservatives like Rees-Mogg are falling for the lie.


Francis said...

Couldn't agree more.
My preference is constitutional restoration - a return to a majority hereditary chamber with a limited number of genuinely eminent life peers, perhaps one or two a year. There might be case to keep elections of hereditaries but with a considerably larger number.
Charles Moore in one of his spectator cloumns mentioned an interesting poll result recently - i can't remember the precise figure or question but it was over 70%, i think, were in favour or not against hereditary peers (possibly keeping the current ones as opposed to restoring them). The point being that its easy to assume that people are against this.

William Gruff said...

What we do with the anachronism that is the Lords is problematic, especially given that The 'U'K cannot but break up, but 'restoration' is not the answer.

Stan said...

As Mark Steyn says, WG - if something has been around long enough to become anachronistic it must be doing something right (or something like that).

The "problem" with the Lords was actually one of presentation and perception rather than any complaint about how they performed their duties. They were perceived as being a bunch of upper crust toffs out of touch with the electorate - which of course was true, but irrelevant. The point was that they were in touch with the historical significance of the House of Lords and the purpose of that chamber. The real irony of the Labour reforms is that, after hundreds of years of slow evolution the Lords was just about functioning as it ought to - both in touch with its duties and, more or less, the electorate.

Of course it wasn't perfect - but perfect government doesn't exist. The point is that it worked and had done effectively for hundreds of years. Very few - if any - other democracies can claim to have had a more effective bicameral legislature.