Thursday, 9 February 2017

Bludgeoning their lordships

It’s not clear whether the suggestion from ‘a government source’ that the House of Lords could face abolition unless they ‘do their patriotic duty’ by voting for Brexit was a deliberate attempt to float something which could later be denied or simply a sign of incompetence.  As a rule, incompetence is the simplest solution when a government appears to contradict itself, but in this case I’m not so sure.  And, of course, the ‘source’ didn’t actually suggest that the government would move to abolish the Lords; merely that there might be an ‘overwhelming’ public demand that they do so.
It’s entirely possible that there are some in government who would want to put the frighteners on their noble lordships – well on those lords awake enough to notice, anyway.  And it could be argued that it’s not so much a threat as a prediction; given the tabloid outbursts against the ‘treacherous’ judges who dared to uphold the law over Brexit, it is wholly conceivable that those same tabloids will turn against the Lords if they dare to even suggest amendments to the Brexit Bill.  And they won’t even have the potential fear of being held in contempt of court to temper their language.
There’s something very ironic, though, about the idea that the Lords might eventually be abolished by a Conservative government, with the full support of the right-wing press, after Labour’s abject failure to deal with the problem whenever they’ve had the opportunity over the last century.  And if it comes to pass, is it even conceivable that we would see Labour rushing to defend the institution?  I’d like to think not, but these days, who knows?
At one level, it could be a case of the proverbial ‘ill wind’, if the Brexit process were to be the catalyst leading to the wholly desirable outcome of abolishing an institution which is hopelessly outdated, and which has survived for as long as it has only because our elected representatives are more wedded to tradition than to democracy.  There is a danger, though, of looking at only one part of the problem, namely that part which acts as some sort of restraint on the executive.
Most of the arguments for having a second chamber at all are to do with the failings of the first chamber.  And those problems were well illustrated by the way in which the Brexit Bill was conceived, written, and rammed through the House of Commons.  They call it ‘scrutiny’ and ‘holding the government to account’.  In reality it was neither.  Arguing that we need a second chamber to provide the scrutiny which the first fails to provide, and that it needs to be unelected because that’s the only way it can be free enough to do the job, serves only to underline how seriously deficient are the House of Commons and its processes.
I’d be delighted to see the Lords abolished, and the sooner the better.  But let’s not overlook the concurrent need for reform of the Commons to ensure that it isn’t just a rubber stamp for the government of the day.  And that reform probably needs to start with Proportional Representation.

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