By Michael Faulkner
February 08, 2009
Its masthead proclaims that TPJ Magazine is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of constitutional democracy. Not surprisingly given its provenance, most TPJ columnists concern themselves primarily with the defence of constitutional democracy in the United States where, during recent years, the Bush/Cheney inspired accretion of executive power has been most egregious. In Britain it is widely assumed that the prevalent parliamentary system of government, despite occasional irregularities and abuses, works pretty well and does not need to be changed radically.
This is a view I have never accepted. Recent exposure of some rather shabby practices by four obscure Labour members of the House of Lords (the second chamber of the British parliament) has prompted me to reflect on some of the constitutional questions involved. The shabby practices concerned are merely the latest episode in the seemingly unending series of exposures of venality in government. The facts of the case – as far as they are known – may be stated simply. The Labour peers (Lords Taylor, Truscott, Moonie and Scape) were entrapped by reporters from the Sunday Times, posing as lobbyists for a fictitious Hong Kong based businessman. They discussed the possibility of using their legislative powers to amend actual legislation – a business rate supplement bill – in order to favour a projected business enterprise. Payments for such services, ranging from £24.000 to £120.000 were mentioned by the peers. Of course, no payment was actually made but it seems clear from what transpired that such corrupt practices are common in the House of Lords. They are, however explicitly prohibited by the chamber’s code of conduct, according to which peers ‘must never accept any financial inducement as an incentive.’ However, those who choose to feather their nests in this way cannot be stripped of their peerages. As Lord Moonie commented, there is ‘nothing they can do with you unless you break the law.’
The leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Royall, who is a Labour peer, has felt compelled to write a defence of the unelected second chamber, published in The Guardian (28th January). In an embarrassing piece of special pleading that reads like a 1950s school textbook defence of the ‘British Constitution’ she says that she is ‘genuinely sorry’ that the House has been brought into disrepute and promises to put it in order. The government is deeply embarrassed. New Labour came into office in 1997 promising to put an end to the sleaze and corruption that had marked the last years of the Tory government. But when Blair resigned in 2007 his administration was mired in the corruption of the ‘cash for coronets’ scandal. Now, little more than a year away from the next election, Brown presides over a similar state of affairs. Plus ca change! As his government pours extra billions into a salvage operation to save the banks from the consequences of the banksters’ own malpractices, the last thing he needs is the petty pilfering of thousands by ermine coated Labour peers.
The House of Lords – reform or abolition?
The House of Lords has always been, and remains today, an affront to any serious version of parliamentary democracy. It may surprise some US liberals to learn that Britain’s upper house of parliament is still unelected. Its 743 members include 75 hereditary peers 614 life peers, 26 bishops and 12 judges (Law Lords). In the absence of a Supreme Court in the U.K. the House of Lords is the highest court in the land and the final court of appeal.
For more than one hundred years it has resisted democratic reform. The first great confrontation between the two houses of parliament in Britain occurred before the First World War, in 1909/11, when the elected chamber – the House of Commons – was itself grossly undemocratic as women were denied the vote. In those days the hereditary Lords could block any legislation passed by the Commons and thus cripple the legislative process. In 1909 they kicked out the Liberal government’s budget and modest attempts to introduce social welfare legislation. They then rejected the 1911 Parliament Act which sought to prevent them from blocking finance bills and limited to two years their power to delay bills. They only caved in when Lloyd George threatened to overwhelm them by creating enough life peers to swamp the hereditary peers. Despite the Parliament Act the Lords bitterly resisted the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912, thus contributing to delaying home rule until after the war. Despite its reduced powers, the House of Lords remained a deeply reactionary hereditary chamber until 1958 when life peerages were introduced. But the hereditary peers remained in place.
Tony Benn’s defence of democracy.
In 1960 the Labour MP, Tony Benn (or Anthony Wedgwood-Benn as he was then), took a historic stand in defence of the democratic principle against hereditary peerages. The son of a peer, he was elected to parliament in 1950. On the death of his father he inherited the title and his seat in the House of Lords. Benn, according to the hereditary rule, could not remain in the Commons, despite having been elected to serve there. He was expelled. Despite the prohibition on standing for election to parliament, he stood again in 1961 and was duly elected. An electoral court unseated him, outrageously awarding the election to the Tory candidate he had defeated. This caused a public outcry. Benn renounced his title – the first peer to do so. He was reinstated as the MP for Bristol South East, and remained in parliament with one short break until he retired in 2000. In 1963 the Tory government passed the Peerages Act, allowing peers to renounce their titles.
Tony Benn is an inspirational figure on the left in Britain. Contrary to the depressing trajectory from left to right followed by so many professional politicians, Benn has moved further to the left. The older he has become, the more radical have become his socialist principles. Reflecting on his experience in the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s, he wrote:
‘As a minister I experienced the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour government…..Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact.’
In 2001 Benn retired from parliament in order, in his own words, to ‘spend more time involved in politics.’ This he has done with an energy and enthusiasm uncommon in an octogenarian. Amongst the many issues on which he has campaigned, opposition to the House of Lords has ranked high. Nearly thirty years ago, in a speech to the 1980 Labour Party conference, he called for the abolition of the second chamber by subverting it from within. He advocated the creation by a Labour government of 1000 peers who would then vote for the abolition of the chamber. Following this they would abolish the peerage itself. At a stroke this whole preposterous antiquarian system of power, pomp and privilege would be swept away.
In this he was only advocating what the party had itself proposed at the time of its foundation. The 1918 conference agreed without debate to a resolution declaring that ‘a hereditary chamber such as the House of Lords should be abolished.’ It also confirmed ‘its opposition to any form of second chamber whether elected by the House of Commons or otherwise.’ The Labour governments of 1924 and 1929 were minority governments and, even if they had wished to do so, would not have been able to legislate for abolition. During its long years in opposition from 1931 to 1945, the party once again, in 1934 pledged to ‘pass legislation abolishing the House of Lords as a hereditary chamber.’ The 1945 Labour government, elected with a huge parliamentary majority, not only failed to abolish the second chamber, but left it unreformed as a bastion of hereditary privilege and obstruction. Since then the debate about its form and future has continued, and, despite the reforms which have removed most of the hereditary members, it remains, in name and nature, an anachronistic blight on the system of parliamentary democracy. The system of ‘honours’ by which favoured individuals are ‘elevated’ to the ‘Lords’ through prime ministerial use of the ‘Royal Prerogative’, is symptomatic of this malaise. Corruption of one kind or another has been endemic to this system over most of the twentieth century and into the twenty first.
A democratic alternative to the present chamber would be one wholly elected. The objection to this (that it would simply duplicate the lower house) has resulted in the sorry mess that exists at present – an undemocratic, largely appointed chamber. The other alternative is to do what could and should have been done decades ago: abolish the House of Lords and accept a unicameral system. I can see no democratic objection to this. But it will not happen because there are powerful vested interests opposed to the strengthening of parliamentary democracy. To sweep away the Lords and the class-ridden system of pomp and privilege with which it is associated, would strike at the heart of the institution which holds it all together, and whose mystique still numbs the minds of large numbers of people – the British monarchy.
More than two hundred years ago Thomas Paine exposed the hereditary monarchy as an affront to democracy and common sense. In spite of all the specious arguments of its defenders and apologists over the centuries, it remains so today. Power and privilege based on unelected office is inconsistent with democracy. To be a consistent democrat is to be a republican.