Britain’s unwritten constitution is not David Cameron’s plaything, or a convenient omission to be taken advantage of by opportunistic politicians who want to sidestep proper scrutiny
What do do when the British system of democracy fails to ensure a smooth and easy ride for each and every government bill or personal initiative of the prime minister?
Why, simply change the rules of the game, and meddle with the constitution so the only answer that anyone can give is an enthusiastic “yes!”.
This is essentially what David Cameron is now proposing to do, with some of the most nakedly autocratic changes to our legislature in recent memory.
The FT reports:
David Cameron has been secretly drawing up a plan to bypass an increasingly hostile anti-Tory majority in the House of Lords, which is threatening to wreak havoc with his legislative plans.
The UK prime minister will use the recent bust-up with the Lords on tax-credit reform as a chance to neuter the powers of the upper house.
Lord Strathclyde, the Tory grandee charged by Mr Cameron with reviewing the role of peers, is set to propose this month that the Lords should lose its veto over delegated or “secondary” legislation, such as the measure implementing tax-credit cuts.
Once that veto is removed, Mr Cameron is expected to step up his government’s increasing use of delegated legislation — also known as statutory instruments — to ram contentious measures through the upper house.
A typically arrogant move, as befits our current prime minister. But the worst comes in the form of this sneering, boastful threat from an unnamed senior Tory:
“If the House of Commons insisted, that would be it,” said one senior Tory.
“The House of Lords has to tread carefully,” he added. “If they don’t accept this proposal, we could stop them having any say at all on secondary legislation. That’s a big bazooka.”
In other words, the upper chamber of our national legislature should exist only to serve as an ermine-clad rubber stamp to the will of the prime minister. Sure, Cameron is happy to let the Lords poke around and pontificate on minor legislation of no real importance, just to give the appearance of a well-functioning and accountable system. But when it comes to the big ticket items involving finance, foreign or military affairs, the House of Lords should remain about as weak and toothless as its average, septuagenarian member.
In their outrage at being thwarted on tax credits and defied with regard to the voting age in the EU referendum, the government appears to have forgotten that scrutinising hasty legislation, thinking independently of the House of Commons and checking the “elected dictatorship” of the executive is exactly what an upper legislative chamber is supposed to do. If the composition of the upper house exactly mirrored that of the lower house, and voted in exactly the same way, there would be no point to its existence. This friction and tension between the two institutions forms one of the key checks and balances in our democracy – it is not something to be casually tossed aside whenever the government of the day finds its preferred pathway blocked.
There’s a dangerous chicken and egg dynamic at play when it comes to the House of Lords. The fact that the Lords are not democratically elected effectively gives cover to authoritarian governments who want to impose their will on the country unchecked. “None of these people were elected, while we just won the last general election”, governments can say. “Therefore we should be allowed to overrule or bypass the Lords in order to do the will of the people”.
But this also creates a powerful incentive to delay attempts to make the Lords more democratic, because to do so would add legitimacy to the body and make it much harder to steamroller ill-considered legislation past reasonable scrutiny and on to the statute books. The last attempt at positive House of Lords reform stalled early on during the coalition government of 2010-2015, after the Liberal Democrat initiative was blocked by a group of recalcitrant Tory MPs, and there will certainly be no further attempt now that the Conservatives govern alone.
It is certainly hard to argue that today’s House of Lords – made up of unelected grandees, failed MPs, influential party donors and the intolerable Lords Spiritual – should have the right to delay or veto government legislation. The current system is by definition undemocratic. But shamefully, David Cameron’s answer is not to make the House of Lords a powerful and democratically legitimate upper chamber, as he should, but rather to use the current state of the Lords as a convenient argument to help his government avoid much-needed scrutiny.
As this blog has been arguing for three years now, Britain urgently needs a full constitutional convention so that the weighty questions of how we govern ourselves and where power resides can be tackled, resolved and formalised in a document.
Equality for the four home nations in terms of devolved power. A fresh look at pushing power down to the lowest possible level, preferably the individual. Empowering cities, counties and regions (building on George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, but going much further). More elected mayors. Term limits for politicians and ministers. A pre-determined order of prime ministerial succession, so that the leader of our country is not chosen behind closed doors in the event that the unthinkable happens. House of Lords reform. House of Commons reform. Electronic voting in parliament to save vast amounts of valuable time. Perhaps splitting the executive from the legislature, so that MPs can concentrate on their jobs without being distracted by attempts to climb the greasy pole. All of these ideas and more should be on the table, with a view to fixing ancient democratic deficits while preserving all of the best of that which makes Britain great.
But what we have at the moment is piecemeal constitutional reform on demand – not with a view to promoting democracy or ensuring a well governed country, but simply in order to solve whatever problem happens to be confronting the government of the day. This is no way for politicians to govern, and it is no way to run a modern nation state.
Unfortunately, issues of governance and constitutional reform rarely bring people out onto the streets in protest, despite being of far more long term consequence to us all than relatively trifling matters like NHS junior doctors pay, HS2 or tax credits. But all concerned citizens should fight David Cameron’s latest lazy attempt at constitutional reform on the fly with every weapon at their disposal.
First we must stop the damage already being done. But that is not enough. It is not enough to stop David Cameron’s government from inflicting further vandalism on Britain’s constitution. The time has come to take a more holistic view of these matters, instead of the myopic, short-termist approach which thinks only in terms of immediate political advantage.
Serving MPs and ministers are obviously the last people who can be expected to give fair and impartial input to these decisions, though there is obviously a wealth of experience and knowledge held by current parliamentarians which must absolutely be harnessed. So we need to go directly to the people, however much the elites may recoil at the thought.
No more piecemeal reform. Britain doesn’t need any more opportunistic constitutional tricks. There may be little appetite for it – particularly when other current issues seem to loom larger, and when any discussion about who we are as a country provokes more awkward silences than expressions of patriotism – but we need real reform, through a full constitutional convention of the United Kingdom.
The longer we wait to drag Britain’s patchwork constitutional settlement half way to meeting the people, the less democratic – and more ungovernable – our country will become.
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