The real meaning of the controversy over the House of Lords

This week Britain’s House of Lords voted to delay the reduction of tax credits for Britain’s poorest working families. Parliamentarians from the ruling Conservative Party are apoplectic at what they say is constitutional outrage – an unelected chamber challenging an elected one. There is an important constitutional issue here, but as usual the Conservatives are pointing to the trees so that we miss the wood. The key issue is not whether the upper chamber is elected; it is how the executive power of the British government should be held accountable, and prevented from excess.

Britain does not have a written constitution. There is no charter of sacred principles which sets out the rights and responsibilities of each part of government and of its citizens. What we have is the result of a very messy process of evolution. It is the result of a struggle between those who want unlimited executive power, and those who want to limit it. We can date this struggle back to King John in 1215 at least. Some may push this back to the time of King Alfred the Great in the late 800s.

Initially the kings claimed their authority from the Divine. They competed for power with their nobles and with the Church. Things have moved on. The power of the Church was crushed by Henry VIII, and the hold of the Divine withered. The House of Lords retains, nominally, the last vestiges of the rights of the nobles. Instead both the divine and the nobility have been replaced by an idea of the Will of the People. But that is just as slippery an idea as that of the Divine.

To most politicians in both Britain’s main ruling parties, the Conservatives and Labour, the Will of the People is represented by a majority in the House of Commons, elected every five years using single member constituencies under the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system. In their eyes theses elections confer rights on the House of Commons akin to the old doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, or the Chinese one of the Mandate of Heaven. This doctrine is often referred to as the Sovereignty of Parliament. The usual practice is that the Commons is controlled my a majority of members from one party, who approve an executive and are expected to support it all of the time. Checks on the executive are regarded as both inefficient and undemocratic. Checks by the judiciary are tolerated (less so if they are at the European level), since most accept that the rule of law is essential to an orderly democratic state. But even that has its limits; the executive chafes at laws that confer rights on ordinary citizens, especially human rights and rights to information. Other checks on power are not accepted. The House of Lords is more there for decoration than anything: a useful political tool to reward politicians for good behaviour, or political donors. There may also be value in the minor revisions to legislation that it proposes from time to time. Hence the anger at this week’s challenge.

And yet many observers feel that this leaves an inadequate check on the executive. There is an argument that unlimited executive power is dangerous rather than efficient, and should be subject to checks and balances. The most famous example of this, of course, is the constitution of the United States of America. The political system there often seems stuck in gridlock, and yet we can hardly call that country a failure, or less democratic than ours. There are three classic ways in which executive power might be limited. A written constitution allowing government actions to be challenged in the courts; a federal constitution that distributes powers between federal and state levels; or an “upper” chamber of the legislature to form a check on the main, popularly elected one. Britain has elements of all three, but they are all weak. The Conservatives want to keep it that way, and weaken the second chamber further.

Is this a bad thing? Conservatives would argue that a strong executive offers decisive government, that is able to develop the economy and protect its citizens better. In particular it is better placed to push through hard but necessary reforms. These reforms may not have been explicit at the time of the government was elected (one of the key arguments against the tax credit proposals), but there is also a sense that the next election casts a verdict on the past government, as well as electing the new one – so there is accountability in the end. Labour politicians are sympathetic to that line of argument, since they want the minimum limits on power when it is their turn.

Liberals oppose this on the basis that it is undemocratic, too beholden to vested interests, and centralises too much power at the national level. These are familiar arguments that I will not try to develop today.

Liberals do have a problem when it comes to the House of Lords though. It is manifestly undemocratic, but simply replacing it with an elected upper chamber with similar powers looks a bit of a nonsense. How would the new upper chamber’s mandate differ from that of the Commons? it could set itself up an an alternative “Will of the People” and simply create deadlock. Wouldn’t it be better to have a single chamber and make that work more effectively? Many liberals might accept that argument in theory, but fear in practice that abolition would not be linked to reforms of the Commons, for example to be elected on a proportional voting system. That fear is well-founded, but it leaves them arguing for something that looks inadequate.

A better way out is surely to come at the problem form a new angle: that of federalism. The new upper chamber might represent the interests of elected governments below the top level. There are many ways that this can be approached, and it would serve a wider purpose. The would help secure a better distribution of power within the country by strengthening local and regional levels of government (I dislike calling this idea “devolution” because it suggests a top-down process). It may also present a more robust solution for Scots’ demands for more self-rule than the unbalanced solutions now on offer. And it is the urgency of the Scotland problem that might give the idea political traction, alongside the widespread recognition that government in England is over-centralised.

That will require some form of constitutional convention to resolve. That is what liberals should be calling for -a not an elected upper chamber by itself.

4 thoughts on “The real meaning of the controversy over the House of Lords”

  1. Matthew

    Interesting blog and very informative as always. I totally favor a federal solution to the problem of the current UK if Scotland, as it has for now, decides it wants to be a part of it. I would like to see a PR federal system and a UK senate which would sit on matters not dealt with by the federal system. The HoL is mainly a place I can’t stand but they did do us all a favour this week, esp thanks to the Liberal members. If this opens a wider debate then that’s great although I also thought Labour were shameful in not killing the bill.


  2. Glad to see your conclusion was precisely in line with where my thoughts were running as I was reading through the article. In my view, it is actually very simple. Election results are a disaster in the UK at virtually every level. I personally think the European Parliament elections are an affront to the word “democracy” when hard-working committed MEPs like Edward Macmillan-Scott can be thrown out to be replaced by…well, members of one certain “party” most certainly come to mind as being the complete embodiment of the total contrast to him! At a local level, we recently had a council by-election and 15% (FIFTEEN per cent!) of the electorate could be bothered to vote (or, put another way, the Labour candidate romped home to victory on 7% of the eligible vote!) (You forgot to talk about “rotten boroughs” in your article!) The Liberal Democrats got 1 million more votes than the SNP across the UK in May..etc. etc. etc. (House of Lords has six convicted criminals who served time in jail and yet can vote on laws affecting everyone!) (People from other EU countries who have lived and worked, paid taxes etc in the UK for 40 years get no vote in the EU referendum, but citizens from countries with such close links to the UK as the Cameroon and Mozambique DO get a vote!) I said above it was “simple” – EITHER a National Convention to clean out the Augean Stable OR (like the Palace of Westminster itself), the whole edifice will just crumble and implode (and, as you rightly say, it will be the departure of the Scots which will be the real trigger for this process to commence).

    1. Actually, to follow on from my own conclusion, I think there are certain sections of the British political establishment which would not really mind IF the present system did indeed implode. If Scotland left, and an English rump, more or less totally dependent on London/the South East economically, which party would stand to gain the most (plus throw in boundary changes, voter registration regulations updating, no effective opposition south of the border left (in Parliament – we could well see an upsurge of the other variety in time)?

      1. Suspect you are right on that.

        I think the European Parliament is a bit of a failure. At one level the PR electoral system gives it a raw sort of authority – people voting without being confined to the usual two-party stitch-up. But it isn’t electing a high calibre of MEPs – which, I suspect, makes the EP more vulnerable to corporate lobbying to enhance illiberal interpretations of things like intellectual property.

        I suspect reviving political engagment will have to get started at the local level. But that’s chicken and egg. To get more people to take it seriously will take an increase in power. Which is bound to get abused at least in the short term…

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