Those who want to prevent Brexit have been claiming a major victory. On 18th of April the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber of the British parliament, passed two measures which embarrassed Theresa May’s government.
The first obliges the British government to negotiate remaining in the Customs Union, which Theresa May has insisted the UK will leave after the Brexit transition period, without negotiation. The second limits the powers of ministers to alter EU employment, consumer and environmental rules without primary legislation, which is likely to result in many of the more beneficial EU regulations remaining in place despite the best efforts of the government to overturn them
The House of Lords can’t actually stop any government doing what it wants. It can only delay the progress of bills which are passed by the House of Commons, not prevent them from passing at all. It also has to pick its fights carefully, knowing there would be public backlash against an appointed chamber trying to obstruct a directly elected one, the situation which led to its present limited powers being imposed upon it in 1911
Nor do the votes in the Lords have real meaning. Obliging the government to negotiate will only mean that it must report on what it has done after the event. Whether it has tried hard enough to remain in the Customs Union could only be decided after those negotiations, which could take as little as five minutes, have been concluded and reported upon.
Similarly, EU regulations could be altered simply by failing to enforce them. There is not much the EU could do to sanction a country which is already leaving if it ignores EU regulations internally but keeps to them in trading relations with EU and external partners. Nor would it have much will to try, when it is already being accused of “punishing” the UK by demanding settlement of the various debts the UK already has to it under existing agreements.
But the significance of the Lords’ action goes beyond these issues. Whatever the politics of its members, they have sat back and watched their colleagues in “another place”, as it is quaintly called under parliamentary convention, fail to fulfil their responsibilities.
It is not the views the noble Lords have expressed which the issue-at-hand is, but the fact that they have taken expressing them so seriously. Like many UK electors, and a rather larger proportion on them than their elected politicians, they have decided that enough is enough, and like the plotters of the Portuguese military coup of 1974, have realised that only they have the means to do anything about the state the UK is rapidly descending into before our very eyes.
Stones the builders can’t reject
Members of the House of Lords know they have one big advantage over MPs: once they have obtained their seats no one can take them away, except under extreme circumstances. But unlike the elected members of the House of Commons, they do not have to go to the electors and beg for support every five years.
Advocates of the House of Lords claim this is its most important feature: peers can say what they want, and do what they want, without fear of being sacked. Consequently they can raise issues which mere politicians in the House of Commons wouldn’t dare, even if they are expelled from their parties for doing so.
Membership of the House of Lords gives those appointed to it a permanent and unimpeachable platform from which to promote any view they like, regardless of whether it is in line with public opinion, or anything the public even cares about. Does that description remind you of anything?
Members of the Lords have the same power now enjoyed by a newspaper proprietor. The sort of fabulously wealthy people who employ Cambridge Analytica to manufacture and manipulate “public opinion” by filling comment pages with their own views, not the range of opinions offered to those pages. The same people who refuse to publish certain stories in order to protect their friends, but insist on banging certain drums again and again until the public is so sick of hearing them they lose the will to disagree with the views presented.
In a democracy, it should be elected representatives, not unelected ones, who hold the real power. The House of Lords may have value as a revising chamber, a check and balance of the classical liberal kind. But it should be those directly accountable to the people, who can be removed by the people for not obeying their will, who pass the laws and implement them for the greater good of those same people.
That is manifestly not happening in the UK right now, despite its very long and enviable tradition of parliamentary democracy. What the magic circle of newspaper owners wants, it gets. No one wants to see government control of the media. But no matter what issues are affecting the country, and bothering its people, at any one time, the agendas of newspaper owners such as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Harmsworth have become the focus of public debate to the exclusion of all else.
A substantial number of UK voters were happy being critics of the EU without actually leaving it. It suited the British character, and historical role, to maintain the national sense of independence whilst enjoying the benefits of shared sovereignty in a world where Britannia no longer ruled the waves. It was primarily extremists of the left and right, who had little electoral support, who actually advocated leaving the EU, at least in public.
All that changed when the newspaper owners got on the case. Fearing loss of their existing influence, and greater taxation, they fanned this native independence into xenophobia through a stream of headlines about “bogus asylum seekers” and “unelected EU bureaucrats”. Readers knew that most national newspapers had always had the same political slant, regardless of the complexion of parliament or the electorate at a given time. But when no one proved able to do anything about this, the “man in the street” stopped arguing against banner headlines which would always make more noise than he would.
Even the most ardent advocates of Brexit understand that the elected politicians are running scared of the newspaper owners. Even the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European of the major parties, stop short of saying that Brexit should be halted, merely trying to re-run the referendum they themselves were the first to call for. The House of Lords may be unelected, and may not reflect the will of the people. But at least it is part of parliament, subject to the rules of parliament.
The House of Lords has woken up to the fact that if the elected politicians do not fulfil their responsibilities it is the best placed body to do it for them. Theresa was too scared to allow her Cabinet to debate Brexit for almost a year, and too weak to sack ministers who refused to change jobs when she told them too. The Lords should not be the ones to protect democracy, but they have realised that somebody has to, and are now taking up the challenge.
The monster staring back
The irony of the Lords leaping in the protect democracy should not be lost on those same newspaper owners who seek to undermine it. Democracy was one of the buzzwords they used to create the present situation. For years they have promoted the view that the UK is democratic and the EU is not, despite the EU also being a mixture of elected and unelected politicians, just like the British parliament.
In fact the way the UK is supposed to work bears stronger similarities to the EU’s model than those of other countries. The United Kingdom still elects its parliament by the antiquated “first past the post” method, in which each constituency elects the one candidate who receives the most votes and all the other votes have no effect. It makes no difference whether the other candidates account for 10% or 70% of the votes in a given constituency: only one person is elected, and the supporters of other candidates must just as well have not bothered voting.
Most of Europe, and the European Parliament itself, use proportional systems in which the percentage of seats won reflects the percentage of votes cast, both in individual multi-member constituencies and the country as a whole. This means a far higher proportion of the votes cast have an effect on the result. But UK elections produce outcomes most European countries find wildly undemocratic, in which a party winning a minority of votes, as all winning parties do, can have a large majority of seats, and be able to win every vote unless it does something really stupid
UK voters see the European Parliament as a shadowy dictatorship divorced from their own concerns precisely because its workings are more characteristic of the British system than the European one. The UK’s Euro MPs are elected by a proportional party list system now, but they could only ever form a small portion of the total membership. Just as they elect one local representative to their national parliament, who may have little effect on the ultimate composition of the government, UK voters elect local representatives at EU level who may have little effect on which party runs the European Parliament.
If the EU was consistent, and adopted a system in which the party lists represented Europe-wide blocs rather than the domestic political parties in each country, there would be greater connection between the electors and the European Parliament. The various national parties sit in such blocs when they are in the parliament, but campaign within their own countries as national entities rather than European ones. This generates the feeling that once the members are elected they disappear into an institution dominated by people who are not elected by other local constituents, although they actually are, simply because members of the same bloc are not seen as fellows by their electors.
The European Parliament is distrusted in the UK because it is too British, not too European. It is this distrust which newspaper magnates have played on to disrupt those same British democratic institutions. This demonstrates how much these individuals care about the democracy they claim they are seeking to return to the UK through Brexit.
Plague on all our own houses
All this is happening against a backdrop of general distrust of all democratic institutions. The Brexit debate was played out as “We The People” versus “Them The Politicians”, the implication being that democracy has become a collection of islands of uncaring liars who have let everybody down. The same ideas are common through Europe: populist parties are gaining votes all over the continent simply by espousing views sophisticated politicians say are unacceptable, such as racism, protectionism and posturing for the sake of it, preying on the disaffection of those who are told they are wrong by those who are supposed to be representing them.
We are seeing, in effect, a resurgence of Dada, the artistic movement which developed as a reaction to World War One. This equated conventional art with the same social and political trends which had created the war, and sough to replace them with irrational nonsense, undermining the whole system which they felt was corrupt
Dada gradually morphed into Surrealism, as its members got tired of constant protest and either left or created a new system to compete with, rather than destroy, the old. The same process generally takes place in the political realm. When states or systems fail, they are replaced by new ones which change some fundamentals but soon look pretty much like the old ones. Soviet rulers were just as unaccountable as the Tsarist oligarchs they had overthrown, only the professed aims of the system were different, and then often only in formal terms.
No one would have thought that a restructuring of failing democratic institutions would include a resurgence of unelected bodies such as the House of Lords as champions of the new spirit. But recent polls suggest that the House of Lords is both more in line with current popular opinion and less tainted by public distrust of the system than the Commons. Populism won’t replace the Commons with the Lords, but now the British public are realising where they are being led, they may come to rely on the Lords to protect them from both their elected politicians and themselves.
In the end, the democratic system will triumph once again. People will get politicians they may not like or trust, but won’t try and overthrow in the name of “the people”. But it won’t be the newspaper magnates who will achieve these things by getting their own way, but the least democratic element of the British system standing up to them because it knows no one one else will.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.