Paul Tyler writes: The Peers are Revolting or Who is Taking Back Control ?

A pause for thought: during the weekend of VE Day memorabilia were we celebrating 75 years of European peace, the retreat of fascism and the advance of parliamentary democracy ? Hopefully yes: realistically – in the case of the Brexiteers and their newspapers – NO !

And yet we have no cause for complacency. The UK is already looking as if we have reverted to being “the sick man of Europe” in terms of both our public health and the health of our democracy.

While in those 75 years the dictatorships of Western Europe have all collapsed, and effective representative democracy has taken their place, voters in Britain are increasingly marginalised and cheated. The Conservative manifesto in December 2019 aspired to make all votes of equal value: the actual result produced a ratio of inequality at the extremes of 33:1.

However, it is not just at elections that our representative democracy is under attack. Boris Johnson may choose to give a presidential-style address to the nation on a Sunday evening – to avoid questions and challenge from MPs – but we do not have a presidential constitution. He and his Government should be accountable to our Parliament, not the other way round.

No 10 obviously finds this inconvenient. Dominic Cummings is notorious for his disdain for Members of both Houses. MPs are already chaffing at the constraints that the combination of “virtual” exchanges and the business managers’ politicking are imposing.

The position in the Lords is far worse. Here, of course, there is no substantial Tory majority with plenty of lobby fodder to bully, and the response of Ministers to the Covid-19 emergency is under constant, sustained examination. And yet, there is no provision for effective scrutiny of legislation, let alone for votes on amendments, and the majority of Peers have been frozen out of debates or ludicrously squeezed by derisory time limits.

The response from Big Brother Cummings (the much more powerful BBC) has been to threaten that all Peers over 65 should be forcibly excluded.

That was too much for even the most tribal of Tories, and – led by former Cabinet Minister Michael Forsyth – a cross-party revolt resulted. Mr Cummings may think he can casually rip up the constitution, but that requires legislation.

The reaction was swift. That very evening, a letter signed by 210 Peers from all the non-Government benches – co-ordinated by Joan Walmsley from the Lib Dems – demanded remedial action from the Lord Speaker and Leader of the House. Quoting the constitutional role of the House, and its individual Members, the letter urged that the Covid-19 emergency should mean more – not less – work, in holding Ministers to account. “All Peers must be encouraged and enabled to participate fully in the work of the House on the basis of equality” it said. The signatories urged the Lord Speaker and Leader of the House to “ensure that we are able to fulfil our responsibilities and duties to the public”.

Who exactly is “taking back control” ? In the months to come, whether on the inevitable post-mortem on its Covid-19 failures or the transition to Brexit, the Government knows it has to persuade the Lords, while it can bulldoze the Commons. Cummings has no time for Parliament, and he can see that the Lords is both a greater threat and a weaker target.

He is getting his retaliation in first. This is a deliberate attempt to move from a Parliamentary Democracy to what the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Viscount Hailsham, warned to be an “Elective Dictatorship”.

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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29 Comments

  • John Marriott 11th May '20 - 10:15am

    Yes, Lord Tyler, the peers ARE revolting. It’s time to get rid of them!

  • With the large majority this government holds the Lords is our only hope of a challenge to their self serving agenda!

  • @John Marriot

    And replace them with? I get very nervous when people make such comments without explaining what they would have instead. The HOL in my opinion often does a good job of keeping the government in check. Eg Lord Newby recently on the Windrush scandal. Not saying the HOL is perfect, just want to know exactly what it is you want from a second chamber. A chamber of experts? Fine. An elected second chamber? No, thanks.

  • Richard Underhill 11th May '20 - 1:47pm

    Today’s news contains the resignation of the Maltese ambassador to Finland. She has said something undiplomatic with which we are unlikely to agree, but we should restrain any comments. The King made a special award to Malta, including the entire island and the Queen has not changed it.

  • ‘This is a deliberate attempt to move from a parliamentary democracy’

    Can you remind us what is remotely democratic about an unelected, bloated House of Lords?

    These people even wanted £300 to sit a home!

  • John Marriott,

    as a younger man, I shared your effrontery at the established privileges of this unelected institution.
    However, age and experience have mellowed my youthful radicalism with respect to abolishing the Lords and I have come to appreciate the role that the second chamber plays in our democracy.
    Every institution must justify its existence. The Lords contains a wealth of experience and wisdom that benefits us all. It would be a mistake to lose that in a fit of righteous indignation.

  • Alex Macfie 11th May '20 - 2:32pm

    Johns Marriott, O: Democratic or not, it’s the system we’ve got, and we’ve no choice but to make the best use of it to prevent Johnson and Cummings from ripping up the Constitution.

  • Paul Barker 11th May '20 - 2:34pm

    I can remind John O what gives The Lords legitimacy, The Commons. Our “Elected” Mps have frequently been given opportunities to Reform Or Replace The Lords & have turned it down. There is no reason to suppose that the present Commons would Vote any differently.
    There is a Century-Old tradition of bitching about The Lords by The Commons but not actually doing anything about it, the present arrangement suits the Big Two Parties more often than it doesnt.

  • Peter Martin 11th May '20 - 3:53pm

    “the sick man of Europe” ??

    There is plenty of competition for this wooden spoon. Belgium has produced Covid figures which look worryingly worse than ours! But I suspect it might turn out that they are just being more comprehensive in their counting methods than many others.

    It could also turn out that those who look to be doing well, superficially, may simply be storing up more trouble for the future.

    The EU itself isn’t looking in good shape. The euro just about survived the 2008 GFC thanks to the ECB openly breaking the rules regarding the extent to which it was allowed to support the borrowing requirements of the peripheral countries. Now a German court has ruled the involvement of the Bundesbank in all that to be unconstitutional according to German law.

    So, if the the present crisis is going, as seems to be the consensus, to be much worse than the previous one, how is the euro going to survive without the creative interpretations of what was allowable by the ECB?

    My guess is that it won’t! If the euro doesn’t survive then neither will the EU in its present for. So my nomination for “sick man” goes to….

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2020/05/09/germany-flexing-muscles-leave-euro-jeopardy/

  • Laurence Cox 11th May '20 - 3:56pm

    It shows what a state our democracy is in when the principal defenders of our uncodified constitution are the unelected House of Lords and the unelected Supreme Court. If I were Betty Windsor, I would be inviting Boris to experience lockdown in a Royal Palace, viz The Tower of London. The thought of his head on a pike facing his old stamping-ground across the Thames rather appeals; does gross incompetence in a PM constitute treason?

  • Peter Martin 11th May '20 - 4:39pm

    “The thought of his (BJ’s) head on a pike……”

    There was I thinking the Lib Dems were basically a bunch of decent, if somewhat misguided people.

    My wife, who is much more inclined to the Lib Dems than myself, read out something similarly unpleasant (from a FB posting I think) yesterday, concerning both BJ and Trump and was quite narked when I didn’t laugh. I think it’s all to do with us leaving the EU but she thinks I’m turning Tory.

    No, I’m not! It’s just that I don’t want to see either of them die from Covid or anyone’s head on a pike staff!

  • @ John Marriott “the peers ARE revolting. It’s time to get rid of them!”

    You make full Scottish self government sound increasingly attractive, John.

    Full powers to Holyrood – already elected by PR – means no House of Lords…, and while we’re at it, we could get rid of the knighthoods and three tier (posh, posher, poshest) ‘Empire’ gongs which some Lib Dems seem to have become addicted to.

    We could even have a shot at rejoining the EU…. no more BoJo for us. What’s not to like about that ?

    PS Scottish Home Rule used to be near enough official party policy when we had 57 Liberal MP’s North of the Border….. until WW1 intervened, so it’s perfectly respectable.

  • Laurence Cox 11th May '20 - 7:36pm

    Oh dear, Peter, you are a humourless fellow. Perhaps you ought to start by taking yourself less seriously.

  • John Marriott 11th May '20 - 10:16pm

    @Krissib
    “And replace them with what?”
    Let’s start by making the United Kingdom truly federal. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are already half way there. It’s England’s turn for a makeover. The problem here is geography and size of population. So, how about dividing England up into regions (number to be finalised later; but probably between six and eight). Each region would have its own assembly, elected by universal suffrage and a number of unitary authorities and, below them, directly elected Town, Parish and/or Neighbourhood Councils. The House of Commons based in London would become the Federal Parliament, comprising members elected from all the nations and English Regions. This Parliament would elect a a Federal Government and would deal only with Foreign Affairs, Defence, Economic and Environmental Affairs. Everything else would be devolved. To scrutinise the Federal Government there would be a smaller chamber, the Senate, WHICH WOULD REPLACE THE HOUSE OF LORDS, made up of representatives nominated, not elected, by the nations and english regions on a proportionate basis. Oh, @Alex Macfie, you mention a “Constitution”. What constitution? Let’s have a WRITTEN Constitution AND a Bill of Rights as well.

    If you think that this is fantasy land, that’s more or less what happens, with slight variations, in countries like Germany, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to name just a few.

  • John Marriott 11th May '20 - 10:33pm

    Apologies. I should not have included New Zealand in my list of federal states. I could have added the USA, Brazil and India amongst the larger ones, and then there’s Belgium and Austria, for example, amongst the minnows.

  • Peter Martin 12th May '20 - 8:47am

    @ John Marriott,

    Having lived in Australia for several years I am aware of the problems Federalism can cause both presently and historically. The population is less than half that of the UK and yet they have an extra layer of government with upper and lower houses in each of the Australian States. Historically, Federalism was responsible for none of the Railway gauges matching up! Every State did their own thing. Queensland went for narrow gauge, NSW choose standard gauge, Victoria chose a broader gauge. Australian railways have never really recovered from that.

    Even now we have a situation where drivers can wangle multiple licences. If they are banned in one state they can use a licence obtained in another. A teacher, a plumber, an electrician can be qualified in one state but not in another. Different States choose their own time zones. It’s not just a matter of choosing the nearest hour. Some put their clocks forwards and backwards. Some don’t. Some, like South Australia, insist on being half an hour different from everyone else! Towns near a border may get their TV signal from over the border so the times on the TV networks don’t match up with what is supposed to be their local time.

    Australia would be much better off if it scrapped the States and had just one central government in Canberra plus a collection of local councils. But once in place the system is hard to change. We, in the UK, would be better off with the same structure too. One central government plus local government but it’s hard to see how we’ll get back to that.

  • John Marriott 12th May '20 - 10:01am

    @Peter Martin
    From 1970 to 1973 my wife and I lived in Canada and, before finally returning to the UK, lived for a year in West Germany. Both countries operated a Federal system and I doubt whether the ‘states’ where we had lived, Alberta and Niedersachsen, would have welcomed being almost entirely ‘governed’ by Ottawa and Bonn respectively. Both areas prided themselves on their local heritage, in case of the former going back admittedly at that time barely a century, and both enjoyed making their own decisions. Both preserved a healthy suspicion of their respective federal governments, which kept both well on their toes!

    You strike me, from your many contributions to LDV, as someone who isn’t really in favour of giving people a modicum of say in what is done in their name. Some decisions are undoubtedly better made centrally; but, in my opinion, many are clearly not. You obviously do not subscribe to the theory of “Vive la différence”. Oh, if only we only all thought the same? Life would be so much easier!

  • John Marriott 12th May '20 - 1:54pm

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3)
    Judging by the third of your replies you appear to be someone, who isn’t prepared to allow people to make mistakes. Is that what the ‘RM3’ is all about? What might seem ‘stupid’ to you might just make a great deal of sense to other people. They say we learn from our mistakes. Well, at least some of us do, which is great; but, unless you are given a chance, how would you ever find out? I speak from personal experience.

    I suppose that communism was a bit like that, or that last Momentum led Labour Party Manifesto. Mind you, there are still people out there who believe in one more final heave – a bit like some Lib Dem’s. I’m a great fan of Damascene conversions, like the willingness of an essentially right wing Tory government being prepared to pay the wages of an incredibly large number of our citizens at the moment. Better late than never, hey?

  • Ian,

    “Connections with Northern Ireland have shown me that often Ulster people hold those sent by Westminster to govern them in contempt.”

    I think it is much the same in the South and West of Ireland with those fellas brought in from Dublin.

  • Peter Martin 13th May '20 - 5:35pm

    @ John Marriott,

    “…..someone who isn’t really in favour of giving people a modicum of say in what is done in their name. ”

    Hang on a minute, I’m not a Lib Dem wanting to ignore the Brexit vote!

    If people want independence they can vote for that. Devolution doesn’t really satisfy anyone. The Nationalists just use it as a stepping stone in any case. Is the Welsh or Scottish a NHS any better as a result? I don’t think so. The Nationalists will no doubt put that down to not having full independence.

    There’s no appetite for yet another layer of government in the English regions. If there’s a problem, people want their Westminster MP to be held responsible. They don’t want to be fobbed off with a letter saying it’s all someone else’s responsibility in a lower layer of government.

  • John Marriott 13th May '20 - 6:40pm

    @Peter Martin
    Hang on a minute. I’m not advocating an EXTRA layer of government. Where I live, the number of reformed layers, under my system, would be the same. You see, I would scrap the District and County Councils we have in Lincolnshire and replace them with two or possibly three Unitary Authorities. So, an elector would have a chance to vote for a Parish/Town Councillor, a Unitary Authority Councillor, a regional representative and a federal parliamentary representative, which is more or less the same number that a Welsh, Scottish and Ulster resident currently has.

    Obviously, if you already live in an English Unitary area, such as Wiltshire, Cornwall or Hereford & Worcester, to name just three, you would have an extra election. As for saying “devolution doesn’t really satisfy anyone”, how do you know that? Of course you don’t know. Why not ask them?

  • Mike Falchikov 19th May '20 - 5:46pm

    Many thanks, Paul, from an old university friend, for an excellent piece. Yes, we do need a second revising (?) chamber but it must be elected by the public, preferably directly and its numbers established by legislation. Certainly we must have a written constitution which as citizens we must be involved in creating by means o f citizens’ assemblies and perhaps other forms of consultation and I think we need to look at the monarchy too and such issues as the royal prerogative. Until last autumn and Boris Johnson’s frenzied struggles to stay in power I believed the monarch as head of state was able to advise a prime minister that in particular situations it was inadvisable to seek to maintain the status quo but last autumn’s shennanigans seemed to suggest otherwise. So does that mean that our PM is effectively both government leader and effectively head of state – a Trump or a Putin? Hope not…..

  • Richard Underhill 19th May '20 - 6:39pm

    John Marriott 11th May ’20 – 10:15am
    David Steel was part of a committee with cross-party support. In particular he wanted to abolish the by-elections in the Lords which he considered farcical. “The stone in the foot” should be ended. New Labour in government seemed to lose interest, despite the protestations of their then leader in the Lords that they would complete the work of their 1997 manifesto.
    Voluntary retirement without compensation has been implemented in law. Shirley Williams took it. The best leader the SDP never had. David Steel took it. He had set an example in the case of African politicians which we should build on, despite the death of Nelson Mandela and the failure of some South African politicians to follow his example.

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