The Patch

March 14, 2007

This Ole House

Filed under: Politics — freshlysqueezedcynic @ 3:34 pm

…in the words of that philosophical sage, Shakin’ Stevens, is a-gettin’ shaky, and also gettin’ old. I am, of course, talking about the House of Lords, since recently the House of Commons voted that we ain’t gonna need this house no longer, we ain’t gonna need this House no more, and voted for an entirely-elected upper house. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. This was just a vote on a proposal, rather than on actual legislation (that will be drafted later), and in a marvellously self-interested way, the Lords voted in retaliation to keep themselves a wholly appointed body (how nice of them to decide for us!). Also, some of those who voted for an all-elected House did so because they’re opponents of any reform whatsoever, and wanted to push something through because they knew the Lords wouldn’t accept it. Although, of course, this has backfired somewhat since the Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, who deals with constitutional matters, is now committed to working through some kind of reform bill.

As I’m someone who believes that you have to extend democratic principles as far into society as possible, I welcome this. I think in Britain we have this tendency to praise the fact that our constitution changes slowly, if at all, in incremental and slow bits that have ended up with the system we have now, usually as a response to a crisis or something which would have caused a severe decline in the legitimacy of the Government. Our revolutions are few and they have little effect on the core of our constitution, which finds its’ roots in medieval times. I, unlike many, don’t find there to be a reason to be proud of this. I view our parliamentary practises as stuck in a timewarp – ancient, conservative, secretive and undemocratic. We see it in the mundane – the addressings of MPs not by name, but by the honorific “Honourable Member” and other arcane rules, the pomp and circumstance of the whole place, to the serious – the ability of one party (which probably does not even have the support of the majority of voters, due to our First Past The Post system) to implement its’ agenda without re corse to checks and balances, the centralised nature of the British state (even after devolution), the massive powers of patronage allowed, and the continuing reluctance by the civil service to allow much information to come to light.

Most people who argue about keeping the House of Lords maintain that it’s “traditional”, or that there’s “expertise” in the House of Lords that the Commons, with its’ partisan focus, cannot hope to achieve. They have a small point; there are people thee who have great expertise, specifically the Law Lords who have done more than anyone to prevent the erosion of civil liberties by the authoritarian tendencies of the Nu Labour government. But outweighing those few bright sparks are the 90-odd hereditary peers who managed to survive the chop after the House of Lords Act 1999 removed most of the hereditaries, whose expertise, I suspect, is chiefly getting little Jocasta to the debutante’s ball. There’s the life peers, a motley crew of former politicians too old, too mad, too hackish or too divisive (or all four, if you’re Baroness Thatcher) to take part in the cut and thrust of Commons debates, along with the numerous people who gained a seat in the House of Lords just for their expertise in loaning Tony Blair a few million pounds on the sly. And finally there’s the Lords Spiritual. Or “bishops” to you and me, whose expertise is on somebody whom I sincerely doubt gets legislated on very much.

The Commons, too, could do with an overhaul, especially in the area of voting systems. We Brits have a tendency to pooh-pooh proportional representation, maintaining that it does not achieve “stability” or “good government”, i.e, a single government with a majority in parliament, and maintain that first past the post is the way to do that. That chiefly comes from a misinterpretation of “Duverger’s Law”, which suggests that there is a tendency for FPTP systems to develop into two-party systems and majority governments. However, Duverger, unlike those who suggest this is the major reason to support FPTP, didn’t suggest this happened all the time in FPTP systems and was an “iron law” of politics; there might be other party factors aside from the party system which would prevent suc h a two-party system from appearing and leading to continual minority governments, which in the Westminster system are very, very unstable. To take two examples, both India and Canada have strong third parties and regional parties which prevent the creation of a two-party system and make majority governments unlikely. And in Britain, with the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, we may end up with a hung parliament come the next general election. There is no guarantee that a first past the post system will lead to two-party systems and majority government, especially with other factors in play.

Frankly, I’m still waiting for a second reading of the Commonwealth of Britain Bill.

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