Matthew Barrett is a freelance journalist.
Policy skirmishes on late-night television programmes by MPs can be dangerous. Sometimes a bad idea of short-term expediency starts to seem like official policy – or in this case, an unofficial threat. But, thankfully, Downing Street has distanced itself from the suggestion by Conservative MPs that the Lords should face abolition if it hinders the progress of our leaving the European Union.
For such a monumental constitutional deviation to be proposed specifically to force Brexit through is problematic in several ways.
First, the cosmetic: just as phrases and sentiments like “in the national interest” and “long-term economic plan” became empty and ineffective as the last parliament wore on, so people will question, even more than they do currently, the tone of the Brexit debate if the government continues to act as if 52 per cent represented an overwhelming majority. Certainly, to see how uniformly the Conservative Party has fallen in line behind Brexit, you would think the Leave vote had been rather closer to 90 per cent. Thus, such a nakedly bullying threat towards the House of Lords, which would be shameful if conducted by any government at any time for any reason, looks like impetuous disregard for the 48 per cent and a low point in this divisive ongoing debate.
Second, the topical: when the Speaker of the Commons made an unwise partisan intervention in the debate on whether a foreign leader should visit this country, we should have been grateful for the existence of the rather more mature and cerebral Lord Speaker, Norman Fowler – who made it clear that any such decision is not (yet) Mr Bercow’s to make. The idea of Bercow having complete authority on such matters should give pause for thought.
Third, the political: hard though it may be to envisage at present, there will be an effective – and victorious – Opposition at some point. An all-powerful unicameral legislature in the service of a socialist executive is surely the worst fear of the Conservative Party, and of the causes and people it stands for. Why make such an outcome possible? Apart from that, publicly declaring the Lords could be abolished if it fails to vote for Brexit will simply inspire some of the hundreds of Labour and Liberal Democrats who have campaigned for abolition their entire careers to become rebels for that cause. Fancy offering such a golden opportunity.
Fourth, the practical: the Lords contains many able ministers, and will continue to do so as long as talented people from other walks of life are able to be fast-tracked into ministerial office. Unless MPs in safe seats are going to start resigning on a regular basis, it’s hard to envision this being possible in any other way. Putting aside the struggle between Left and Right, there is the struggle between the legislature and the executive. There are nearly 30 Ministers who sit in the House of Lords: who thinks it would be a good idea to increase the Commons payroll vote by that number?
Fifth, the philosophical: do we accept the hereditary principle? Do we accept power resting with the unelected? The British public seems quite happy for our head of state to be so. We are in favour of our belongings passing to our descendants, and not strangers. In a property-owning society, heredity is an important principle. It brings shame to the name and our history that Tories should threaten to end the – already much reduced – role of hereditary peers.
Once you end their role in public life, why should the monarch be the last exception? Remove all trace of the unelected and hereditary from our constitution, and the Queen looks like an isolated novelty, stripped of power and importance, only for public consumption. Thus it becomes so much easier, ideologically, to transform the United Kingdom into just another petty European republic. And a free tip for Conservatives who want a quick Brexit: you’ll find some allies among the aristocracy. In fact, this might not have been an issue at all if the Conservatives hadn’t continued New Labour’s suppression of the hereditary peers.
Finally, the ironic: much of the emotional appeal for Brexit was that we would again be free to be our British selves. What a farce it would be if, in attempting to secure Brexit, we booted out one of the institutions that makes us exceptional. To quote a former member of the House of Lords: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’/We are not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are”. That which we are is a nation of order and tradition; that which abides is our unique constitution. It would be a tragic and hollow victory if this nation, in the pursuit of becoming more like ourselves, became permanently less like ourselves.