We have been told from time to time that one reason why the Prime Minister has been so slow in ‘reforming’ the House of Lords is that he feels it is important to have it, but he cannot decide what form it should take. It is important, it is said, for all those reasons why bicameral legislatures are superior to unicameral ones. It avoids elective dictatorship. The executive and its plans are held better to account. There is expertise in the upper house that can be brought to bear on Bills and can revise common sense into them. Above all, a House not run by the whips in the Commons can, by asserting its independence, prevent constitutional abuses. One such example might be the government, using an unwieldy majority in the Commons, passing a law that gives it a temporary electoral fillip while causing permanent damage to the liberties of the people.
One such proposed law, which returned to the Commons this week, is that to ban hunting with dogs. This would appease many of Mr Blair’s enemies in his own party — many of them the same people who hated his stance on Iraq, and who felt that he lied about why he was prosecuting the war. At a time when he is still engaged in a blood sport of another kind — seeing off Gordon Brown once and for all — he needs all the friends he can get. It need not concern Mr Blair that many who wish to ban hunting not only have no idea of the realities of the sport and its place in the countryside, but that foxes are far more likely to be shot, poisoned and otherwise trapped to extinction if it is banned. His only concern is that he gives a cheap thrill to a large number of MPs who would otherwise abhor him totally; and that therefore he might stay as Prime Minister for another four or five years.
It is precisely the job of the House of Lords to weigh up considerations such as these. It has every right to defeat Mr Blair’s opportunistic and cynical plans. It has the right not just because it ought, in its properly high-minded way, to point out opportunism and cynicism. It can also make the strongest case that the legislation is being pursued on the basis of ignorance and prejudice, and ought to be defeated by any sensible appeal to reason. And, of course, it is an affront to the liberties and livelihoods of many thousands of people who are doing no harm to anyone else. In every respect the passage of this Bill would set a fearsome precedent, not just about what can become a legitimate reason to make a law, but how a law can be enacted despite causing real harm to many people.
That, though, is not the worst of it. By far the most iniquitous aspect of this proposal is that, should the Lords do their duty and defeat it, it will be forced on to the statute book by use of the Parliament Acts. By driving the proverbial coach and horses — not to mention a pack of hounds — through the intentions harboured for the Acts when they were passed, this will effectively end the bicameral system. The Acts were intended to be used to enact legislation that was in an unamended form. The anti-hunting Bill has been amended almost out of recognition. More to the point, they were designed to guard democratic rights against the will of hereditary peers. Six sevenths of the hereditary peerage can no longer sit in the Lords. The seventh that remains is there with the full agreement of Mr Blair and his Cabinet, and are elected by their peers. The balance of the House has been changed not merely by eliminating backwoodsmen, but by importing scores of tame Labour-supporting life peers. Oddly enough, when many of these new peers get upstairs and analyse the issues, they no longer support the government that put them there. Mr Blair is threatening to use the Parliament Acts simply because the House he has packed with his cronies, and from which he has expelled the Labour movement’s class enemies, will still not do as it is told.
This is but the latest attempt by the government to gerrymander and distort the constitution in a fashion that ought to have it hauled before the courts. It already allows Scottish MPs to vote on issues that affect only England, so that it can win contentious votes. It has scrapped proposed referendums on regional assemblies in all areas except the one where it thinks it might win. Now it is saying that legislation brought in to stop hereditary peers from thwarting democracy can be used to prevent an overwhelmingly non-hereditary House of Lords from exercising what little power remains to it. These are serious abuses. They erode the liberties we all thought we could take for granted in a supposedly democratic country. The truth is, of course, that this government is interested in democracy only when it delivers the approved result.
It is not too late for a burst of honesty. Instead of showing contempt for the public by rendering impotent or dismantling our democratic institutions by stealth, Mr Blair should come right out and abolish the Lords altogether. After all, if every time it attempts to do its job properly it is simply to be overruled, even on the most marginal matters like hunting, then there is manifestly no point in it. Its abolition might leave Mr Blair somewhat restricted in terms of patronage, but it would buy him enough brownie points with the old Left to win another couple of general elections. It would also be the obvious staging post to his abolition of the monarchy and his own installation as president. The money that would be saved could be poured into the pockets of MPs, many of whom are struggling on salaries of £58,000 and a mean expenses package of up to £80,000 a year. The Lords itself could be turned into a tourist attraction, perhaps as a museum of uncool Britannia.
In unguarded, private moments Mr Blair has been known to give vent to his low opinion of many of those who sit on his own benches in the Commons. He does not have to be told that the experience, wisdom and good sense to be found in the unelected House is, even after his debauching of it, vastly superior. Yet he is hell-bent on indulging the ignorance and bigotry of the rabble he so despises in the Commons while discounting the good sense of the wise people in the Lords. It is a demented way to run a country. If Mr Blair is not careful, such defecation over our institutions will cause the public — and not just the countryside protesters — to look for other, and less attractive, ways of seeking remedies for their ills.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail. Peter Oborne is away.