Saturday, March 12, 2005

Why I support the House of Lords

It may be a surprise to some people to know that the idea of a democracy is not to ensure that the most popular group has power - it is to prevent too much power being concentrated in the hands of any one group. Churchill talked about democracy being "the worst political system - apart from all the others." The most important aspect of a democracy is a series of checks and balances. In theory you can see this perhaps most clearly in the US - where you have Senate vs Congress, executive vs judiciary and so on. In practice, it can be eroded when the Supreme Court can regard its role of passing out judgements as really being one of defining the law in new ways, but there you go.

In the UK, the democratic balance is preserved centrally by the relationship between the House of Commons - elected body - and the House of Lords - a basically hereditary/appointed/quasi-religious body. The role of the monarchy is now largely symbolic, but might be regarded as leading the Lords. Given the nature of the House of Lords, it has always been very conservative - in large measure defending the status quo, which harks back to an era in which power was basically concentrated in the hands of white, middle-to-upper class males. Because of this, it has always greatly irritated the left wing - regardless of their representation in the lower house, there was a kind of inbuilt majority in the upper house which would always limit what reformation they were able to introduce. Some left wingers have declined recognition - either in the form of life peerages (i.e. being appointed to the House of Lords) or other state "blessings" on the grounds that it represents power wielded by this repressive, reactionary regime ancien.

So with a large majority in the House of Commons - which, frankly, doesn't look like it's going to change much in the next five years either - there has been the odd move to weaken or perhaps even scrap the House of Lords.

It may not come as much as a surprise from the tone of what I have written so far, that I don't think this would be a good idea. The debate relating to the terrorism legislation in the UK shows why. Effectively, the government were seeking the ability to detain people indefinitely without trial, with the say-so of a politician, and with the detainee having no right to know what he was being charged with. I've heard of things like that - behind the Iron Curtain!

We are certainly living in more dangerous times - we have never before had to deal with people prepared to kill themselves simply to kill lots of other people. However you don't defeat monsters by becoming a monster yourself. For the state to take this level of authority for itself is very dangerous - not especially for the cases where it does have intelligence that people may be preparing terrorist acts - but for the occasions in the future when it decides to apply this to other people who the Home Secretary doesn't consider desirable.

If there had been no House of Lords, the huge majority that the Labour party has in the Commons would have allowed it to push through this measure that it could have argued was a popular means of dealing with a terrorist threat. But because the House of Lords was there - with people who don't have to worry about being re-elected in May, who simply want to see the United Kingdom continuing to operate as a free society in the future - the most dangerous aspects of the legislation were opposed and ultimately watered down to an extent that it now looks a lot less repressive.

Of course, one could argue that this leads onto another discussion - why in this era of efficient communication is a multi-party democracy the way in which we run our government? But that will have to wait for another post .....

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