The Lords have lost it. They’re out of control. They have taken a wrecking-ball to the government’s plans for Brexit 14 times in recent weeks, putting themselves on a war footing with the people we actually elect. They are behaving like they did in the first decade of the 20th century when they arrogantly vetoed the Liberal government’s People’s Budget. ‘The House of Lords regards all our liberties and political rights as enjoyed and as enjoyable only so long as they choose to let us go on having them’, fumed Winston Churchill back then. Where’s the modern Churchill to put these ermine-robed loathers of the largest democratic vote in British history, the vote for Brexit, back in their place?
There should be public uproar, even public protest over how the Lords are behaving. These unelected bishops, pampered appointees and failed or ageing politicians are trying to scupper Britain’s most populous act of democracy. They have voted against the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill 14 times. This week they voted to keep Britain in the European Economic Area, which would in effect mean having a kind of single-market relationship with Brussels. They have voted to keep the EU’s Fundamental Charter of Rights on British statute books post-Brexit, to give the Irish government an effective veto on post-Brexit border arrangements, and to allow parliament to frustrate and possibly even scupper the Brexit deal. All against the wishes of the Tory government that got 13,636,684 votes at last year’s General Election — which is 13,636,684 more votes than any of these pontificating peers ever received for their spot in the second chamber.
Some argue it’s all fine, because the Commons can just override the peers’ votes. This misses the point. What the Lords are doing — and what they know they are doing — is emboldening members in the Commons to follow their own Brexit-bashing instincts against the wishes of the 17.4m. And they are also sending out a very powerful message to Brussels that the British establishment, especially the dustier, more aloof, more pleb-fearing wing of it, is happy to take its side and make life harder for Brexit and its backers. The peers, these unelected enjoyers of privilege and men of God and sharp-elbowed political players, are playing a knowing and deeply cynical game: they’re using their archaic clout to put a black cloud over Brexit, over a mass democratic vote for change.
To give ourselves a sense of how outrageous this is, how disturbing it is that in the 21st century, Britain has an unelected second chamber that gets to pore over and make problems for legislation drawn up by our elected government, get this: many of the Brexit-diluting amendments have been voted for by Lib Dem peers. Ninety-one Lib Dem peers voted to limit the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ May’s government thinks are necessary to streamline the Brexit process. Eighty-nine voted to keep EU charter rights in our law after Brexit. Eighty-three voted in favour of keeping us in a customs union.
This is a party that has been decimated by the electorate in recent years. Whose seats in the Commons fell from 57 in 2010 to eight in 2015, with a small upward blip to 12 in 2017. And yet they have 100 peers in the Lords, and they will be there for life. We can do nothing about them. They are beyond our reach. Us lowly oiks have no choice but to have Lib Dems lording it over our elected representatives. The public has democratically rejected the Lib Dems, yet there they are, stymying Brexit, stymying us. This makes a mockery of democracy, no?
Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, is dead right when he says the peers are ‘drunk with their own prejudices’. And their key prejudice is that they know better than us, or than the people we elect. By dint of their education, or their faith, or their moving and shaking in the worlds of politics, these appointees think they are wiser than the strange-looking, strange-accented little people they drive past on their way to the chamber every day and thus deserve an extra say.
Karan Bilimoria — or Baron Bilimoria — wrote in the Guardian about how the House of Lords’ ‘expertise and independence’ means it is perfectly placed to put the brakes on aspects of Brexit. By expertise they mean they’re cleverer than us. And by independence they mean they don’t have to seek the support of the public in the way commoner politicians do. The cluelessness of the old establishment never ceases to amaze me. Here we have a billionaire (Bilimoria founded Cobra beer) insisting that he and other wealthy or influential people should get to pore over the political desires of hoi polloi and the government we elect. And thus do they confirm in the eyes of millions of people that they were right to vote for Brexit and to stick one in the eye of an establishment that seems aloof, entitled, arrogant, and ridiculous.
When the Lords vetoed the People’s Budget and infuriated Churchill, other political leaders and the public, the Parliament Act of 1911 was passed to restrict their power. We now need to think about taking other, possibly even more severe measures against the second chamber. My preference is that we abolish it. There is no place in a modern country for an unelected second chamber. Give us a referendum on abolishing the Lords, Mrs May. It could be your Churchill moment.