Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nuclear democracy

On a number of occasions I've made the point that Britain is, at best, a semi-democracy, due to the House of Lords being unelected. Some people react incredulously to that notion, and insist that the power of the Lords is merely to revise and delay - the Commons will always ultimately decide.

But the truth of that statement hangs by one extraordinarily slender thread - namely the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to overrule the Lords by a cumbersome procedure. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that the Parliament Act literally is British democracy - strip it away, and the unelected chamber has unfettered power to thwart the will of the electorate.

Curious, then, to witness the Telegraph's reaction to suggestions that the government may use the Parliament Act to ensure the elected chamber has the final say on gay marriage. Apparently the Parliament Act is a "nuclear option" that is only intended to be used in "exceptional circumstances". Really? That's a bit bloody convenient for the conservative elite of this country, isn't it? The moment the government tries to "enforce" democracy, it's subject to dark mutterings that it's doing so far too often and not selectively enough.

Sorry, guys, but democracy is not supposed to be a special once-a-decade treat. Time to choose - is Britain a democracy, or isn't it? If it is, then by definition the Parliament Act is not a "nuclear option", but an indispensable tool that ought to be used just as often as necessary. And the Lords, not the Commons, decides by its actions how often that is.

It's extraordinary to recall that one of Michael Forsyth's objections to devolution in the 1990s was that the Scottish Parliament's decisions would not be subject to "revision" by unelected Lords. That complaint sounded funny at the time, but it sounds positively unhinged now.

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I also have a new article in the UK edition of the International Business Times, about the significance of welfare reform to the debate on independence. You can read it HERE.


  1. A great quote for the coming new year. Let’s start thinking more of others and less of ourselves. Nice post.

  2. Strictly speaking, the UK constitution is composed of three elements, only one of which is elected. The 3 are the Crown, The HoL & HoC. If you haven't seen it already you should have a look as Ian Mclean's 'What's wrong with the British Constitution' - a formidable analysis of Anglo-British constitutionalism that is very searching despite its unionist intent.

  3. Even the so called democratic section of the above three parts, is elected by FPTP, which doesn't represent the votes cast.

    And then the elected members are whipped (probably, but not certainly, not literally) into agreement with the leadership, on pain of no promotion to the front benches, and the attendant place in history.

    The number of MPs who are actually in jobs (and therefore absolutely obliged to follow the party instructions on voting) is amazingly high.

    Further the present incumbent of Downing Street has reintroduced political honours as a way of buying loyalty from the few MPs who do not have pretensions of governing greatness, but a fondness for titles.

    When you add to that the part hereditary, part political appointee, part established church upper house and an hereditary head of state, there is all but no democracy in the UK.

    The frightening thing is that the idiots who govern spend half their time lecturing other countries about democracy.

    If it weren't sad it would be chokingly hilarious.