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.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The imperial delusion lives on

The SNP's Angus MacNeil and Labour's George Foulkes found some rare common ground a few days ago in condemning the Queen's 'silent' participation in a cabinet meeting, on the grounds that it breached a "vital separation of powers". Personally, I'm all for stunts like this - anything that undermines the ludicrous mythology of a monarchy that is "above politics" can only be a good thing, and means that the debate about the sort of Head of State we want in future will at least be marginally more clear-sighted. In a democracy, people who wield power are held accountable for their actions - or at least that's the theory. I look forward to Prince Charles being subjected to a long-overdue Paxman sneerfest one of these days.

No, what took my breath away was not the Queen's cabinet appearance, but the naming of a part of Antarctica in her honour. We know all about the extent to which individual Tory politicians lack self-awareness, but this is the clearest example yet of an institutional self-awareness problem on the part of the entire Tory/Lib Dem government. This is an administration that wants the world to believe that its upholding of British sovereignty in the Falkland Islands is not about imperialism, but self-determination. As I've said many times, that's a perfectly defensible position, because the Falklands are not an empty land - they contain thousands of people who want to retain the constitutional link with the UK, and who are the only stable population the islands have ever had.

But to ride roughshod over Argentina's Antarctic claim - which is no more or less legitimate than Britain's, because Antarctica really is an empty land - will send a powerful signal to the whole world that Britain's actions in the South Atlantic are in reality driven by the old, unreconstructed imperial impulse. Just how moronically insensitive can they get? Why not rename somewhere in the UK after the Queen? Or why not give her a beach in Pitcairn, if for some reason it really had to be an overseas "possession"? Oh no, that's not good enough for imperialist Tory governments - nothing but a continent will do for their monarch.

Yup, it's true - Cameron thinks he's Benjamin Disraeli. With a bit of luck, that delusion might just be taking a slight knock in 2014.

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I feel slightly queasy. I can't stand Piers Morgan - but he's currently running rings round the American gun lobby quite brilliantly, and speaking vital truths to his adopted country in the unapologetic way they need to be spoken.

All the same, though - Piers Morgan. It's a bit like discovering that Political Betting's Plato is my local SNP candidate.

And on that downright disturbing note, I'll wish you all a very happy Christmas!