Who says politicians are useless and inefficient? They are superbly efficient at one thing, at least – curbing any restraints on their own power. Thus Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative grandee charged by Prime Minister David Cameron with reviewing the role of peers in the governance of the United Kingdom, is set to propose that the Lords lose their veto over delegated or ‘secondary’ legislation. It all stems from the Prime Minister’s (and the Chancellor’s) agitation at the House of Lords blocking plans to cut tax credits. And that was not the first time that the Lords has irritated the House of Commons by questioning its legislative plans.
The argument is that the Commons is elected and the Lords (mostly) isn’t. So the Lords have no right to block Commons legislation. But even the most slavering MP these days would not suggest simply abolishing the Lords and giving the House of Commons absolute power. That would lead to riots. But they figure they can get rid of the ‘problem' a bit at a time. The Lords have already lost their powers to block financial legislation; they can delay but not veto other measures; and the Parliament Act, designed to be used in dire emergencies, is now deployed with dazzling frequency, to push through measures that the Lords feel queasy about.
Lord Strathclyde’s proposals are just the latest sortie in these one-sided air-strikes. Secondary legislation is the detailed regulatory stuff that MPs can’t be bothered with, and delegate to officials: so (runs the argument) why do we need the Lords to worry about that?
Well, we should all worry about it, as we can at least get rid of MPs and even overturn laws, but we can’t vote out regulators. Scrapping regulations ain’t so easy, either. So it is good that such proposals are properly scrutinised before they get going. Give it a year or three, though, and there will be some other issue, and the Lords’ powers will be trimmed again. And again.
Don’t mistake me: there is a lot wrong with the Lords as a legislative chamber (it should be one-eighth of the size, for a start). But it is better to have a crude check on the House of Commons than not. The UK has the most extraordinary ‘constitution’ in which the Executive sits in the House of Commons, and the Commons can vote for anything it wants – including changing the constitution itself (as with devolution – and see where that is getting us). About the only thing that can stop it, apart from the public armed with pitchforks, is the fact that there is a House of Lords standing in the way.
The earliest liberal thinkers on constitutional matters understood the importance of checking power with power. Montesquieu (1689-1755) argued for separate legislative, executive and judicial bodies – and that the legislative branch should comprise two Houses, so one could block the decisions of the other. He was not wrong. Our politicians don’t want to understand this: the worry is that the public and the commentariat don’t seem to grasp it either.