The House of Lords: The Constitutional Dinosaur Britain Can’t Kill
NOV. 12, 2015
Matthew d’Ancona in The New York Times
LONDON — Imagine President Obama introducing a controversial welfare proposal that quickly became the contentious subject of many columns and talk shows — but was approved, nonetheless, by Congress.
Then imagine a twist: that an influential club of several hundred former senators and administration officials, industrialists, lawyers, religious leaders and assorted political cronies — not one of them elected to membership — opposed the measure and found a way to obstruct it until the president made a series of concessions.
Plenty of people might be pleased that the proposal had been thwarted. But they might also feel that what had happened was an affront to democracy: Elected representatives had bowed to the will of an unelected elite.
Far from being imaginary, a scenario very like this one recently happened in a country closely tied to the United States — by design. Welcome to Britain, and the very peculiar position of the House of Lords.
From time to time, the composition and power of Parliament’s unelected second chamber come under close scrutiny. This time, it is because its members have sabotaged a measure of the Conservative government.
In an effort to cut welfare costs, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, proposed reducing tax credits intended to help low-paid workers. As compensation, he has ordered employers to pay a new national living wage (rising to about $14 an hour by 2020). The plan would trim spending by $6.7 billion, but its opponents include some fellow Conservatives who argue that Mr. Osborne will be penalizing the very working people whom his party is trying to woo.
The relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is defined by a series of conventions and assumptions, some, though not all, formalized in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. One is the rule that the Lords will not oppose a measure that the governing party has promised in its election manifesto. Another is the understanding that the Lords will not interfere with a finance bill.
But much is left open to political interpretation. In this instance, the Upper House deemed that the measure was not covered by either prohibition. Instead, its members considered a variety of motions on the tax credit proposals. After much debate, they voted to send Mr. Osborne back to the drawing board.
The chancellor’s response is expected on Nov. 25, when he will set out a fiscal strategy to eradicate the deficit and bring Britain back into a budget surplus by 2019-20. As part of this, Mr. Osborne will indicate how he plans to alleviate the pain that his tax credit cuts will cause.
What is astonishing is that a mutiny by a legislative chamber without a single elected member could command such a change of course. The closest the House of Lords gets to democracy is when its 821 members vote to choose a new hereditary peer (most are appointed for life, and cannot pass on their title or their seat in the chamber to an heir).
This arrangement was in itself the result of a trade-off both bizarre and entirely in keeping with the curious history of the House. In 1999, the hereditary lords were expelled from Parliament by Prime Minister Tony Blair — only for some to be readmitted by an internal election process. Today, there are 88 such “excepted hereditary peers.” No less remarkably, 25 Church of England bishops are entitled to sit on the red benches of the House.
Of the remainder, the life peers, who are a majority in the House, some are nominated by the main political parties, while others are selected by a parliamentary commission from the nonpartisan pool of people who have gained distinction in the professions, academia or science.
How, in 2015, can one defend an unelected club forming part of the legislature — a heritage site masquerading as a modern institution? With difficulty. Back in 1912, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith declared that an overhaul of this constitutional dinosaur would “brook no delay.” Yet delay is all there has been.
Every time the Lords blocks a government initiative there is fresh talk of reform, a radical plan to install an elected senate. In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition proposed a mostly elected body, with a much smaller membership, and 15-year terms.
But this new, democratically legitimate Upper House represented a threat to the supposed primacy of the Lower House. And thus Conservative rebels in the Commons thwarted the bill — triggering the worst political crisis in the Coalition’s five years.
This gets to the heart of the matter: the odd asymmetry of the British Parliament. The system looks bicameral, a palace of two chambers, like the American Congress. But this is an illusion.
In practice, the British legislature is unicameral. All authority, including the right to govern, flows from the Commons, which takes its power, in turn, from those who elect its members.
In the Lords, Parliament has not a senate, but a distinguished annex, full of wisdom, experience and specialist knowledge. It can obstruct the Commons, but the Commons wins in the end. If Mr. Osborne wanted to force the issue, there are various procedural tools he could use.
The problem of the tax credits, he knew, was political rather than constitutional. This recent disagreement will not lead to the root-and-branch reform that the Lords patently requires. Yes, the system is indefensible — apart from the fact that, most of the time, it works.
Everyone knows that Lords reform is inevitable. That was clear a century ago. But what’s the hurry?
Matthew d’Ancona is a political columnist for The Guardian and The Evening Standard and a contributing opinion writer.