Is Boris Johnson’s Plan for the House of Lords the Greatest Attack on British Democracy?
Britain’s parliamentary democracy cannot allow one-party dominance in the way the Prime Minister intends for the upper chamber, says barrister Gareth Roberts
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The news of Boris Johnson’s apparent desire to fill the House of Lords with compliant Conservative peers who would be financially, professionally and legally obligated to him and his agenda is the latest attack on the fundamental democratic structures by a governing party that is becoming increasingly despotic in everything it does.
The outgoing Prime Minister’s plan for the upper chamber has been exposed by the leaking of ‘Operation Homer’ – a paper put together by Johnson’s political advisor Lynton Crosby, in which the aim of creating a submissive House of Lords with a healthy and sustained Tory majority is set out.
Although Johnson isn’t the first prime minister to use ennoblement to reward benefactors, or to assist in getting enough numbers to move tricky legislation through both Houses of Parliament, the details of Operation Homer go beyond anything that Lloyd-George attempted in 1920 or Tony Blair in 2005. Johnson’s plans would see the Government systematically undermining the UK’s parliamentary democracy in a profound and dangerous way.
The proposals include the creation of 50 new Conservative peers, some of whom would also be given jobs on the government pay-roll. They would be made to sign a contract obliging them to vote in favour of the Government on every occasion.
At the best of times, mounting an argument to justify the existence of the House of Lords as a legitimate part of a modern democracy is about as easy as trying to suggest that putting children up chimneys should be encouraged as a legitimate source of work. The Lords is an anachronism, a throwback to a different millennia when deference was unwavering and unquestioned. That it should be reformed and replaced with a modern, democratically-elected upper house is, I believe, unanswerable.
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In its current guise, there are 761 seats in the House of Lords, of which 92 are hereditary. Save for the 12 Lords of Appeal and around 20 Bishops, the rest are political appointees – former MPs; the ‘great and good’; and those who, for one reason or another, have caught the eye of the Prime Minister.
But they have a vital role to play. They are there to scrutinise each Bill that passes through the upper house on its way to becoming law. When a peer takes up their seat in the House of Lords, they swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen, her successors and to the law.
To their credit, most members of the House of Lords take it very seriously. The standard of debate in the chamber, stripped of the theatrical and adversarial partisanship of the Commons, is often superior to that engaged in by MPs. The intervention of former experts in a wide range of fields adds heft and wisdom to the legislative process.
Over the years, the Lords have taken on the government and defeated it on a number of subjects, from immigration to banking regulation. Most governments accepted this and amended their legislation accordingly. Boris Johnson, however, is clearly not of this view.
For him, Parliament appears to be an inconvenience – something to patronised at best, or ignored and circumvented when it doesn’t toe the line. And for the modern Conservative Party, institutions such as the law courts and Parliament are there to be neutered and brought into line.
It has been a bone of contention for Johnson that the Conservatives do not have a majority in the House of Lords, with only 252 of the 761 Lords taking the Tory whip to Labour’s 166, and the Lib Dems’ 83, while the others are made up of the minority parties and cross-benchers who do not take any whip.
Since 2019, he has systematically tried to create a natural Conservative majority in the upper chamber with 44 new Conservative Lords being created against 13 Labour peers, 1 Green and not a single Lib Dem. Others who identify, nominally, as crossbenchers, include the likes of Brexit-supporting cricketer Ian Botham and Russian media baron Evgeny Lebedev.
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This in itself is a disgrace – a barely camouflaged act of cronyism, but, perhaps, acceptable within the context of Britain’s uniquely ancient and undemocratic system of politics. But if each of these cronies was then made to sign a contract binding them to support every piece of legislation put forward by the Government, that goes beyond an act of blatant gerrymandering or the gifting of political titles and becomes much more sinister.
In a pluralist parliamentary democracy, the legislature has to be held to account. It cannot act with impunity. It cannot force through legislation which is potentially against the interests of the people. There must be ways within the democratic and legislative process that prevent a government from acting in an authoritarian manner.
If Boris Johnson and his successors create peers whose existence in our Parliament is solely to be used as voting fodder for the Government to push through increasingly self-serving forms of public policy and legislation, then the dangers of a majoritarian, one-party state loom closer than ever.
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