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When the House of Lords was sent packing

While the present Parliament wrestles with a half-baked attempt to turn the House of Lords into something resembling a democratic body, they could always reflect on the legislation introduced into the House of Commons in March 1649.

Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army had successfully concluded not one but two civil wars provoked by Charles 1, who had shut down the Commons and claimed divine powers to rule and raise money as he saw fit.

Among his allies were many members of the House of Lords, including leading clergy and nobility. The Lords had until then been more powerful than the Commons. By the end of the civil war, the balance of power had definitively shifted away from the landed aristocracy.

A new, emerging social class, driven more by wealth creation than the protection of inherited wealth, was in the ascendancy in political and economic terms. So a few months after the king’s execution and the abolition of the monarchy, a revolutionary Act was passed that declared:

The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England to be continued, have thought fit to ordain and enact … that from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; and that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called the Lords' House, or in any other house or place whatsoever, as a House of Lords; nor shall sit, vote, advise, adjudge, or determine of any matter or thing whatsoever, as a House of Lords in Parliament.

And that was that for the next 11 years. In 1660, following the death of Cromwell, a relatively toothless monarchy was restored along with the House of Lords. Conflict between the two Houses of Parliament has continued ever since, with the occasional constitutional crisis as in 1906 when the Lords defeated the Liberals’ radical budget. In 1911, the Commons deprived the Lords of any say over financial matters in revenge. 

The present Bill to create a predominantly elected Lords, introduced yesterday by the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as part of the Coalition agreement with the Tories, has predictably drawn the ire of right-wing MPs who want to preserve the essentially conservative nature of the second chamber.

But the Bill is something of a smokescreen despite its apparent democratic credentials because it does not even to begin to answer the fundamental crisis that is overwhelming the political system. This is highlighted in the latest, devastating Democratic Audit report into developments over the last decade.

The report warns that Britain's constitutional arrangements are "increasingly unstable", public faith in democratic institutions is "decaying" and that there has been an "unprecedented" growth in corporate power, which the study's authors warn "threatens to undermine some of the most basic principles of democratic decision-making".

In an interview, Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the report's lead author, warned: “How low would turnout have to be before we question whether it's really representative democracy at all?" As to elections and their meaning, the report declares:

Rather more difficult to measure, but just as fundamental, is our concern that broader changes in UK politics have served to reduce the scope of elections to give people control over governments and their policies. Democratic elections are rooted in the principle that 'everyone counts for one and none for more than one’. Not only does the evidence presented … highlight doubts about whether the UK’s electoral system realises this in practice, but our broader analysis suggests that power in the political process increasingly resides with elites rather than with electors.

These elites – the corporations, investment bankers, hedge funds, land owners etc – have not just the political class in their pockets but the institutions of the state too, as the financial crisis demonstrates repeatedly. Breaking their power by extending democracy into the workplace, school, university and throughout society is the precondition for real democratic change.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
10 July 2012

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