The House of Lords, where the government doesn’t enjoy a majority, is threatening to delay, dilute and ultimately defeat Brexit.
Such underhand tactics put the upper chamber on a collision course with the Commons, threatening a constitutional crisis. At least one member, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, the former chancellor, is aghast.
On a personal note, I’ve bumped into Norman Lamont a few times at concerts in Wigmore Hall. That he’s a lover of classical music puts a feather in his cap; that his face communicates equal rapture regardless of the performance quality yanks the feather right out. His remarks on the brewing constitutional crisis show a similar clash of pluses and minuses.
Lord Lamont is a Brexiteer – chalk one up in the plus column. He hates the Lords for playing fast and loose with “a measure that had been passed by one of the biggest majorities in the history of parliament” – another plus, I suppose, but with certain qualifications (Parliament does include two Houses).
But then comes a downright threat: “I don’t think [the House of Lords] will deserve to survive if they wreck this bill” – a minus bigger than any plus.
The greatest argument against Britain’s membership in the EU is that it debauches the country’s sovereignty proceeding from millennia of unrivalled constitutional tradition.
However, the threat of abolishing the Lords effectively inflicts on our constitution a damage as devastating as any perpetrated by the EU. I’m sure Lord Lamont would have realised this had he thought things through. Instead, as has become customary on either side of the debate, he let his emotions take over.
The House of Lords goes back to the Witenagemot, the assembly of the kingdom’s leading nobles that predates the Norman conquest. The chamber is as essential to our constitution as are the monarchy, independent judiciary and indeed the Commons.
All those elements should – and in the past did – exist in equilibrium, a balance of carefully divided powers. The elected power of the Commons sits at one end of the seesaw, the hereditary power of the monarch at the other, and the unelected Lords make sure that neither end shoots up too violently.
Like water trickling onto a rock and eroding it, pseudo-egalitarianism wielded like a political dripper by a corrupt elite has been at work to distort that balance for ages.
First the monarch was divested of any tangible power, ceding it to crypto-republicanism that dares not speak its name. Then the Commons assumed well-nigh dictatorial powers. Then the House of Lords was systematically politicised by making it fling its doors open to assorted riffraff on the make.
The whole point about the Lords is that most of its members should derive their power from heredity, not political favour. Ideally, they aren’t beholden to any short-term political interests, instead upholding continuity in public affairs past, present and future.
In this world we aren’t blessed with perfect institutions and, even if we were, they’d still be manned by imperfect people. That’s why even in the past the Lords weren’t always true to their historical mission. Yet nonetheless the House has always remained essential to our constitution, the best the world has ever seen.
What has remained of it now is but a skeleton stripped of all living flesh. However, history knows many examples of new flesh growing on denuded bones – provided they stay intact.
Hence Lord Lamont’s threat of scattering those bones presents as egregious a menace to Britain’s constitution as does the EU, with its unconcealed intention of turning every European country into a gau of Greater Germany.
Britain’s constitution can’t be defended by destroying Britain’s constitution – this sounds axiomatic. Alas, the issue of Brexit has a seldom rivalled capacity for forcing passions to run sky high.
A dash of passion is a useful addition to ratiocination, provided its dose is carefully controlled by an in-built valve. When that mechanism malfunctions, much grief may result. That’s why I’m always wary of single-issue fanaticism, even if I happen to agree with the single issue.
My understanding of history generally, Europe specifically and Britain even more specifically leads me to regard the EU as an evil ideological contrivance that, rather than offering salvation, presents a mortal threat to Europe. Without going into detail, any powerful institution based on lies is evil.
Every argument I’ve so far heard in favour of the EU is spurious, none contains a word of truth, which one would expect from a purely ideological construct. Most of those falsehoods are deliberate lies, such as the one of the EU pursuing economic ends only. Thus moral decrepitude overlaps with intellectual debility to mix a foul-tasting cocktail.
Therefore any honest and informed thinker on such matters should oppose the EU – on this issue I have no argument with Lord Lamont. (His euroscepticism must result from a post-tenure epiphany. As Major’s chancellor, Lamont not only negotiated the Maastricht Treaty but also led the country into the abyss of the disastrous ERM.)
But spare us the fanaticism of those who allow their whole political, intellectual and moral being to revolve around this single axis. If put into action, such lopsided thinking can cause much collateral damage – such, for example, as destroying the very constitution the thinker wishes to preserve.