Nick Clegg vs. England

Her Majesty’s second minister wishes to replace the existing House of Lords with a mostly elected Senate. The Lords, he says, ‘is an affront to the principles of openness which underpin a modern democracy… [it is] perhaps the most potent symbol of a closed society.’ That this is drivel ought to become clear to any averagely educated person in five seconds flat. Another second or two, and the destructive enormity of the drivel sinks in.

Deprive a nation of its most prized possession, something without which it’s unthinkable, and you destroy its soul. Without its music Germany wouldn’t be Germany. France wouldn’t be France without its cathedrals. And England wouldn’t be England without its constitution.

This unique gift England gave mankind has been steadily pushed into a coffin for quite a while. And now Clegg, ably assisted and hardly ever resisted by cross-party ignoramuses, wants to drive the last nail in.

At least I hope, for Clegg’s sake, that it’s ignorance that animates him. Though unpardonable in a cabinet minister, this failing is correctable (if asked, I could recommend a few gap-filling books on our realm). If, however, he’s driven by cheap opportunism, as many suspect, then the case is hopeless. However, I’m willing to give Clegg the benefit of the doubt and point out a few salient points he ignores.

Political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli and Montesquieu (and British thinkers too numerous to mention) were united in their prescription against the deadly malaise of tyranny: checks and balances. The hereditary power of the monarch must be checked by unelected aristocracy – and both balanced by the power of the commons wielded through an elected body. Upset the balance, and tyranny beckons. Too much royal or aristocratic power would mean that the people might not have their interests properly represented. Too much power to the people, and what Tocqueville called ‘the tyranny of the majority’ becomes a serious threat.

What remained a theory to the philosophers was gloriously put into practice in England. The issue of unchecked royal power was settled in 1649, final touches applied in 1688, and England had her balanced constitution, the envy of the world. To be sure, it wasn’t perfect – in this world we aren’t blessed with perfect institutions. But it’s as close as mankind has ever got.

Contrary to what many Americans claim, a written constitution is like a prenuptial agreement stipulating the frequency of sex: if you have to write it down, you might as well not bother. England’s constitution wasn’t written on paper; it was written in the hearts of Englishmen. And that organ isn’t a stone tablet: when appropriate, it allows change. ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,’ as Burke famously put it. To him, prudence was the key. Having observed how imprudent changes had ripped the soul out of France, Burke devoted his life to preventing a similar disaster in the country he loved.

Our constitution has indeed undergone some changes, few of them for the better. At first the focus of the realm, its monarch, was divested of executive power. Then, step by step, the Lords was debauched by Clegg’s likeminded precursors who were ignorant enough to believe that government is all about a show of hands, or else an exchange of favours among appointees. Gradually, what has emerged is for all intents and purposes the dictatorship of the Commons, barely checked by the Lords. Now Clegg wants to remove even those feeble checks.

His hysterical rants against the unelected chamber show he simply doesn’t understand that this is its whole point. Man being fallible and indeed fallen, those who lovingly nurtured our constitution over centuries understood that elected representatives might sink into demagogic politicking and come under the pressure of party politics. To balance that, the Lords was to be filled with those who owed their position to birth and would therefore be beholden only to their conscience, not to any political entity. However, with the theological basis for this understanding on its way out, spivs in all three parties saw their opening: reduce the Lords to an elected extension of the Commons, and spivocracy is perpetuated.

The so-called Conservatives proceed from the same ‘principles’ as Clegg and only disagree on the timing. And if he, an EU commissioner in the making, probably gets his ideas of a Senate from France, the Tories are more likely to be inspired by the American model. But the USA is a revolutionary country that split away from Britain to pursue its own destiny. One of the first acts of the new republic was to abolish all titles of nobility, thus eliminating estates and consequently any need to balance their interests. The senators and representatives there are drawn from the same pool that also feeds the executive and judiciary branches. This isn’t the place to judge how well the system works in America. Suffice it to say that what is meat to the Americans may be poison to us. Superficial similarities notwithstanding, Americans are fundamentally different from the Brits, and we mustn’t try to import their politics the way we’ve already imported fast food, baseball caps and verbs made out of nouns.

Does Clegg realise that our head of state is also unelected? How long before he proposes we do something about that? What a sight for sore eyes it would be to watch Nick stand against the Queen in an election. The smart money would be on Her Majesty. 


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