May 25 2022

Venality clothed in ermine

Venality clothed in ermine

Stars and stripes of the future (Erich Ferdinand, Flickr. Creative Comms)

Watching the opening two days of the Senate’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump comes with a nagging sense of futility.  The Democrats, led by Adam Schiff, have put forward motion after motion, seeking the disclosure of evidence that has been intentionally suppressed by Trump’s White House – as Trump himself has admitted.

These motions are not extreme, and not partisan insofar as they seek the disclosure of what has happened – unless we are now so far down the rabbit hole that even facts are biased.  Every one of these motions has failed.  Nearly all have failed on a strict 53-47 Republican-Democrat split, with even those Republican Senators sceptical of, or even occasionally hostile to Trump, like Mitt Romney or Susan Collins, prioritising party fidelity over trial legitimacy.  

While there is still time for ‘events’ to happen, the safe money is on this sectarian distribution of votes remaining a constant, up to and including the final vote on impeachment itself.  Such partisanship was not the intent of the founding fathers.  At the time of America’s founding, the Senate was intended to rise above faction, being ‘the greatest deliberative body in the world’, as the trial’s presiding officer, Chief Justice John Roberts, said yesterday. Instead, as the world has become more polarised, the Senate has moved with it, now finding itself deep in the mire of partisanship.

This degradation of the Senate should be foremost in British politicians’ minds as they muse upon House of Lords reform.  The US Senate was originally insulated from the vicissitudes of the people, and de Tocqueville wrote of it being made up of, ‘wise magistrates and statesmen of note’ selected through institutions less susceptible to the dupes of ‘pretended patriots’, a stark contrast with the members of the House of Representatives, whom he noted contained a man who ‘can barely read’ and ‘lives in the woods’. 

Admittedly, such isolation did not inure the Senate to corruption.  There was deadlock over the appointment of senators, as well as prosecutions for the running of corrupt elections, all overarched by a concern that the Senate felt no ‘sense of responsibility towards the people’. These concerns, allied with the growing desire for genuine democracy at the turn of the 19th century, led to the enactment of the 17th Amendment, passing the responsibility for the election of the two senators for each state to the ‘people thereof’.

To argue that our House of Lords also contains more than a whiff of cronyism and corruption is trite. You don’t need to look much further than the recently ennobled Baron of Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith, to see venality clothed in ermine.  Some will also, doubtless, suggest that the Lords no longer feels a sense of democratic responsibility, preferring to push its own vision upon the country rather than echoing the sentiment of the people (or the Commons) . Forcing the Lords to stand and account for their actions before the people would end this conceit, emphasising that authority lays with the people.

It is because of this determination to remain independent of public opinion, however, that we should seek to preserve the Lords’ electoral invulnerability.  Despite all its unfortunate accoutrements, the House of the Lords is a genuinely independent deliberative body, and one that is persisting in holding the government to account.  Only this week it has inflicted five defeats upon the government, including Lord Dubs’ amendment concerning child refugees, and a Windrush-inspired amendment in favour of physical proofs of residency for EU citizens.  

For the Lords to amend legislation, regardless what breathless Express and Mail editorials might say, is not an affront to democracy, but a critical part of it.  Setting aside the cronies clogging up the corridors, the House of Lords contains truly eminent figures, such as Lord Pannick, who combine hefty intellect with genuine independence and scepticism.  As we finally move beyond the orbit of the referendum, we need to return to a system of representative, rather than popular, government, while remembering that the Commons, if they truly wish to, can overleap the Lords via the Parliament Acts. 

This should not be taken as a suggestion that the Lords need be preserved in aspic. But reforms should be focused on the corruption and waste, not on so-called democratic legitimacy.  The Lords is a behemoth, the most populated upper house of any democracy, and so functions both as a scrutinising chamber and a retirement home for well-connected politicos. Similarly, the reality that an MP can refuse to face their constituents at an election, then promptly re-emerge as a baroness, still in situ as a minister, should be embarrassing.  

If Johnson truly wants his legacy to incorporate reform of the House of Lords, he should turn his gaze away from yet another vanity construction project, and establish a royal commission or a constitutional convention.  This body should seek to use Lords reform to re-unify the four fractious states that the United Kingdom has become, as Gordon Brown has suggested, while resisting the siren call of undiluted democracy.  For those who struggle against its allure, they would do well to look to America, and see how it has forced faction upon the Senate, quietening independent thought and arousing partisan rancour, with the thought of unity barely a flicker in the mind’s eye.