It’s difficult for a democrat to defend the House of Lords, of course, except by casting doubt on the institution of democracy itself. But this headline from the Daily Mail makes one want to, together with the Mail’s inclusion of the Lords as ‘traitors’, to join all those others it has smeared with this term – the judges, Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Remainers’, Ed Milliband’s dad – over the last few months. The Lords are unelected, and only there because their great-great grandmothers were screwed by the right toffs, or to reward political favours done by them to governments in the more recent past. They’re mostly old, and frequently caught by the cameras on the Lords’ red benches dozing in their ermine dressing gowns. They don’t exactly inspire a democrat’s confidence.
But, by ’eck – to use an expression I’ve picked up from my long sojourn in Yorkshire – can’t they pack a punch when they wake up?! Over the past few days they’ve rejected or crucially amended fourteen key clauses of the Government’s great European Union Withdrawal (or ‘Brexit’) Bill; which needn’t be fatal for any of those measures – the Commons can overrule the Lords – but will force the Government to think again, and is giving great heart to Remainers. In the course of the necessary re-debates in the Commons, this Lords rebellion is likely to force the government into a ‘softer’ form of Brexit, at the very least; and could – just could – wreck the whole enterprise. This is why the Mail wants to send these ‘traitors in ermine’ to the Tower.
The democratic argument for listening to the Lords is that the Brexit process in itself was democratically flawed. I’ve noted this from the very beginning: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/; since when revelations of the Brexiteers’ dark and sophisticated methods of influencing public opinion – secret donations, fake claims, Cambridge Analytica and all that – have reinforced the view that the vote in June 2016, with its narrow 52:48 result, was hardly a true reflection of informed opinion, at the very least. Popular referenda give the appearance of being the most democratic system there is; but their results need to be carefully tested and modulated before using them to trigger huge, existential changes of national policy like Brexit. That of course is true of all voting systems; – which is why we have the House of Lords.