Many of those who voted in the referendum for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union did so in order to ‘restore democracy’ to the British people. What specific shape this restoration of British democracy would take was only loosely stated, but for the supporters of this argument it meant that we would no longer have to live with what is wrongly considered to be an un-democratic EU system.
What is not realized, or is conveniently forgotten, by too many zealous anti-Europeans is the actual political constitution of the EU.
The main legislative body of the EU is the European Parliament. This is an institution composed of members who have been democratically elected by their home countries, including the UK. The European Parliament has equal legislative and budgetary power with the European Council. The latter is made up of the leaders of the EU member states, once again inclusive of the UK. It defines the EU’s overall political direction and priorities but does not pass laws.
A third constituent part of the EU is the European Commission. This is the EU’s politically independent executive arm. It is alone responsible for drawing up proposals for new EU legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. It is responsible to the European Parliament.
The whole of the above EU organization represents the second largest democratic electorate in the world (after the Parliament of India). It is interesting and instructive, therefore, to compare the relative political institutions of the EU with the British Parliament.
The UK House of Commons (the ‘lower house’) is directly elected by the people, as is the European Parliament. The UK House of Lords (the ‘upper house’) is composed of ‘selected’ persons and is not directly elected by the people. The nearest equivalent in the EU is the European Council. The Cabinet of the British Government in Parliament, made up of elected political representatives of the government of the day, is effectively the executive body in Parliament and, being responsible to Parliament (though, in recent years, not always seeing itself as such), could be viewed as the equivalent of the European Commission.
Therefore, to those opponents of the EU who utter the anti-democratic chant, it could be stated that the British system of governance is not as democratic as may be popularly believed, and the EU is not as undemocratic as it is critically thought to be. These equivocal viewpoints again came to mind when I recently read about what has been called ‘the cash for no questions scandal’ in the British House of Lords.
It seems that as many as seventeen members of the House of Lords have been claiming as much as £400K of taxpayer’s money ‘for doing nothing’.
These members turn up to the House of Lords, do nothing by way of business in the chamber or its committee system, nor submit a written question to the house, and then claim thousands of pounds of expenses for doing so – or not, as the case may be! One tabloid editorial considered the House of Lords to be ‘the exclusive club for cronies and former Cabinet ministers’. Harsh, but no less true for being so and, it would seem, that there is little appetite amongst club members to change the club constitution. No surprise there, then!
It is sobering to be reminded that, generally speaking, these so-called ‘peers of the realm’ have been appointed by the monarch – under advisement by an outgoing Prime Minister . They have been selected from, amongst others, former House of Commons MPs, business leaders, philanthropists, sports and entertainment personalities, old public school buddies, and persons from the fields of art and culture. Add to this array the ‘presence by right’ of the bishops of the Church of England, the institutional State Church of the UK, but no formal representatives of any of the other religious faiths operative in the UK, and what is on show can hardly be called ‘democratic’.
Of course, the inclusion of the bishops is sanctified by the official full name of the house: The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament Assembled. Historically, this assembly has been dominated by men and it is only since 1958 that women have been selected for a seat in the House of Lords. Women members of the house are given the title of Baroness, not Lord, and their numbers in the House of Lords are substantially fewer than those of their male counterparts. It is to be further noted that it was not until 2015 that the first woman bishop of the Church of England took her seat as a ‘Lord Spiritual’.
It is an interesting, even illustrative, statistic, that the House of Lords is the only upper house of any bicameral parliament to be larger than its respective lower house. In the UK there is a movement afoot to reduce the number of elected MP’s in the House of Commons, but there is no present intention to reduce the excessive numbers of members in the selected House of Lords.
Under normal circumstances, it is quite unlikely, though not impossible, that these ‘pillars of British society’ who compose the House of Lords would ever have been financially insolvent. Yet, here we go again, another indefensible financial scandal at the heart of British government. Though memory can be fleeting, I cannot recall any similar situation at the centre of the European Union – singularly or in multiples.
Surely, and financial scandals notwithstanding, the UK Parliament’s House of Lords is ‘a relic ripe for reform’. The British people have had enough – financial scandals, rip-off merchants who cheapen the values of parliamentary democracy, and political hucksters hitching a ride on the back of past achievements, the British taxpayer, social privilege and favouritism. That, of course, is not to discount the energetic and devoted work done by the few, if not the many, who wear the ermine.
Notwithstanding, it is time that genuine British democracy had an elected upper house, a legitimate and fit-for-purpose chamber of review within government that, as with the House of Commons, has been chosen by and would be responsible to, the people of the UK. Along with its unelected privilege would go its anachronistic nomenclature, the ‘House of Lords’, and the bogus status of its individual members being addressed, in private life as well as in government, as ‘Lord’ or ‘Baroness’.
The only genuine ‘peers of the realm’ are those considered to be so by the citizens of the state – the peers of those elected to political office. So too, it is quite evident that those who favoured an exit from the EU on the grounds of the UK restoring its democracy, should make sure that their own house is in order before casting political, economic, social and anti-democratic aspersions at the wider European community, its political institutions and the practice of democratic government.
There is an old saying that ‘people who live in glass houses should not throw stones’. There is another which states: ‘If the cap fits, then wear it’. The ‘relic ripe for reform’ cap that sits neatly on the Westminster Parliament’s House of Lords, does not have a ‘Made in Europe’ label.