Generic filters
Filter by Categories
Upcoming Series
Filter by content type

Unshakeable Self Righteousness! The House of Lords is not alone

This week the House of Lords voted in committee to amend the Brexit Bill to compel the government to guarantee the position of EU nationals resident in the UK. Its debates, like those of the Commons on the same Bill, provided gripping viewing on the live television channel provided by Parliament’s website (I confess to a new addiction). The vote was notable on several grounds:

First, the Bill is so short that there is almost nothing in it that could be amended, that is, revised and improved. What are called ‘amendments’ therefore count as attempts by the Lords at primary legislation, adding new substantive content rather than improving existing substantive content.

Second, the huge turnout of 358 Lords voting in favour. We all knew that the House had been bloated by the patronage of successive Prime Ministers. Now we see the consensus that cronyism has entrenched there.

Third, the debate showed a lack of self awareness by peers supporting the amendment in their own self-belief that they occupied the moral high ground, and that their opponents did not. Given the equal uncertainties faced by UK residents in EU countries, this is, of course, debatable. But it was the unshakeable self-righteousness of the amenders that stood out.

The Lords has grown into its secure and hugely valuable role in the UK constitution, that of a revising chamber. But it can fill that role only on condition that it does not seek to become a legislating chamber. As soon as it oversteps that line, the scales fall from the eyes of the public, and they see among the Lords a large number not of dedicated and experienced public servants but of unelected, unaccountable individuals who seek to continue the party-political fight by other means.

Things cannot go on like that. More and more people will say: something must be done.

Indeed it is part of a wider problem, as the Brexit referendum itself revealed. First, we saw the BBC criticised for an implicit bias during the referendum campaign; not a deliberate distortion, but the silent expression of the values and assumptions of its many otherwise excellent journalists.

Then we saw the UK university world lining up almost unanimously on the side of Remain. Today a report from the Adam Smith Institute draws attention to the identikit politics of 90 per cent of university teachers and seeks to quantify this growing political homogeneity of academics over the last five decades. The ten per cent of academics have their stories to tell of the coercive and intolerant left-liberalism of the official university mind, producing institutions in which reasoned dissent is threatened, stifled or sometimes excluded, and conformity enforced. Now the problem is defined, and highlighted.

Then we saw the Divisional and the Supreme Courts instinctively taking sides in the Miller case. This is not the place for a close examination of the legal points at issue; academic lawyers are already providing a thoughtful discussion. Those who read the Supreme Court judgment might reasonably conclude, however, that the minority opinion was just as cogent and well informed as that of the majority. By claiming that the issue was justiciable, and by siding with one conception of rights (those that Britons would lose by leaving the EU) rather than another set (those that the British lost by entering the EU), the majority politicized the Supreme Court. And this is a major loss.

There is no conspiracy here. Life peers, BBC journalists, university academics and Supreme Court justices act from the most idealistic motives. All are fully entitled to free speech on this and all issues. It is their instinctive partizanship, not any covert campaign, that creates the problem.

So the reaction against Brexit in the UK, like the reaction against Trump in the United States, reveals a similar phenomenon: the increasingly uniform and coercive nature of a left-liberal opinion in the higher reaches of society that is manifestly out of line with popular opinion and the results of democratic elections. We can, and should, debate the merits of Brexit, of Trump, and of much else. But we can only do so if all shades of opinion are fairly represented in national forums. Manifestly, that is not the case. The stage is being set for an extremist anti-liberal reaction, and if moderate and rational steps are not taken the outcomes may be highly unpleasant.


Professor Jonathan Clark

Jonathan Clark is an historian of Britain, Europe and America. He has been a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge and has held the Joyce C. and Elizabeth Hall Distinguished Professorship of British History at the University of Kansas. His publications include A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles, (ed. and contrib.) From Restoration to Reform: The British Isles 1660-1832  and Thomas Paine: Britain, America, and France in the Age of Enlightenment and Revolution. For Politeia he co-authored Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017) and History in the Making: The New Curriculum: Right or Wrong? (2013).

View All Posts