A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Without cold-hearted pragmatists to improve bad laws, we would be in a far worse place.

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

The House of Lords is no place for Grandstanding. Neither is it a good place for a party to boycott if it wishes to have any legislative impact, being the only chamber to have anything approaching a proportionate balance of members, and no party with overall control, and more importantly, doing the bulk of important legislative revision.

It is the House of Lords where the fight for the moderation of the government’s alarmingly ill-defined and thus illiberal anti-hatred legislation has met with most success, inserting key amendments to protect freedom of speech, both in the earlier Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2006, and the later Coroners and Justice Bill 2009. Given that there have been cases of frivolous interpretation of the existing legislation, even with the Amendements forced by the house of Lords, at cost of money and of time to the police; I do not think this is a trivial concern. A functioning revising chamber is of interest to us all, no matter how tedious the issues may seem.

Indeed, the fact that the House of Lords is not representative in the conventional sense (with members not holding responsibility towards constituents) strikes me as a good thing here, as the public indisputably does not always prioritise issues where necessary. The Digital Britain bill is – stay tuned for more discussion on this topic – a niche interest, which probably only a minority of people are even aware of, and fewer still have a detailed understanding of it. I must confess my own understanding to be woefully inadequate. But it is one of the most important legislative matters before Parliament.

Yet James Graham not only appears to suggest, in his latest column in the Guardian, that the Liberal Democrats should not contribute Peers to the House of Lords at all, but also that the amendment to Digital Britain jointly sponsored by the Liberal Democrats and Tories was pointless, for attempting that deeply ignoble aim of making “bad less awful”. He concludes that “forcing us to choose between judges and lawyers having to interpret a bad law and ministers making it up as they go along is no choice at all.”

…why? is my instinctive reaction? Why, yet again, do those in a position to actually do something rather than merely grandstand, get lambasted for doing so? Preferably, of course, one should do both; and of course there are occasionally times when it is better to deliberately shun engagement to make a point. This is not one of them. Not only would boycotting the legislative process be an utterly impotent stand, as the constitutional system in the United Kingdom currently makes any chance of the Lib Dems achieving anything through forcing a binary choice between the status quo and full change, but the Lib Dems would actually be boycotting the one place where they arguably have very real influence on the legislative process. Moreover, the Digital Britain bill, as James Graham points out, can be over-exaggerated. Though a very dodgy piece of legislation which is almost certainly a step in the wrong direction, it is no longer a full enabling bill. It is no longer a watershed moment in the civil liberties fight. And this is perhaps, to give credit where it’s due, because of the actions of hard-working, cold-blooded pragmatists in the House of Lords, many of which reside on the Lib Dem benches. This is no “No choice”, this is a very real and important choice at all.

Contrast this to the alternative of no engagement, “no reform”: the argument of revolutionaries everywhere, that we need to confront more pain in order to bring about the necessary radical change. Hardly, I would have thought, the most liberal argument, and definitely not one which will work over an issue which currently inspires pathetically little widspread public feeling.

And at the end of the day, I simply don’t see this being the sort of issue James Graham thinks it to be. He mentions the prevaricating of the Liberal Democrats in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and I have seen him mention that before on his blog. But I have only ever come across it there. Though I do not doubt the truth of it, it is necessary to put it into context: the most that most people will be able to tell you about the Liberal Democrats’ stance on the Iraq War is that they opposed it. Hardly anyone, if anyone, outside of the party will be able to give you the minutae of their internal debate in the build-up to that decision.

So I say hats off to the cold-hearted Liberal Democrat peers that reside within the House of Lords. It takes boldness to grandstand, but it takes real fire to swallow your principles and do a deal with the Tories in order to stave off the forces of hell.

My apologies to all Tories. I don’t really hate you.


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