When the House of Lords amends legislation presented by a Labour government, certain sectors of the media are keen to present the institution as a bulwark for freedom and democracy against the evils of socialism; when they amend legislation presented by a Tory government, they become traitors and fifth columnists. That’s how it appears to me anyway. I’ll admit to a deep sense of unease that the UK’s system of democracy is so badly broken that the defence of parliament’s right to take the decisions rather than be simply railroaded by the government is only being defended and promoted by a bunch of hereditaries, appointees and bishops. Some might argue that it demonstrates the value of having a second chamber which can take a less partisan approach to whatever subject is being debated. I think it demonstrates the need for a parliament which has more distance between it and the government with more room and time for proper debate and scrutiny, rather than one where MPs are simply whipped either for or against the government of the day. (At a more mundane level, it does demonstrate why at least some of us independentistas believe that – for as long as such an undemocratic and unaccountable body as the House of Lords exists – it is better to have a voice there than not.)
It remains to be seen whether the government will attempt to reverse all the defeats being inflicted upon it when the legislation returns to the Commons. It’s hard to see at the moment how May can afford not to try, with the extremists on her own side demanding that she do so; but it’s equally hard to see how she can get a majority in the Commons on all of the issues on which she’s been defeated. When members of her own party are describing the compromise towards which both parliamentary arithmetic and economic reality are pushing the government as ‘cretinous’, it is clear that the underlying tensions over Europe which brought down so many of her predecessors are getting stronger rather than weaker. There is only a limited period during which the government can continue to stick its fingers in its ears and claim that the EU’s categorical statements are merely an ‘opening negotiating position’. Meanwhile, other Brexiteers seem to believe that all be well if only the Prime Minister would sack her chief negotiator. The problem, apparently, is simply that the UK is not being forceful enough in demanding that the EU dismantle itself in order to accommodate the UK.
I don’t know how all this will end, but I suspect that the only thing left which gives the government and the Tory party any chance of surviving in power until Brexit day next year – let alone until the end of the transition period – is the abject failure of the main opposition party to seize the opportunity in front of it. Public opinion seems to me to be moving, albeit slowly, and even if it’s not yet clear that opinion has turned against Brexit itself, there is increasing evidence that majority opinion would tend to favour remaining in the single market and customs union if given the choice. For sure, I’d agree that that is Brexit-in-name-only, but a determined and united opposition party prepared to show some leadership on the issue could probably gain a majority around such a proposal. It would be in line with what their voters and members are saying as well, but they seem no more able to unite on a clear line than the governing party.
There’s something strange and uncomfortable about a position where those doing most to mitigate the effects of Brexit are the unelected peers, whilst the main opposition party is effectively aiding and abetting the extremists through a lack of resolve, clarity and leadership.