Back to website

March 14 Scotland on Sunday

Why our Lords are leaping in to save civil liberties

CONSTITUTIONAL crisis! Read all about it - if you can find the small print. Consider the unprecedented scenes of anarchy and chaos that engulfed Britain last Monday night. The House of Lords voted by 216 to 183 to send the Constitutional Reform Bill for scrutiny to a special select committee. It did so on the recommendation of a Labour-dominated House of Commons committee that followed both precedent and common sense in recognising the responsibility of the revising chamber to scrutinise in detail some of the most revolutionary proposals for change to our constitution since 1832 - arguably since 1688.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more text-book example of the Upper House doing what it exists to do. Unfortunately, the basic concept of what the House of Lords is for has not registered with its own Leader, Baroness Amos. The noble lady, after the government’s defeat, subjected her peers to a school-marmish lecture, laced with puny menace. "This unelected (and whose fault is that?) House has taken a very serious step," she intoned, adding that "the government will consider what the consequences may be". Apart from failing in her duty of courtesy as Leader of the House, she clearly has a Blairite view of the Lords as serried ranks of constitutional cherubim and seraphim, created to sing endless hosannas in praise of Tony.

The pimply young spin doctors on work experience who appear to have replaced the once formidable Millbank machine also exhibited the same delusion. Trying to whip up the Grand Peur of constitutional crisis, they encountered only the scepticism that now greets all Labour claims. Prominent among the crude efforts to rekindle the class war was the obligatory mantra about "men in tights" - a startling inconsistency from a government that so conspicuously favours such persons, to the point that the Gender Recognition Bill will award the endorsement of the state to a scientific untruth as primitive as flat-earthism.

Britain is more disposed to trust a public-spirited man in tights than a constitutional illiterate in underpants chosen by Carole Caplin. The constitution has always been Blair’s obsession: its over-arching grandeur is a reproach to his pygmy pretensions. Only by ‘modernising’ (ie vandalising) it can he overcome the sense of inadequacy with which the long pageant of British history oppresses him. The vulgar refusal of the Scouse Spouse to curtsey to the Queen encapsulates New Labour’s deracination from the historic British identity.

The office of Lord Chancellor is 1,400 years old. That does not entitle it to exist in perpetuity: the British way is to support such institutions just so long as they retain their utility. The lord chancellorship has done so. Its incumbents have included three saints - Swithin, Thomas à Becket and Thomas More - besides such more secular luminaries as Francis Bacon and F E Smith. The succession to that tradition of Lord Falconer, whose only claims to fame are the Millennium Dome and sharing a flat with Tony Blair, epitomises the mediocrity of New Labour.

This so-called package of constitutional reform was initiated on the back of an envelope, immediately after Blair learned of the resignation of Alan Milburn (not to be confused with Jackie Milburn, whom the Great Charlatan watched playing football for years, although he retired from the sport when the future Leader of All Progressive Humanity was only four). Clearly, Labour attached some importance to it, since it was announced through the medium of a press release, rather than by the usual leak.

These measures, including the creation of a Supreme Court on the American model, but with European connotations, were rushed through without having been made a manifesto commitment, without a White Paper and with no consultation. A proposal to regulate trainspotting or birdwatching would have been attended with more democratic safeguards. Make no mistake: this is arbitrary rule and the Lords last week proved to be the thin red line that is all that stands between Blairite fascism and the extinction of our civil liberties. The assault on trial by jury - also largely frustrated by the Upper House - first clearly signalled the totalitarian ambitions of the Blair régime.

Now, having dismally failed to mend the things that are broken - education, health, public transport et al - Blair is making a great show of mending what is not broken. How many claims of justice denied have ever been advanced, on the grounds that judges sit in the legislature? None. Their contribution to lawmaking is invaluable. The new proposals for judicial appointment are a machine politician’s dream. It appears the first step towards reinforcing separation of powers is to make the Lord Chancellor also a secretary of state. If such concerns are really causing sleepless nights in Downing Street, why has Cherie Blair, who sits on the bench as a Recorder, been permitted to chair controversial political seminars at that celebrated address?

Suddenly, the political discourse of this country has become reminiscent of the 1830s and 1840s. Blair’s manufactured confrontation with the Upper House has the ephemeral texture of the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839. Yet, beyond this non-event, there is an underlying constitutional crisis of real significance, caused by Blairism’s alienation from all our evolved political institutions. The implication of such an impasse will be evident to historians: now is the hour of the Tories, as the traditional defenders and facilitators of evolutionary politics.

In that respect, Michael Howard is the ideal leader of a counter-attack on Blairite wrecking of the constitution. His recent utterances have shown him to have a more than ethnic affinity with Disraeli; and these are times that demand the Disraelian touch. As we scan newspaper headlines today, we almost appear to be living through the chapters of Coningsby - that doyen of political novels. Although written in 1844, it features spin doctors, in the characters of Taper and Tadpole (based upon Charles Ross and Alexander Pringle, two political operators of the day), besides many other familiar accessories to the contemporary parliamentary process.

Above all, it is an enduring manifesto of Tory principles, many of them startlingly relevant to our times. What, asked Disraeli, was Peel’s Conservative Party going to conserve; "the independence of the House of Lords, provided it is not asserted" was part of his scornful answer. Howard must rise to a similar challenge. Let him forget the self-styled ‘modernisers’, who already look as dated as dads dancing at a school disco ("Tory men and Whig measures", in Taper’s cynical calculation). Instead, his purpose should be identical to the author of Coningsby: "to vindicate the just claims of the Tory party to be the popular political confederation of the country".