Brian Wilson: Tories, Lords and political irony

The choice of Lord Strathclyde to lead Tory's review of the Lords was not intended to be ironic, was it? Picture: PA
The choice of Lord Strathclyde to lead Tory's review of the Lords was not intended to be ironic, was it? Picture: PA
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Crisis precipitated by Lords’ votes cannot be remedied from above, writes Brian Wilson

Irony, as Oscar Wilde observed, is wasted on the stupid. The events of the past week might suggest many of our politicians fall into that category, so irony-rich has it been. We must hope that they were only pretending.

First, there was the supreme irony of long-forgotten, would-be Tory statesmen taking to the airwaves to warn gravely of a “constitutional crisis” because their prized scheme to further debilitate the poor was about to be duffed up in the House of Lords.

For some of us, that raised the philosophical question of whether challenging a constitutional outrage (i.e., the House of Lords) can be deemed to prompt a constitutional crisis? For is it the constitution which is threatened by such behaviour, or the outrage?

That is an important distinction. The British constitution, we are taught, is a flexible entity, if indeed an entity at all for it is unwritten. The limits of its powers are decreed only by convention. Political compromises have created a profoundly anti-democratic assembly, as conveniently made flesh by the Baroness Mone of Mayfair.

Does that cocktail of happenstance represent “the constitution”? I doubt it. Rather, what the Tories were distraught about was that, through inadvertence, they find themselves in the unfamiliar position of not having a biddable majority, even in the Lords, on an issue of palpable injustice.

For centuries, the House of Lords was close to the apex of the British class system, dominated by landed interests and ruthless in their promotion. No “constitutional crisis” was divined by the Tories when, right up to the 1990s, nakedly partisan legislation was driven by these interests through life membership of the Lords in which they held an unassailable majority. The “constitutional crisis” only arises when they lose.

As a basis for selection within a parliamentary system, patronage is only a marginal improvement on heredity. But it does give rise to the danger, from a Tory perspective, that the numbers will go askew. As soon as the oiks were capable of outnumbering the born-to-rule, it was a matter of time until a “constitutional crisis” would ensue.

This having been triggered by the derailing of draconian cuts to tax credits, irony number two lay in the insistence of Prime Minister and Chancellor that an unanswerable case now existed for Lords reform. That heralds an entirely new movement in British political history: “Old Etonians for Lords Reform”. Hitherto, they were very much against it.

So who, constitutional scalpel in hand, was anointed to mastermind reforms essential to ensuring unimpeded Tory rule? Why, none other than the Lord Strathclyde, scion of the Galbraith dynasty. But, hush! As Leader of the Lords in 2008, the great reformer led the Tories in voting down Labour proposals on National Insurance which, last time I looked, was also a “financial matter”.

So call it irony or outrage, it is a bit rich that this individual is now charged with finding ways to stop the Lords voting down the elected government on ....”financial matters”, in the name of addressing a “constitutional crisis”. It will apparently take a couple of years to put “reforms” through, which I trust will encourage rebellious peers to carry on making life difficult for those who intend to neuter them anyway.

Alongside this constitutional mumbo-jumbo is the political irony of the man who had just fought his way to the top of the dung-heap, only to trip up and fall flat on his face. George Osborne’s failure to head off these events by exercising a modicum of common sense is a text-book Treasury own goal. It is reminiscent of the poll tax when ministers were so far removed from life’s realities that they blundered on with something patently unsustainable.

There is a case for tax credit reform, not least because the system subsidises low-paying employers. But the intended scale of losses by working families are outrageous and the time-scales for supposedly compensating them far out of sync. As I wrote following Osborne’s budget: “Far more work is needed on the detail of these changes… recognising the human impacts and future costs of what crude implementation would involve”.

It is astonishing that such work has not been done in the intervening months. The sole Treasury response has been to put the head down and press on, regardless of the counter-productive cruelty of what is proposed. That human issue is far, far bigger than any trumped-up constitutional one and those who voted accordingly in the House of Lords were entirely justified in doing so.

Next there is irony in the vast array of forces who now defend Tax Credits as the totem of progressive thinking. “Attack tax credits and you attack the poor,” they say. Yet many of these late recruits, not least in Scotland, ignore the fact that the tax credit system was 100 per cent the product of Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which they spend the rest of their lives misrepresenting, reviling and denigrating.

For very good reasons, Labour did not support the first vote in the Lords which ostensibly would have gone further than those which prevailed but, in reality, would have divided opposition and made the two other majorities less likely. Such subtleties (and outcomes) were of no interest to Nicola Sturgeon who tweeted a sneer at Labour peers “abstaining”, which promptly became the party line for her disciples.

It was as clear an illustration as you can get of what divides two kinds of opposition politician. On the one hand, there are those interested in practical outcomes who will use every tactic at their disposal in defence of social justice. Then there are others whose only interest is in making political capital, without the slightest concern about whether the outcome is of any value whatsoever to the people who need help.

The latter camp’s outrage about social injustice is also highly selective. Imagine a government which promised to abolish student debt but then went on to double it with the harshest penalties paid by the poorest students with the result that even fewer from low-income homes will ever see the inside of a university.

Unfortunately, the House of Lords was unavailable to save Scotland from that cynical deception. Social justice should be judged by actions, not tweets.