01 February 2006

Three cheers for democracy

Yesterday the House of Commons unexpectedly upheld freedom of speech by voting to accept the amendments made by the House of Lords to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Very good news. We will continue to be able legally to be rude about religions, as long as we are not threatening (in which case there is plenty existing law, anyway). And three boos for my MP Margaret Moron, who has a 100% record of voting for oppression.

Of course, while it is good to see our elected representatives voting for freedom, it must be remembered that the Commons previously approved the bill in all its horrible glory, and only after the rejection by the unelected house of Lords did it agree to gut it. What conclusions can we draw from that?

Well, one is that the Commons' view when there is time for both a public and an internal debate is not the same as its view in normal circumstances. This is because legislative productivity is too high: laws are being passed without getting adequate consideration.

Why did the Lords get it right when the Commons initially got it wrong? Possibly, the Lords, while unrepresentative of the population just happens to be more representative of me. That doesn't lead anywhere useful. Alternatively, I have often thought that the Lords show a greater sense of responsibility, brought on by the knowledge that their powers are illegitimate. An MP says to himself "I have gone through a long struggle of politicking and elections to obtain the power to vote on these matters - I shall now vote according to whatever suits my purpose at this moment". A Lord says "I have undeservedly been given power to change the law of my country - I must take care not to use that power in a harmful way". This explanation seems weaker now that most voting Lords are appointed ex-MPs - it seems unlikely that they would suddenly aquire an unfamiliar humility along with their silly robes.

I cannot justify the existence of the House of Lords, and I have in the past argued for unicameralism, but there is a pressing need to reduce legislative productivity, and the brake that is the Lords, eccentric as it is, cannot be discarded at this stage.

A claim by Charles Clarke was that the defeat was "a purely political act". A bizarre statement for a politician to make, but I suppose he meant that those opposing the bill were not really opposed to it, they just wanted to see the government defeated on something. (Of course it is unheard of for a Labour MP to vote for a bill he does not really support, just because he wants the government to win a vote). That may be true of some Tories, but I am sure that those who voted against their own party were sincere in their opposition.

A prominent feature of the debate was its dishonesty. The original text of the bill said things like "an offense is committed if someone says things that stir up racial or religious hatred". In response to criticism, the government proposed amendments along the lines: "you may express criticism of religion (provided you don't stir up hatred)". Such amendments obviously have no effect whatever on the meaning of the bill: see here

I am impressed by the Hansard web site. Full text of yesterday's debate and votes is available this morning for examination. Obviously, this is how it should be, but it is slightly surprising nonetheless.

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