Post No.: 0267
In the parliament of the UK, there is a bicameral system, which means that it has two chambers. The House of Commons (or ‘lower house’ of the UK Parliament; the House of Representatives is the ‘lower house’ of the US Congress) has members who are directly elected by the public. The House of Lords (or ‘upper house’ of the UK Parliament; the Senate is the ‘upper house’ of the US Congress) has members who are not publicly elected but appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister or via recommendation by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.
The House of Lords is there to balance, challenge and keep in check the House of Commons, and vice-versa – so rivalry, the competition of ideas, regulation and oversight are inherently built into this democratic system. (Some may argue though that the US Senate is better than the UK House of Lords because members of the former are elected representatives of all regions of the country, whilst members of the latter can potentially be cronies to past or existing politicians and the vast majority have peerages for life too. A counterargument could be that not worrying about elections or constituency matters means that Lords are free to concentrate on challenging the House of Commons, particularly on contentious matters.)
So if you believe in competition and conflict and that this brings out the best result (survival of the fittest) then the UK parliament, as one of many like it in the world, has competition and conflict built into it – between the Houses, within the parties, and of course between different political parties. It of course also faces persistent pressure from the public – the public has a say and casts its votes too, signs petitions or protests. The Supreme Court can also interject in legal or constitutional matters too (the UK has an unwritten, or more accurately ‘uncodified’, constitution), and the independent media is constantly scrutinising matters on a 24/7 basis as well. So in countries like the UK at least, the government isn’t this homogenous and unopposed monolith or hive mind that has only one purpose and that is ‘to control us’(!) Well indeed, depending on one’s perspective, if there’s too much disagreement between politicians then it’s considered ‘childish infighting’ yet if there’s too much agreement then they’re ‘colluding in a conspiracy’! Of course, other countries without democracy, or that have more tenuous veneers of democracy, may be different. The less we understand, the more we stereotype things though – in this case governmental systems – hence education alleviates the generalised fear.
Many people assume that a Prime Minister or President can just unilaterally carry out her/his policies and promises once elected into government, but there are the checks and balances of Parliament or Congress, which means that policies can be effectively blocked by the upper house, or even by the lower house if the Prime Minister or President’s own party does not have a majority (more than 50% of the seats) there. Coalitions are difficult for the smallest party of a coalition too. But all this can mean that it (rightly or wrongly, depending on the individual cases) gives the leader ready excuses if things go wrong because they can then blame Parliament or Congress, for if they had their support then they’d have no one else to blame! (A Prime Minister can be directly blamed for the makeup of the House of Commons if she/he intentionally calls for a snap election and the results don’t go as she/he hoped though!)
Should members of the House of Lords also be elected? I personally agree for the need for experts in their fields in this House rather than popularity-seeking career politicians (people who talk and persuade well but don’t always know well). But is this House’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public in question if the public does not elect its members? Yet it arguably shouldn’t be another House of Commons – the House of Lords is not perfect and the House of Commons is not perfect, but together they should do well to balance and check upon each other. Meow.
It’s not that ‘elected guarantees diversity or independence’ either. Being popular (and therefore great at campaigning during elections) also doesn’t mean knowledgeable (securing votes is often merely about who can charm and bull**** the best!) For an analogy, look at social media influencers who are very popular and influential at spreading diet fads but aren’t anywhere as truly knowledgeable as properly trained and qualified professionals who aren’t as famous or popular. (There are some exceptions to this generality though.)
The current House of Lords is dreadful when it comes to diversity but there are other ways to create more diversity than public elections – maybe more Lords should be selected by independent committee rather than by the incumbent Prime Minister, for a start? Arguably, the House of Lords is more relevant too – debating about the issues rather than party politics and so having fewer of the arguments that reach no end result that we see in the House of Commons at times.
So life peerages have their pros and cons, but hereditary peerages are outdated and paying ‘cash for peerages’ is illegal. Peers who just pop in for a few minutes to collect their £305 for the day (this figure was correct as of posting) should not be allowed to do so either. Now sometimes the House of Lords chamber is nearly empty because not every Lord has the expertise for every subject or issue and so only the ones who do for the present subject or issue are in attendance. Various Lords may also be working elsewhere, such as in a committee. Therefore it’s wrong to jump to conclusions and every individual Lord must be judged on an individual basis. (These factors apply to Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons too.)
It’s good to see how Parliament has evolved, starting from the Magna Carta in 1215. But some things still puzzle some of us, such as why House of Commons sittings still start with Christian prayers? However, the UK is not technically a secular state. Experiments with honour codes recited by students before school exams reduce the occurrence of cheating behaviours and so such prayers could act like a sort of honour code recital for politicians too? And rather than being secular in nature, a reason why it should remain religious might be because primes of an omnipresent and omnipotent god, and the fear of punishment should morality be violated, can inspire greater morality. Reciting a religious code of honour/prayer won’t suddenly make an MP religious if one is not already religious, but it might prime everyone to think of such a god, at least for a temporary moment.
When examining the main prayer – apart from the ‘Lord, the God of righteousness and truth’ and ‘Amen’ lines – the values expressed in the prayer look reasonably acceptable for a follower of a religion other than Christianity or for an atheist anyway, in my own fluffy opinion i.e. don’t be corrupted by power, don’t be selfish but do things for the people, don’t hold prejudices. Also, although many of the traditions in Parliament can be seen as needlessly time and resource-consuming – having such traditional rituals may put MPs in the correct frame of mind before commencing their sittings (but I guess every tradition should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis for function and value).
Anyway, MPs must split their time between handling casework for their local constituents (e.g. surgeries) and their work in the chamber (e.g. to scrutinise and challenge the government if they’re not in it). This can include being on select committees too. So the workload for an MP (or Lord) can be extremely high. And when something like ‘Brexit’ dominates the schedule – other important issues and legislation can get put on the backburner too (other important news, political or otherwise, receives less attention and slips under the general radar in the media during such times too). But there is sometimes a conflict of interest between an MP dividing her/his time and priorities to Parliament and to her/his constituency; and if an MP has any external secondary employment(s) then here too. UK citizens can freely check up on a Member of Parliament’s voting record in parliament online, as well as their register of financial interests (albeit profits from private investments are not transparently disclosed, which is controversial).
Secondary employments are supposed to connect politicians to the real world of employment – but some jobs they take aren’t that connected to the real world that most of us are familiar with (e.g. £85,000 per year for 4 hours of work per week, which might make us wonder what else the employer is getting in return for paying that level of salary to a politician?)
Party politics, coercively pushed by the party whips, can sometimes conflict with constituency priorities – if party members don’t follow, especially what are called ‘three-line whips’, and toe the main party line then they can potentially be expelled from the party. So in such situations, will their career or conscience win? We can indeed effectively vote our local MP out at the next election if we don’t like or trust her/him anymore, but we might need to wait for up to 5 years for that chance (in a world where a week in politics can be a long time!)
Well this was only a little introduction to the Houses in the UK Parliament in particular. I suggest that everyone should learn more about one’s own parliament (or congress or closest equivalent) in order to be better-informed citizens about how one’s country politically operates. We become more empowered and our beliefs become less generalised the more we understand. And politics involves every single citizen, as Post No.: 0010 emphasises.