Over the course of the past few weeks, given developments in respect of the EU, the Lords, and claims about Parliament by MP Mhairi Black, the media have been churning out claims that would do justice to Donald Trump. Fact-checking is not the strong suit of some political correspondents. For the record:
The Prime Minister cannot ‘call’ a ‘snap election’. As I have explained before, and more than once, what she can do is ‘call for’ an ‘early election’. The terminology is important. It may well be that the PM could achieve an early election under either section 2(2) or 2(4) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but it is no longer in the gift of the PM to go to Buckingham Palace and invite the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call a new election. The Queen retains no residual powers in respect of dissolution. Under s2(2) the PM is essentially dependent on the Opposition to agree to an early election and under s2(4) she is dependent on the House of Commons to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. Some newspapers, including now The Times, do acknowledge the provisions of the Act, but one still sees speculation as to whether the PM ‘will call a snap election’. Aargh.
Mhairi Black is not the youngest MP in 350 years. As I have previously reported, again more than once, she is the youngest MP since 1832. It was not unusual before then for MPs, such as Charles James Fox, to be elected under age. Minors were not formally permitted to be Members, but took their seats ‘by connivance’. Between 1790 and 1810, at least 29 MPs were elected under age. ‘Viscount Jocelyn, returned in 1806, was barely 18 years old’ (R. G. Thorne, The House of Commons 1790-1820, p. 278).
Electing a second chamber is not self-evidently ‘the democratic option’. Critics of the House of Lords trip out that we need an elected second chamber and justify this on the grounds that it is obviously the democratic option. I have variously explained that this is not self-evidently the case. I developed the point recently in my speech in the Second Reading debate of a Private Member’s Bill to provide for election. Democracy is about how people choose to govern themselves. In the UK, the choice is made through elections to the House of Commons. A party is elected to government on the basis of a particular programme, seeks to implement that programme – parties, contrary to some popular perceptions, do not have a bad track record of implementing manifesto promises – and are then answerable to electors at the next election. Election day, in Karl Popper’s words, is ‘judgment day’. We have core accountability. If one elects a second chamber, there is then the prospect of divided accountability, denying electors a body they can hold to account for the outcomes of public policy. My colleague, Professor Colin Tyler, who specialises in democratic theory, made this point also and rather pithily in his evidence (p. 200) to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill.
It was notable in the Second Reading debate that proponents of electing a second chamber really had no answer to my point, relying instead on claims that electing a second chamber was a feature of a ‘modern democracy’, failing to identify how this differed from ‘democracy’ and indeed failing to define their terms at all.
Perhaps I should start inviting readers to identify when these claims get rehashed in the media so that we can compile a list of shame…