Lords rebuke for the Government over Internal Markets Bill

Green Peer Natalie Bennett considers a historic vote against the Government’s proposed Internal Market Bill, and how the upper chamber is right with the tide of history, while the Government is high and dry.

House of Lords (Wikimedia Commons)


Natalie Bennett

“The stars were aligned” is a phrase from the past, an older, more superstitious age, albeit an age that we’ve seemed to be risking returning to in recent times, as experts were decried and science tossed aside by leaders in London, Washington Brasilia, Budapest and beyond.

But the phrase felt apt earlier this week, as the House of Lords, led by a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, removed a whole chunk of government legislation in the form of Part Five of the Internal Market Bill. That’s the part in which the government is seeking to break international law, although, they hasten to assure us, only “in a specific and limited way”.

You have to be right up with the detailed, arcane procedures of the House of Lords to understand just how unusual doing this is, particularly at committee stage. Take my word for it, for the leader of the Crossbench (non-party) peers in the Lords to be doing this is a very big thing.

And so was the vote - 433 to 165, with 44 Tory peers rebelling to vote against the government.

Had this been happening even a week ago, the atmosphere, the environment in which this was occurring would have been far different, more fearful. It would feel more like the UK upper house was swimming against a fast-flowing current.

But now the government is the side in this debate that looks isolated and exposed. The global tide is running in the opposite direction, and they are high and dry.

For today dawns with the dangerous forces of disorder and decay, those who want to sweep aside the rule of law, who use demonising the vulnerable and the difference, building walls and seeking to install nets to keep them out, very much on the back foot.

Donald Trump has lost the US presidential election. The EU has decided to impose sanctions and deny funding to members that defy the rule of law, a move clearly directed at Hungary’s far-right regime of Viktor Orban). In Poland, with a regime only just behind Budapest’s in the rights-denying stakes, an outpouring of anger led by women against a further tightening of tiny abortion rights has developed into a far broader challenge against regressive forces. In Thailand, the young people are standing up against the long-term repression of the combined forces of the military and tradition.

On Saturday night, Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted with a picture of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson “One down, one to go …” It has been popular.

It is not, of course, all good news. The debate has happened because in 54 days the Brexit transition period will end. To say the coming week is a decisive one in the talks seeking to end that in an orderly, agreed way with the European Union is to risk a groan of “how many times have been heard that?”

But time is running out. And while a crash out - into terms worse, as was pointed out last week - than those enjoyed by Mongolia - will damage the EU, it will be far more destructive to the UK. Yet the news from America, and elsewhere, will surely strengthen the voices of sense on getting a deal in Westminster, supported as they are by vast swathes of the traditional Tory constituency of business.

And the House of Lords last night pointed the UK in the direction that the rest of the world is travelling, towards restoring a democratic culture and the rule of law - and to protecting the Good Friday Agreement that is a crucial bedrock of security and communal trust on these islands. (And for which US president-elect Joe Biden has shown strong support.)

 That the “unelected House” - a phrase we’ll surely hear a lot today from the last stand defenders of our isolated government - should be doing this is, however, a pointer to the future.

 The rising tide of fascism and division had its origins in the failure of the old order. First, in the constitutions that did not deliver a parliament and government in the UK and the US that reflect the will of the people. (The Tories now are in power in the UK with the backing of 44 per cent of voters. Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2016.)

 Equally importantly, the rise reflects the impact of 40 years of neoliberal order that has delivered poverty and insecurity to millions in the UK and hundreds of millions around the world.

To ensure this isn’t just a brief hopeful moment, we need to set in train far greater changes in our society.

Democracy works. It is the perfect fit for the modern age - look at New Zealand.

Equality and security have to be at the bedrock of our society, and the desire for them is strong - look at the fast-growing drive for a universal basic income.

If the government wants to be “world-leading”, as we so often hear, it has a very, very long way to go to catch up. But the House of Lords has shown it the way.