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Irony in a Time of Democracy

Irony (noun): a situation or event that is, often humorously, at odds with what is expected.

In 1996, Alanis Morissette released a song called Ironic based on this sentiment. The song was criticised and mocked widely for its complete misunderstanding of what irony is – suggesting, for example, that “rain on your wedding day” was a suitable example. So wide was the mocking that comedian Ed Byrne, 10 years later, wrote a whole sketch about the true irony of the song – that it is written by a woman who has no idea what irony is. 

An even more accurate example, however, can be found in the recent actions of the House of Lords concerning the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The House of Lords is composed of unelected members, some of whom hold the position for life, and who have the power to delay and even force changes in bills proposed by the House of Commons. With no elections, there is no accountability and no assurance that these members act in the interest of the public. The peers in the second house of parliament thus have the power to decide our laws without the requirement of acting in the public interest, and without any repercussions should their decision lead to harm. In short, the House of Lords is a deeply undemocratic institution.

Despite this, it is the House of Lords that has prevented the democracy-undermining Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill from being passed into law. During the third Reading, the final stage before Royal Assent, the Lords sent the bill back to the Commons. Their reasoning was that, by granting the state the ability to impose restrictions on protests based purely on noise grounds, the power the bill would give to the police was unacceptable. Moreover, they felt the criminalisation of protestors locking themselves to things and the extension of stop and search powers were, as put by Green peer Baroness Jones, “oppressive”. 

It is precisely these aspects of the bill that worry so many in our democracy. Whether intentionally or not, the bill would curb the right to protest. It would give additional powers to the police to apply charges of disruption to protests, even if said protest was only one person with a sign and a megaphone, without ordering the crowd to disperse first if the crowd “ought to know”. This essentially means all protestors, no matter how law-abiding they try to be, could be arrested for disturbing the peace. Ultimately, this would make protest de facto illegal. 

Almost all measures of democracy and freedom consider civil liberties and human rights, such as the right to protest, a key indicator. This includes the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and Freedom House, both of which consider the UK less free and democratic than last year due to a general lack of trust in the government. As such, the restrictions to human rights and civil liberties that this bill could impose poses a serious threat to our freedom and our democracy. 

Here is where we find the irony. An undemocratic institution, using powers that could potentially undermine our democracy, is the only thing preventing the passing of an undemocratic bill. It is the last stronghold of the aristocracy that is currently protecting our democracy. A true embodiment of an event at odds with expectations. An example far more accurate than anything in Morissette’s song – though, admittedly, less catchy. 

Unfortunately, this is where the irony stops. However much we may want it to, it can hardly be considered ironic that the Commons is trying to pass such an undemocratic bill in the first place. This is because adherence to democratic principles is becoming harder and harder to find within parliament. The increasing use of the whip to force votes for the government’s agenda out of backbenchers means MPs are rarely allowed to act in the interest of their constituents. As a result, the desires of the people are generally ignored, relegated to a single choice made every 5 years when election time rolls around. This is not democracy; this is the rule of an elite that designs laws to best suit them and believes themselves too powerful to be held to account. 

This state the House of Commons has found itself in presents a problem for the future of the bill. Once upon a time, the House of Lords sending a bill back for amendments was an enormous red flag and impossible to ignore or dismiss. But now, the government wants something, and I have no doubt they will use every weapon in their arsenal to get it. This includes Parliament’s Acts that, following the consideration of amendments, would allow Parliament to pass the bill without the consent of the Lords. 

These acts, designed as they were to curb the power of the state and ensure the safety of our democracy, are now potentially being used to diminish it. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

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