Evgeny Lebedev is a member of the British House of Lords
The latest scandal to hit the House of Lords is the news British security services warned that granting a peerage to Russian Evgeny Lebedev - bankrolled by his oligarch father Alexander - could be a risk to national security. The Sunday Times, which broke the story, reported that the warning was subsequently withdrawn after a personal intervention by the PM. The extraordinary story of Lebedev’s relationship with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrates the lack of checks and balances on the UK Parliament's undemocratic Upper House.
The latest twist in the Lebedev story came as the British Government lagged international efforts to sanction Putin’s moneymen. Another Peer - Greg Barker who was energy minister under David Cameron - this week resigned his role working for a company founded by the sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
And there are likely more stories of Russian links to come out - the Intelligence and Security Committee's Russia Report into interference in the Brexit vote concluded that “a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state.”
And yet the House of Lords has the power to debate and amend legislation which affects Scotland - more power than Holyrood has. Despite being fully elected, by the Scottish people under a fairer proportional representation system, the Scottish Parliament gets no say at all over controversial laws such as the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Elections Bill and the Internal Markets Act.
The half-reformed House of Lords put shadowy patronage in place of heredity
The House of Lords has never been democratic but in recent years it has become more and more subject to the PM’s personal patronage, with little in the way of checks and balances. Since the 1999 Reform Act, when the Labour Party under Tony Blair abolished the rights of 600 hereditary peers to sit in the Upper House, it has been entirely appointed, largely by the head of the ruling party. (What was touted as a democratic reform was seen by some as a Lords' power grab, as hereditary peers tended not to support Labour. The old hereditaries were arguably more independent, owing no favours to the Government of the day.)
There appear to be few checks on the PM’s power - Johnson appointed Peter Cruddas to the House of Lords despite the fact he was judged unsuitable by the House of Lords’ own selection committee. That appointment came after a donation to the Conservative Party of £500,00.
Johnson has also ennobled Brexit ultras like Ian Botham, Kate Hoey and Claire Fox - he even ennobled his own brother Jo Johnson. Johnson has created close to 100 peers. The House of Lords is the largest governing body in the world of any democracy. It is the biggest overall, after the Chinese People’s Congress.
The Lebedev story - the straw that breaks the camel’s back?
The story of how the Lebedev father and son entered the upper echelons of London society is told in a recent podcast by investigative journalist Paul Galizia on Tortoise Media. The initial launch party cost £2 million - more than it raised for charity. Johnson has attended many other Lebdev parties over the years - including one in Italy when Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, dismissed his security detail and was spotted returning in a disheveled state.
In a piece entitled “No one drooled over oligarchs like British toffs — I know, because I helped them“, Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long questioned how London society laid itself open to the money flowing from Russia’s kelptocracy, putting the PM front and centre of this.
Long wrote: “To say Lebedev is intertwined with Johnson is to seriously understate the amount of time the pair spend together. Johnson went to a party thrown by Lebedev the day after winning the general election. Lebedev is known for Instagramming his wolves — one of whom is called Boris. How can the prime minister remotely hope to clean up the mess Putin’s mercenaries have made in this country when he is up to his neck in it himself?”
The House of Lords has more sovereignty than Holyrood in the eyes of the British state
The courts have interpreted the devolution settlement as meaning that Holyrood has no sovereignty - unlike the Lords.
Despite the fact that the referendum on a Scottish Parliament was passed by an overwhelming majority in 1997; the Commons and the Lords hold all of the legitimate power to rule the UK. They can and do overrule Holyrood on any point.
The House of Lords is the place where legislation that is imposed on Scotland is debated and amended. Many Acts have been explicitly rejected by the Scottish Parliament - the Internal Markets Act; the Immigration Bill. The Scottish Parliament has no power to amend this legislation. Its recommendations are ignored by the UK Government.
The contrast between the democratically elected politicians in Holyrood and the spectacle of the House of Lords is becoming increasingly stark. But independence is the only way to ensure the democratically elected Government of Scotland has more say than the characters who currently sit in the House of ‘Lords’.