The rubber stamp has a mind of its own. WESTMINSTER JOURNAL
WALTER BAGEHOT, the 19th-century scholar of Britain's unwritten constitution, once declared that ``the best cure for admiring'' the House of Lords ``is to go and see it.'' Over the years, the upper house of the ``mother of parliaments'' has been considered a citadel of aristocratic reaction, a ``Sunset Boulevard'' for politicians of pensionable age, and a constitutional rubber stamp. But despite such barbs and brickbats, the House of Lords has survived. In recent years it has even appeared to flourish. Now, suddenly, it is a focus of argument.Skip to next paragraph
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The stimulus for this surge of controversy about a chamber that traces its origins back to the Middle Ages was a decision by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last month to summon an army of hereditary peers from the countryside to dig her out of a political fix. She asked them to vote down a threatened rebellion in Lords over her plan to reform the system of local taxes and replace them with a per capita, or poll, tax.
When these Tory ``back-woodsmen'' - most of whom never darken the portals of the upper chamber from one year's end until the next - arrived to do their Tory duty by voting down an amendment of the poll tax bill, Britons were reminded that the House of Lords remains an undemocratic body with a built-in right-wing majority.
Tony Benn, a radical Labour MP who renounced his family title as Lord Stansgate in the early 1960s in order to remain an active politician, used the incident to expound his view that the Lords should be abolished.
Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Benn believes, has hastened the day when the Lords must bow to the modern era and either accept drastic reform or quit the parliamentary stage altogether.
The ``other place,'' as the upper chamber is known to members of the House of Commons, used to be the dominant wing of Parliament. But its powers were greatly weakened by reform acts in the 19th century, and all but wiped out in 1911 when the elected lower house won control of financial legislation.
At that point, the Lords had to settle for a restricted role as a reviewing and delaying chamber. They have retained their luxurious trappings (robes of ermine on great occasions) and arcane parliamentary procedures (peers do not vote ``yes'' and ``no,'' but ``content'' and ``not content''). But the house is only allowed to debate bills, not to prevent them from becoming law. In this circumscribed function, it tended to draw more amusement than respect. The upper house seemed more like a privileged club than a serious organ of government.
Aged hereditary peers would stage often perfunctory debates in their ornate chamber. As they talked, the bewigged Lord Chancellor, their chairman, at times slumbered on ``the Woolsack,'' a seat resembling a big red ottoman with a back rest. It was common for the Lords to begin their daily sitting at 2:30 after a good lunch and rise less than an hour later in anticipation of an agreeable afternoon tea. No wonder Benjamin Disraeli, when he retired to the upper chamber, said ``I am dead - but in the Elysian Fields.''
But despite the apparent irrelevance of the Lords, there was always a feeling that Britain needed an upper house.
Twelve years after World War II, the Lords gained a new momentum when it was decided to create ``life peers.'' Chosen by the prime minister, such peers - who include women - are not able to pass their titles to their offspring. But in most other respects, they enjoy the status and privileges of lords of the realm.
The immediate effect of this move was to inject much-needed new blood into the second chamber in the shape of recently retired Cabinet ministers and Commons backbenchers, as well as senior retired businessmen. Debates sharpened as a group of ``working peers,'' many of them experts in their respective fields, warmed to the task of reviewing bills. This group (some 300 in number) undertook most of the debating and committee work.