The rubber stamp has a mind of its own. WESTMINSTER JOURNAL
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Then the House of Lords got another boost - from the electronic media. In 1985 cameras were allowed into the upper house as an experiment. They have been there ever since.Skip to next paragraph
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As a result, many British viewers were persuaded that the upper chamber was not as moribund as they had thought. The effect on the peers themselves was electrifying. Aware that the eyes of the people were on them, some of them began flexing their political and constitutional muscles by challenging bills on education, health, and local government. Occasionally they forced the government, which enjoys a majority of over 100 in Commons, to rethink its legislation.
Because the House of Lords has become more important and somewhat unruly, Mrs. Thatcher has had to ensure that her supporters there are well led. When her deputy, William Whitelaw, retired from the Commons, the prime minister made him Viscount Whitelaw and leader of the Tory majority in Lords. A few months ago, however, poor health forced Whitelaw to give up that post.
When Thatcher's poll tax bill came before Parliament, some of her own supporters in the Lords - aware that Whitelaw was not there to keep them in line - muttered about the unfairness of the new tax. They threatened to stage a serious protest against it.
So great was the brewing brouhaha that the prime minister ordered Lord ``Bertie'' Denham, the government's chief whip in the upper house, to send messages out into the countryside, requesting the presence of Tory peers who do not normally turn up at Westminster.
Among those heeding the call were such little-seen figures as the 13th Earl of Rollo - ex-Eton, ex-Grenadier Guards, aged 72 and normally content to tend his 700-acre estate in Perthshire, Scotland. As he climbed off the night sleeper Lord Rollo was reported as saying: ``I come to London very rarely: I can't stand the smell of petrol and oil.''
The result of this aristocratic influx was a crushing victory (317 votes to 183) for the government. But the scale of the victory has stirred a debate about the future of the Lords.
It's now clear that the advent of the ``life peer'' had hidden an obvious fact about the House of Lords: While there appeared to be a reasonable balance between the political parties in the House of Lords among the ``working peers,'' this was achieved by arranging for most hereditary peers, as one commentator put it, to ``lie sleeping in the shires.''
Lord Gifford, an opposition peer, said the vote on the poll tax ``ought to destroy the illusion many have had that the Lords can serve as a check on a doctrinaire government of the right. If the Conservatives choose to muster their natural majority of hereditary Lords, they can always win.'' Gifford wants to see the Lords replaced by a senate made up of elected members representing large regional constituencies.
But things are not apt to change much. Part of the reason is that there is little enthusiasm for reform within the opposition Labour Party.
Present Labour leader Neil Kinnock has ruled out reform of the Lords as a policy item for his party at the next general election. He believes the electorate would consider such a proposal to be too radical. Former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan strongly opposed reform of the Lords while in office; nowadays, as Lord Callaghan, he is an active and vocal member of the upper house. His Labour predecessor, Lord Wilson, is likewise unenthusiastic about reform.
Some Tories believe that Labour does not want a reformed (and more effective) House of Lords, because this would diminish the status and authority of the Commons. This theory holds that Labour, if returned to office, would prefer a compliant upper chamber.