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Unelected House of Lords May Lose Its Vote in Britain

Prime Minister Blair named new Labour members over the weekend. But his real aim is to cut its power

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 1997



LONDON

Hereditary members of Britain's House of Lords are in a grumpy mood.

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Prime Minister Tony Blair is not about to deprive them of their titles and ermine-trimmed robes - still less their country mansions and trout streams. But he is determined to strip them of their right to vote in Parliament.

Mr. Blair's announced intention to curb the power of peers of the realm who owe their status to birth, not election by the people, drew a broadside from Viscount Cranbourne, Conservative Party leader of the House of Lords, who called the plan "idiotic."

But probably by the end of this year, the power of hereditary peers to cast votes in Parliament - and thus block or delay legislation - is set to become history.

It is a history full of eccentricity, which may be why it has taken all of seven centuries for the House of Lords to have to confront the realities of democracy.

The British love their eccentrics, and the "other place," as members of the House of Commons primly refer to it, has had its fair share of oddballs.

In 1953, the 12th Duke of St. Albans (hereditary Grand Falconer of England) demanded to be allowed to bring a live falcon when he attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Told it would have to be a stuffed bird, he stayed away.

In 1978, the 4th Earl Russell informed the house during a foreign-affairs debate that former Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and US President Jimmy Carter were, in fact, the same person.

Far from speeding the upper chamber toward oblivion, such conduct seems to have endeared it to many Britons. Even so, the House of Lords has been on the defensive since as long ago as 1832, when the great Reform Act redistributed seats from dukes and earls to urban constituencies.

Another crisis occurred in 1909, when the Lords threw out the proposed budget of Prime Minister Lloyd George. After two general elections failed to resolve the matter, the government passed the Parliament Act of 1911, which prevents the upper house from voting down spending bills. It was not until 1958, however, that a British government injected a nonhereditary element into the hitherto blue bloodstream of the House of Lords.

The Life Peerages Act enables the government to appoint commoners to the upper house. They enjoy a noble title (Jeffrey Archer, the best-selling writer of thrillers, is Lord Archer), and can vote but cannot pass on their titles to their children. But even the 1958 measure did remarkably little to loosen the grip of hereditary peers on British lawmaking.

OVER the weekend Prime Minister Blair created a batch of 31 new life peers who are members of the Labour Party. Even with these new recruits, 319 members of the House of Lords regularly vote Conservative and only 45 can be counted on to vote Labour.

This wild imbalance enrages radical politicians such as Labour's Tony Benn, who in 1963 renounced his inherited peerage, ran for the House of Commons, and won. Mr. Benn has campaigned ever since to get the Lords abolished and replaced by a chamber elected by the people.

Far from satisfying such demands, the Blair plan will make only modest inroads into a chamber where ancient earls can frequently be spotted dozing on their splendid red-leather benches during debates.

The Labour government will take away their right to sit and vote, and then appoint a committee to consider further reforms. There are no plans to make the upper chamber wholly elected.

Blair has decided to tread warily in confronting the likes of Cranbourne, who argues hereditary peers are chosen by a system that "ancient Athenian lawmakers" would have regarded as "the fairest system of all."

Last week, he threatened that if the government tried to enact poorly drafted or unpopular measures, the House of Lords would use its powers to delay and seek to amend legislation.

Such sentiments suggest that when the reform package reaches the upper chamber, it can expect a rough ride. Nor can one be wholly sure that even life peers will act with circumspection. Lord Monkswell, a former electrician and Labour member, was jailed in 1994 for 14 weeks after attacking a psychotherapist with a wrench.