US Senate as model for Britain's House of Lords?

Politicians vie to change from the age of pomp, circumstance, and knee

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Searching for a model to replace the ancient and antiquated House of Lords, British legislators think they may have found one - the United States Senate.

Conservative Party opposition leader William Hague is being urged by senior advisers to focus his eyes on Washington's Capitol Hill before deciding on the best way to give Britain a second chamber shorn of ermine and coronets and capable of acting as an effective brake on the House of Commons.

Last year Mr Hague invited Lord Mackay, who was Lord Chancellor in the government of Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher, to come up with ideas for a reformed upper house. The result, published on April 16, is a report offering Hague a choice between two options.

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The first would replace the House of Lords, which is largely hereditary, with 500 elected senators who would keep their jobs for a single term of 15 years, and then be obliged to resign.

Mackay's second proposal is for a mixed house, combining elected senators and others appointed by the government from the "great and the good" in British society.

In both cases, one-third of the upper house would change at each general election. Mackay says he got this idea from the US Senate.

Hague has welcomed the report and says he will consult members of his party and produce his own firm proposals within six weeks.

There is a need for urgency on his part. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is urging the House of Commons to accept legislation that would eventually get rid of the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords and make the upper chamber initially wholly nominated. Blair has left open whether eventually all upper-house members should be elected.

Hague has attacked the Blair plan for being "half-baked" and likely to result in the reformed House of Lords being dominated by what he calls "prime ministerial cronies."

A SENIOR Conservative backbencher says: "A directly elected upper chamber, akin to the US Senate, would be in tune with the public's feelings, and it would make Tony Blair's ideas appear overcautious and self-serving."

An official close to Lord Mackay, who is a Scot, says the former Lord Chancellor favors requiring members of a reformed "senate" to shed cocked hats, long capes, and knee breeches, and get used to wearing ordinary clothes.

Whatever the final outcome, it is now certain that Britain's upper chamber will look radically different in just a few years' time.

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