Britain's Lords Raise a (Polite) Ruckus

Unelected upper chamber voted down a controversial bill last week. Wigged and robed peers are much parodied. Do they serve a purpose?

When they enter the chamber in their ermine-trimmed cloaks and floppy hats they can look downright ridiculous. And when they are sometimes caught live on TV slumbering through debates, they can seem utterly irrelevant.

Although Prime Minister Tony Blair is determined to curb the powers of Britain's House of Lords, these "peers of the realm" appear unimpressed. Instead, they are fighting back.

Last week they threw an aristocratic wrench into Mr. Blair's legislative program by decisively voting down a measure that would have legalized homosexual acts for 16-year-olds. The proposal had earlier been approved by the lower house, the House of Commons, by a large majority.

It was the 31st time in the past year that the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, had defied the will of the elected Commons.

Blair and his Cabinet were livid. But with a parliamentary recess looming, it seemed that what members of the Commons call "the other place" had scored a victory with no time left to reverse it.

Supporters of the contentious bill complained that the peers had frustrated the will of the people.

One said: "If we needed proof that the Lords should be abolished, this was it."

Outdated though it may seem, the House of Lords has proved remarkably resistant to reform. More than 200 years ago revolutionaries in France wheeled the tumbrels through the streets of Paris and filled them with aristocrats bound for execution. But in Britain, the 631 hereditary peers of the House of Lords are still very much in business.

In any case, the reforms Blair is proposing are mild.

No guillotine awaits Lord Cranborne, leader of the Conservative opposition in the House of Lords, who traces his title back to the 1580s and has called attempts at reform "idiotic."

If Blair gets his way, Lord Cranborne and other hereditary peers will not lose their heads - only their votes. The ability of the peers to embarrass governments by casting ballots against them will be removed, but they will not be required to shed their titles - or their robes.

In the future, Blair has indicated, the only people allowed to vote in the Lords will be "life peers." These members of the upper chamber, who unlike the hereditary peers include women, have been appointed by governments over the years. The titles of life peers cannot be passed on to their descendants.

Some of Blair's supporters say his approach is too feeble.

Liberal columnist Hugo Young, writing in the Guardian newspaper, has argued that the prime minister should abolish hereditary and life peerages completely and start afresh.

"The new membership should be part nominated, part elected, and members of the new upper house should serve for a fixed term," he contends. "The designation 'Lord' should disappear altogether."

That same line of reasoning was adopted by the influential London-based Economist magazine. "The proposed reforms are not radical enough," it said in an editorial last month that argued for a wholly recast upper chamber.

That seems unlikely to happen. In Britain, ancient institutions tend to command public affection.

Like the monarchy, the House of Lords has deep roots in tradition. It retains an Old World quaintness that Britons will probably be reluctant to dispense with.

Members of the Lords sit in a heavily gilded chamber. The benches where some of them snatch 40 winks are plush red leather. There is much bowing, scraping, and kissing of hands.

A favorite target for parody are the genteel dress and manners of the Lord Chancellor, who wears a full wig and sits on a chair called the Wool Sack (yes, it is stuffed with wool).

Nobody can remember an angry debate in the Lords, whereas in the Commons uproars are frequent. When motions are made, peers do not vote "aye" or "no." They say whether they are "content" or "not content." There is no age limit for members.

A left-wing Labour Party Member of the Commons, Ken Livingstone, recalls receiving a late-night telephone call from a chauffeur who said he had a problem with an aged peer.

"I've got Lord X in the back of my car," the chauffeur said, "and he can't remember where he lives."

Despite the impression left by this kind of disparaging tale, the Lords can be an effective debating chamber.

This is due mainly to the appointed life peers. Many of them are former members of the Commons; others are drawn from business, trade unions, and the arts. Bishops of the Church of England also sit in the Lords.

Lady Jay, the newly appointed government leader in the House of Lords, is a former journalist and daughter of James Callaghan, Labour prime minister from 1976 to 79.

Perhaps the strongest argument for reforming the upper chamber is its heavy built-in bias toward the Conservative Party - something Blair, who heads a Labour Party government, has not been slow to notice.

Currently, 304 hereditary peers and 169 life peers are Conservatives. Labour has only 17 hereditaries and 139 lifers.

Oddly enough, some of the life members of the Lords are taking the side of the hereditaries.

Lord Skidelsky, a political scientist at Warwick University, argues that hereditary peers should be represented in a reformed House of Lords.

"There is value in the hereditary peerage as a social institution," he says.

With a nod to the notion that radical change is seldom useful, he adds: "Conservation and reform should be allies, not enemies.

"That is the English tradition. It has served us well in the past."

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