Our noble cause

July 7, 1995

David Cannadine argues that their lordships have gained prestige just as the Commoners have lost it.

After the general election of 1945, as after the "People's Budget" of 1909, there were those who hoped, and those who feared, that the days of the House of Lords were numbered. With a massive popular vote for socialism, equality and democracy, there seemed a real prospect (or a grave danger) that aristocratic legislators would soon be abolished. But as we move through the last decade of the last century of the second millennium, those hopes have been as disappointed as those fears have been confounded. The peers are still there, and so Britain remains the last nation in the western world to possess a bicameral legislature, one chamber of which remains composed of those who sit there by hereditary right, and of those who sit for life by virtue of government nomination. In a democratic nation, with a Tory prime minister pledged to bring about the "classless society", this is an anomaly which some regard as infuriating, others as delightful.

Either way, the survival of the House of Lords is one of the most important themes of British political and constitutional history in the half century since 1945. How has it been allowed to happen? One answer is that the process of trying to reform it, or abolish it, has never met with more than very limited success, and most governments have wisely left it alone. The Parliament Act of 1911 abolished the peers' powers of veto, after which they could only delay measures sent up from the Commons for two years. It also held out the hope that something would soon be done to reform the composition of the house, which would have meant reducing the preponderance of aristocratic landowners, removing the inbuilt Tory majority, and making it more representative of the nation as a whole. But attempts at further reform in the inter-war years got nowhere, as did those of the Wilson government from 1967-69. For most members of the Commons, an emasculated second chamber remains the best fig-leaf to cover up the rather embarrassing reality of unicameral government.

But it is also the case that the Lords has survived because it has changed - or, rather, because it has been changed. In the first place, its powers, already much clipped by the Parliament Act of 1911, have been further reduced. Between 1947 and 1949, their lordships' powers of delay were cut down from two years to one. Under normal circumstances, this means that any administration with an adequate Commons majority and a modicum of nerve can be confident it can eventually get its legislation through the upper house, however radical or controversial it might be. Put the other way, the Lords' capacity to impede the will of the voters and of their elected representatives is now, in technical terms, so limited that few people in the lower house would want to waste time passing the legislation necessary to abolish the second chamber - and even fewer would want to weaken their own position by proposing reforms to increase its powers.

The second - and much greater - change has been in the upper house's composition. On the one hand, the traditional aristocratic element of hereditary peers has largely withdrawn from public life since the second world war: figures like Lord Carrington and Lord Cranborne are now endangered patrician rarities. On the other, the passing of the Life Peerages Act in 1957 not only dealt a devastating blow to the whole principle of hereditary legislators: it has also completely transformed the nature (and, some would say, the quality) of the second chamber. The majority of those who now take part in debates are merely nominated senators. And they include not only superannuated politicians, but also men and women drawn from a wide range of social and professional backgrounds: actors, academics and authors; businessmen, journalists and trades union leaders; representatives of ethnic and religious minorities, and the disabled. As such, the composition of the upper house has changed beyond recognition during the last half century.

In turn, this means that the peers' previously waning credibility has been somewhat - and unexpectedly? - enhanced. While the Commons consists of narrow-minded, full-time, professional politicians, the Lords is populated by those with a much broader range of experience and expertise. While the lower house debates are rowdy and boorish, their lordships discuss matters with grave, courteous and considered wisdom. While democratically-elected MPs rush through badly-drafted and ill-considered legislation, the peers who are answerable to no constituents take time and trouble to revise and improve it - and occasionally to reject it. All of which is simply to say that while the prestige of the lower chamber has diminished since 1945, and is still diminishing further, that of the upper chamber has increased, and arguably is still increasing. Fifty years ago, neither the opponents of the Lords, nor its defenders, would have predicted such an outcome. It is one of the more intriguing and important ironies of British history during the past half century.

Nor is it the only one. For while it is ostensibly the embodiment of British traditions, the House of Lords has probably been changed more since 1945 than any other significant part of the constitution. To those who remain devoted to the hereditary principle, this has been a great mistake. But to those dedicated to democracy, it has not been anything like enough. Yet if Tony Blair wins the next election, will he be brave (or foolhardy) enough to set in motion more root and branch (or gold and ermine) reform? It would take an inordinate amount of Parliamentary time, would be very controversial, and would generate little public enthusiasm. And who wants to see a democratically-elected upper house, replicating the myriad faults of the lower house, and given more power than it now possesses?

Of course, the present state of affairs is logically indefensible. But as previous would-be reformers discovered to their cost, any alternative may well seem even less satisfactory, and would stand little chance of being successfully implemented. For better or worse, their noble lordships are likely to be with us for some while yet.

David Cannadine is Moore collegiate professor of history at Columbia University, New York. His most recent book is Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain.

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