Days may be numbered in the House of Lords Those born to rule could be cast out

November 24, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- John Roundell Palmer Selborne was born to rule.

He is a member of Britain's House of Lords, a hereditary peer bearing a title handed down generations to the eldest male heir.

Lord Selborne can vote on important government legislation. He can add his voice to the genteel debate that takes place within the plush upper chamber of Britain's Houses of Parliament.

But Lord Selborne's days as an unelected political player may be numbered. Britain's new Labor government is out to strip the hereditary peers of the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

"I have a son," Lord Selborne says. "But I don't think he is expecting to succeed me. By then, this will all be over."

Labor's new tune has the Lords-a-leaping.

They're not yet backing up the moving vans to the House of Lords, but many of the hereditary peers seem resigned to leaving behind a comfortable life within an exclusive club.

Lord Richard, the leader of the Lords, reaffirmed last week that "the government is committed to reforming the Lords and will bring forward proposals in due course." But he provided no details on any of the reforms.

Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a blunter message in his Labor Party conference speech in September, when he warned the Lords: "We have the votes of the people, you've got the votes of nobody."

The battle between the popularly elected House of Commons and the House of Lords has been an on-and-off struggle going back centuries.

The House of Lords symbolizes old Britain, right down to the red-and-white robes members wear when Queen Elizabeth II presides over the State Opening of Parliament. The doorkeepers are dressed in tails, the paneled, carpeted corridors are filled with portraits of Britain's great and good. Even the coat hooks in the majestic cloakroom speak of power, with spots reserved for Princes Philip, Charles and Andrew.

The House of Lords is descended from the king's council that advised the Norman and Plantagenet monarchs beginning more than 900 years ago.

Today, the House of Lords is a place of privilege and introspection, filled with the wealthy and the well-connected. Its members draw no salaries, but they do get expenses. It also has the look of a retirement club, with the average age of sitting peers at 65 years, 1 month.

Its potential membership -- now 1,275 -- consists of "lords spiritual," archbishops and bishops of the Church of England; and "lords temporal," who are hereditary and life peers. Some peers decline to take their seats.

The 490 life peers were appointed by successive governments under a system established in 1958 -- the same year that women were allowed to sit in the House of Lords.

Among the life peers are judges, ex-politicians such as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, prominent business leaders, scientists and musicians. They are selected each year by the government of the moment for appointment by the monarch.

The 759 hereditary peers are Lords by blood, many rooted in the country's landed aristocracy. Sixteen Lords are heirs to peerages created before 1400.

The House of Lords is Britain's highest court of appeal in civil cases and the highest court of appeal for criminal cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The judicial work is overseen by 12 Law Lords. Scotland has its own criminal legal system.

In essence, though, the House of Lords is a talking shop, a "revising chamber" that mostly fine tunes legislation. It can reject bills drawn up by the House of Commons, but the Commons can just as easily override and pass them again. At most, the Lords can delay legislation by one year.

So, why does Labor want to take on this de-fanged institution?

More than half the hereditary peers are aligned with the Conservative Party, while Labor has only 14 hereditary peers. This block of Tories could cause mischief for a Labor leader bent on reshaping Britain's government.

The campaign to dump the hereditary peers grew nasty in the spring, when Labor dug into the background of the Tory hereditary peers.

Jack Straw, a leader in the then-opposition Labor Party, said, "How can the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury, the largest private landowner in Britain, who owes his title to the fact that one of his ancestors was the bastard son of Charles II, represent the common man?"

Straw added, "And how can it be right for the Tories to rely on the vote of Lord Vestey, whose great-grandfather bought the title with a 20,000 pound 'donation' to Conservative Central Office in 1922?"

The hereditary peers were not amused by the bashing.

"Before the hereditary peers get kicked out, the government should and must think very carefully how a second chamber should be ultimately constituted," Lord Selborne says.

Even though the Lords might appear far removed from the rest of society, Lord Selborne says they are in tune with modern Britain.

"We may look elderly," says Lord Selborne, 57, "but the debates do read well."

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