Has the House of Lords finally flipped its wig? Britain: The graying aristocrats are shedding their traditional garb and rebelling against the prime minister, putting their future in question.

November 20, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Britain's House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament, often resembles the world's most exclusive retirement community. But lately their lordships have been acting so robust it may kill them.

Between catnaps and supper breaks, the graying politicians, religious leaders and aristocrats showed they can be as defiant as a bunch of teen-agers.

They grudgingly voted Monday to let the country's top judge, the Lord Chancellor, shed his 17th-century ceremonial garb, enabling him to put away traditional tights and buckled slippers and dress in trousers, socks and shoes. But Lord Irvine of Lairg, who is also speaker of the House of Lords, will still have to keep his wig and robe for ceremonial occasions.

And Wednesday, they openly rebelled against British Prime Minister Tony Blair, holding up for the fifth time a bill to introduce a new election system for British representatives to the European Parliament.

Yet by defying Blair, some of the lords may have sealed their political death warrants.

"I think they have shot themselves in the hereditaries," Lord Williams of Mostyn said after he tried to guide the voting bill through the House of Lords.

Blair is out to reform the chamber and shake up one of the last bastions of the British aristocracy. He wants to strip 759 hereditary peers of their powers to sit and vote in the Lords. These are the members of the British ruling class who maintain their positions by virtue of birth, some holding titles that have passed from generation to generation for more than 500 years.

This feisty lot -- more than half the 1,297-strong assembly -- has created a solid voting bloc for the opposition Conservatives.

Blair is likely to use this latest defeat as ammunition as he girds himself for the anticipated battle to refashion the unelected and often unpopular chamber.

Blair has yet to reveal his overall plans for a reformed upper chamber. But asked if this week's parliamentary defeat quickened the pace to blunt the hereditary peers, Lord Williams said: "Yes, of course it has, because it is wholly unreasonable. The fact is that the clout is wielded by the hereditary peers. They are there in a permanent majority. If this was a trade union run in this way, we would never have heard the end of it."

The House of Lords and the House of Commons have had their ups and downs since their 14th-century separation.

The last great attack on the House of Lords came in 1911 when it was stripped of most of its powers after defeating the government's budget.

Since then, its chief weapons have been its ability to revise legislation and delay bills by up to a year. But the upper house does not vote against issues the government has promised in its election-year manifesto.

In 1958, life peers were expanded, enabling new members selected by the party in power to join the chamber. Their titles expire when they do.

In recent years, the House of Lords has acted as a rubber stamp. But in 1990, it tried to block a Tory-sponsored war crimes bill.

The latest standoff involves Labor's attempt to introduce proportional representation voting to next year's balloting for the European Parliament. Under the plan, voters would cast ballots for parties instead of candidates to fill the 87 seats allocated to Britain in the European Parliament. The government has vowed to reintroduce the bill next week.

The lords have argued that the plan is undemocratic, saying the people should be able to vote for candidates.

London's Evening Standard noted the irony of the unelected representatives risking their future on an election bill.

"The spectacle of Tory hereditary peers posing as guardians of democracy by persistently voting down the elected government would make a cat laugh," the paper wrote. "The entire episode has a schoolboy aspect."

Next week, the lords will hold their heads high in the annual pageant accompanying the State Opening of Parliament. Then they will don their red-and-white robes and assemble to hear the government's legislative agenda read by Queen Elizabeth II, dressed in her full regalia.

Even the queen has put up with some modifications in the event. A courtier with the archaic title of Silver Stick in Waiting has been eliminated from the ceremony, and the Lord Chancellor won't be required, as he has for centuries, to walk backward away from the monarch.

But the coup de grace may lie in the very legislative agenda the queen will be reading on the government's behalf, for one of the bills could be aimed at ending the reign of the hereditary peers.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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