As Parliament opens, queen tolls death knell for hereditary peers Labor government plans to sweep away tradition, change the House of Lords

November 25, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- A robed, bejeweled and bespectacled Queen Elizabeth II dispassionately read out one of the more revolutionary governmental policies of her near half-century reign yesterday.

With one simple sentence, she confirmed the Labor government's commitment to sweep away centuries of tradition and radically alter the makeup of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament.

"A bill will be introduced to remove the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords," the queen said.

The long-expected announcement, contained in the speech that marked Britain's State Opening of Parliament, was taken stoically by the red-robed, unelected lords, some of whom hold titles that go back to the Middle Ages.

Yet, among some members of the elected House of Commons, who stood in the august upper chamber, there were muffled cries of "hear, hear," as Britain plunged into a constitutional battle that could drag on until 2000. There also were mutterings of "shame."

The State Opening of Parliament is the richest ceremonial occasion on the British calendar, a chance for the country's ruling elite to bring out their furs and family heirlooms in a show of pomp, circumstance and power.

With carriages, trumpets and processions, the ceremony is a far more ornate -- and theatrical -- version of the American State of the Union address.

This year's opening was advertised as scaled back, with the royal procession pared by 14 officials. Missing were such courtiers as the Gentleman Usher of the Sword of State and Silver Stick in Waiting.

Even the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, broke with tradition. After pulling the government's speech from his ceremonial purse and hand-delivering the legislative program to the queen, he turned his back on her as he walked down the carpeted steps.

In her 20-minute speech, prepared by members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, the queen mentioned 17 of 22 bills that will be introduced in the parliamentary session that runs until the summer.

It was a grab bag of reforms for education, welfare and unions, as the queen said the session would "focus upon the modernization of the country, its institutions, its public services and its economy." Blair's government also vowed to move ahead to give London a popularly elected mayor with a ruling assembly.

But the most controversial bill is the move to change the House of Lords, which maintains the power to amend and delay legislation by a year.

Wanting to eliminate one of the last vestiges of a rule by aristocracy, Blair's government seeks to blunt 759 hereditary peers, who gain their positions in the House of Lords by virtue of birth, leaving the chamber with about 600 life peers, who receive governmental appointments to the chamber that are not passed on to their heirs.

Blair's government proposed to establish a royal commission to "review further changes and speedily to bring forward proposals for reform" of the House of Lords. Many believe that Britain is headed for an upper chamber with both appointed and elected members.

The House of Lords and the House of Commons became separate bodies in the 14th century. The last major attack on the House of Lords came in 1911, when it was stripped of most of its powers after defeating the government's budget.

Last week, the hereditary peers, who usually side with the Conservatives, showed they still have some fight left in them, when they led the move to block the government's plan to transform the way Britain elects its representatives to the European Parliament.

Even though the hereditary peers are on the way out, they could still mount an effective delaying action, gumming up government bills for months.

But many acknowledged that their days are numbered.

"There is a certain nostalgia," Lord Walpole, whose title was created in 1723, told Britain's Press Association before the speech.

Lord Moncreiff, the fifth of a barony created in 1873, told the news agency: "It will be a big wrench for the family."

In an interview with Britain's Sky TV, Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ancram called the plan to reform the House of Lords "a political measure for political reasons."

Blair defended his proposal in the House of Commons, saying: "It's time to end the feudal domination of one-half of our legislation by the Tory party."

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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