Britain's hereditary peers bowing bitterly to change

Lords losing power, seats in Parliament under Labor reforms

October 27, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- After lording it over this land for centuries, the unelected, unaccountable and unpredictable nobility of Britain surrendered their already dwindling powers late last night along with most of their seats in the House of Lords.

Instead of bowing to a sovereign, they yielded to a mere politician, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was determined to bring a whiff of democracy to Parliament's upper chamber.

Close to the stroke of midnight, the lords accepted a reform bill that would strip most of the 751 hereditary peers of their right to sit in the ornate upper chamber.

"The tale is now told," said Lord Strathclyde, leader of opposition Conservative peers. "The past is done. The glass is shattered and it cannot be remade. The prime minister has taken a knife and scored a giant gash across the face of history."

If all goes as expected when the bill goes back to the lower chamber, the House of Commons, only 92 of the hereditary peers would have the right to pull on their ermine robes and attend the Queen's Speech on Nov. 17, which opens the next parliamentary session. The Labor-dominated House of Commons will almost certainly vote to approve the measure, which then would require royal assent.

To retain their place in the Lords, those 92 will have to win the votes of their colleagues, a startling turn of events for those born to rule in an institution with 13th-century roots.

Even then, the "winners" might simply be part of a transitional House of Lords, facing a potential final cut when reform is complete as Blair and his Labor Party continue a program to overhaul the way Britain is governed.

The House of Lords is a revising chamber, acting as a check on the government, with the power to amend and delay legislation. Of its 1,330 members, 751 are hereditary peers, whose titles are passed down through generations, and more than 500 life peers, appointed by the sovereign at the government's recommendation. The body also includes archbishops and bishops from the Church of England, and so-called Law Lords, the country's top judges.

Blair campaigned on a promise to open the chamber and make it more democratic in keeping with a modern country.

Just how contentious an issue this was for the peers was on vivid display during the debate yesterday inside a packed House of Lords.

Usually littered with dozing, elderly men trying to digest a heavy meal, the benches were full and the place was jumping.

The debate started with a breach of protocol when the Earl of Burford, who isn't entitled to speak in the chamber because he's only the son of a duke, leaped onto the Woolsack -- the sacrosanct seat occupied by the Lord Chief Justice, who presides over the House of Lords.

Eldest son of the Duke of St. Albans, direct descendant of Nell Gwynne, Charles II's mistress, the Earl of Burford had this to say: "Before us lies the wasteland: no queen, no culture, no sovereignty, no freedom. Stand up for your queen and country, vote this treason down."

That is just not done. Ushers hauled off the 34-year-old earl and he was ordered out of the chamber by Black Rod, Sergeant at Arms General Sir Edward Jones.

The peers talked and voted on amendments through the afternoon and night in a debate that one member declared was "vindictive and acrimonious."

"Whatever else we lose from this House -- and we are about to lose a great deal -- I hope we shall not lose our civility," Lord Chalfont said. "I hope that we shall not lose our dignity."

The next test of civility and dignity -- the battle to be among the 92 survivors -- could be thrilling.

Nobles born to titles and power are running for their political lives, with 227 of the 751 hereditary peers in the House of Lords entered in the race for 92 seats.

This week, 15 hereditary peers are expected to be elected, while 75 will gain election next month, with two slots reserved for the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain.

A royal commission report due by the end of the year is expected to recommend that a streamlined upper chamber include a mixture of nominated and indirectly elected lords. Uncertain remains the political fate of the life peers, such as the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose peerages die when they do.

For the moment, though, it's the fate of the hereditary peers that is at stake, with a challenge that probably never occurred to their ancient forbears: In 75 words or less, why should they be picked as one of the 92 best-suited to carry on a lordly position in such common times?

The manifestoes, which read like essays to become class president, are out of another era. Then again, so is the political institution the candidates are trying to uphold.

Lord Pender put it in a single word: "Duty."

Among qualifications listed by Earl Grey is "GSOH," for "good sense of humor."

The Rev. Lord Wrenbury "believes the primary duty of a peer is to act indifferently in the public interest."

Lord Rea admits: "Initially a reluctant peer, I now attend and sing for my supper regularly."

"By the living God who made me, but I love this country," writes Earl Alexander of Tunis, whose father, Field Marshal Harold Alexander, fought Germany's "Desert Fox," Gen. Erwin Rommel, in North Africa during World War II. "My father fought for her all his life, and I, too, have worn her colors with pride. If it is given to me to remain in your Lordships' House, I will struggle with all I have to offer."

Writes the Earl of Onslow: "It would be as vainglorious to proclaim a personal manifesto, as it would be arrogant to list any achievement."

Lord Geddes is running on the slogan, "Brains; Breadth; Brevity."

Lord Craigmyle, a Conservative, compares serving in the House of Lords to jury duty or the draft. "Had I wanted to stand for election, I would have tried another place, long ago."

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