Lords leap ahead with eye on past

England: On Friday, the upper chamber of Parliament will be up for election for the first time.

October 30, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Life has been swell inside the House of Lords.

There is no pay but plenty of privilege. The dining rooms are divine, the bars are plush and the hours aren't bad, either.

But at the approach of the millennium, the centuries-old debating chamber is in the midst of another historic upheaval. Hundreds of aging hereditary peers, whose ancestors include some who had their titles before Columbus discovered America, are about to lose their say.

Some lords are incensed by the changes. Others resigned. Those who actually came and worked will try to hang on, entering next week's election to gain a place in a reformed chamber.

One candidate is the 7th Earl Howe, a 48-year-old former banker with a quick wit and firm grasp of history. He comes from a family that knows about historic changes. His forebears were commanders of British forces during the American Revolution.

"They were in the early stages of the war," he says. "When the British were winning. They didn't lose the war for us."

But Lord Howe finds himself on the losing end of history. He is one of the 751 hereditary peers about to get the chop. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing through a reform to strip most of the hereditary peers of their right to sit inside the chamber their ancestors created. His government labels them too remote, too male and too Tory -- a jibe at their majority Conservative roots. Only 92 will survive the cut. Even then, they'll have to go through the indignity of election.

The date of the vote count? Friday, Nov. 5, coincidentally the 394th anniversary of the celebrated "Gunpowder Plot" by Roman Catholics to blow up Parliament with King James I inside.

Lord Howe tries to remain jovial about it all as he leads a visitor up a broad staircase, through a splendid book-lined hallway and inside a cavernous room lined with commanding royal portraits and two 45-foot-long frescoes of battles at Waterloo and Trafalgar. This is called the Royal Gallery.

"Welcome to my study," he says with a smile, taking a seat beneath a royal portrait.

In many ways, he is the personification of a modern peer, a gentleman farmer looking after a 1,600-acre spread at the family's ancestral home in Buckinghamshire.

In background, he represents the old ruling class, educated at the elite Rugby School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained a top prize for Latin verse. Courteous and curious, with a gray conservative pin-stripe suit to match his graying hair, he strives to make a good impression as a hard-working peer.

Lord Howe keeps a hand in business, representing the antiques industry.

When a visitor suggests that many Britons look at the House of Lords as the ultimate antique show, he smiles and says, "The goods are not for sale."

It was King George III who bestowed the earldom on Adm. Richard Howe. Lord Howe's most colorful ancestor may have been the 5th Earl Howe, who raced cars into his 50s. "In 1939, he gave up cars and started taking up wives," Lord Howe says. "They were even more expensive."

To hear Lord Howe tell it, the life of a peer is not a life of ease. There are party meetings to attend, issues to research, bills to vote on and debates to enlighten; peers usually gather in the chamber four days a week, mostly in the afternoons and evenings.

He has no staff, writes his letters on a laptop, prints them out, even addresses the envelopes. And he laboriously does his own research on complex issues. As an opposition Conservative Party spokesman on health and social services, he has to understand challenging issues that affect the nation's life.

"I know this sounds corny, but those who come here don't come for the money," he says. "They come out of a sense of duty and a wish to serve. This is quite precious."

The House of Lords has about 1,300 members -- the roll varies because of deaths. About half rarely show up. The hereditary peers claim their seats by birth. Life peers are appointed by the government of the day, and their titles die with them. Other lords include bishops and archbishops and so-called Law Lords, the country's top judges.

The debate in the chamber is usually as restrained and refined as most of the membership.

The House of Lords is a revising body, nonelected, yet in its way as vital to law-making in Britain as the elected and more powerful House of Commons. The lords can amend legislation, question the government and undertake investigations on a range of public policy issues through select committees. But in the end, they always have to give in to the legislative will of the elected officials.

"When the lords scrutinize legislation, it does much more thinking than the House of Commons," Lord Howe says.

"Everything is looked at, line by line. There are people here who make it their life's work to make sure a piece of legislation is perfect. That's terribly valuable. That makes a difference between good and bad law.

"When all is said and done, the House of Commons will have its way," he says. "That is as it should be. There is no gridlock."

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