Why All The Unpleasantness Over The House Of Lords?

If you’ve accidentally stumbled onto the BBC news website while looking for information on when the new “Doctor Who” season is starting, you might have discovered that the government (British for “administration”) is in a bit of a spot of bother over plans to reform the House of Lords! And by “bit of a spot of bother” we mean “there is a small but non-negligible chance it might collapse and force early elections.” As regular readers will know, this site takes its commitment to Knifecrime Island coverage seriously (including its celebrities) and while your correspondent is not a UK resident, he does like to read obsessively about British antics, and has prepared this FAQ on the House of Lords: what it does, why it still against all odds exists, why it’s been so hard to reform over the past century or so, and why everyone is so mad about what should by right be a quaint tourist draw, like Buckingham Palace or Stonehenge.

So, wait, you’re telling me that the elected British government can still have its decisions vetoed by, like, a bunch of viscounts and whatnot?

Haha, no, don’t be silly! The House of Lords had its powers to block legislation curtailed in 1911, a mere century or so into the Industrial Revolution. No need to be hasty, after all!

A quick recap: traditionally, the UK parliament consisted of the House of Lords, which was made up of every single person in the realm with a peerage title (“Baron,” “Viscount,” “Marquess,” etc.) plus top bishops from the Church of England, and the House of Commons, which consisted of the elected representatives of everyone else. The monarch could create new peers (“peer” being the term for a member of the nobility who got to sit in the House of Lords); but once you were made a peer, it was extremely difficult to take that away from you, and so barring treason you got to be a peer for the rest of your life, and also your (generally male-line, but there were exceptions) descendants got to be peers for the rest of their lives, and so your title (and the right to sit in parliament associated with it) would survive for as long as your family kept producing descendants, which could be for centuries.

This was wildly undemocratic, obviously, but for most of its history the House of Commons was only elected by fairly rich landowners anyway, so it’s not like this was that much of anomaly. Over the course of the 19th century, though, the House of Commons became much more of a democratic institution, and so there started to be a certain amount of uneasiness about the fact that the House of Lords had theoretical equal power. The Lords sort of agreed that if a political party promised to do something in its House of Commons election campaign and then won the election, it wouldn’t try to stop those laws from passing. But they had their limits, and those limits were encountered in 1909, when Liberal honcho David Lloyd George tried to pass a “People’s Budget” that raised taxes on the rich, and the Lords, being comprised entirely of rich people, blocked it.

The Liberals then introduced the Parliament Act, a new law under with the Lords could only delay legislation passed by the Commons, not block it. Obviously the Lords hated this even more than they hated higher taxes, but the Liberals had an ace up his sleeve: the monarchy, which had the theoretical right to create new peers at will, had for several generations done whatever the elected government told it to. So, if the Lords didn’t pass the Parliament Act, the King would just appoint hundreds of Lloyd George’s gross Liberal buddies as pinko peers who would vote in favor of it. In a victory of snobbery over principle, the Lords folded. They could still hold up legislation, sometimes for years, but they no longer had power equal to that of the elected wing of Parliament.

(This last part was happening just before the action of “Downton Abbey” gets started, by the way. Do they talk about any of this stuff in “Downton Abbey”? Your correspondent really needs to watch that.)

The text of the Parliament Act mentioned that “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation.”

Well, so, once the Lords no longer had the legal ability to block their own abolition, probably that whole “hereditary” anachronism was dispensed with rather quickly.

You would think that, right? But, actually, no. No, it was not.

The status quo—the Lords were made up entirely of hereditary nobles, and could delay but not block new laws—lasted for almost 50 years. (Admittedly, the Brits had two World Wars and a Depression to deal with in the meantime.) In 1958, a new law was passed that allowed the creation of “life peerages,” which were just like the old hereditary peerages in that they allowed you to sit in the House of Lords, but they only lasted for your lifetime, and were not inherited by your children.

Once this mechanism was in place, the practice of creating hereditary peerages stopped more or less immediately. They still give them out to members of the royal family (who by tradition haven’t voted in the House of Lords for centuries), and Thatcher created a few of them for political allies in the 80s, for nostalgic kicks.

So did the hereditary peers just sort of fade away after this?

Oh no, of course not. There were lots of them! And while families do eventually die out, it can take generations, so plenty of sons (and occasionally daughters) of ancient families kept taking their place in Britain’s legislature well into the late 20th century.

Who put a stop to this madness? Was it dastardly socialist Tony Blair?

Yes, it was! Sort of. The Labour Party, being at least theoretically socialist, had promised for most of its existence that it would eliminate the House of Lords altogether, which would have the dual advantage (for Labour) of getting rid of an ancient relic of traditional wealth and privilege and also getting rid of a Conservative-dominated body that could delay and water down Labour-backed policies. New Labour under Blair tended to go easy on the leftism, though, so by the time they got elected in 1997, their only promise was to “reform” the Lords. And it took them more than a year of fighting to finally pass their reform, which looked like this: being a hereditary peer no longer automatically got you into the House of Lords, but there would still be 92 hereditaries in the house—elected by the other hereditary peers, from amongst themselves, for life. Every time one of them dies, the hereditary peers get together and elect a replacement. This seemed like quite enough change for one decade and has been the status quo ever since.

Surely you can’t tell me that the notoriously posh David Cameron is going to be the one who finally does away with hereditary members of parliament?

Strangely, that may be what happens! Cameron fancies himself a great modernizer who has brought his Conservative Party kicking and screaming into the modern age. Also, in order to become Prime Minister, he had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are nerdy policy wonks who are even more dedicated to eliminating the hereditary anachronism than Labour at this point.

Beyond these idealistic goals, there are a couple of fairly practical reasons why the Tory-Lib Dem coalition might want Lords reform. First off, Tony Blair appointed hundreds of life peers during his time in office, so the Lords are a lot less Conservative than they used to be. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are a perennial third party that has enough support to stay alive but never enough to really gain power. They’d do better in a system of proportional representation, which is what’s proposed for the new Lords. (The Lib Dems made the Tories go along with them in proposing that the Commons also be elected on a form of proportional representation, but the Brits voted it down in a referendum last year.)

So what will the Lords look like if the Conservative/Lib Dem bill passes?

You can read it all here, but the high points: 80 percent of the new-look Lords will be elected via proportional representation. This means that the U.K. will be divided up into large electoral regions, and the Lords from each region will be divvied up among the parties based on the proportion of the vote each party got within the region. (This is basically how the Brits elect their representatives to the European Parliament now.) The remaining 20 percent will be appointed, with a goal of picking people who have specialized skills or knowledge that would be useful in a parliament but probably wouldn’t be found in elected officials. Like U.S. Senators, each Lord would only be up for re-election every three general elections; because U.K. elections happen every five years (barring the collapse of a government), this means that most Lords would be in office for 15 years.

Well, that sounds… kind of complicated, but more sensible than everyone being either a life appointment or a hereditary aristocrat chosen by other hereditary aristocrats. Presumably this law is well on its way to being passed!

Oh, no. Ha ha ha. No, not at all.

Oh, come on. Surely nobody is in favor of the current arrangements?

Nobody is going to say “Yes, the current weird hereditary/appointed hybrid is our platonic ideal of a House of Parliament.” But there are a lot of small-c and capital-C Conservatives who have the attitude that, well, this produces results that are fine, why mess with it and get a new situation that does who knows what? This strain of opposition dovetails with the common political obstructionist refrain, “But we have so many real problems, why waste time on this now?” This glosses over the fact that we wouldn’t be wasting so much time on it if you weren’t being so obstructionist. And, to its credit, the current House of Lords, made up as it is of part-timers who aren’t under electoral pressure, has a number of thoughtful members who bring a perspective to lawmaking far different from that of elected officials. (It also, of course, has members who are mid-level political hacks appointed by long-ago governments to settle a debt, semi-retired politicians with axes to grind, and rich inbred weirdos.)

Plus there are specific gripes with the proposed system. As noted earlier, one of the epochal moments in 20th-century British political history was establishing that the House of Commons was supreme. Everyone has pretty much respected this state of affairs because the members of the House of Commons are elected and the Lords aren’t. But once the Lords are elected, they might be more tempted to throw their weight around and claim their own legitimacy. That freaks everyone out a little! Plus a Lords based on proportional representation will be heavier on the Liberal Democrats, which isn’t exactly exciting to Conservatives (despite the current marriage of convenience between the two parties) or Labour. The new Lords will also probably have members from fringe-y parties that never get elected to parliament now, like the Greens, the isolationist U.K. Independence Party, and the far-right British National Party.

What’s the current drama?

The government is trying to push the law through the various procedural hoops necessary, but is facing rebellion in their own ranks. 91 Tory MPs—nearly a third of their caucus—voted against moving it to the next stage of the process last week, despite the fact that doing so will mean getting fired from leadership positions for some of them. David Cameron chewed out rebel leader Jesse Norman in front of everyone else; afterwards, an anonymous Tory (according to the Guardian) called Cameron’s behavior “‘disgraceful’ and a return to his ‘Flashman character,'” the latter referring to a posh bully in a 19th century British novel. “Flashman” is what Labour MPs usually shout at Cameron, so you know things are bad.Labour is ostensibly in favor of the bill, but keeps voting to extend debate on it, which is the opposite of useful in terms of getting it passed, because Labour enjoys nothing so much as watching the Tories tear themselves to bits.

Could some dumb fight about viscounts really cause the British government to collapse, with the whole country devolving into violent anarchy?

Well, in Brit-speak “government collapse” really just means “government no longer has support of the majority in the House of Commons and so we’re going to have new elections,” which is not quite as dramatic. But for a while anyway it did look like the Liberal Democrats were going to pull out of the coalition if the Tories couldn’t make Lords reform happen, or at least oppose a bill that would change the boundaries of House of Commons districts in a way that is expected to favor the Conservatives. For now, though, now Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg are playing nice.

Still, even if this isn’t the immediate cause of a rift between the two parties, it certainly adds more unpleasantness to an already tense relationship, which could lead to a split up before the planned next elections in 2015. And if a way isn’t found to push Lords Reform through before then, it might not happen for who knows how many decades! So if you are a hereditary peer who isn’t currently in the Lords, keep on the good side of your fellow aristocrats, because they just might vote you in the next time some other old posh dude dies.

That was fascinating. Before we sign off, can you tell us which two life peers have the most hilarious titles?

Sure! There’s a Lib Dem peer named “Lord Steel.” He’s proposing an interim Lords reform bill, but he sounds like he should be a second-tier enemy of the Fantastic Four. But number one is clearly “Lord Adonis,” who was the Transport Minister in the previous Labour government despite having the best male stripper name ever created.

Josh Fruhlinger has already picked out his peerage title, but you won’t find out what it is until the Queen comes to her senses and puts him on the Honours List. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr, or pre-order a copy of his upcoming novel on Kickstarter.