Out-of-touch, privileged, cosseted from the real world, little or no interest in what goes on beyond their bubble, imbued with an arrogant born-to-rule sense of their own importance; sons, daughters, nephews and nieces of former occupants, inheriting the family business in an act of smooth hereditary nepotism; perceived as uncaring, avaricious, and as bent as a nine-bob note (as the old saying goes). Yes, residents of the House of Commons certainly belong to an elitist institution.
What of those who inhabit the contrary nest of radical vipers lurking down the gilded corridor, though? Unelected by the people they may be, but peers these days are drawn from a wider circle than their careerist contemporaries in the Lower House, those graduates of a tiny political gene pool who have travelled along a conveyor belt running in a straight line from prep school to big school to university to Spad internship to selection for Parliament by their parties. The landowning gentry that once had a seat in the Upper House handed down the generations are thinner on the ground since Blair’s late 90s Lords reforms, an invisible presence overshadowed by the commoner usurpers; and beyond the grandees awarded a life peerage as a Westminster carriage clock in the hope they will retain old loyalties following years of service in the Commons, crossbencher troublemakers and even C-of-E pillars are bringing government to task in a reversal of tradition that is skewering the complacent expectations of an administration no longer bound by concessions to lily-livered coalition bedfellows.
The Government’s bloody nose at the hand of the Lords this week was not unprecedented, but it is still a relatively rare occurrence. At a time when the Commons is governed by the first Conservative majority in a generation, the Tories are outnumbered in the Lords; and whereas the Liberal Democrats are now very much a minority in the Lower House, they can boast a significantly larger representation in the Upper House, something that comes in handy when old scores need settling. Any governing party with a majority will push its luck with unpopular policies, especially one gifted with the cushion of a fixed five-year term. Yes, the Tories broke their pre-election promises re tax credits, even though that’s hardly unique; yet, their determination to make life worse for those they were once so fond of lionising as ‘The Hard-working families of Britain’ looks poised to backfire on them. The general public perception is that they simply don’t give a toss about the fate of anyone not belonging to their elevated social strata and the Lords now seems more in synch with public opinion than the Commons.
The traditional solution for a government facing mutiny in the Lords was to create enough new peers to tilt the balance in their favour, as PM Earl Grey urged William IV to do in order to ensure the passage of the 1832 Reform Bill; but the Upper House is already bursting at the seams with the ridiculous numbers of peerages created over the past five years, so in this particular case, such cynical tactics would expose the Government to further criticism. It’s worth remembering that just three life peers were created during the eleven-year Premiership of Margaret Thatcher; compare that to the staggering 117 Cameron created in just his first year as PM.
The long-time supremacy of the Lords over the Commons began to be eroded as the nineteenth century progressed, even though most Cabinets continued to contain a sizeable number of peers, enabling the Upper House to still delay or destroy legislation, as happened with Irish Home Rule in 1893. It was a sign of the times that the lead character of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Palliser’ novels, the Duke of Omnium, crowns his political career by becoming Prime Minister whilst resident of the Lords, and though the Lords lost its last Prime Minister in the real world following the Marquess of Salisbury’s retirement in 1902, this didn’t necessarily mean peers had been completely castrated by the Commons. Lloyd George’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ was defeated in the Lords, which was at the time dominated by Tories who stood to lose out should the Liberal Government’s proposals for heavy taxes on rich landowners be passed. Liberal revenge came via the Parliament Act 1911, which effectively ended the ability of the Lords to again veto major legislation.
Hereditary peers had always dominated the Lords, with the honourable exception of the Lords Spiritual, Judicial life peers and ex-PMs, military heroes or former colonial governors, who were often there merely to make up the numbers; the passing of the Life Peerages Act 1958 altered the composition of the Upper House forever, with a greater female presence one notable side-effect. Such a noble gesture was hardly the prime motivation for the move, however; what Betty Boothroyd later referred to as ‘lobby fodder’ was the main gain for governments facing Lords opposition to bills they were eager to become law. Ironically, the man who was PM at the time of this Act, Harold Macmillan, remains the last non-royal to have been given a hereditary peerage when he was created Earl of Stockton in 1984.
Abolition of the Lords was an integral Labour policy more or less from the off, though the Upper House had already suffered this fate during Cromwell’s Protectorate, eventually restored along with the monarchy in 1660. By the time Neil Kinnock became Labour leader, the party mantra had been watered down to a demand for an elected chamber. Following the 1997 Election victory, Tony Blair tweaked the plan and proposed the removal of all hereditary peers; when this bill worked its way through Parliament, Blair compromised and allowed 92 hereditary peers to remain, initially only until full reform was completed, though the 92 remain there to this day, now very much in the minority.
It is inevitable Lords reform will be back on the agenda following the rejection the Government experienced at the hands of the Upper House this week. The treatment of society’s poorest, sickest and most under-privileged by the Coalition was regularly criticised and condemned in the Lords, particularly by those of the Spiritual persuasion; but with a far larger proportion of the public standing to lose out should the Government’s current proposals become law, the stance of the Lords has chimed with the consensus in a manner that those the public actually elected to Parliament are left dumbfounded by.
Since the New Labour House clearance of 1999, endless ideas have been put forward to reduce and reform the Lords anew, yet what the chamber achieved on Monday night to me says the Lords still has a crucial role to play in British politics, even if it is somewhat overcrowded at the moment, with 816 sitting residents compared to 650 in the Commons. The mix of hereditary and life peers, as well as the Lords Spiritual, ex-Commons starlets and ‘celebrity’ appointments such as Melvyn Bragg and Joan Bakewell makes the Lords a far more varied body of individuals than those currently occupying the Lower House. So what if they weren’t elected by the public? Neither were any members of China’s ruling body, and China seems to have done alright out of this arrangement over the past couple of decades.
Which party dare advocate abolition of the House of Commons, I wonder?