The Future of the House of Lords

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

The Future of the House of Lords


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


THE constitutional historian Lewis Pike, writing in 1894, said: `Our English constitution was never in a condition of absolute stability, was hardly ever in any one century precisely what it had been in the century before'. Thus, although the reforms mooted so strongly between 1869 and 1918 never came to pass, the House of Lords is not the same creature that it was at the beginning of this century. That is not simply because of the piecemeal reforms of 1958 and 1963, but because the whole fabric of the society which produced it has changed so dramatically. Now the Blair Government plans to remove hereditary peers from the Lords.

What, after all, is the purpose of a second chamber in a bicameral parliament? The function of the Lords today is to check, modify or delay proposals of legislation sent up by the Commons; to initiate non-controversial legislation; and to be a centre of informed and non-political debate. Everything else about the chamber must be geared to these functions: the membership, how it is chosen, for how long, and the number of this membership. Like Topsy, the Lords has just growed. In 1641 and 1642 the Bishops, the ancient spiritual dimension of the Lords, were removed, and seven years later, one week after the execution of the King, the Lords was abolished, being declared `useless and dangerous', an interesting choice of terms. Before the end of the Commonwealth however Cromwell had planned a second chamber, being convinced of its usefulness, not least to him, as a strong executive. The Parliament of 1656 had declared for a second chamber, with some form of judicial status, to be associated with the Commons in the conduct of public affairs. Lord Shaftesbury, referring to the Lords of the Long Parliament declared: `I honour the old Lords and wish they were restored'.

Cromwell's own view was that he wanted `Somewhat to stand between me and the House of Commons ... prevent tumultary and popular spirits ... men of your own rank and quality, who will not only be a balance, unto you, but a new force added to you ... unless I have some moderating and businesslike body to leaven the lump of fractiousness in the Commons, I cannot carry on the affairs of the nation.' He expressed it even more strongly: `Unless you have some such thing as a balance, we cannot be safe ... By the proceedings of this Parliament, you see they stand in need of a check, or balancing power.'

John Thurloe, Cromwell's secretary, added: `We judge here that this House just constituted will be a great security and bulwark to the honest interest ... and will not be so uncertain as the House of Commons, which depends upon the electing of the people'.

So, on March 11, 1657, seventy members were settled upon for the second chamber, all to be nominated by the Protector and with the proviso that the Commons need not assent to the nominations. What was it to be called? For the moment it was simply called the `Other House'. Eighteen of the nominees were related to the Protector, but this was to be expected in an oligarchic government. In the end sixty-three `lords' were summoned to the first meeting, forty-two accepted and thirty-seven actually turned up. The new lords were not happy with the situation. Cromwell's second chamber was not a success. The reasons were that the newly nominated members were not sure of the future, and did not wish to prejudice their older status from the former House.

Saye's letter to Wharton, dissuading him from accepting his nomination, was an eloquent plea for the former House of Lords. `They have been as the beam keeping both scales, King and People, in an even posture ... long experience hath made it manifest that they have preserved the just rights and liberties of the people against the tyrannical usurpation of kings, and have also, as steps and stairs, upheld the Crown from falling upon the floor, by the insolence of the multitude.'

Thus, when the new session of Parliament opened on 20 January 1658, it was a sign of the times that preparations for the new House of Lords were ordered to be as cheap as possible, whether chairs, carpets or hangings, for the six rooms set aside! …

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