LONDON — In the broader scheme of things, it is only a small incident. The final removal last week of 656 hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and lords from the law-making machinery of the British Parliament can hardly be described as earth-shattering. Nor is it a surprise, having been long planned — and in fact argued for by radicals for over a century.
To most people round the world, it must seem extraordinary that Britain should have clung so long to the hereditary principle and allowed its aristocrats to continue, by right, as members of the Upper House of Parliament, and therefore as legislators.
Many countries still have their titled nobility. France is awash with counts and princes, Germany has its Grafs, Belgium is actually still creating grand-sounding titles, Spain has a good supply of dukes and Japan has its counts and princes, too.
No harm in any of that, particularly since the bearers of these titles rarely use them, keeping them nicely hidden, like precious family heirlooms, and only bringing them out to show curious visitors or genuinely interested researchers and historians.
Besides, there remains something eternally fascinating about titles and long pedigrees. In a rootless age, they help to bring our past to life and give us a feeling of stability and continuity. It is no wonder that whenever in the past revolutionaries took charge — as, for example, in France in 1789, or the infant United States in the late 18th century, or Lenin’s Russian Revolution of 1917 — one of the first targets was the aristocracy and their titles — symbols of privilege and oppression.
But that was yesterday. Nowadays the aristocracy are looked on with a certain tolerance and amusement. They are seen as adding color to a drab world. Glossy magazines are filled with their doings, their homes and the activities, good and bad, of their children.
But in Britain it was different. Partly through the accident of history, the British aristocracy never really got their comeuppance. While other countries were chopping the heads off their dukes and marquesses, the British contented themselves with one royal decapitation (Charles I in 1649), plus a few scores settled between rival families and dynasties.
But when the dust settled, the nobility were still there, ensconced in their gilded chamber and still governing the country, or at any rate influencing the government — until last week.
This time a reforming, center-left government has finally ensured that the hereditary peers, after more than 500 years of power, are no longer entitled to attend or vote in the second chamber or Upper House. Almost exactly 394 years after Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the House of Lords (1605), leveling egalitarianism has finally got its way. Or has it?
The new situation is full of ironies.
First, while most of the hereditary peers have been ejected, 100 or so are being allowed to stay on, at least for a while.
This is part of a slightly strange deal between the doomed peers and the government of Tony Blair, agreeing that a limited number of hereditaries could stay on for the time being so long as they did not oppose the legislation authorizing their own demise.
This residual rump of hereditary lords, chosen by election from among their fellow peers, will be on borrowed time. A deeper reform of the powers, structure and functions of the second chamber is being planned, advised by a special commission that is to report shortly. The government then intends to bring in the final changes that will exclude all hereditary peers forever. The whole Upper House will then consist of life peers, probably with about equal numbers of Conservative and Labor adherents, and a large leavening of Liberals and peers without any party allegiance, the so-called cross-benchers.
How they will be chosen remains to be seen. But the likelihood is that most will continue to be appointed, although maybe by a more open and committee-based selection process than in the past, with a few being “elected” by local bodies from the various regions of Britain, including the now devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It will be the classic British compromise, the idea being to create a second chamber that is more “in touch,” more representative of modern Britain and yet not too much of a challenge to the fully and democratically elected House of Commons.
Will it work? Almost certainly not. First, it will require more legislation of devilish complexity to get the new powers and functions into law. Many cynics doubt whether the Labor government will ever have the time or energy to get round to such a task — particularly as the British public remains uninterested and believes the government should be attending to far more important things.
Second, and more important, the “new,” hereditary-free second chamber will have a quite different atmosphere and play by quite different rules.
The old House of Lords had massive powers on paper, but it nearly always held back from using them because it knew that in the end the House of Commons was the real democracy, the voice of the electorate. It saw its proper role as advisory: having second thoughts, being reflective and imposing mild delays. The whole spirit was one of self-restraint. And it did this job well, with the help of much wisdom, and some nonsense, from the hereditary element.
The “new” Upper Chamber, when it comes, will have no such inhibitions. Without the old in-built majority of Conservative peers, the parties will slug it out, just like the Commons. Without the old restraint, the peers will become 10 times more assertive and challenging to the Commons in every field. They may even be better at challenging unaccountable power than their Commons colleagues, whether in government, in supranational agencies like the European Union, or in the great corporations and professions. In the modern jargon, their “media profile” will be vastly enhanced.
Thus a project that set out originally to curb the “undemocratic” Lords and leave the House of Commons all-powerful as the people’s assembly, will end up having the opposite result. The great law of unintended consequences will have asserted itself and the British Constitution, far from having been modernized and clarified, will enter a period of unparalleled confusion and instability.
Perhaps that was coming anyway, as the whole globe moves into the network age and Britain, like every other society, has to adjust its ancient procedures. But it was not quite planned to happen this way.
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