House of Lords

Kings in the Middle Ages would often consult their tenants-in-chief before making important decisions. These men were usually called to appear before the king during religious festivals (Christmas, Easter, Whitsun). Some of the men who attended these meetings were given specific jobs to perform for the king, for example, to act as treasurer. Some kings tended to ignore the advice of the barons. When this led to bad decisions the barons became angry. This is one of the reasons why the barons rebelled against King John and made him sign the Magna Carta.

Henry II was another king who tended to ignore the advice of his barons. Under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, the barons rebelled. After the Battle of Lewes in 1264, Simon de Montfort took control of the council which had now become known as Parliament (parler was Norman French for talk). The following year Simon de Montfort expanded Parliament by inviting representatives from the shires and towns to attend the meetings.

In 1275 Edward I called a meeting of Parliament. As well as his tenants-in-chief, Edward, like Simon de Montfort before him, invited representatives from every shire and town in England. As well as his tenants-in-chief, Edward invited representatives from every shire and town in England. These men were elected as representatives by the people living in the locality. When the representatives arrived they met in five different groups: (1) the prelates (bishops and abbots); (2) the magnates (earls and barons); (3) the inferior clergy; (4) the knights from the shires; (5) the citizens from the towns.

Rudolf Ackermann, House of Lords (1808)
Rudolf Ackermann, House of Lords (1808)

At these meetings Edward I explained about his need for money. Eventually the representatives agreed that people should pay the king a tax that amounted to a fifteenth of all their movable property. It was also agreed that a custom duty of 6s. 8d. should be paid on every sack of wool exported. As soon as agreement was reached about taxes, groups 3, 4 and 5 (the commons) were sent home. The representatives then had the job of persuading the people in their area to pay these taxes. The king then discussed issues such as new laws with his bishops, abbots, earls and barons (the lords).

After this date, whenever the king needed money, he called another Parliament. Henry VIII enhanced the importance of Parliament by his use of it during the English Reformation. In 1547 the king gave permission for members of the commons to meet at St. Stephen's Chapel, in the Palace of Westminster. In the 15th century the House of Lords was the Upper House and the House of Commons the Lower House. Membership of the House of Lords was made up of the Lords Spiritual (two Archbishops, 24 Diocesan Bishops) and the Lords Temporal which were divided into three groups: hereditary peers, peers granted peerages by the sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister, and the Law Lords, who are recruited from the ranks of Britain's High Court Judges.

In 1834 the chapel and most of the Old Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. The new Palace of Westminster was designed by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin. The House of Lords is slightly smaller than the House of Commons and only seats 250 members. However, Barry and Pugin made the interior more impressive than the commons with the seats upholstered in red leather. The chamber is dominated by an ornate royal throne where the sovereign sits during the opening of Parliament.

Labour Party poster (1910)
Labour Party poster (1910)

The Labour Party, when elected to power in 1997, promised to introduce legislation that would make the House of Lords an elected second chamber. However, Tony Blair, the prime minister changed his mind and instead called for a fully appointed House of Lords. On 4th February, 2003, the House of Lords voted for this measure (335 votes to 110) but it was defeated in the House of Commons (323 votes to 245) . Twenty-five members of the government, including four Cabinet ministers, voted against the proposal for a fully appointed House of Lords.

Primary Sources

(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)

The House of Lords is a venerable old place, indeed; but how mean, how incoherent, and how strained are the several avenues to it, and rooms about it? The matted gallery, the lobby, the back ways the king goes to it, how short are they all of the dignity of the place, and the glory of a King of Great Britain with the Lords and Commons, that so often meet there?

(2) William Pyne, The Microcosm of London (1808)

The tapestry of the old House of Lords is used to decorate the present, and is set off with large frames of brown stained wood. The old canopy of state is placed at the upper end of the room, with the addition of the arms of the United Kingdom, painted upon silk.

(3) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791)

What is government more than the management of the affairs of a Nation? It is not, and from its nature cannot be, the property of any particular man or family, but the whole community. The romantic and barbarous distinction of men into Kings and subjects, though it may suit the condition of courtiers, cannot that of citizens.

We have heard The Rights of Man called a levelling system; but the only system to which the word levelling is truly applicable is the hereditary monarchical system. It is a system of mental levelling. It indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals. In reverses the wholesome order of nature. It occasionally puts children over men, and the conceits of nonage over wisdom and experience. In short we cannot conceive a more ridiculous figure of government, than hereditary succession.

It is inhuman to talk of a million sterling a year, paid out of the public taxes of any country, for the support of any individual, while thousands who are forced to contribute thereto, are pining with want, and struggling with misery. What is called the splendour of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state. It is made up of a band of parasites, living in luxurious indolence, out of the public taxes.

(4) Robin Cook, speech, House of Commons (4th February, 2003)

I am very much committed that the House should seize what is a unique and historic opportunity to make clear its preference. If we are serious about reform, then we should have a largely or wholly elected second chamber. In the modern world, legitimacy is conferred by democracy. If we want the public to trust politicians, then we must trust the people who elect politicians.

(5) Douglas Hogg, speech, House of Commons (4th February, 2003)

Those who argue the case for an appointed second chamber normally concede that it will lack the legitimacy of an elected one. I find it extraordinary that at the start of the 21st century we should be contemplating the creation of a political structure which, by its very act of creation, will lack the political legitimacy required to give it either authority or indeed survival.

(6) Peter Wishart, speech, House of Commons (4th February, 2003)

Surely there is something wrong when the Prime Minister won't even support his own manifesto.

(7) Polly Toynbee, The Guardian (5th February, 2003)

There is much to be said for the Blair plan for an entirely appointed House of Lords. Unfortunately all of it is bad. Oligarchy has its charms - but since the days of Cromwell those charms have eluded all but the oligarchs, where in the Lords gerontocracy masquerades as experience, bishops with empty pews represent an empty shell of faith and yesteryear's politicians are pensioned into a golden dotage. No surprise then that the old turkeys on the red benches did not vote for winter festival but for their own perpetuity without the inconvenience of a trip to the hustings where most could be guaranteed a roasting.

Hybridity, they clucked, would be a very bad thing and they are right about that: there would be a strange divide between the legitimate and the illegitimate peers in any future House, part-elected and part-appointed. One hundred per cent democracy was the only possible outcome. How extraordinary it seems in the 21st century that, as we are about to go to war, yet again we are trumpeting for the democratic rights of far-away people, and still find it necessary to quote Winston Churchill: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". How can Labour have let itself be out-reformed by Iain Duncan Smith - even if he commanded as little obedience as Blair.

This progressive reform has waited a century: now the House of Lords will remain the laughing stock of the western world. Now the chance of reform has collapsed, all due to a moment of madness in which a prime minister already accused of anti-democratic instincts has done himself needless harm. Was it the insouciance of a mind floating somewhere between Washington and Baghdad?