Britain’s political system has for centuries been evolving and changing, but one thing that has remained broadly constant since 1066 has been the influence of the landed aristocracy. Following the Norman Conquest, the Magnum Concillium – the ‘Great Council’ – was established to aid the King in his ruling. It was, of course, comprised of the nobleman and county representatives who were quick to abandon their fallen monarch in favour of their new, French leader. Depending on the Monarch’s strength, the Parliament of England (as they became known) could hold significant influence over the politics of the nation.
It was during the reign of the particularly weak Edward III, which lasted from 1327-1377, that Parliament broke in two, with the House of Commons holding representatives from boroughs and the House of Lords being made up of Bishops and Peers. These Peers were, of course, the nobleman and landed individuals with whom the Monarch would surround himself.
The War of the Roses severely damaged the noble class, in terms of their economic, political and social influence. Those who didn’t perish found their powers centralised and consolidated by the Crown. This led to an imbalance between the Monarch and the nobility, ultimately contributing to the English Civil War, which lasted for nearly a decade following the declaration of execution of King Charles I. The period under the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was not an especially successful one for the Lords, with the Commons taking a more pivotal role in governance.
This changed in 1660 when the monarchy was restored and once more, the Peers in the Parliament found themselves at the fore of British politics. Moreover, George III’s 60 year reign had led to the liberal creation of Peers, taking its membership from just 50 in the early 18th century to nearly 600 by its end. This period of government saw nearly all Prime Ministers selected from the Lord’s ranks and governments made largely from Peers. Whilst this may seem incomprehensible considering that the Commons commanded a democratic mandate, it was tolerated due to high levels of illiteracy, a (largely) successful economy, an appeased middle class and, perhaps most importantly, the largest Empire in the history of the World.
By the 20th century, however, this system was destined to come to an end. The blocking of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909 led to the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act which severely limited the Lord’s power to amend legislation from the Commons – which by this point had already established itself as the dominant chamber due to its democratically legitimacy. In tandem with the later 1949 Parliament Act, the role of the Lords seemed to have been diminished almost entirely. Tony Blair’s government went further, passing the House of Lords Act in 1999 which removed hundreds of hereditary peers, leaving just 92, who had simply inherited their title. Moreover, in 2009, the British Supreme Court was established, taking the highest court in the land out of the upper legislative chamber, thus weakening the body further.
Clearly, the House of Lords has been adaptable to the various political changes that have been seen in Britain over the last millennia. However, many have seen the EU referendum as a vote against the established elite and against the perceived undemocratic nature of the European Union. Moreover, the threat of the Lords holding up the Article 50 parliamentary bill has led to an increased questioning of the Lord’s role in modern society and it’s future inside British politics. The remainder of this piece will look to answer these questions.
“It would seem that the crux of this issue is a lack of public education on the subject, perhaps in tandem with a large degree of national apathy.”
The current role of the 825 Peers in the House of Lords, as listed on Parliament’s website, is; making laws, in-depth consideration of public policy and holding the government to account. Parliament claims that Peers spend more than half their time reviewing laws. Their second role involves using their “extensive individual experience” to produce reports on issues, for example the process of the UK’s exit from the EU and the implications of the Scotland bill. It’s final function in the modern era makes it a check and balance of the government in the House of Commons. This last function is particularly effective due to the partially bipartisan nature of the House of Lords, where many peers do not align themselves with a single political party, thus preventing the government simply enacting legislation as it sees fit, but rather having to gain the approval of individual members.
Though this system may seem effective, there is significant overlap between the functions of the Commons and the Lords and, despite their alleged “extensive individual experience”, the unelected nature of the Lords means that they lack suitable legitimacy to carry out any role – let alone such a fundamentally important one.
If it ain’t broke
The future of the House of Lords is clearly not set in stone. Labour bills from the Blair era proposed a variety of different methods of reform for the Lords, including making the body entirely elected. However, as the 2016 elections in the United States, as well as those in 2017 in Europe where more anti-establishment candidates are rising to prominence, a greater number of elections, combined with a more democratic form of government or a more proportional voting system does not guarantee a more stable and cohesive society. This therefore raises questions about the future of the House of Lords. Not only must it be considered how it should be reformed, but whether it should be at all.
The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a wake up call to the ‘established political class’ that referenda may not result in the outcome they would hope for. The breakdown of the Cameron government and the confusion over retained membership of the single market has caused unprecedented political chaos which likely ultimately signals the end for the emerging use of national referendums in the UK, however, on the question of House of Lords reform, what better method is there for deciding how we move forward?
Better the devil you know?
It would seem that the crux of this issue is a lack of public education on the subject, perhaps in tandem with a large degree of national apathy. However, with all that is going on in British politics, now may not be the time for further shake-ups of the understood system. Nevertheless, it will remain this outlet’s position that we should engage in greater discussion about the future and purpose of our upper legislative house.
For further reading on this topic I would recommend;
Loveland, Ian (2009). Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Human Rights (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. I found this book highly informative and helpful, especially for focusing on historical aspects of the the Lords.
Mell, Andrew; Radford, Simon; Thevoz, Seth Alexander (2015). Is there a market for peerages?, Oxford University Department of Economics discussion paper, No.744. An intriguing – if a little academic – piece on the influence of money in relation to Peerages.
Shell, Donald (2007). The House of Lords (3rd ed.). Manchester University Press. A more modern understanding of the House of Lords, including a discussion of the Blair reforms.