800-Year-Old Era Ends for British Nobility

July 7, 2008 - 7:07 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's House of Lords has voted to end the 800-year-old right of hereditary peers to make legislation, a step that will leave just 92 of 750 lords and ladies with the inherited right to sit and vote in the upper chamber of parliament.

The House, dominated by the Conservative Party, debated late into the night Tuesday on whether to vote itself out of existence in its current form, eventually approving the move by 221 votes to 81.

Had the House of Lords not done so, the measure would have returned to the elected lower House of Commons, where a second passage of the bill would have forced it into the statute books.

Labor leader Tony Blair made reforming the House of Lords and modernizing the constitution a commitment during his campaign for election as prime minister.

The House of Lords is the oldest British institution, and this week's development is the most radical constitutional change in a century. Britons have long been divided over the issue, with some seeing the inherited right to legislate as an undemocratic and self-serving anachronism, while others wanted to maintain the longstanding tradition.

Over the next fortnight, 92 representatives will be chosen by the 750 hereditary peers to remain in a transitional chamber pending the second stage of the reform process. This step was allowed as a concession by the government, in return for a Conservative commitment not to block the reform program.

Nonetheless, some Conservative peers abstained, while others stayed away.

The 92 selected peers will be joined in the transitional arrangement by around 450 non-hereditary members called "life peers," former lawmakers and others who have been honored by the Queen at the behest of prime ministers for their services to Britain.

One Tory member argued that "life peers" too should be subject to election if they wished to remain in the Lords, pointing out there was nothing democratic about a system of appointees. His proposed amendment was defeated.

The final vote came after a long and emotional debate, enlivened when the eldest son of a duke who, although not entitled to participate in proceedings, leapt onto the "Woolsack" - the speaker or Lord Chancellor's historic wool-stuffed seat - and made a call to arms.

"Stand up for your Queen and country, vote this treason down," he proclaimed, warning the House that "the very existence of the monarchy is threatened," before he was removed from the chamber.

A spokesman for Blair later dismissed the protest as "a desperate act of a spent force of conservatism."

The Conservative leader in the House, Lord Strathclyde, spoke of a "somber moment" and said Blair had "taken a knife and scored a giant gash across the face of history."

The bill will now return to the Labor-dominated House of Commons for final amendments before becoming law.

The second stage of the reform process has yet to be settled. A commission is studying the various issues, and it is expected to report its findings by the end of the year.

The final composition of the House may be a mix of appointed and elected members. Critics fear it may become an assembly of people owing their position and prestige to the prime minister and who will merely rubber-stamp government initiatives.

A Labor party statement Wednesday said the Blair government was "advocating practical but radical changes that will enable our historic goal to be realized."

It said the Conservatives had "defended the hereditary principle for centuries, and even at the last election praised the value of that indefensible element of the House of Lords.

"They are confused and divided over reform, torn between defending their in-built majority in the upper house and looking for the most opportunistic position to take."