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Saturday, August 07, 1999

A bulwark of British democracy
The controversy over Conrad Black's peerage has dwelt largely on personalities and legalities. At the heart of the issue is Black's right to sit as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. Philip Johnston, home affairs editor of The Daily Telegraph, outlines the nature and duties of the second chamber of the British Parliament

The Daily Telegraph

John Stillwell, the Associated Press
Britain's Queen Elizabeth delivers a speech at the opening of the British Parliament in the House of Lords in 1997. Essentially, the role of the Lords is complementary to that of the Commons: It acts as a revising chamber, a check on the powers of both the executive and the Commons.

John Lehmann, National Post
Newspaper proprietor Conrad Black, had intended to sit as a crossbench peer before Jean Chretien, Canada's Prime Minister, blocked the peerage. Black has launched a lawsuit against Chretien and the attorney-general of Canada over the move.

Almost alone among politically advanced nations, Britain has no written constitution. The way it is governed and the relationships between Crown, the judiciary, Parliament and the people have evolved over many centuries through law, custom and practice.

Yet far from being a recipe for confusion, this arrangement has proved remarkably stable. Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the powers of the Monarchy were circumscribed once and for all, Britain has enjoyed unrivalled domestic political tranquility among major European nations.

True, Britain has endured rebellion and riot; its empire meant trouble could flare at any time across the globe; and Ireland's demands for independence fomented violent resentment on its doorstep.

But these were relatively minor skirmishes compared to what was happening in much of continental Europe over the last 300 years. Many countries fell under brutal despotisms; most of eastern Europe, from the Elbe to the Urals, had no experience of democracy until the beginning of this decade.

During these turbulent times, the comparatively benign British experience owed much to an almost Heath Robinson political construction that suited the country's penchant for tolerance, flexibility and compromise. For many centuries, it has been underpinned by one of the most ancient parliamentary legislatures in the world: the House of Lords.

As we prepare to celebrate the beginning of the Christian world's third millennium, it is sobering to consider that the House of Lords was established toward the end of its first.

It is the original chamber of the British Parliament, predating the House of Commons. Its origins can be traced to Saxon times, when it was the custom of the king to call the leading men of the country to advise him at court.

By the 14th century, the pattern of a two-chamber Parliament of the sort now seen across the world was established. The Lords was the dominant of the two, consisting of those who had been summoned individually by the king as peers of the realm, who were his counsellors, officials and judges. They were also the chief landowners, who held their lands directly from the king and were responsible for providing the armies in times of war.

The second chamber, the Commons, consisted of the representatives of the communities of the country, the knights of the shires and the burgesses.

Although the Commons established as early as the 13th century its right to determine how much money the government should have, the Lords continued to be the dominant chamber well into the 18th century.

It was the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes that established the pre-eminence of the Commons. As industry replaced land as the principal source of wealth and the cities came to dominate the countryside, the pace of social change led to a widening franchise.

But even until the beginning of this century, the Lords still provided many senior government figures -- including a prime minister in the shape of Lord Salisbury until 1902 -- before its wings were clipped by the Commons.

The House of Lords is an extraordinary mosaic of British society. As it is also the supreme court of the land, senior judges are represented. So, too, are senior bishops of the Church of England, since the Anglican church remains an established part of the constitution.

Until 1958, the remaining peers all inherited their titles. That year, however, life peerages were introduced both to honour those who had shown outstanding service in a variety of occupations and to inject expertise into the chamber's deliberations.

The functions of the House of Lords today are similar to those of the Commons. Legislation must be debated and agreed to in the House and the executive can be held to account there.

However, none of its members are elected and they are specifically precluded from any involvement in matters of taxation and finance. Essentially, the role of the Lords is complementary to that of the Commons: It acts as a revising chamber, a check on the powers of both the executive and the Commons, an important function when a single party can dominate the lower chamber -- as Labour now does and as the Conservatives did during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

These functions will continue even when the composition of the Lords is reformed. The Labour government is currently in the throes of removing the hereditary element, save for around 90 Earls, Viscounts and Barons who will stay on for the time being.

Discussions are underway to decide how to choose peers in future: Should they be elected or continue to be appointed? The likelihood is very much against election, which would challenge the legitimacy of the Commons.

Since 1909, the Commons has been able to override the Lords should the latter decide to reject a decision of the former. Given the ample room for disagreement in politics, this has happened remarkably rarely; but if the Lords were an elected chamber, potentially ferocious clashes with the Commons would develop as each claimed a popular mandate for their action.

As it is, the Lords is an oasis of harmony and erudition in an otherwise arid parliamentary landscape. It is a showcase for the nation's talent: An important debate can attract contributions from a former prime minister, a retired general, a leading churchman, a senior judge, a major industrialist, a distinguished scientist, a Duke who can trace his family to the 12th century, the son of an immigrant family who has made a fortune in fashion or an erstwhile union leader who once worked down a coal mine.

The compostion of the Lords is far more varied and expert than that of the Commons. While it mirrors the lower House with its parties, ministers and spokespeople, it also possesses something the modern Commons lacks: a streak of independence.

Newspaper proprietor Conrad Black had intended to sit as a crossbench peer, immune from the party whip. The crossbench peers, who do not take orders from party bosses, are the mainstay of the Lords and their contribution often carries the greatest weight precisely because they are unaligned.

Their presence also means the government can never be guaranteed a majority in the House. While the Lords will almost always defer to the Commons on major matters of policy, defeats for the government are commonplace on the details of legislation. The committee work of the Lords is also highly regarded.

And, yet, despite their impressive contribution to public life, peers are not salaried unless they are also in the government. They are paid a modest attendance allowance and certain expenses; but the Lords is by no means a watering stop for the political gravy train.

If modern constitutional architects were starting with a blank sheet of paper, they would probably not devise an institution like the Lords. But it is unique. It has evolved and developed as an essential and distinctive bulwark of British democracy.

It is about to change once again, whether for better or worse we have yet to see. But if its characteristic qualities are lost, it will be to the lasting detriment of the Mother of Parliaments.

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