News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lords 1 - The History of the Lords

Much of England's constitution evolved in times long since forgotten and, to this day, the UK is one of the few countries not to have adopted a written constitution. England itself was, at first, a loose coalitions of tribes with their own rival kings and queens each vying for supremacy. This evolved into the Anglo Saxon Heptarchy - Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Essex, East Anglia and Northumria. Everything was disturbed by the arrival of Viking invaders, who created the Danelaw in the North and East of England. Ultimately it was the kings of Wessex who united England and drove out the Danes under the leadership of King Alfred the Great.

The power of the king varied considerably and often required the support of a network of lords. Whenever a king died, it was the man who could muster the most support from these nobles who would be declared the successor. Things did not always go to the lords' plan though. For example, in 1066 the lords declared Harold Godwinson to be King, in breach of a promise made by the deceased King Eadward the Confessor to Duke William of Normandy. A three way war, also involving the Norse King Harald Hardrada ultimately saw King William the Conqueror crowned and Feudalism instituted. This ensured that everyone knew their place in society with the King at the top, the nobles and the church below, with the knights and then pessants at the bottom of the tree.

At various points this division of power was challenged from below. Notably, King Stephen had to surrender his thrown to the Plantagenets (or Angevins) led by King Henry II. It was another Plantagent ruler - King John - who first saw the abolute rule of the monarch undermined. The Magna Carta of 1215 is one of the documents which forms the basis of this country's constitution. Within it are agreements guaranteeing the freedom of the Church and rights for the lords of the realm. Clauses 14 and 61 permitted a Great Council of the most powerful men in the country, to exist for the benefit of the state rather than in allegiance to the monarch. Generally the monarch still had the upper hand in the relationship, with the council existing in an advisory capacity, but it did often manage to wield considerable influence, especially in matters of taxation.

Parliament evolved from this Great Council, with the Model Parliament of 1295 often cited as the first Parliament. It was a panel of archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls and barons alongside knights from the Shires and burgesses from the boroughs throughout the land. The relative powers of each of these groups and the king varied over time, but the commons (knights and burgesses) were consistently the least powerful.

During the reign of King Edward III, Parliament became separated into two clear chambers for the first time. The lords were classified into two groups - Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. The Commons were made up with the Knights of the Shires and Burgesses of the Boroughs, elected by open ballot by the wealthy and locally influential landowners of the constituency, with the rules entitling suffrage varying from one area to another. The Commons remained subordinate to the Lords and the Monarch, but did challenge their authority at times, sometimes with some success, especially in matters of taxation.

The Wars of the Roses saw much of the nobility wiped out, tilting power back to the monarch. King Henry VIII used this to particular effect by challenging the Church directly. The dissolution of the monastries brought him considerable wealth and land which increased his independence from the weakened Parliament and allowed him to purchase patronage through gifts of land and titles. He was also able to remove the abbots and priors from the council, reducing the influence of the Church in political matters.

The power of Parliament was reasserted with the challenge to King Charles I's authority, which led to the Civil War and the creation of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. This saw the Commons take control, with both the Monarchy and the House of Lords abolished. Upon the restoration in 1660 the Commons once again became subordinate to the Lords and the Crown.

The Monarch's power had been reduced however, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which saw the Catholic heirs of King James II disinherited in favour of his Protestant daughter Queen Mary II and King William III (of Orange) chosen by Parliament to reign, subject to the laws laid down in the Bill of Rights of 1689. These rights were not Human Rights, as we may now expect, but the rights of Parliament with respect of the Crown. It was the Commons' equivalent of Magna Carta 474 years earlier, but much more powerful.

Despite this, the Lords remained the more powerful chamber. The Commons remained an unrepresentative chamber with limited suffrage and outdated boundaries which left the desolate Pocket Borough of Old Sarum with 2 Burgesses in the Commons. Manchester, a thriving industrial city, had no representatives at all. Parliament's power did increase further with the arrival of the Hannovarian kings, starting with King George I. He spoke no English, so many Government functions had to be passed to Parliament, which began to assume executive functions in addition to the legislative ones it already enjoyed. The role of Prime Minsiter first evolved at this time - with the holder invariably being drawn from the more powerful House of Lords initially.

During this time, the number of Lords increased dramatically - particularly under King George III - from the previous 50 members. This diminished the individual power of the Lords. At the same time, various 19th century Reform Acts, notably the 1832 Act reformed the Commons, creating universal male suffrage and bringing more reasonable representation. The 20th century saw female suffrage, giving greater weight to the Commons as representatives of the people at large.

The Parliament Act 1911 abolished the power of the House of Lords to reject legislation approved by the House of Commons. The move followed a dispute of the People's Budget, which was only resolved in favour of the Commons after the 1910 General Election was called as a rederendum on the issue. The Liberal Government in the Commons won re-election, forcing the Conservative controlled House of Lords to submit to their authority. In 1949 the power of the Lords to delay the passage of legislation was curtailed still further.

In 1958, the Hereditary nature of the Lords Temporal was eroded by the Life Peerages Act 1958. There was no limit on the number of baronies that could be created. Steadily the number of life peers increased and, in 1968, Harold Wilson tried to remove the voting rights of Hereditary peers. The move was defeated by a coalition of traditionalist Conservatives and hardline Socialist Labour MPs who wanted to see the Lords abloished outright.

By the 1980s, the creation of Hereditary peers had all but ended. With the exception of the Royal Family, only three more hereditaries were created by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1999, the Labour Government entered into phase one of reforms to the Lords. Hereditaries were thrown out, with 92 being allowed to remain. They were elected as "working peers" by their fellow hereditary Lords. As a result the chamber is now predominantly appointed. There has been a massive shift in the balance of power, with no party being allowed a majority but Labour being the largest on account of having won the most votes in the last General Election. Despite this, the Government has continued to suffer defeats on certain key policy planks, including ID cards.

In 2003 a series of options for phase 2 of the reforms was published but no agreement on the way forward was reached. On Wednesday 7th February, 2007 new proposals were published with unspecified proportions of the new chamber to be elected, appointed politically and appointed independently. Jack Straw, the Leader of the House of Commons, proposed that they should be 50%, 30%, 20% respectively. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats immediately rejected the proposals, calling for at least 80% to be elected.

Future chapters:
The impact upon other areas of the constitution
Possible roles for the House of Lords within a reformed constitutional framework
Method of Election/Appointment to the House of Lords

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