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Greasy Pole: The fall of the House of Lords

Greasy Pole

The House of Commons has expressed a preference for turning the House of Lords into a wholly elected chamber. This is being touted as a great democratic advance: the final abolition of the hereditary principle in political decision-making, something that has been talked about and promised by Liberals and Labourites for well over a hundred years, and the end of the sale of peerages to jumped-up businessmen and their distribution to cronies and superannuated politicians.

A second chamber (such as the House of Lords evolved into) is an anti-democratic concept. Nearly all capitalist states have one and in all cases it was intended to be a check on the power of the more popularly elected first chamber. The US Constitution is a prime example. It was drawn up towards the end of the 18th century when the propertied class were still afraid – as they were to be for the whole of the following century – of what might happen if they gave the vote to all (male) adults, such as the taxing away or the dividing up of their property. They therefore provided for a Senate that was explicitly modelled on the British House of Lords except that it excluded the hereditary principle.

Feudal relic

Britain doesn’t have a formal constitution; only a set of constitutional practices that have evolved over the years. The House of Lords dates from feudal times when the Norman barons who had conquered England forced their leader, the King, to take their views into account. Originally it was the House of Lords that was the “first chamber”. The House of Commons was a body convoked to represent the non-noble elite in the towns whenever the king wanted to raise money by taxing them.

The House of Commons became the instrument which, from the 16th century onwards, the rising capitalist class of the towns used to win control of political power, first at the expense of the king and, later, at the expense of the House of Lords. Under Cromwell, not only was the king executed but the House of Lords was abolished. That proved to be an interlude only. Even so, Charles II, when his family was restored to the throne in 1660, did not undo the anti-feudal reforms carried through under Cromwell. But he did restore the House of Lords and made many more lords (some his illegitimate sons). When his successor, James II, tried to revive the “divine right of kings” to rule, both the Lords and the Commons united to boot him out in what they called the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and replace him with a new king – William of Orange – and a new royal family chosen by them.

From that time on, the king’s chief – “prime” – minister and the “cabinet” of other ministers had to be able to command the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons. That body was elected, but not on any sort of democratic basis. Only a tiny minority of those living in a parliamentary constituency had the vote. In many cases, these depended on the local landowner who was thus in a position to choose the MP. All the same, parliament was able to reflect changes of opinion amongst the privileged class of landowners and merchant capitalists and there were changes of government even in the corrupt 18th century.

With the industrial revolution, the newly emerging propertied group of factory-owning capitalists agitated to share in the political decision-making process. The result was the Reform Act of 1832 which admitted the “middle class” – in the proper sense of the term as the propertied class between the upper class of landed aristocrats and the lower class of propertyless wage workers – to the franchise and so to a say in who got elected to parliament and who formed the government.

For the rest of the 19th century the British constitution was a compromise between the capitalist class and the landed aristocracy. The capitalists accepted that the top posts in the government should be in the hands of landed aristocrats as long as these governed in the capitalist interest. Thus, apart from the Gladstone/Disraeli double act, most of the other 19th century prime ministers were lords – the Duke of Wellington, Earl Grey, Lord Melbourne, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Earl Russell, the Marquess of Salisbury, the Earl of Roseberry. But, by the 20th century this was no longer acceptable and when in 1963 the Tories, rather inexplicably, chose the 14th Earl of Home as their Leader he had to renounce his peerage and get elected to the House of Commons.

Lloyd George knew my father

In 1909 the Lords made the fatal mistake of putting their own sectional interest as landowners first by rejecting the budget drawn up by the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, because it imposed death duties on landed estates. Nemesis was swift. The Liberal government called two general elections and won both. The Lords submitted and voted for the budget. In 1911 the powers of the House of Lords were restricted to only delaying for two years, not rejecting, any laws voted by the House of Commons and from then on they only second-guessed the Commons on minor matters of drafting detail. The British State had been made subject to complete capitalist control.

If the Lords hadn’t submitted in 1910 the Liberal government had been prepared to create enough new peers who supported them to obtain a majority for its budget in the House of Lords. The idea must have appealed to Lloyd George since, when he was the prime minister in a Liberal-Tory government after the first world war he earned a reputation for selling seats in the House of Lords. This led to the Act of Parliament banning this, under which the Blair government is now being investigated. But the practice of a peerage for jumped-up businessmen in return for donations to the Tory or Liberal or Labour parties continued, though more discreetly.

In 1948 the period by which the Lords could delay laws voted by the Commons was reduced to one year. The Labour Prime Minister of the time, Clement Attlee, had once declared that if offered a peerage he would call himself Lord Love-a-Duck of Limehouse. When he retired from politics in 1955 and was made an Earl he chose the rather more conventional title of Earl Attlee. Life peerages were introduced by the Tories in 1958 and in 1999 the Blair government limited to 90 the number of hereditary peers entitled to a seat in the House of Lords pending a final settlement of the question.

It is by no means clear that the proposal for a wholly-elected House of Lords will go through, despite the vote for this in the House of Commons. The present members of the House of Lords – life peers just as much, if not more, than the dukes, earls and marquesses – don’t want to vote themselves out of existence. So, more negotiations and amendments can be expected as the saga continues.

Much time and energy will be wasted on this irrelevant side-issue which won’t affect the position of workers either way. Irrelevant because the point at issue is a detail of the structure of the capitalist state. Diverting because it sustains the impression that politics is about what goes on in parliament: the sham confrontations of Prime Minister’s Question Time, the ambitions of leaders and would be leaders, the squabbles of the professional politicians. Whereas politics is really about collective action to deal with the everyday problems that affect everyday people.

ALB