Pomp, Tradition of House of Lords Comfort Some, Alienate Others

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 4, 2005

LONDON -- Lord Renton, a distinguished 97-year-old in a three-piece tweed suit, sipped white wine beneath red velvet curtains.

In the ornate private bar of the House of Lords, the upper house of Britain's Parliament, its oldest member surveyed his surroundings with satisfaction one recent afternoon. Yes, he said, the chamber is a bit on the elderly side: 18 members have died this year, including one who was 97 and two who were 92. But with age comes experience and wisdom, he said, noting that his colleague Earl Jellicoe, 87, has served since 1939, before Winston Churchill became prime minister.

"We have people of various ages and experience. Some come from the most influential families in the country. I don't think the chamber needs reform," said Renton, an Oxford-educated lawyer who was born David Renton. "I don't think we can improve on what we have."

Some Britons find comfort in a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, which allows people known as Baroness Young of Old Scone and the 15th Viscount of Falkland pad around the soft carpets of the chamber on ceremonial days in red robes trimmed in ermine fur and members to address each other in floor debate not by name but by such elaborate phrases as "my learned and noble lord."

But people in Britain are increasingly asking whether an unelected chamber made up largely of old, white aristocrats, serving for life by birthright or political appointment, can really address issues facing modern society, such as terrorism or cybercrime.

"You can't get rid of these people until they die!" said an exasperated James Graham, spokesman for the Elect the Lords campaign, which was launched this year.

The debate reflects Britain's ambivalent attitude toward aristocracy, class and how to balance modernity with tradition. "Some think that what is old is good," perhaps because they "associate it with Britain's great past," said Emma Crewe, author of a new book called "Lords of Parliament, Manners, Rituals and Politics." "Other people," she said, "find it alienating, formal, irrelevant to their lives and even embarrassing."

In 1999, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair carried out a major shake-up in the House of Lords. Hundreds of aristocrats who had inherited seats were kicked out of the chamber, which then had well over 1,000 members. Ninety-two of these hereditary peers remain, including some who can trace their families' titles back to William Shakespeare's time.

All major political parties agree that further change is needed in what Blair's Labor Party has termed an "archaic" chamber. But there is no consensus on what shape a more modern upper house would take. At Westminster, the seat of the British government, some people worry that an elected chamber could become too strong, a further obstacle to the prime minister's agenda and an unwelcome rival to the House of Commons, the lower and far more powerful house.

The House of Lords has existed as a second chamber of Parliament since the 14th century, and its main role is to examine and revise legislation sent over from the House of Commons. Its appellate committee, made up of members known as "law lords," acts as the country's final court of appeal, but in 2008 that function is to be removed with the creation of a separate Supreme Court.

Some reformers want a chamber where all members are elected, while others favor a partially elected body. Many want to sharply decrease the number of members. A few even want to rename it the Senate, after its younger cousin on Capitol Hill.

None of these changes suits Renton, who speaks for those who favor the status quo.

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