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.
"I have not always been impressed" with the U.S. Senate, Renton said, bristling at the thought that the House of Lords, with its red leather benches and gold throne for the queen, might one day resemble the upstart on the Potomac.
Renton said the genius of the upper house is that it includes world-renowned experts in law, science and the arts who would never run for election. (Many of the most famous lords rarely, if ever, show up, including composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, actor and director Richard Attenborough and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.) The job comes with no salary, and titles such as lord, baron and baroness are often seen as a type of compensation.
By tradition, the chamber includes the archbishops of Canterbury and York, 24 bishops and hundreds of people appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the prime minister or an independent commission. Recently, Blair has faced accusations that he is stuffing the chamber with big political contributors.
Few in the chamber are women or minorities -- another source of friction among Britain's increasingly diverse population. Because of deaths and new appointments, the number of lords fluctuates. There are currently 733, of whom 135, or 18 percent, are women. There is no official number on minority membership, but estimates put it at about 30, or 4 percent, a figure that critics say is unacceptably low.
Valerie Amos, the leader of the House of Lords, is a black woman appointed to the chamber in 1997. She said in an interview that in an effort to get a more representative and diverse chamber she would like a "a substantial number" of the chamber's members elected. She also favors term limits, which would end the current "right to sit in the House of Lords until you die."
For the moment, the House of Lords remains, as some call it, a cozy retirement home. The average age is 68.
Lt. Gen. Michael Willcocks, known as the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, is in charge of keeping order and discipline in the chamber. He walks around in court dress -- black silk stockings and Pilgrim shoes -- that dates back centuries.
Black Rod, as everyone calls him because of the ebony and gold staff he carries, is a former British army general who was deputy operational commander of the NATO-led contingent in Bosnia. The most difficult part of his new job, he jokes, is "putting on my tights," explaining that he has had more experience taking off stockings than putting them on.
But Willcocks said there is more to his job than "walking around in a strange uniform" and that the House of Lords is an important tradition. Some practices are outdated and have been dropped, but he said many customs "are a rather nice link between the past and future."
As Renton heads toward his 98th birthday, he said he has every plan to outlast those with the "narrow-minded attitude" that lifetime appointments should be a thing of the past. "Democracy," he said, "has its limitations."