As befits a group of people forced to attend their own funeral, the dukes and viscounts, earls and barons of Britain's House of Lords put off the bitter pill as long as they could. But eventually, in the final act of the final hour of this final day of the 1998-99 Parliament, their lordships grudgingly approved a historic bill that removes the last remnants of feudalism from the legislature that calls itself the Mother of Parliaments.
The new House of Lords Act terminates the right of hundreds of descendants of Britain's elite families to sit and vote in the parliament of this democratic nation. For now the Lords will be composed primarily of members appointed by the queen to seats that do not pass to their offspring.
It is an idea that has been floating around here for a couple of centuries, but one that never quite managed to overcome the lingering power of class distinctions in a society that still pays considerable deference to ancient title and privilege.
The fate of the hereditary peers was actually determined 2 1/2 years ago, when Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party won a smashing general election victory on a platform that explicitly pledged to eliminate inherited seats in the unelected, upper chamber of Parliament--part of the overall blueprint for an up-to-date, high-tech nation that Blair called "Cool Britannia."
But putting the pledge into effect turned into a drawn-out battle between two contrasting faces of contemporary Britain. On one side were the Blairites, the latte-drinking, Net-surfing, upwardly mobile urban professionals who swept the Labor government into office. On the other side was a more rural and traditional segment of the populace, people who still love to discuss the vicar's latest sermon or last weekend's fox hunt over afternoon tea. Indeed, the nation's favorite tea was named for a peer, Earl Gray, whose great-grandson was one of those dumped from Parliament by the new law.
In the House of Lords today, the Blairite vision was set forth concisely by the Labor Party's leader in the Lords, Lady Jay of Paddington, a woman who cut a broad social swath through Washington in the 1970s when her ex-husband, Peter Jay, was the British ambassador. "We are simply saying, m'lords, that what may have been appropriate 800, or even 200, years ago is not appropriate today," Jay intoned.
In response, Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative Party leader in the chamber, complained that Jay was ignoring a distinguished legacy: "The noble lady should recognize, m'lords, that this house has inflicted no evil in a history dating back to Magna Carta, and done much good." This assertion prompted such impolite hoots and snorts from the Labor benches that older members pleaded for decorum. "Aw-dah! Aw-dah!" the elders shouted, but there was not much will to retain order on this memorable day.
When it began in the 13th century, the house was itself a revolutionary expression of democracy, where Britain's feudal lords demanded some control over the king's decrees and budget. Over the centuries, Parliament evolved into today's two-chamber body. The popularly elected House of Commons has almost all the power now. The House of Lords cannot block Commons' legislation, but it can debate and delay bills for a year or so, which is often as good as a veto.
The hereditaries have long been a thorn in the side of democrats. Seven decades ago, Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed to take away the vote from "600 men chosen by accident from among the unemployed," but that effort fell by the wayside. In 1958, the power of the hereditaries was diluted by the addition of the life peers--that is, the members appointed by the queen, who acts upon the recommendation of the prime minister.
In the current House, there are about 750 hereditary peers (an exact count is difficult, because some families don't use their inherited seats) and 500 or so life peers.
In a compromise to get today's bill through during this Parliament, Blair cut a deal to let 92 of the current hereditaries hold their seats for some interim period, until he produces a plan for a full-scale restructuring of the upper house. A blue-ribbon commission is to report next month on various alternatives, presumably including a house of all life peers, an elected house, or some blend of the two.
Most of the lords who opposed the bill today argued that the commission report should come before the hereditaries were unseated. "After 800 years, it couldn't hurt to wait another month," argued the 13th Earl Ferrers, who inherited a seat in Parliament first granted to his family in 1711 after an ancestor won the favor of Queen Anne.
In a stunning break with tradition, the peers held an election last week to choose the lucky 92 holdovers. There were no bumper stickers or rallies, of course, but hundreds of hopefuls issued campaign platforms, restricted by the rules to 75 words or less.
The Baroness Strange, one of 16 female hereditaries, won a holdover seat after promising to bring fresh flowers from her garden to the chamber each day. Among the losers was Lord Monckton of Brenchley, whose platform advocated that all pet cats be muzzled "to stop the agonizing torture of mice and small birds."
Tonight's final vote was followed by an ancient end-of-Parliament ceremony in which a lord in a fur-collared scarlet robe and curly gray wig reads a letter from the queen. "We have thought fit to prorogue our said Parliament," the royal missive declared in the traditional language for terminating a session.
But in Britain, a parliamentary prorogation, or recess, doesn't last long. The Commons and the Lords will gather again next Wednesday for the formal opening of the next Parliament. For that lavish ceremony, though, 660 of today's members will no longer be welcome.