Was the Black Knight a member of the House of Lords?

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[First Published on Friday 17th December 2010]

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Was the Black Knight a member of the House of Lords?

You must remember him: the implacable defender of a plank over a stream in Monty Python’s 1975 Holy Grail film, refusing to admit defeat even after all his limbs are chopped off and his opponent skirts around him and moves on. Well, it’s nearly 100 years since the powers of the Lords were curtailed, with Prime Minister Asquith’s promise of full reform to follow, and Britain’s ‘upper’ parliamentary chamber is still there: a mish-mash of hereditary and appointed characters.

So how has an institution castigated as “useless and dangerous” and abolished in the seventeenth century survived so long?

A history of almost-reform

Through the nineteenth century radical restructuring of the Lords had looked increasingly likely.

The ‘great’ Reform Act of 1832 was bitterly opposed by peers, only becoming law when they backed down in the face of a threat to flood the House with new peers willing to vote it through.

Opposition to subsequent parliamentary reforms led to a call for the Lords to be “mended or ended” in 1884, but clashes between the Lords and the House of Commons came to a head in 1910.

Threatened – again – by the mass creation of 500 peers to push through Lloyd George’s “people’s budget”, the Lords finally ceded primary legislative authority to the Commons, whose democratic legitimacy had grown as parliamentary reforms swelled the number of people eligible to vote.

And yet that promised reinvention of the second chamber did not come, although parliamentarians seemed to understand that change was in the air.

“[It] is to be a place to which may be relegated honourable gentlemen who wish to be called ‘My Lord’ and when they are found not to be of much use here”, complained the MP for the City of London to the Commons in 1910, before joining the Lords himself.

“The melancholy fact”, Lord Newton told the Lords in the same year, “is that a lot of us have got to go”.

But go they did not. In 1922 they were still rising from their red leather benches to mourn their unpopularity. “The real feeling is that in these democratic days people do not like a second chamber composed almost entirely of hereditary peers”, the Marquess of Lansdowne, holder of ten hereditary titles, told the chamber.

And fellow peer Lord Willoughby de Broke defended bloodline succession, as also applied to the monarchy and fox hounds: “Proof that the hereditary principle in selecting legislators is sound is before your Lordships this afternoon. Here we are! What else can you want?”

Bicameral?

First ask why we need two chambers at all, if the elected chamber has the mandate of the electors. The British bicameral system, like that of the Roman republic, started from a single chamber of aristocrats advising the monarch, to which was then added an elected ‘lower’ assembly. The principle of two assemblies being fairer than one was praised in 1765 by lawyer William Blackstone, whose writings inspired the creators of the US constitution, arguing that the conflicting interests of the Lords and Commons provided balance: “The people are a check upon the nobility and the nobility are a check upon the people”.

Bicameral systems sometimes emerged from tensions within an existing assembly. Take the dead pig: the English colony of Massachusetts started in 1629 with a single chamber of elected assistants, and then admitted deputies elected from the towns. Friction between the two classes of representative climaxed in a protracted court case over Goodie Sherman’s late sow, in which the assistants vetoed the deputies, leading to the creation of a separate Senate and Lower House. In other colonies the Governor’s Council became the ‘upper’ house, while elected representatives formed the ‘lower’ house. This ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ division was attacked by Benjamin Franklin in 1789 for “giving the Rich a predominancy in government”. But bicameralism still appeals, the most recent convert being Tunisia, whose Chamber of Councillors was inaugurated in 2005.

Unicameral?

 Nations have also moved from bicameralism to a single assembly. New Zealand turned its back on history in 1951 by abolishing its “ineffectual” Legislative Council, which had been its revising chamber since 1852. Efforts to agree on a suitable replacement body were inconclusive and no second chamber was created. Sweden, Denmark and Peru have also legislated revising chambers out of existence.

In purely numerical terms, unicameralism is the current winner: 60% of world governments are unicameral, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, although 13 more bicameral parliaments were recognised between 2001 and 2008. Bicameralism is favoured by states with a federal structure, and unicameralism more suited to unitary states. But population size is no guide to which system a state will choose: China’s 1.3 billion people have just one parliamentary chamber, while St Lucia’s 170,000 have two. “The structure is the result of the specific history, context and parliamentary tradition of each country”, notes the IPU.

Recent examples: India and Japan

When India became independent in 1947, there was vigorous debate on the value of the bicameral system it had inherited from Britain; but the world’s most populous democracy decided that a single chamber could not govern such a large and diverse country under a federal system.

So the Council of States has special powers on state matters, but must defer to the directly elected House of the People on financial matters. On other issues, deadlock between the two chambers can be resolved by a joint session, with a simple majority deciding the outcome.

Members of the Council of States are elected by the state assemblies or union territories using a Single Transferable Vote, and serve for six years, with one third standing for election every two years. However, only six of the 29 states – mostly the older states – have a bicameral legislature.

In Japan aristocratic rule gradually gave way to a two-chamber parliamentary structure in the nineteenth century: the ‘upper’ House of Peers – a cocktail of the Emperor’s appointees and family, descendants of feudal lords and the richest taxpayers – and the elected ‘lower’ House of Representatives.

Japan’s post-war constitution, rewritten by US General MacArthur’s staff and adopted in 1947, replaced the Peers with the directly elected House of Councillors. Bills have to be accepted by both houses to pass into law, except that a bill passed by the lower house and rejected in the upper house can become law if the lower house votes to override that rejection by a two-thirds majority.

“What else” can we want?

The Coalition have promised proposals for a “wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”.  Perhaps, following the French model, this could be an entirely satisfactory solution; a parliament of two separate chambers, elected by two distinct electoral systems, working to ensure that the diverse elements of society are represented as fairly as possible, both scrutinising legislation under a coherent structure to control disagreements and to mediate in cases of deadlock.

Despite being promised by December, the Draft Bill is yet to be published, though, and the precise proposals remain unknown.  Those drafting it would be wise to bear in mind the findings of the committee seeking a replacement for New Zealand’s second chamber that “the perfect second chamber does not exist and it is beyond the wit of man to create it”.  Leaving perfection aside, the wisest foundation for reforming the Second Chamber might be be broad consultation as to its role and purpose, unique to our political system and its own historical heritage.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.