Queen Anne in the House of Lords, by Peter Tillemans

Queen Anne in the House of Lords, by Peter Tillemans

It is looking increasingly likely that the UK is going to reform the House of Lords, which in practice seems to mean changing the Parliament into a bicameral (mostly) elected legislature, with a senate-like upper house, and the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to sit in the upper house.

There is a long history of mocking the House of Lords. My favorite example is “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves,” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe.

When Britain really ruled the waves
In good Queen Bess’s time
The House of Peers made no pretense
To intellectual eminence,
Or scholarship sublime;
Yet Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well:
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George’s glorious days!

And when the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noblemen no longer itch
To interfere in matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays
As in King George’s glorious days!

Some British politicians have pointed to a potential constitutional problem with the proposed reform, namely, that the new upper house could challenge the supremacy of the House of Commons, though the government’s proposed bill expressly preserves the Parliament Act of 1911, which clearly establishes the Commons’ supremacy. There is also talk about the role of party politics in all this, that is, whether one party or another is angling to gain power in the upper house that it lacks in the lower house. But there is a more practical question, I think: who would look at, say, the United States Senate in 2012 and see a model to be emulated?

Look, I am not just an American but a Bay Stater, and in the words of our Constitution—the model in many respects for the United States Constitution:

No man, nor corporation, or association of men, have any other title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges, distinct from those of the community, than what arises from the consideration of services rendered to the public; and this title being in nature neither hereditary, nor transmissible to children, or descendants, or relations by blood, the idea of a man born a magistrate, lawgiver, or judge, is absurd and unnatural.

But in today’s political and media culture, is the problem really too few elected politicians? No doubt in principle all legislators should be elected, directly or indirectly, 1 by the people. But is this the right moment for such a change? Will the quality of British legislation go up with the reforms? Do the British people even want Lords reform?

Photo credit: Wikipedia


  1. Prior to the Seventeenth Amendment, United States senators were elected by the legislatures of the states, which in turn were elected by the people, and whatever the merits of the old system, it seems compatible with democratic principles. In principle the President of the United States is still elected by electors appointed by a method determined by the state legislatures, not by the people directly.