House of Lords Reform

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 22, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

By the Queen's Robing Room inside the Palace of Westminster, there is a small, sedate chamber they call the Norman Porch. It is populated entirely with busts of past luminaries of the House of Lords, each of whom has served as British prime minister.

House of Lords Reform

By the Queen's Robing Room inside the Palace of Westminster, there is a small, sedate chamber they call the Norman Porch. It is populated entirely with busts of past luminaries of the House of Lords, each of whom has served as British prime minister. Baron Home of the Hirsel occupies pride of place, the very last of Britain's hereditary peers to hold the post, even if he had to renounce his title, becoming plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home, to do so. "He bought me a drink after my maiden speech," recalls William Shaughnessy, directing a fond gaze up at the marbled features atop the plinth in front of him. The speaker is 77 years old, short, thin, balding, just a little cantankerous. Like Sir Alec, he, too, is the last of his kind. "There aren't many Canadians here, not much more than a dozen in all," he remarks sometime later, not without a tinge of bitter regret. "By next week, we're all gone. We're history."

More than 800 years of history, in fact. For Shaughnessy may be Canadian born and bred but he is also a member of the British peerage, the 3rd Baron Shaughnessy of Montreal and Ashford, County Limerick. And last week he fell victim to the modernizing efforts of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government, along with more than 600 fellow British peers who inherited their often-ancient titles, including a small contingent of Canadians. In keeping with one of Blair's key election campaign promises, all were expelled from the House of Lords, the storied upper chamber of Britain's parliament. Until last week, there were some 1,200 members of the Lords, 759 of them so-called hereditary peers, enjoying the right to sit - and vote - within the exclusive, red leather-bound confines of the upper house simply by accident of birth. When the Queen enters the Lords on Nov. 17 to deliver the speech from the throne to open the next Parliament, only 92 hereditaries, granted temporary reprieve, will be on hand; most of the rest will be life peers, appointed members whose titles expire with them. Among the missing will be the 3rd Baron Shaughnessy. "How do I feel?" he asked as he cleaned out his Westminster office last week. "In a word, sad."

Similar sentiments prevailed among all of those who, like the Canadian lord, were quietly bidding farewell last week to what has been described by more than one cynical observer as "the best club in London." There were, however, few tears being shed by those who engineered the hereditaries' demise, in particular the Labour government's leader in the Lords, the Baroness Jay of Paddington, often referred to in private by disgruntled peers as Posh Spice. "After 70, they should retire anyway," declared a dismissive Lady Jay. "They have no idea of how other people live. They're so old-fashioned, patronizing, sexist and racist. They don't like me. I'm a woman. Left-wing, interfering and determined. If we don't flirt with them demurely, they get cross."

It has long been a central tenet of Labour party policy to rid the Lords of the hereditaries, who are overwhelmingly conservative in attitude, if not actual members of the Tory party. But it was not until the election of the Blair government, with its commanding 176-seat majority in the House of Commons, that much was accomplished. Reform of the Lords is merely one part, albeit critical, of Blair's unfolding plan to radically overhaul the constitutional makeup of the United Kingdom. His government has already devolved political power to what many in Britain describe as the "Celtic fringe," establishing regional legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Next spring, another step is scheduled when London will get its first-ever elected mayor. By the time that election takes place, under the original scheme, the House of Lords was to have been transformed into a body much like the Canadian SENATE, peopled with lifelong government appointees.

Blair's program, however, has run into snags, at least as far as the Lords are concerned. Accused of attempting to subvert the independence of the upper chamber by populating it with "Tony's cronies," the Prime Minister was forced into appointing a royal commission to recommend the future composition and powers of the reformed Lords. That commission, under the chairmanship of former Tory cabinet minister Lord Wakeham, is expected to issue its report by the end of the year. Much to the government's dismay, it appears to be about to propose a new House that will be partly appointed and partly elected, with considerable powers to review government measures, especially concerning relations with the European Union.

While awaiting the report, the government last week enacted the necessary legislation to get rid of the hereditaries. But even that measure required a compromise. To ensure its smooth passage - on the old Parliament's final day - the government had agreed to allow the hereditaries to select from among their numbers 92 peers who will continue to serve temporarily until the final reforms are agreed upon. For the past month, the Lords were engaged in that effort, the first time most have fought an election in their lives.

The endeavour was marked by moments of high tragedy and low farce, played out beneath the Lords' spectacular stained glass and gilded wood by some of the most colourful characters in British public life. One peer, 67-year-old Lord Montague of Oxford, died during the debates, collapsing into his seat moments after speaking. The Earl of Burford, a direct descendant of the bastard son of royal mistress Nell Gwynn and Charles II, was forcibly carried from the House after sparking an uproar by climbing upon the Woolsack, the ceremonial seat of the Lord Chancellor, and loudly denouncing Blair's "treason" in abolishing peers' rights as the first step "towards the creation of a United States of Europe." The 16th Baroness Strange, whose title dates from 1628, managed to convince her fellows to elect her as one of the privileged 92 by reminding them how she brought fresh flowers to the House every day. Lord Monckton of Benchley lost his bid despite a campaign that proposed, among other measures, the muzzling of cats "to stop the agonizing torture of mice and small birds."

For many of the Lords, the last month has been an ordeal that most would have preferred to avoid. That certainly holds true for Montreal-born Lord Shaughnessy, now a London resident whose title dates back to his grandfather, the third president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. "What's lost in all of this nonsense," he complained over a glass of white wine in the Lords' private bar, "is the fact that a helluva of a lot of us took this job very seriously. We worked long hours for low pay out of nothing more than a sense of public duty." With a glance around the oak-panelled bar, he remarked: "There's an awful lot of expertise right here in this room that's going to be lost." As a case in point, he gestured to a cousin, Lord Grenfell, recently retired from the International Monetary Fund, now serving as chairman of the European Union's select committee on economic, financial and trade affairs. "Julian will be missed."

As will Shaughnessy himself. In close to two decades in the Lords, he has emerged as one of the resident experts on Canadian and Commonwealth affairs. In the future, Canadian expertise will have to come from the appointed life peers in the Lords, individuals like newspaper publisher Conrad Black, if he ever wins his legal battle with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. For in the Nov. 5 vote, none of the hereditary peers with Canadian connections managed to make it into the new Lords.

There are no precise figures on how many Canadians may have held seats in the Lords, largely because of the widespread use of dual citizenship. But there may be as many as 18 hereditary peers today with Canadian links. They are people like the Marquess of Exeter, who owns a ranch near 100 Mile House, B.C., Viscount Hardinge of Lahore, a New York City-based executive of the Royal Bank of Canada, and Baron Strathcona, whose great-grandfather founded Lord Strathcona's Horse, the celebrated Canadian army regiment that recently saw duty in Kosovo.

Another is Richard Fleming George, the current Earl Grey, whose ancestors lent their name to the popular blend of tea as well as the trophy that is emblematic of success in the Canadian Football League. "Yes, it's my cup," Earl Grey joked one recent evening as he stood waiting for a taxi outside the House he has now vacated forever. He recalled a chilly autumn in Montreal long ago when he officiated at the opening kickoff of a Grey Cup game. "I kicked that ball a mile," he chuckled. Soon, he will launch a new line of sportswear bearing his family's heraldic symbol. "I have to do something," he shrugged. "There's going to be a huge gap in the lives of those peers who were very active in Lords. Where will their energies be put now?" At the very least, they will have to find a new club.

Maclean's November 22, 1999