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The British are halfway toward reforming their House of Lords. Our occasional correspondent R. J. visits this venerable, unique institution and gets a personal slant on it from a newly-created life-peer, a neighbor and friend for more than thirty years.

We were discussing, over drinks, the British government’s reform of the country’s institutions under the buzzwords of ‘decentralization’ and ‘modernization.’ Nobody minded that, under the first label, Scotland had been given its own parliament, Wales its own assembly, and Londoners, for the first time, the right to vote for a mayor, but what of the ambiguities? For example, should Scottish members of the Westminster Parliament vote on English matters, now English MPs have no say on affairs north of the border? And what would happen if the Mayor of London adopted an agenda disliked by the Government? The questions remain unanswered; we hope for the best.

Then, under the banner of ‘modernization,’ the biggest reform concerns the House of Lords, the second chamber of the British parliament. Everybody knew it was there, and, in some odd way, nobody took it very seriously. The anomaly of an unelected body, overwhelmingly male and of the political right, offended ordinary democratic feeling; how had it survived so long? It needed to be abolished, said some, and replaced by an elected senate; others thought there might be a way of reinvigorating the body from within, combining the demands of an enlightened democracy with the ceremonial trappings of the past so loved by traditionalists.

Shortly after this discussion it was announced that all but 92 of the 646 hereditary lords were to be declared redundant, an incredible move; yet the Government gave no idea what the final form of the House would be. Months after the Lords were voted out, the country still waits for the final blueprint. A political commentator, writing in The Times, even said the House of Lords was in limbo. This was hardly true, as the Lords continues to function, is said to have the heaviest work-load of all second chambers, and takes in new blood in the shape of life peers nominated by the heads of government and the opposition parties. The creation of these non-hereditary titles began in 1958, a measure brought in by a Conservative government. The new peers could be of either sex. This way women entered the House of Lords, forty years after a woman MP took her seat in the House of Commons.

Then came the surprise: among the new Labour peers listed in the newspapers in the summer of 1999 was an old friend and neighbour. At once, the future of the House of Lords became a matter of personal interest. We understood that our friend, Doreen Massey, a life-long member of the Labour Party and an independent consultant in health and sexual education, had been selected to strengthen the government’s health team in the transformation from being a Mrs. to a Baroness. And how would a down-to-earth wife of an academic and mother of three find life in such a traditional not to say eccentric institution as the House of Lords?

The House has a long history. It began in the councils of nobles summoned by English kings in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries and since 1346, has been separate from the elected House of Commons. Although both Houses share a building, the Palace of Westminster, by the side of the Thames, they never hold joint sessions and they operate in different ways.

For major events, such as the State Opening of Parliament, when the Queen delivers the government’s program for the year, the members of the House of Commons are summoned with anachronistic ceremony to the Lords in order to hear her. Despite this ceremonial kowtowing, the elected House of Commons, on which national democratic government depends, plays the more important role. The House of Lords has four main functions: to question government ministers about policy; to save the Commons time by giving a first hearing to bills (draft laws) that are not controversial; to debate and, if necessary, revise bills sent by the Commons; and, finally, to reject entirely bills sent by the Commons which fail to please their lordships.

It is this last power that has created most of the tension between the Commons and the Lords this century, and had led people to question how members of a legislative body, in position because of an accident of birth, had been allowed to hold sway for so long. This was basically Mrs. Massey’s view, and when she was asked whether she would join the government team in the Lords she accepted the challenge and considered it an honour. She wanted to be in on the reforms.

She knew from her own reading of history that from the 1880s the Lords had had an in-built Conservative majority Their first big confrontation with a non-Conservative Commons came in 1909, when the Lords rejected the Liberal Government’s so-called People’s Budget. In revenge for this, two years later, the same Government legislated to restrict the Lords’ powers: the House could only hold up finance bills for a year, and other bills for two. This reform established the supremacy of the Commons, although any non-conservative government has always been aware of the massively hostile potential of the hereditary peers, those backwoods eminences of Gilbert and Sullivan operas and caricature, who could be called to London to hold up legislation.

She was also aware of the strange reluctance of the post-war Labour Government, despite its huge majority, to reform the situation. Although the Lords’ power to delay bills was reduced by a year in 1949, the composition of the House remained unchanged, a mixture of hereditary peers, bishops and archbishops of the Anglican church, and law lords who served as the country’s supreme court of appeal. A leading Labour politician, Herbert Morrison, offered this paradoxical reason for maintaining the status quo: “The very irrationality of the composition of the House of Lords and its quaintness are safeguards for our modern British democracy.”

It was to end this “quaintness” that a decade later a bill to introduce life peerages was brought in, thus giving the state the power to draw on the experience not only of politicians who had left the Commons but of people from the liberal professions, the arts and the sciences.

This was where Mrs. Massey and her like came in; but however modern-minded they might be, their introduction into the Lords had to follow an ancient ritual. First came discussions about a title. A senior House of Lords official gave advice, and it was agreed that Mrs. Massey would take the title of The Baroness Massey of Darwen, in the County of Lancashire, the town where she was born and received her early education. She then was told that while her husband, Leslie, would not be entitled to any form of noble title, their three children might prefix their names with The Honourable. The elder son, Owen, a theatrical agent, would also have the right to sit on the steps of the throne during debates in the House.

There followed a longish wait for the new Baroness to be formally introduced into the House. Every new peer needs two sponsors, and Lady Massey found two other peeresses to fulfil this role: Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, and Lady Castle, a fellow Lancastrian and one time MP. Lady Castle – famous for her red hair – when asked whether the head should be covered whilst wearing the official robes, caused amusement by saying, “When I’ve spent good money at the hairdressers I’m damned if I’m going to wear a hat!”

The advice was taken and on November 1st, hatless but in robes, Lady Massey took the oath, shook hands with the Lord Chancellor, who was seated on the woolsack, and became a fully-fledged member of the House. Later she was presented with a video of the ceremony courtesy of the House of Lords Information Office.

From this point onwards Lady Massey received an official stipend. At £35 a day (about $50) for every day she actually spent in the House it is far from generous but there is extra money for secretarial support and for essential expenses covering subsistence and travel.

Almost at once Lady Massey began work. As it is the custom of the Lords that members may not take part in debates until they have made their maiden speech, Lady Massey rose to address the House within days of her arrival. It so happened that the debate was on a subject made for her: the health of young people. She is a practised public speaker and her contribution was well received.

In the next few weeks there were further occasions for her to speak as the House of Commons had agreed to rescind a curious piece of legislation, known as Section 28, from the Thatcher period, which forbids local authorities to “promote” homosexuality. When this was first debated nobody could say how homosexuality could be “promoted.” One woman MP, a doctor, said, “You might as well suggest promoting left-handedness and red hair.” The measure was widely seen as a concession to ignorance and bigotry.

The Lords voted to retain the clause. This means the bill will, in some form, return to the House in the next few months. This early confrontation with bigoted opposition was not a surprise to Lady Massey although she was astonished by the virulence of the feeling.

For many years, after taking an honours degree in French at Birmingham University, she had taught in secondary schools in London and Philadelphia. She then went on to specialize in health and sexual education. For seven years she worked for the British Family Planning Association, five of them as its director, before turning freelance. Much of her recent consultation work has been outside Britain, in countries where open discussion of sexual matters has been taboo and family planning often clashes with religious sentiment. She also understood that sexual liberation is anathema to many older people in our society, but had not guessed there would be so much ill-informed prejudice.

As she told the Lords in the debate, some of the opinions of her fellow peers and the angry letters from members of the public were not only intolerant but contrary to everyday experience and common sense.

As the House of Lords sits for between 30 and 40 weeks a year, Lady Massey intends to keep up her consultancy work: there are projects still not completed. She also hopes to go on writing on social and sexual health. She has already published a number of books and edited a vividly illustrated guide to the arts of love (1996).

Lady Massey finds that one of the many pleasures of being in the Lords is having day-to-day contact with a wide variety of people. What has most surprised her, despite the heated debates on the anti-gay legislation, is the very relaxed, non-confrontational mood there. Unlike the House of Commons, where the two main parties sit glaring and sneering at one another, the Lords conducts its affairs in a civilized manner.

There is even a tradition that the Leader of the House invites the leader of the opposition to a meal. The Conservative leader, Lord Strathclyde, said this was done to agree on a communication channel. The House of Lords (he said) must organize its own discipline and that can only work if the leaders are on good terms.

As the House is a self-regulating body, those who wish to speak give notice beforehand and are allotted a space in the rota, which allows each party and the independents (known as crossbenchers) to address the House in an orderly way. Lady Massey finds there is a lot of give and take.

All the same, the negative vote on the repeal of the anti-gay legislation was a reminder that the Lords is still very much a chamber of what the French call The Third Age.

Lady Massey, herself a youthful 62, quoted with approval a Liberal Democrat peer who had said the great problem faced by the Lords was: how it was going to be possible to create a House attractive to younger people? “This would have to be considered when we finally get round to discussing the future composition of the House.”

The past is ever-present in the House not only in the age of its members but in its setting. The vast Gothic palace built by Charles Barry over twenty years from 1840 to 1860, after fire destroyed the earlier building, imposes its own authority; so do the grandiose interior decorations and furnishings by Augustus Pugin. Inside this elaborate setting are the statues and portraits of royalty and the late great. There are huge canvasses depicting historical events; the vast robing-room where the Queen prepares for her annual speech from the throne has frescoes on Arthurian themes.

An outsider in the building for a short visit is made to feel a part of the life and history of the nation; to be in such surroundings for every working day must be overwhelming: those endless and richly carpeted corridors, the high elaborate ceilings, the windows with their views of the Thames, the lofty bookcases filled with bound volumes of past legislation, the groups of awed schoolchildren being given history lessons by the guides; this is a public building as theatre.

All this is not lost on Lady Massey who shares with her husband, a physicist and retired university dean, a great love of the arts, especially of opera. The outsider is bound to wonder whether at times it would be hard not to feel, despite the absence of music, that everything and everyone are part of a mega-production with a cast of 665. This figure includes 92 hereditary peers, 520 life peers, 26 archbishops and bishops and 27 law lords. Women, mostly life peers, number 104.

One can understand the sadness of those 554 lords voted out of membership of a place many had regarded as a part of their lives, a very cozy and exclusive club. Although they were given certain privileges, these are strictly defined so that the social side of life does not interfere with the running of parliamentary business. The ex-peers may use the excellent library and have access, at certain times, to the subsidized dining facilities.

During the days after the crucial vote on November 11, the tearooms of the House were thronged with the family and friends of the departing peers enjoying a modest if final fling. It was in the tearoom, not on the floor of the House, that Lady Massey understood that she was a witness to the ending of 700 years of history; a solemn moment.

The next phase is still unsure; but this July government ministers took a step to further reform of the House by forming a committee drawn from both the Commons and the Lords to deal with the matter. Meanwhile, up in Edinburgh, the new Scottish Parliament scrapped the anti-gay legislation, 99-17.



Doreen E. Massey, THE LOVERS GUIDE ENCYCLOPEDIA. London: Bloomsbury;
Emeryville, Ca.: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1996. 

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