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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Emeryville, Ca.: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1996.