The relevance of the House of Lords to public life in the United Kingdom was traditionally debated along party lines, until following their election in 1997, the Labour Party removed all but 92 hereditary peers. Further attempts at reform have largely stalled, but we continue to ponder whether the House would be better off at least partially elected, what electoral system might suit should the event ever come to pass, and if we can’t muster the gumption to fix the chamber, whether we might at least show some restraint and limit their number.
Instead – thanks to a flurry of appointments made by a fledgeling David Cameron – with 805 sitting Lords, the chamber is the largest in any democracy. The collective girth of its members vastly exceeds the space the House is afforded in Westminster: there is only enough room on the benches for half to be present at any one time, and even that requires plenty of squeezing.
Meanwhile critics continue to question the proclivity of some peers not to appear, or to appear rarely, or to pop by only for so long as it takes to sign in and claim their daily allowance. In 2015, it was reported that during the 2010-2015 parliament, £360,000 was claimed by peers who failed to register a single Lords vote.
Concerns around such matters were once the preserve of the finicky left, who fail to comprehend quite what it means to grow accustomed to a certain standard of living. Nowadays however the idea that the Lords needs to change extends pretty unanimously across the political spectrum – even if careful thinkers of all persuasions sometimes warn against making the chamber fully elected, pointing out that it would only make it more populist and partisan, while stressing that a few experienced peers are capable of impressive legislative scrutiny.
Still the view from the public is that the Lords is an outdated irrelevancy. When pollsters bother to ask, they tend to be told that the Lords should be reformed, but that it counts least among a host of larger priorities. In general, few people dwell too long on the House of Lords’ existence.
And yet the House of Lords recently had a moment. With the House of Commons whimperingly compliant, giving Theresa May and the Tories a blank cheque for a hard Brexit and unable to summon even a single amendment, the House of Lords stepped in and briefly – but as it turned out only briefly – seemed to possess the rarest of qualities in British politics today, humane and well-reasoned principles.
On 1 March, by a vote of 358 to 256, the Lords called for the rights of EU nationals currently residing in the UK to be unilaterally protected once Article 50 is triggered. A week later they backed – by 366 to 268 – a second amendment, this time attempting to ensure that parliament is given a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final terms of Brexit.
Protecting the rights of people who have lawfully made a life in this country and upholding the principle of parliamentary sovereignty: this all sounds nice in theory, but senior Conservatives balked, with some even calling for the Lords’ abolition. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, accused the Lords of seeking to ‘frustrate’ the Brexit process, having previously called on the House to do its ‘patriotic duty’.
In the face of unwarranted anger and scurrilous rhetoric, what did the Lords do? They meekly surrendered. After the Commons overturned both of their amendments, on Monday peers opted to put an end to their challenge, giving up on a ‘meaningful vote’ by a margin of 274 votes to 118, and foregoing EU residents by 274 to 135. It was left to Nicola Sturgeon to shove a fly in the government’s ointment, as she announced her intent to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence.
A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.