They turn up when they feel like it and vote down what they want to. Last week's triumph for the Lords when they amended the Police Bill does not weaken the case for reform
Tony Blair says he is reading George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England. It is greatly to be hoped that he is telling the truth. There is much to learn from this classic text, of 60 years vintage. It tells the story of the last great constitutional crisis in the British Parliament in 1911, when their lordships voted to curb their powers rather than lose them altogether.

Dangerfield was scathing about the peerage. For the most part, he observed, they lived an obscure existence on their country estates, coming to London perhaps once a year for the Eton and Harrow match. "During the long, long days of Conservative rule, they never entered the House of Lords," he observed. "In its red leather wastes they would have been lost and miserable, and Tory Bills were peaceably voted through without them."

All that changed when the belted earls decided that this modish business of democracy had gone too far, and revolted against the Liberal government's "People's Budget", which raised death duties, taxed the coal-owning classes and imposed a super-tax on incomes over pounds 5,000 a year. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith pushed the budget measures through, and introduced a Bill "intended to substitute for the Lords as it now exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis". We choose them, rather than them choosing us. Radical stuff, which challenged the political status quo that "aristocracy must be powerful".

Of course it did not happen. Snorting at the indignity, and faced with the threat of the creation of hundreds of Liberal peers, their lordships agreed to diminish their own powers. Somewhat. But nothing came of the proposal for an elected second chamber. Everybody went back to sleep.

NOTHING much has changed since then. Communism has come and gone, and man has begun the conquest of space. But the belted earls go on for ever. They turn up when they feel like it, and they vote down what they want to. They do not have to bother with the tiresome business of elections, and their understanding of political discipline is tenuous. In the most meaningful sense, they are a law unto themselves.

So why do they suddenly reappear in the news as the champions of liberty, the reactionary men and women who have embarrassed the Labour Party with their progressive stance on the Police Bill, which would allow the other Bill to bug our homes and workplaces without let or hindrance? Last week, by majorities of 64 and 21, the Lords voted down government proposals to legitimise police law-breaking that has gone on for decades: namely, the planting of electronic surveillance devices without the authority of a judge. They did so on valid grounds, and after a publicity campaign by lawyers, doctors and civil libertarians, but initially without the backing of the official Opposition, tied as it was to a policy of appearing more police-friendly than Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

Since there is virtually no prospect of Parliament re-enacting the "Bugging Charter", it is being said that the Lords have shown that they are relevant, sensitive to public opinion and, ergo, play a vital role as a second chamber critical to the success of the democratic process. Unquestionably, last week's votes are a public relations coup for their lordships. They look as if they are doing their job, and in doing so they undermine Labour's case for reform of the Lords.

The issue is even more poignant because Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, has been wrong-footed by the men and women in ermine. Anxious to be tougher on crime than Mr Howard, he was gung-ho for the bugging until it became clear that public unease might deliver more votes than slavish devotion to more police powers.

Yet he is also Labour's chief advocate of reform. Only four weeks ago, he produced a report - Tory Lords-a-Leaping - which sneered mightily at the hereditary peerage, suggesting that they were mostly born on the wrong side of the blanket, or bought the blanket. "How can the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, the largest private landowner in Britain, who owes his title to the fact that one of his ancestors was the bastard son of Charles II, represent the common man?" he demanded. "And how can it be right for the Tories to rely on the vote of Lord Vestey, whose great-grandfather bought the title with a pounds 20,000 'donation' to Conservative Central Office?"

Straw's investigations showed that almost three-quarters of the 402 Tory hereditary peers went to one of six top public schools - 228 to Eton alone - and almost half went to Oxbridge. Only three are women, and contrary to the much-put-about view that they never vote, 320 exercised their right to sit in the Lords in the last session. Straw argues: "Without the help of Tory hereditary backwoodsmen, the government would not have been able to force through deeply unpopular policies such as the poll tax." It is worth noting that in last week's vote against the Police Bill, the hereditary peers turned out in force to vote for the Government. And they have come up to town (pounds 30 a day appearance fee, plus expenses) to become empurpled about the ban on handguns. Their "progressive" credentials do not bear close scrutiny.

FACED with what looks like an intractable political challenge, Labour is rehearsing Herbert Asquith's nerve. Tony Blair says he will remove the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords. He finds comfortable precedent for this reform in the Tories own review committee dating back to 1978. At that time, a Conservative committee chaired by former Prime Minister Lord Home concluded that "maintenance of the status quo (ie hereditary peers with voting rights) is not a prudent policy. Indeed, we are doubtful whether it is a policy at all."

Oh no? Look at some other facts. There are around 1,100 peers. Of these, 475 admit to being Tories, 110 are Labour and 55 are Liberal Democrats. A further 299 are crossbenchers, that is owning up to no party affiliation. Of the peerage at large, 67 are formally "on leave of absence" - which means they have to give four weeks notice before they can re-enter politics. But the most important figure is that 756 peers are there by succession, not because they were appointed by the whim of the government of the day. These turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas, yet their support for any reform is critical.

Sophie McEwan, special adviser to Lord Cecil of Essendon, the Government's leader in the Lords, predicts trouble if Labour tries to break the powers of the hereditary peerage. "On all sides of the House, they would be very unhappy about it," she protests. Indeed, they would fight it. Lord Graham, Labour's Chief Whip in the upper chamber attributes last week's government defeats largely to the "extremism" of the legislation they were being asked to support. But he also detects signs of a budding revolt: "There could very well be an element of some poor-attending hereditary peers flexing their muscles in preparation for what they believe will be a major battle to save their places when Labour becomes the government."

We have been here before. Lord Cecil's grandfather, Lord Hugh Cecil, sat in the House "white with rage" when Asquith had the nerve to challenge his centuries-old privilege almost a century ago. There have been Cecils in government for hundreds of years, and they are not about to wrap up now.

Labour is already showing signs of nervousness about its constitutional priorities. Devolution for Scotland will come first, relegating reform of the Lords to the second session of a Blair government. There is a suspicion that Labour will funk the issue. It is hard to see why. Even though they stand to lose most, not every hereditary peer supports the status quo. Gerry, Lord Monkswell, a socialist member of the upper crust, would cheerfully vote for his own political demise. He is there because his grandfather was ennobled in Victorian times ("before you could buy a peerage from Lloyd George") but he has actually dirtied his hands as a mechanical engineer in the motor industry before putting on the ermine.

He offers a different way out of the dilemma: make the Lords an advisory body, charged with doing what they do best - scrutinising draft legislation line by line, which the Commons does not do - before sending it down to the elected chamber. "We could be a glorified Select Committee," he suggests. "We could get rid of the hereditary peers first and fill the place with top people in their profession or sphere of endeavour. We could then be an advisory chamber, but the elected Commons must be the supreme body."

This could be a way out of the political impasse. Their lordships love to be taken seriously. But they also like power, and they have been around for a very long time. As Blair's bedtime reading will tell him, in 1700 the Lords was a "little assembly of great nobles". A century later, through the bribery of George III and the vision of William Pitt, it had come to represent the opulent and landed classes.

Dangerfield's words ring down through the years. "Ideally, their lordships were supposed to act in the interests of the electorate. When any piece of hasty or foolish legislation was sent up to them from the House of Commons, their business was to veto it, a course which, if it led to the Government's resignation and a new election, would give the people another chance to express their opinion. And very nice, too, always supposing their lordships to be gifted with the legendary wisdom of the witenagemot. Their boast was that they embodied the people's constitutional right to have the last word; that they stood - a noble, uncomplaining buffer - between the country and all kinds of bruising legislation. Yet it was a curious thing that only about Liberal laws was the country offered its right to second thoughts: Conservative bills went through the Upper House unquestioned and unharmed."

SUPERFICIALLY, last week's vote, which found 29 "rebel" Tory peers voting against "their" government on an issue of public interest, gives the lie to this classic political text. When former Conservative cabinet ministers, indeed a former Conservative attorney-general, vote against a Bill to give the police more powers, it could be argued that something is moving in the undergrowth. Critics of the system argue: don't bank on it. Look down the list of peers who would give the police freedom to bug your home and ask: why should that be determined by Lord Brabazon of Tara, Baron Macleod of Borve, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the rest of That Ilk?

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