After 800 years, the unlucky Lords pack up and go home

PARLIAMENT The world's most traditional legislature passes into history as more than 660 hereditary peers walked off into the political sunset
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The Independent Online
"WE WILL remember them." The television screens throughout the House of Lords appeared to declare their own stubborn allegiance yesterday as more than six centuries of parliamentary tradition passed gently away.

Although the stark message emblazoned on every annunciator referred to those lost in the wars, 11 November was a suitably sombre date for more than 660 hereditary peers killed off by the Government.

After hundreds of hours of debate, those who owed their titles to their ancestors' various acts of heroism, adultery or plain larceny were consigned to oblivion when the House of Lords Bill finally received its Royal Assent.

Yet while the Tories and crossbenchers mourned their passing, Labour peers and MPs could scarcely contain their satisfaction as the guillotine fell.

In just two and a half hours, some 666 ("the number of the devil", quipped one Labour MP) hereditaries were stripped of their ancient rights to sit and vote in the House of Lords.

As executions go, it was a dignified, bloodless spectacle and peers of all parties and none were joined by a handful of eager MPs in front of the gilded throne to watch the historic event.

Under a deal brokered by crossbencher Lord Weatherill, 92 hereditaries will live on in the transitional upper House, but even the survivors looked tearful as the messy business progressed.

Baroness Jay, Leader of the Lords, played the role of the smiling executioner as she paid tribute to the hundreds of years of service hereditaries and their ancestors had given Parliament. "I do believe that most have the grace and realism to accept this change is necessary ... away from politics, individual hereditary peers have achieved much in their chosen professions," she said. "Again, I am sure that they and their heirs will continue to do so ... We wish you all well."

Lord Strathclyde, the Opposition leader in the Lords and one of the hereditaries to survive, was more concerned with the future and pointed out that the Government still had no clear idea of the composition of the new chamber. "This is not a time for recrimination. It's time for resolution: resolution that we who stay will be worthy in every way of those who are going, resolution that we won't rest in the battle to achieve genuine and lasting reform and resolution that we will practice the virtues of modesty, courtesy and willingness to listen as much as we talk," he said.

Life peers, or "lifers" as they are witheringly described by some hereditaries, looked on with a mixture of pity and sadness. From the elegantly coiffured Lord Bragg to the Don King cut of Lord Desai, Labour peers were relieved it was all over.

On the Tory benches, Lord Archer rubbed shoulders with Have I Got News For You's most recent star turn, Lord Onslow.

Sitting grandly among them all, former prime minister Baroness Thatcher, wearing funereal black for the occasion, brought the most brooding presence to proceedings and sat stony faced as the Bill completed its passage.

When the news was relayed to the Commons, Labour MPs cheered, but in the Lords there was only a resigned murmur of protest. No shouting, no leaping on the Woolsack, only a low grumble from the Opposition benches.

A short, if elaborate, prorogueing ceremony, followed as Parliament summoned up all its pageantry to give Bills the Royal Assent and formally suspend business until next Wednesday.

The statues of Magna Carta barons, lined up between the high windows, glowered down on the assembled throng as the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, delivered the fatal blow.

Dressed in red and white ermine like a pantomime Father Christmas, Lord Irvine closed the session by tipping his three-cornered black hat at Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the Commons at 5.35pm.

Peers trooped out of the chamber to fill the bars, restaurants and Pugin- decorated reception rooms for the last time, taking advantage of the perks that will be denied them as of today. Whether it was sipping tea and scoffing cakes in the tea room, or using their parking space, most hereditaries will sorely miss the pleasures of membership of London's finest club. Comprehensive library facilities, engaging conversation and fawning staff all guaranteed that a trip up to the capital was extremely comfortable indeed.

With bars serving a pint of beer at just pounds 1.34 and dining rooms where a three-course lunch with coffee cost less than pounds 10, the Tories pleaded for the peers to retain their privileges. But not too surprisingly, their requests were flatly refused by the Government. "They have no rights at all," a spokesman said last night.

Many peers had already obeyed the orders of the Gentleman Usher of Black Rod to clear their desks, pack their bags and dodder off quietly into the night. "After six wastebags, I gave up," said Lord Mar and Kellie, the Liberal Democrat hereditary.

Earl Russell, son of philosopher Bertrand Russell and great grandson of Prime Minister Lord John Russell, was sanguine as he sucked on his Silk Cut cigarette in the last chance tea room. "When I arrived here, I was told, `this is your peg my Lord ... for ever'. I didn't really believe it at the time, so I'm not surprised by today," he said. As one of the elected hereditaries, his mood was understandably laid back.

After the prorogueing ceremony had finished, most peers flocked last night to a farewell party in the Royal Gallery off the Princes Chamber.

Any tears were drowned by literally gallons of House of Lords own-label champagne. Lord Gainford, a Tory hereditary whose grandfather served in the Asquith government, said: "I will miss it so much, I have loved being here. I'm just about to hand in my pass. I will particularly miss the car-park, but have already taken home two black bin liners of my life in the Lords."

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