House Of Lords: In just a flash on the fifth of November, 800 years of Parliament is consigned to oblivion

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK just seven minutes on the anniversary of Guy Fawkes to change 800 years of history at the House of Lords.

It ended not with a bang but rather a steady hum of outrage from the hereditary peers as they made their final exit from the place they had assumed would be theirs for generation after generation.

Their lordships had their first exposure to the electoral process, albeit in a limited way and involving just fellow peers. But they did not like even this one little bit. The grumbling as they trooped out of the chamber, heads bowed over tightly knotted regimental and old school ties, was about the sheer unfairness and folly of it all, the politics of envy of New Labour.

The mood inside their lordships' house on this historic day was at first quite melancholy, like the last day of the last term at college, with the knowledge that many of them would not be seeing each other again. The red benches on either side were not quite full - many had chosen to stay away, including the Earl of Burford, who had been evicted after a second transgression on Thursday. A trio of officials kept a wary eye on the mace.

It was the last debate in the Lords in its present form and Charles Alan Andrew, the Earl Cathcart, Eton and Scots Guards, was making his first and last speech. It was about wind, or gaining power from renewable energy. Within two hours he had discovered his own family's place will not be renewed: after all, he had come 63rd in the poll.

Michael Davies, the Lords Chief Clerk, began to read the list at a brisk pace, as if wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. One by one the casualties were revealed, great aristocratic names like Earl Alexander of Tunis, and Viscount Trenchard, the Viscount Masserene and Ferrard and Lord Sudeley.

There were whispered congratulations for those elected, the Earl Ferrers, Lord Strathclyde, Lord Moynihan, Viscount Astor. Among the first to go and shake their hands, and pat their shoulders was Lord Archer of Weston- Super- Mare, his own eyes on another election in the future.

The numbers were being reduced from 750 by almost 90 per cent and the casualties began to mount.

Some had been earnest in their pleas, like Lord Monk Bretton: "I see it as duty that one should offer to serve." Others showed a certain insouciance, such as Earl De La Warr. "Attendance record: poor. Reason: full-time job in the City; not lack of interest".

Lord Catto, who said he had considered it "morally wrong, purely from the accident of birth to presume to become a member of a legislative assembly" despite sitting in the Lords for 40 years, had now offered himself for selection. He came 79th. Their lordships obviously did not like this Damascene conversion.

The famous media lords also fell: Lord Beaverbrook and the Viscount Rothermere, who had talked about how his chairmanship of the Daily Mail and General Trust gave him "unique insight into the age of technological convergence". He had told his journalistic staff to provide details of the election as soon as possible.

In the ballot 75 hereditaries were voted to stay on as part of the Weatherill deal, as part of the 92 who will remain under the House of Lords Bill. The group will be made up of 42 Tories, 28 cross-benchers, three Liberal Democrats and two from Labour.

After the vote their lordships were ruminating about the mysteries of the franchise as they trooped out. "This is a rather peculiar way of going about things," said one. Another just muttered "It's a farce."

Among the defeated, Lord Monk Bretton was sad and apprehensive about the future. "They have opened Pandora's Box and there will be problems in the future".

The Earl of Lauderdale, 88 years old and hobbling on a cane, shook his head. "I shall miss this place, not for my own sake, but for what it stood for ... this is an aggressive encroachment. There are a lot of people here who simply will not know what to do now; it is very sad." With that he walked away.

Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Conservative peers, who had come second in the ballot with 174 votes, said: "For those who won it is not cause for celebration, it is an honour. For those who lost it is no cause for shame."

Lord Palmer, of the Huntley and Palmer's biscuits family, a cross-bencher who won, was keen to point out his was the first family to receive their hereditary peerage for non-political reasons. "And it was not for biscuits either, but for services to the arts. My great-grandfather never made a speech in his time. My grandfather, I think, did make one; it was on biscuits."

But Lord Palmer is still opposed to the reforms. " The real tragedy is that peoples' lives have been shattered. Tony Blair had succeeded in doing what Guy Fawkes failed to do. This will be known as Tony Blair Day."

The public gallery had been busy, including tourists mystified by it all. Robert Fromholtz, from Baltimore, said: "This is all too much. I am just glad I was here to see it. My father was based here during the war flying bombers. He thought the whole Lords thing was strange then; I am just amazed they are still here all these years later for me to see."

The day ended on a poignant note when 67-year-old Lord Montague of Oxford, a Labour life peer, collapsed and died in the chamber soon after the vote. Other peers tried to help but he died soon afterwards.

From some there were dire warnings that the monarchy itself was in danger. Conservative life peer Baroness Trumpington, a minister in the last Tory government said she wanted to say to Tony Blair "Cool it, buddy boy." The Prime Minister was "Cromwell Two ... I would not be in the least surprised if there isn't a tremendous backlash against what is going on at the present time. I think in this country life goes along in a fairly even way. It's not a country that's in tune with tremendous change."

As Mr Davies ended reading his list, Lord Skelmersdale rose from the Tory benches: " This is for me a day of sadness and regret that colleagues old and new are now retiring because the Government has cut the ground from under their feet." The rest of his speech was drowned by the peers shuffling out of the chamber,

One peer said: " I am off to my club for a stiff drink. No doubt they will be abolishing all that soon." Then he stopped: " Look, this is a serious matter. Bagehot said `The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it'. Well, people who bother to do so soon realise what a jolly useful place this was. This government is too arrogant to realise that. Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted."

BRITAIN'S FIRST ELECTED PEERS OF THE REALM

Earl of Ferrers

The 70-year-old Earl, whose peerage dates back to 1611, came top in the Tory election with 190 votes. The former minister was so determined to stop the House of Lords Bill becoming law that on one occasion he kept peers up until midnight debating an amendment which questioned whether the grammar of the legislation was correct. His quarrel centred on the question whether it should refer to "an hereditary peer" rather than "a hereditary peer".

Lord Strathclyde

The Tory leader in the Lords helped broker the Weatherill deal which led to the reprieve of the 92. A close friend of Lord Cranborne, Lord Strathclyde, 39, could probably have had a life peerage but stood for election instead. He came second behind the Earl of Ferrers, with 174 votes. Also known as Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, he made Tory support for the Weatherill deal a condition when William Hague offered him the job as Lords leader.

Baroness Strange

Elected as the 20th of the crossbenchers allowed to stay, Baroness Strange sought to win votes by promising to bring flowers to the Lords.

Her family's peerage was created in 1628 and she caused mild confusion when she listed her five and a half grandchildren in her entry (the half referred to her baby grandson). Baroness Strange, 71, said it was "a very sad day" after the announcement.

Earl Russell

The Liberal Democrat peer topped his party's poll with 17 votes. A distinguished professor of history, Earl Russell, 62, played a major role in peers' opposition to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill and is supporting the campaign of Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor. Won the Peer of the Year award in 1996. A man of great intellect, Lord Russell has been crucial in the Liberal Democrats' success as a campaigning party.

Lord Freyberg

A 28-year-old sculptor, he came second with 82 votes in the crossbench poll. He succeeded his father in 1993 and lists bee-keeping as one of his recreations. The only peer to give his e-mail address in the parliamentary guide to members of the Lords.

A co-chair of the all-party Design and Innovation group, Lord Freyberg said in his manifesto: "Since joining the Lords I have focused on the arts which I believe are of crucial importance for Britain."

Lord Moynihan

The former Minister for Sport had to go to court to fight for his succession of the peerage after his brother, infamous for his dealings in massage parlours in the Southeast Asia, died in 1991. Lord Moynihan, 44, came 15th in the Tory list with 137 votes. He was the MP for Lewisham East between 1983 and 1992, and won an Olympic Silver Medal for Rowing in 1980.

He was also responsible for giving Pamela Bordes a Commons pass and introduced her to Andrew Neil.

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