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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 2. 1943–1958: Hopes Rekindled

Peter Raina

Peter Raina’s House of Lords Reform recounts the long struggle to bring an ancient institution up to date. The first volume ended in 1937, as crisis overwhelmed Europe. Reform issues were not forgotten, however. This second volume continues the story, presenting a wealth of illuminating records, a great many of them published here for the first time.
The 4th Marquess of Salisbury planned changes to the Lords even before the war’s end. Further proposals followed after the establishment of the Labour government in 1945. Fearful that its legislation would be blocked, Labour amended the Parliament Act, 1911 to limit the Lords’ delaying powers to just one year. Some believed the Upper House would disappear altogether.
Salisbury’s heir worked hard for preservation, and managed to secure an all-party conference. Its complex schemes and animated discussions are all presented here in original documents. Though the conference failed, Lords Reading, Exeter and Simon continued the effort, with ideas that would eventually bear fruit. They championed the rights of women, self-regulation through standing orders, and the creation of life peers. The Churchill government formed a Lords Reform Committee but could get no further. Then, in an unexpected twist, the cause finally triumphed when Harold Macmillan and the Earl of Home got a one-clause bill through parliament in 1958. The Life Peers Act transformed the nature of British politics.
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Chapter 14: 1955. A Renunciation Bill: Anthony Wedgwood Benn

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← 474 | 475 → CHAPTER FOURTEEN

1955. A Renunciation Bill: Anthony Wedgwood Benn

In the May 1955 general election, Bristol South East elected Anthony Wedgwood Benn to the House of Commons for the third time. Benn had an uneasy feeling that it might be the last session in which he could sit in the Commons, for his father Viscount Stansgate was growing older and might pass away at any moment. Benn would then succeed to the peerage and have to resign his seat in the Lower House. The thought of this prospect began to haunt him: he would one day have to be a member of the House of Lords, which he loathed.

Only a renunciation of the peerage could rescue him from such a fate. He sought refuge in historical precedents. In 1549 Lord De La Warr had petitioned parliament to have his designated heir, William West, shut out from the peerage. This was because West had tried to poison De La Warr in order to speed up his accession and, in these circumstances, parliament consented to the supplication. Then again, in 1917 an act of parliament had prevented German peers from sitting in the House of Lords. Both these cases concerned individuals. Now there is a procedure in Britain whereby an individual can request the crown to bring forward a bill for the benefit of that individual alone. Anthony Benn decided to adopt this course of action. He drafted and signed an instrument of...

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