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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 3. 1960-1969: Reforms Attempted

Peter Raina

Volume 3 of Peter Raina’s magisterial history covers the 1960s and draws on newly released documents. In astonishing detail, it traces new plans drawn up during the Macmillan-Wilson era to reform the House of Lords. ‘Mission impossible,’ a civil servant declared. But when, to remain a Commons MP, Tony Benn insisted on disclaiming an inherited peerage, he started off a fresh willingness to tackle old problems. The Peerages Act 1963 allowed peers the option of disclaimer and, at last, gave equal rights in the Upper House to Scottish and women inheritors.
A Labour government came in, and in 1967 gained the majority needed to embark on bold legislation. But it feared interference, so comprehensive plans were backed for changing the whole complexion of two-chamber politics. Led by Lord Shackleton and the intellectual Richard Crossman, schemes were devised and inter-party talks got under way – at first in a spirit of cooperation. But had the party elites listened to their fiery back-benchers? When a bill was introduced into parliament, the scenes were unforgettable …
This volume tells not just the story, but reveals the intricate thinking of those who wanted to make a bicameral system work in the age of modern party politics.
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Preface

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The present volume contains various schemes to reform the House of Lords made during the years 1960–1969. The demand for more radical reform became urgent when, in November 1960, Anthony Wedgwood Benn succeeded his father as second Viscount Stansgate, but refused to receive the Letters Patent of his father’s creation. Benn had resolved to renounce his newly acquired title. But this he could not do because of the law: it would require an act of parliament to make an act of renunciation possible. Having lost his seat in the House of Commons because he was now a peer, Benn requested that he should have a hearing in the Commons in which he could plead his case. There was no precedent to justify such a move, so the request was refused. Benn accordingly adopted a different course of action. A man of turbulent spirit, he kept his matter constantly before the public. He also made a petition to the House of Commons to appoint a select committee to examine his case. Benn’s reasoned arguments excited the attention of the government of the day. Prominent among those who recommended reform in the direction Benn suggested were Harold Macmillan, the Earl of Home and Viscount Hailsham. They eventually decided that a government committee should be appointed to introduce legislation enabling peers to renounce their titles, thus making them eligible for election to the House of Commons. Once this committee was established, the members’ considerations went even further. They recommended that...

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