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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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Chapter 1: 1960–61. The Wedgwood Benn Case


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1960–61. The Wedgwood Benn Case

There are some people who appear to be destined to fulfil a certain mission in our world. They do it with all the will and energy they can command. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn1 was among them. In our last volume we remarked upon why he wanted to reform the House of Lords. He had personal reasons for it, arising from an uneasy anticipation of the day when he would succeed his father as second Viscount Stansgate, and would automatically become a member of the House of Lords, consequently losing his membership of the House of Commons. The very thought of this was abhorrent to Tony Benn: he loved his House of Commons and was determined never to leave it unless he lost an election. But what could a person in his position do? When born a lord, one was condemned to be a lord: such was the law. There was no way Benn’s newly acquired title could be renounced: he would inevitably get his Letters Patent, obliging him to enter the House of Lords. This to Benn meant a journey to Inferno. Only an Act of Parliament could stop it.

For Benn, the gate to Hades opened on 17 November 1960, when Lord Stansgate died, and Benn received the Letters Patent of his father’s creation. Immediately, on 22 November, he returned the documents to the Lord Chamberlain; but the papers were sent back to...

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