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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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The schemes recounted in this volume, both successful and unsuccessful, were the result of considerable time and effort. We must begin by allotting a high place to those who brought the Peerage Act 1963 into being. To these belong Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler. Then there are those who employed their talents to compose schemes to reform the House of Lords during 1967–1968. Here we must first all mention Richard Crossman, Lord Shackleton, Lord Gardiner, Lord Longford and Michael Wheeler-Booth.

It was the persistence with which Tony Benn pursued his right to renounce his newly acquired peerage, the Viscountcy of Stansgate, that induced the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, to appoint a joint select committee to consider whether changes should be made in the law regarding the surrender of peerages. Serious negotiations followed. In consequence a most profound bill of reform of the House of Lords, the Peerage Act 1963, was passed. This act allowed peers not only to disclaim their peerage for life, but the disclaimer could now stand for elections to the House of Commons. The act further made provisions for peeresses in their own right to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords, and for the Scottish peers to have the same rights as the peers of the United Kingdom. The Peerage Act 1963 marked a significant stage on the road to Lords reform.

When the Labour Party won the general election in October...

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