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House of Lords Reform: A History

Volume 1. The Origins to 1937: Proposals Deferred- Book One: The Origins to 1911- Book Two: 1911–1937

Peter Raina

One of the peculiarities of British history is the development of a constitution headed by the Crown and the two Houses of Parliament. This system emerged to become a balance of democracy, efficiency and moderation that became the admiration of the world.
The contribution of the House of Lords to this balance is all too often overlooked. In this richly documented two-volume work, the author offers a detailed examination of the Lords’ constitutional position and the predicament they faced as the Commons increasingly championed popular rule. With a landowning membership based on the hereditary principle, the Lords struggled to adapt. Yet, valiant attempts were made. The author gives us the first thorough, full-length history of the Lords’ ambiguous responses to the new democracy and the stream of arguments, proposals and bills raised for reform of their House.
Drawing on speeches, letters, reports and memoranda of the times (some never previously published), the book brings to life the inner wranglings and arresting personalities, the hopes and anxieties and the sheer frustrations of a House divided between entrenched interests and idealism, and often threatened by progressives outside.
The two books in Volume One cover the period from the medieval origins of the House of Lords and proceed, through many tumultuous events, to the outbreak of the Second World War.
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Chapter 8: The Life Peerages Bill: Earl Russell, 1869


← i. 164 | i. 165 → CHAPTER EIGHT

The Life Peerages Bill: Earl Russell, 1869

After considering the patent for creating Lord Wensleydale a peer for life (Chapter 6), the Committee of Privileges reported to the House of Lords that, in their opinion, that patent did not entitle Lord Wensleydale to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The subject of life peerages was then ‘allowed to slumber for thirteen years’. It was ‘agitated’ by Earl Russell1 on 9 April 1869 when he said in the House of Lords that the decision of 1856 had not since been questioned, and that it was in the power of their lordships, ‘if you should see fit, to reverse the decision of 1856, and to decide that a person created a Peer for life may sit and vote in this House’.2 Until that decision was reversed, Earl Russell held that it ‘is unquestionably the law of Parliament that a Peer created for life cannot sit and vote’. The chief objection to creating life peerages expressed in 1856 was the fear that the power of creating peers for life might be abused by the crown. The House might be crowded with life peers in order to obtain a majority for the ministry of the day. Earl Russell wanted to steer clear of these objections and submit suggestions worthy of consideration. What he proposed, therefore, was

that the number of life peers should not, at any one time, exceed twenty-eight,...

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