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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 17: The Purgation of the ‘Black Sheep’ from the House: The Earl of Carnarvon, 1889


← i. 338 | i. 339 → CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Purgation of the ‘Black Sheep’ from the House: The Earl of Carnarvon, 1889

After Lord Salisbury had failed to accomplish his plan for reform of the House of Lords, no effort was made to stir their lordships until the beginning of the following century. This was mainly because the governments in power were completely involved in important domestic affairs or with problems abroad. But at home we see no want of idealists, who observed deficiencies in the House they occupied, and who did not hesitate to draw the attention of the ‘inhabitants’ to these shortcomings. The Earl of Carnarvon was one of them. He rightly believed that there existed a set of peers, called ‘black sheep’, who brought discredit upon the House of Lords and should therefore be removed from it. Thus, on 28 February 1889, the Earl of Carnarvon1 rose to ask whether it ‘was the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to submit to Parliament any measure for restraining unworthy Members of their Lordships’ House from voting or taking part in its proceedings’. He earnestly felt that some measure was necessary for ‘the purification of this House’. There were, the earl observed,

unfortunately, cases which I need not specify, because most of them are notorious. There are cases in which old and honoured names have been dragged through the mud, and in which it has been openly stated out of doors that the holders of those...

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