house of lords

House of Lords, Put Simply

The House of Lords is the upper chamber of Parliament, currently composed of 805 individuals, none of whom have been elected. All these people have either been appointed by the monarch, are the current holders of a hereditary peerage or are one of 26 senior Church of England bishops. Although it was established in the 1300s, there have long been calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, which have intensified in recent decades. But what are the arguments in favour of retaining the House of Lords and what are the arguments against?


  • Peers don’t have to worry about their own popularity

As the House of Lords is not elected, some argue that this means its members are free to vote for what they think is right, without having to worry about being defeated at the next election. This leads to better decisions being made as peers are able to focus on the long term impact of a policy rather than its impact on their own electoral fortunes.

  • Legislation would be of a poorer quality without it

It is often argued that the primary benefit of the House of Lords is how it allows experts in certain fields to use their expertise to critique legislation. However, if they were required to stand for election, they may choose not to, as many of them already have other jobs that mean they don’t have the time to campaign. This would lessen the quality of the legislation, as the experts would be replaced by professional politicians who wouldn’t bring as much knowledge to the debates on bills.


  • The House of Lords is undemocratic

The main argument against the existence of the House of Lords is that it is undemocratic. It is an unelected body which, on occasion, forces the elected House of Commons to back down, which critics view as profoundly undemocratic. They say that anyone with a say in the legislative process should be an elected representative, which peers are not.

  • It is too old fashioned

Many say that the upper chamber, which is admittedly around 700 years old, has no role in modern society. They argue that the existence of a 92 strong contingent of hereditary peers is at odds with meritocracy, as it guarantees a large group of people the ability to vote on the passage of legislation because of their lineage. It is also argued that the house is an unneeded remnant of the days when people were appointed to it as a form of patronage, which is out of touch with modern society.

Reforming the House of Lords?

In the vast debate about the House of Lords, there are also those who believe that it shouldn’t be abolished, but reformed instead. The main suggestion of reform is that the House of Lords should switch from being appointed to being elected, which would effectively ‘democratise’ the chamber. Abolishing hereditary peers is another idea commonly put forward, as well as taking away the right of peers to vote on legislation, and reducing their role to simply scrutinising bills. However, although there have been many alterations to the House of Lords since 1997, the proposals to overhaul it in 2012 were eventually scrapped, as they were too unpopular to get through the House of Commons, showing how difficult it is to actually reform the chamber.


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Hereditary Peers in the House of Lords, Put Simply

Hereditary peers in the House of Lords are undoubtedly a part of British history, with forms of the practice dating back to 1014 AD, and the most recognisable form dating back at least 700 years. However, debate has again flared as to how fair it is to have unelected representatives in the House of Lords.

The last substantial debate took place in 1999, and resulted in the introduction of the House of Lords Act 1999; which expelled 555 of the House’s 647 peers, leaving just 92 remaining. There was serious backlash, however, from supporters of hereditary peerage. Most notably, The Earl of Burford (the eldest son of the Duke of St. Albans), who stood upon the Woolsack during a reading of the bill, and exclaimed, "This bill, drafted in Brussels, is treason. What we are witnessing is the abolition of Britain.” Indeed, European influence is one argument made by opponents of the action, however, there are others. Chief among these are, predictability, historical preservation, and the age old concept of ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’, which was best introduced into the British political consciousness by Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, with his famous dictum - “why not leave it alone?”. So let’s break down the arguments -

1. Predictability - Predictability is one of the key arguments surrounding the retention of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. The argument primarily revolves around the certitude that often exists as to exactly who will succeed a peer, and often, what party (if any) they will represent. This allows for a smooth transition, and reduces the shock to proposed legislative change. The argument also states that many of the peers have raised their heirs with the philosophy of public service, and many are groomed from birth to perform well in the House.

2. Historical Preservation - Many supporters of hereditary peers in the House of Lords state that it is an integral part of the history of British politics, and governance, which should not be lost. Proponents of this argument assert that Britain is loved globally for its quirky, and historic charm; hereditary peers forming just part of this. Not only does this preserve what Britain has developed into a global brand, but in ensures a political, and historical continuity, avoiding complex, and expensive issues in the future.

3. “Why Not Leave It Alone?” - Made famous by Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, his political dictum “why not leave it alone”, questions change for no good reason. Opponents of further reform state that the time and money involved in implementing this change exists for no practical reason. The supporters of this argument point to the stable, and effective nature of the current system, and assert that change, and the lengthy and expensive process involved, who not produce tangible benefits.

There is another side of the argument, however, with opponents of hereditary peers just as vocal and passionate. These individuals propose that hereditary peers represent the antipode of meritocracy, reinforce the class system, and reduce the expertise of the House of Lords. Let’s break these arguments down -

1. A Meritocratic Society - This is one of the most important arguments put forth by opponents of hereditary peers. They state that Britain should be a meritocracy (a society in which people have power based on merit not background), this has become particularly prominent with the recent statement made by Theresa May that she will create a “truly meritocratic Britain”. This meritocratic society, argue the supporters of this proposition, cannot be created with parliamentary voting privileges continuing to be based on family background. The proponents of this, point to nations such as Australia, and the United States, as examples of the success of meritocracy.

2. The Class System - Closely tied to the meritocratic argument, the proposition that hereditary peers reinforce the class system is also a notable feature of anti-hereditary peer campaigns. This argument puts forth the idea that whilst the importance of people is still judged on their family background, class wars will continue, with some campaigners suggesting that it perpetuates upper class supremacy.

3. Reduction in Expertise - The reduction in the expertise of the House of Lords is a less eminent argument but still one that is not uncommon. This theory states that the majority (all but 92) peers are chosen based on their ability to provide unique, and informed perspectives on issues, and are often experts in their fields, eg. business, science, law etc. However, with the existence of 92 hereditary peers, it reduced the expertise of the House, as the hereditary peers (either present or future) may not have useful insight into issues presented.

There is clearly passion, and conviction on both sides of this debate, and there is no doubt that both unofficial, and official questioning of the practice will continue.

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