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1968 Secret History Friday, 1 January, 1999, 13:52 GMT
Wilson wanted to abolish Lords
Harold Wilson contemplated abolishing the upper chamber
Former prime minister Harold Wilson almost abolished the House of Lords altogether and even called in MI5 to prevent leaks in his battle to reform the upper chamber.

1968 Secret History
Mr Wilson had promised reform of the Lords in the Queen's speech of 1967 and was engaged in discussions with the Conservatives over a two-tier system that would see some peers retain their voting rights and others allowed only to speak.

Documents from the time which have become available at the Public Record Office, show how the prime minister was so concerned about leaks he called in MI5.

Damaging defeat

Mr Wilson also became so exasperated with what he saw as a deliberate attempt by Conservative peers to bring down his government he contemplated abolishing the Lords altogether.

The high degree of sensitivity Mr Wilson attached to the inter-party negotiations on reform was disclosed in the note of a telephone conversation with Home Secretary James Callaghan.

MI5 crest
MI5 were called in to secure against leaks
Mr Callaghan, now a peer himself, raised the question of the responsibility of the Labour leader in the Lords, Lord Shackleton, for "security" and suggested he arrange meeting with the director of MI5, Martin Furnival-Jones, to which the prime minister agreed.

In the midst of the talks, in June 1968, Mr Wilson was infuriated when the Tory peers inflicted a damaging nine-vote defeat on the government on Rhodesia.

At a secret meeting the following day of senior ministers, the prime minister was clear the aim of the Conservatives had been to try to bring down his government.

The Lords could now threaten keynote legislation "since the peers would have nothing to lose by further intransigence", the minutes noted.

No alternative

The minutes note "the government's ability to implement their policies might be so seriously challenged that they would have no alternative but to make fresh appeal to the country".

Harold Wilson: Believed peers would bring down government
Ministers began to contemplate that even more radical action than planned may be needed to deal with the upper chamber.

"If the government were satisfied that it had become necessary to seek some more radical solution than was envisaged by the inter-party discussions, abolition of the upper house might represent the only realistic course," the minutes noted.

However, the prime minister was not the only one with difficulties.

As Lord Shackleton informed the prime minister the following month, the Tory Lords leader Lord Carrington was more sympathetic to an agreement than his party's leadership.

"As you know, Lord Carrington is personally strongly in favour of co-operating with the government in the reform of the House of Lords because he is well aware that the Lords, as presently constituted, do not form a respectable second chamber or one which can play a proper part in a modern Parliament, particularly under a Labour government," he said.

In the event Mr Wilson's reform plans foundered on the opposition of an unlikely alliance of left-wing Labour MPs led by Michael Foot and Tory right-wingers marshalled by Enoch Powell.

Leviathan - UK Confidential
BBC Two Friday 1 January 6.40pm

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18 Jan 99 | UK Politics
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