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Wednesday, November 18, 1998 Published at 13:19 GMT

UK Politics

Peers against 'the people'

The Lords: Not usually a hotbed of rebellion

The unprecedented move by the Lords to defy the will of the Commons five times on a single bill is not the first time hereditary peers have sailed dangerously close to the wind risking the wrath of the elected chamber.

Tory-led peers, mostly unelected, have waged guerrilla warfare against the will of the elected government throughout this century. And like today's quarrel with Tony Blair the stiffest confrontations have been reserved for governments made up of the Tory's political opponents, both Labour and Liberal.

Another uncanny parallel with earlier confrontations is that peers rebel most forcefully when Lords reform is in the air. But when the two houses go to war, the Commons always comes out on top and usually clips the wings of the upper house for good measure.

Tony Blair's government has received a bloody nose at the hands of the Lords 39 times this session, most notably on the European Elections Bill and the Higher Education Bill.

The Lords refusal to bow to the government's plans to bring in tuition fees secured them some concessions and probably encouraged them to press the present confrontation on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill to the wire.

'People's Budget'

But the single most dramatic confrontation between the two houses took place in 1909 when a radical Liberal Chancellor, David Lloyd George, had his budget rejected by Tory hereditaries who baulked at the notion of redistributing the unearned wealth of the landed classes to fund the new fangled idea of old age pensions.

[ image: David Lloyd George: Clipped peers wings]
David Lloyd George: Clipped peers wings
Peers had over stepped the mark. Traditionally the Commons was left to have its way on money bills and as both houses refused to budge Britain's political life was thrown into total chaos.

The government stood by its "People's Budget", to the point of fighting two general elections over the issue in 1910, securing a mandate for its proposals.

As the Liberals continued to press their demands peers only backed down when the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's government threatened to smash the Tories in built majority in the Lords by creating hundreds of new Liberal peers.

The Lords had to accept defeat, or risk the complete reform of the House.

Parliament Act

In a seminal moment in the relations between the two houses the Liberals pressed their advantage and passed the Parliament Act, a measure which meant the Lords could no longer kill bills, they could only delay them. Peers also lost the right to challenge budgets.

[ image: Clement Attlee: Reduced Lords powers further]
Clement Attlee: Reduced Lords powers further
Since then the invocation of the Parliament Act - a move which Tony Blair is now at liberty to take - has often been enough to bring erring peers to their heels.

But when Tory led-peers once more defied a left-wing government in 1949 - this time led by Labour - Prime Minister Clement Attlee amended the Parliament Act, reducing the delaying power of the Lords from two years to one.

Peers seemingly learnt their lesson - for a spell at least - and fresh tussles with Labour in the 1970s were resolved when the government simply threatened to invoke the Act.

But, ironically, the only time the amended Parliament Act has ever been used in anger was under John Major's Tory government in the 1990s when it used to force through the War Crimes Bill enabling the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the UK.

Where the present conflict will end is unsure, but whether peers win or lose battle over the European elections bill, the government is sure to make its power felt when it unveils its proposals to halt once and for all the rebelliousness of hereditary peers by abolishing them entirely.

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