Lords leap ahead with eye on past; England: On Friday, the upper chamber of Parliament will be up for election for the first time.


LONDON -- Life has been swell inside the House of Lords.

There is no pay but plenty of privilege. The dining rooms are divine, the bars are plush and the hours aren't bad, either.

But at the approach of the millennium, the centuries-old debating chamber is in the midst of another historic upheaval. Hundreds of aging hereditary peers, whose ancestors include some who had their titles before Columbus discovered America, are about to lose their say.

Some lords are incensed by the changes. Others resigned. Those who actually came and worked will try to hang on, entering next week's election to gain a place in a reformed chamber.

One candidate is the 7th Earl Howe, a 48-year-old former banker with a quick wit and firm grasp of history. He comes from a family that knows about historic changes. His forebears were commanders of British forces during the American Revolution.

"They were in the early stages of the war," he says. "When the British were winning. They didn't lose the war for us."

But Lord Howe finds himself on the losing end of history. He is one of the 751 hereditary peers about to get the chop. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing through a reform to strip most of the hereditary peers of their right to sit inside the chamber their ancestors created. His government labels them too remote, too male and too Tory -- a jibe at their majority Conservative roots. Only 92 will survive the cut. Even then, they'll have to go through the indignity of election.

The date of the vote count? Friday, Nov. 5, coincidentally the 394th anniversary of the celebrated "Gunpowder Plot" by Roman Catholics to blow up Parliament with King James I inside.

Lord Howe tries to remain jovial about it all as he leads a visitor up a broad staircase, through a splendid book-lined hallway and inside a cavernous room lined with commanding royal portraits and two 45-foot-long frescoes of battles at Waterloo and Trafalgar. This is called the Royal Gallery.

"Welcome to my study," he says with a smile, taking a seat beneath a royal portrait.

In many ways, he is the personification of a modern peer, a gentleman farmer looking after a 1,600-acre spread at the family's ancestral home in Buckinghamshire.

In background, he represents the old ruling class, educated at the elite Rugby School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained a top prize for Latin verse. Courteous and curious, with a gray conservative pin-stripe suit to match his graying hair, he strives to make a good impression as a hard-working peer.

Lord Howe keeps a hand in business, representing the antiques industry.

When a visitor suggests that many Britons look at the House of Lords as the ultimate antique show, he smiles and says, "The goods are not for sale."

It was King George III who bestowed the earldom on Adm. Richard Howe. Lord Howe's most colorful ancestor may have been the 5th Earl Howe, who raced cars into his 50s. "In 1939, he gave up cars and started taking up wives," Lord Howe says. "They were even more expensive."

To hear Lord Howe tell it, the life of a peer is not a life of ease. There are party meetings to attend, issues to research, bills to vote on and debates to enlighten; peers usually gather in the chamber four days a week, mostly in the afternoons and evenings.

He has no staff, writes his letters on a laptop, prints them out, even addresses the envelopes. And he laboriously does his own research on complex issues. As an opposition Conservative Party spokesman on health and social services, he has to understand challenging issues that affect the nation's life.

"I know this sounds corny, but those who come here don't come for the money," he says. "They come out of a sense of duty and a wish to serve. This is quite precious."

The House of Lords has about 1,300 members -- the roll varies because of deaths. About half rarely show up. The hereditary peers claim their seats by birth. Life peers are appointed by the government of the day, and their titles die with them. Other lords include bishops and archbishops and so-called Law Lords, the country's top judges.

The debate in the chamber is usually as restrained and refined as most of the membership.

The House of Lords is a revising body, nonelected, yet in its way as vital to law-making in Britain as the elected and more powerful House of Commons. The lords can amend legislation, question the government and undertake investigations on a range of public policy issues through select committees. But in the end, they always have to give in to the legislative will of the elected officials.

"When the lords scrutinize legislation, it does much more thinking than the House of Commons," Lord Howe says.

"Everything is looked at, line by line. There are people here who make it their life's work to make sure a piece of legislation is perfect. That's terribly valuable. That makes a difference between good and bad law.

"When all is said and done, the House of Commons will have its way," he says. "That is as it should be. There is no gridlock."

Evidence of that lack of gridlock was seen late Tuesday night, when the hereditary peers voted most of themselves out of the place, agreeing to a reform bill drawn up by Blair's government that must be approved by the House of Commons.

There was a whiff of nostalgia in the hushed chamber as the peers sealed their fates.

"The chamber, this whole place, was packed full of lords in a way I had never seen," he says. "It was heaving. There was a feeling of anticipation so vivid, you could touch it -- the knowledge that this was the end of 900 years."

Lord Howe is among the 227 hereditary peers running for the seats. He acknowledges it's the first election of his life and says he would be "very sad" if he lost.

"If I do, I hope to take it like a man, very philosophically," he says.

Lord Howe remains adamant that the old system worked, too.

"No one has ever accused the House of Lords of being ineffective, inefficient or doing a bad job," he says.

"You can find a defense of the hereditary principle in the way the House of Lords has served the country over many centuries. You can defend it in practice. But can you in principle? There is an element of independence that can't be overlooked."

It's getting to be late in the afternoon. Time for a visit to the "Guest Room," a paneled bar that overlooks the Thames.

Holding court is 76-year-old Baron Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton -- Charles to his friends. He sips alcohol-free beer in the late afternoon. His lordship is off the sherry these days.

Since 1965, he has seen it all and done it all in the Lords, serving in the Conservative leadership, participating in great debates, making sure legislation was carefully perused and passed.

"There are jolly few peers who haven't been through the mill," says Lord Mowbray, speaking in the rich gurgle of the British upper class.

By blood and honor, he is a lord's lord, with a claim to the oldest barony in the land. His family goes back, back into the millennium, to democracy's dawn in the English-speaking world, with titles that date to 1283.

"William de Mowbray was not recognized as a lord, but he was one of the 25 barons at Magna Carta," Lord Mowbray says. "It's in the mists of antiquity."

The man's family carries a little weight around here. His mother was born in the Palace of Westminster at the turn of the century. And there are portraits in the hallways that show his grandfather on the legislative benches, and in another, his grandmother observing from a gallery.

Raised in privilege, he attended all the right schools, Ampleforth and Christ Church, Oxford.

His family's history is the history of Britain, including experiences as Roman Catholics when the pope was considered the enemy of the crown. One of his ancestors was thrown into the Tower of London on suspicion of having been involved with the Gunpowder Plot.

Lord Mowbray's life is the embodiment of a nobleman's duty to country. In his early 20s, he joined the elite Grenadier Guards in the midst of World War II, winding up in a tank Normandy during the epic break out that followed D-Day.

He did not emerge unscathed. An explosion ripped through his tank, and he lost his right eye. A black eye patch covers the war wound.

He doesn't dwell on the experience. To the Mowbrays, this is what one does for one's country.

After the war, a business career beckoned, with a string of directorships for British companies. Elevation to the House of Lords came naturally after his father died.

Lord Mowbray remains an upholder of tradition. And he's not at all thrilled by Blair's reform.

"If Mr. Blair wants to be a president, why doesn't he just stand up and dethrone the queen?" Lord Mowbray asks.

But Lord Mowbray and his peers aren't putting up too much of a fuss.

Bowing to change, he will be among those vying for one of the elected hereditary seats, running on his record of service.

"The country has to go on being governed," he says. "What we all want to see is happiness and prosperity, with law and order, and the avoidance of local wars."

But, oh, how he yearns for a return to the old times. The House of Lords, he says, wasn't broke and didn't need much fixing.

To the last, he remains a hereditary peer, proud of his family, prouder still of his contribution to Britain.

"How you're born," he says, 'is not your fault."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad