Strange Politics: The House of Lords

Sometimes, when you look at America’s Electoral College, our complex primaries, the U.S. Senate’s filibuster and cloture rules, and other seemingly bizarre aspects of how our nation’s government is run, it makes you wonder why we have such an antiquated political system that inherits so many of its rules from centuries past. Then you look at the British political system, and you realize that we learned it from the best!

The British political system dates back to the Middle Ages, and it shows. The ridiculously elaborate State Opening of Parliament ceremonies are a perfect example of this – functionally, it is just the Queen formally opening the year’s session of the British legislature with a speech, but it involves a day’s worth of people in funny-looking uniforms marching to and fro performing centuries-old rituals. It is quite the show for tourists.

Yet it isn’t just the ceremonies associated with the British Parliament that has holdovers from long ago; its very organization is based on medieval principles. Parliament is made up of three parts: (1) The Queen, (2) the House of Commons, democratically elected by the British people to represent the general public, and (3) The House of Lords, representing the British aristocracy. Yes, even in the 21st century, the British government maintains as one of its core institutions a body that draws its legitimacy from feudalism.

The official title of this legislative body is… (*deep breath*)… The Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. (Whew!)

Yeah, I’m just going to call it “The House of Lords”.

Its members are referred to as “peers” because the British system of nobility is officially referred to as the Peerage of the Realm. No, I have no idea where that term came from; the word “peer” means “someone who is your equal” and comes from the Latin word for “equal”. This is rather odd considering that British peers are anything but equal – not only do they supposedly outrank ordinary commoners, they have a complicated rank structure in and among themselves! Dukes outrank marquesses, marquesses outrank earls, earls outrank viscounts, and viscounts outrank barons. What’s more, even within the same rank of nobility, there is an elaborate internal hierarchy, with older peerages being above newer titles, and English peers being above Scottish and Irish peers.

Still, no matter where a particular peer fits into this ranking system, those who sit in the House of Lords have an important job to do. They review bills passed by the House of Commons before those bills become law. Now, the House of Lords can’t actually block the House of Commons from passing a bill into law – only the Queen has that power, and she has never once exercised it – but the House of Lords can revise the bill, make amendments to it, and even send it back to the House of Commons with their objections and the implied message “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

Unlike the House of Commons, whose membership is fixed at 650 MPs, the House of Lords has no set limit on the number of peers in its membership. As of this writing, there are 798 peers in the House of Lords, all of whom serve for life. The meeting area for the House of Lords is much nicer than that of the Commons, and its peers sometimes wear fancy ceremonial red robes.

I’m a-lookin’ super fine!

Being a peer is a sweet gig. You get to make everybody address you by a fancy title, you get a coat of arms, and you get £300 a day from the British taxpayer to pay for whatever expenses you may incur as part of your job. In 2015, Baroness Wilcox was criticized for claiming that £300 a day for “travel expenses” even though she lived within walking distance of the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets. Oops.

So, let’s say you want to be a peer in the House of Lords. How do you get the job?

Be a bishop of the Church of England – 26 bishops of the Church of England, the official state-run religion of England whose “Supreme Governor” is none other than the Queen, get seats in the House of Lords automatically as part of their jobs. They are referred to as the “Lords Spiritual”, to distinguish them from all of the other members, who are known as “Lords Temporal”. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York get seats, as do the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester. The remaining seats are given to the bishops with the most seniority.

Because this guy looks like a politician, right?

So, how do you become a bishop of the Church of England? Officially, you are picked by the Queen, but in practice, she picks the person whose name is recommended to her by the Prime Minister, who in turn recommends the person at the top of a list of suggestions provided by a committee made up of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other high-ranking church leaders. In essence, if you aren’t an Anglican priest with many years of pious service to your name, the odds of you being picked are slim to none.

Be a hereditary peer – On the other hand, the easiest way to become a peer is to inherit the job from your parents. This is what most people think of when they think of the British aristocracy – the nobles who live in giant estates and pass their titles, lands, and coats of arms on to the next generation when they die.

There are two hereditary peers who automatically get a seat in the House of Lords when they inherit their titles: the Earl Marshall and the Lord Great Chamberlain. Ninety additional seats in the House of Lords are reserved for other hereditary peers, elected to office for life by the rest of the members of the House of Lords.

Earn a Life Peerage – The vast majority of the members of the House of Lords, however, are so-called “life peers”. As one would expect from the name, life peers get a fancy title and a coat of arms just like hereditary peers do, but can’t pass these on to their children. Life peers always are given the rank of baron, are allowed to sit in the House of Lords automatically upon their appointment, and are given their title by the Queen as some sort of reward for public service.

However, it isn’t quite that simple. There are actually two kinds of life peers, who are selected in different ways. For simplicity’s sake, I will call them “people’s peers” and “political peers”.

  • People’s peers are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, a non-partisan body that selects people on the basis of their expertise in some important field or their outstanding achievements. They include engineers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, journalists, professors, and athletes, among others.
  • Political peers, in contrast, are chosen by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. These are almost always former cabinet ministers, MPs, and political party leaders whose peerages are a reward for their political service. In practice, of course, Prime Ministers almost always pick peers from their own political party and on occasion will create peerages to pack the House of Lords with their supporters to tip the balance of power in their favor. Tony Blair picked 357 life peers, Gordon Brown 34, David Cameron 242, and Theresa May 17 (so far). Needless to say political peers make up the majority in the House of Lords, and are the most controversial. Some have been accused of functionally buying their peerages by donating large sums of money to the Prime Minister’s political party.

Of course, there are a few additional rules that apply to all of the above. To sit in the House of Lords, peers must be at least 21 years old, and a citizen of the UK, Ireland or one of the 53 countries in the Commonwealth, an international organization of former British colonies. Also, you can’t sit in the House of Lords if you are going through a bankruptcy or have been convicted of high treason.

The House of Lords is, without a doubt, one of the strangest political institutions I have ever run across. A holdover of medieval England in a modern democracy, it is a perfect showcase of how history can still shape the modern age. Though there have been numerous moves to reform it over the decades, it is just so quintessentially British that I have no doubt it will continue to play an important role in British politics for the foreseeable future.

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