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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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How to Preserve the House of Lords
(S491: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the January 1894 issue of Contemporary Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S491.htm

    [[p. 114]] Mr. Labouchere has introduced a Bill into the House of Commons declaring that, after January 1, 1895, the House of Lords shall cease to exist. But it is hardly possible that such a Bill can become law, either in this Parliament or in any of its successors for the next half century, since it would require that the Peers should commit political suicide, and this they would hardly do unless an almost unanimous public opinion compelled such a course as more dignified than submitting to actual expulsion. There is, also, as Mr. Labouchere himself acknowledges, a preliminary difficulty, in the very general impression, even among Liberals, that a second chamber is necessary, combined with an extreme diversity of opinion as to how the second chamber should be constituted. It is evident, therefore, that the abolition of the House of Lords would by no means solve the problem, but would only lead to interminable discussions on the more difficult part of the question--what kind of chamber to substitute for it. The stoppage of all useful reforms by any attempt to remodel our constitution in such a revolutionary spirit would be exceedingly unpopular; and would probably involve a longer struggle and more expenditure of parliamentary energy than the effort we are now making to give Ireland permission to manage her own affairs. It may, therefore, be worth while to consider whether there is not a method by which a House of Lords may be retained in such a form as to render it a truly representative Upper Chamber, thus making it acceptable to most Liberals, and even to many Radicals; while, by preserving its ancient name and prestige, and by giving it both greater dignity and a more important part in legislation than it now possesses, the proposed reform might be upheld as truly conservative, and receive the support of the majority of the Conservative party.

    [[p. 115]] It is clear that any such fundamental reform of the British Constitution as is now advocated by advanced Liberals should proceed on the lines of evolution rather than on those of revolution. Instead of abolishing the House of Lords we must modify, reform, and elevate it; and we must do this in such a manner as, on the one hand, to bring it into general and permanent harmony with the House of Commons; while, on the other hand, it is rendered so select, so dignified, so representative of all that is best in the British Peerage, past, present, and to come, that a seat in the Upper Chamber will become a more coveted honour than the insignia of the Garter, a higher dignity than a ducal coronet. It is, I think, essential to the successful carrying out of any such great reform that it should be initiated in the House of Lords itself, and simply accepted or rejected by the House of Commons. The discussion of its principles and methods should take place in the country at large, rather than in Parliament. The peers must be well informed as to the character and amount of change that will satisfy the people and bring about that substantial harmony between the two branches of the Legislature that is essential to good government; and it is with the hope of contributing towards the peaceful settlement of this great question that I now propose to set forth what appear to me to be the main principles on which such an important reform should be founded.

    The two great anomalies of the present House of Lords are, first, its hereditary character; and, secondly, the presence in it of the bishops of the Church of England, who thus have a voice, and often a very important influence, in making or rejecting laws which affect the whole population. Both hereditary and ecclesiastical legislators are now felt to be wholly out of place in the parliament of a people which claims to possess both political and religious freedom. They have, during the last half century, been tolerated rather from the difficulty of getting rid of them than from any belief in the value of their services; and it has long been seen, by all but the most bigoted Conservatives, that something must soon be done to bring the Upper House into harmony with modern ideals. In these concluding years of the nineteenth century our hereditary House of Lords is an anachronism. It may be said that our hereditary Sovereign is also an anachronism; but there is this great difference--that the peers systematically use their power to prevent or delay popular legislation, which the sovereign, at the present day, never attempts to do.

    It is clear, then, that any real and effective reform of the House of Lords must, in the first place, abolish the hereditary right to legislate, and must also exclude the bishops, as such, from any share in law-making. This, of course, does not affect the hereditary succession to the peerage, which may continue, at all events, for the present; but would be most advisable to discontinue the creation of new [[p. 116]] hereditary peerages. Instead of these, life-peers should be created, but always as a mode of indicating distinguished merit, whether exhibited by services to the country at large, by philanthropic labours, or by exceptional achievements in the fields of science, art, or literature. The object of creating these life-peers should be, to raise the character and dignity of the peerage, and thus to afford material for the selection of a new House of Lords, which should be worthy of its historic fame and be in every way fitted to take a leading part in legislating for a free and civilised people.

    Although all Liberals, and many Conservatives, will agree that the mere fact of succession to a peerage does not afford any sufficient guarantee of the possession of those qualities which should characterise the legislator, yet most of them will admit that the peerage as a whole does afford some good material from which to choose legislators, and this material may be indefinitely increased, both in quantity and quality, by the creation of life-peerages as above suggested. A peer is, at all events, an English gentleman. Many peers belong to families whose names are household words in our history, and these may well be supposed to have the real interests of their country at heart, and to be influenced more or less profoundly by the good old aristocratic maxim, Noblesse oblige. Most of them have had the best education our universities can afford, and have added thereto that wider education derived from foreign travel and from association with men of eminence at home and abroad. They have the means and the leisure to make themselves personally acquainted with the results of various forms of government, and especially with those of our Colonies, where free institutions are working out the solution of many political and social problems; and if the duty of legislation was conferred upon them, not as an accident of birth but by the free choice of their countrymen, and as an indication of popular confidence in their integrity and their special acquirements, they would probably devote themselves with ardour to the work. We know already that they do not lack either intellectual power or the special faculties of statesmen, and we could ill spare men of such attainments as the Marquises of Ripon and Salisbury, the Duke of Argyll or the Earl of Rosebery, from the great council of the nation. Let us, then, briefly consider on what principles the new House of Lords should be constituted, what should be the qualification of its members, and how they should be chosen.

    The first point to be considered is--what should be the constitution of the new House of Lords. And here it seems to me to be important that this House should be distinguished from the House of Commons, not only by the preliminary qualification of its members as peers, but by representing local areas considered as separate units, and therefore without regard to the population of the areas; just as [[p. 117]] the Senate of the United States represents the component States of the Union as units, each State returning two senators, irrespective of population. In our counties or shires we possess a series of such areas which in many respects correspond to these component States. Each of them has a very ancient individuality; many of them were British, Celtic, or Saxon kingdoms; and most of them preserve to this day distinctive peculiarities of speech or of customs. And the feeling of county unity or clanship survives, as seen in the friendly rivalry of county cricket and football clubs and of the volunteer forces; while birth or residence in the same county often constitutes a bond of sympathy between strangers who meet abroad. And this individuality of our counties is likely to be increased rather than diminished by the further extension of local self-government, offering fields for social experiment and for healthy rivalry in all matters involving the interests and well-being of their populations. It must always be remembered that our counties are not modern arbitrary divisions, but extremely ancient territories, often differing greatly in physical features, and, to a corresponding degree, in the character, interests, and occupations of their inhabitants. There is, therefore, ample reason for treating them as equal units, and giving to each an equality in choosing members of the Upper House.

    The counties of the United Kingdom, reckoning the three ridings of Yorkshire as separate counties, are almost exactly a hundred in number; and, giving to each two representative peers, we should have a house of about two hundred members--amply sufficient for all purposes of legislation, but almost too large to be chosen from the limited number of existing peers, who are a little over six hundred. This difficulty, however, might be easily obviated by making all knights and baronets of the United Kingdom eligible for election to the House of Lords, those elected to be thereupon created life-barons, thus preserving the titular character of the House, while offering a more ample field for the selection of men of real eminence.

    Provision might also be made for the admission of two representatives of each of our self-governing Colonies, those chosen also receiving titular honours. The presence of such Colonial lords would be of immense advantage, both as initiating a legislative union of the Empire, and in bringing to bear Colonial experience on our home legislation. There would probably be less objection to Colonial representation in the Lords than in the Commons; and when the time comes (if it ever comes) for a complete federation of the British Empire, the process would be greatly facilitated by this preliminary step towards a closer union. This, however, is not essential to the constitution of a new Upper House, although it presents advantages which should ensure for the proposal a full and careful consideration.

    The next point to be considered is the preliminary qualification [[p. 118]] for membership, and, on this point, I hold very strong opinions. It has always seemed to me that the adoption of the minimum legal age which qualifies a person to hold property and to occupy the simplest public offices, as sufficient also to qualify for choosing the national representatives or for being chosen as a legislator, is a very great political blunder. With us, most men of twenty-one have only just finished, and many have not yet finished, their education, whether intellectual or industrial; while few persons at that age have given any serious thought to politics, have made any study of the duties and rights of citizens, or have had any real experience to guide them in forming an independent judgment on the various political and social questions of the day. In this respect, most savage and barbarous nations set us a good example: with them, it is the elders who rule; and the very name of chief is often synonymous with "old man." The most suitable age to be fixed as that of political maturity should certainly not be below thirty, while I myself consider forty to be preferable.

    But in the case of members of the Upper House, who are to represent the mature wisdom and experience of the nation, there can, I think, be no doubt that forty should be the minimum qualifying age. Some such limitation is especially necessary in order that the conduct, the character, and the attainments of the candidates may have become known to the electors, and this can hardly be the case at a much lower age than forty. By that time it will be seen whether a man has made any effort to qualify himself for so high a position, either by historical or legal study, or by having devoted himself to a practical enquiry into the results of the various political, economic, or social systems of other civilised communities. No one would wish to have such a House of Lords as is here suggested degraded by the presence of men who make use of the great opportunities they have inherited for mere selfish purposes, and whose highest pleasures are luxury or sport; or of such as are imbued with the prejudices and vices, rather than with the virtues and true nobility, of their ancestors. Instead of these we should seek for men who are able to show a good record of knowledge acquired or work done, and whose ability and character are known to be above the average.

    Taking, then, the actual peerage, together with all knights and baronets of the United Kingdom who shall have attained the age of forty, as constituting the body from which the new House of Lords is to be chosen, the next point to be considered is the mode of selection. We may first set aside the method of election by their fellow peers (as in the case of the present representative peers of Scotland and Ireland) as being quite inadmissible, since it would perpetuate many of the evils to obviate which reform or abolition is demanded. The election must be a popular one, and the most obvious suggestion is [[p. 119]] that the existing constituencies of each county should choose its representative peers. There are, however, many objections to this. It would, in the first place, involve much of the expense and excitement of another general election; and, secondly, it is doubtful whether the average elector would be in a position to judge of the qualities and comparative merits of the several candidates. It would, therefore, be advisable to limit the voters to a body better able to make a wise and deliberate choice, and such a body will be found in the members of the several Town and County Councils, together with those of the District and Parish Councils to be created by the Local Government Bill now before Parliament. The members of these four classes of councils will constitute in each county an electoral body which will be truly representative of the people, since it will have been chosen on the widest and most liberal franchise to which we have yet attained. It will be sufficiently numerous and independent to avoid all suspicion of cliquism or wire-pulling, and it will be sufficiently intelligent and sufficiently interested in public affairs to make a sound and wise choice of members to sit in the Upper Chamber of the Legislature. Of course, as a rule, the representative peers for each county would be chosen from among candidates owning property in the county and residing in it, since these would be best known to the voters. But as, in some few cases, none of the residents qualified to be candidates might come up to the required standard of eminence and ability, it would probably be advisable to leave the choice of the electors entirely free.

    A great advantage of such a mode of election as is here proposed would be, that it could be carried out with the minimum of trouble and expense, and without any of the publicity and excitement of an ordinary election. The clerks to the several councils would send the names and addresses of the councillors to a central office; each of them would receive by post a voting paper, which they would return in the same manner. No canvassing would be permitted, since the acts and general conduct, rather than the verbal promises, of the candidates would decide the elector's choice. Such elections would offer an excellent opportunity for a trial of the method of proportional representation advocated by John Stuart Mill, and in a modified form by Mr. Courtney and Sir John Lubbock. This system would ensure that, where the two political parties are not very unequally divided, the minority would obtain a representative. Each party in the county would, therefore, feel itself to be fairly treated, and the House of Lords would thereby acquire an amount of stability which would invest it with that character of a regulating power which an Upper House ought to possess.

    Some persons may object to each county, however small, electing the same number of representative peers, and may urge that [[p. 120]] proportionate population should be the basis of representation as in the case of the House of Commons. But this is rather to mistake the purport of the mode of election here suggested--which is, not that the elected peers should be held to represent the counties in their local interests, but as a means of selecting the best possible Upper House, by the vote of an intelligent and popularly chosen electorate spread over the whole country, and likely to be personally acquainted with the merits or defects of those local residents who are qualified to be chosen as representative peers. For this purpose, the councillors in a small or thinly populated county would be at no disadvantage; on the contrary, it is quite possible that they might make a wiser choice than those of the most densely populated counties.

    The scheme now very briefly set forth claims to be, not only a good scheme in itself, but probably the best compromise which, under existing conditions, is possible. The more thoughtful and more influential among the peerage must see that the people of the United Kingdom will not much longer submit to a body of hereditary lawgivers which not only has the power to defeat legislation earnestly desired by the majority of the voters, but which often exercises that power. They must also feel that the position of the present House of Lords is not a dignified one, while its record of service to the country will make but a sorry show in the pages of history. Almost every great reform which has been effected in this century, whether in ameliorating the severity of the criminal laws, in removing disabilities attendant on religious belief, in opening the universities to the people, or in the abolition of protective duties on the necessaries of life, has been at first strenuously opposed by the Lords, and ultimately adopted under pressure of public opinion, or for the purpose of forestalling political opponents. In very few cases, on the other hand, has the Upper Chamber initiated beneficent legislation or far-sighted policy, which has been ultimately approved by the people and accepted by the House of Commons. Yet in an Upper House which really deserved the name we should naturally look for guidance in the matter of those more important reforms which are essential to real progress, especially such as would tend to bring about a more equable distribution of the constantly increasing wealth of the nation among the masses of the people, thus diminishing and ultimately destroying that seething mass of misery and starvation which still persists among us, and which is the condemnation of our boasted civilisation. An assembly which truly answered to its title of "noble" should be above the personal interests and petty prejudices which influence those who, in various ways, are engaged in the struggle for wealth or for mere existence.

    The House of Lords, as it now exists in this last decade of the nineteenth century, is not only an anomaly but an utterly indefensible [[p. 121]] anomaly, and one wholly opposed to the spirit of the age. In the proposal now submitted to public consideration, a means is indicated of bringing it into harmony with modern ideas while preserving its historical continuity and constituting it so that it may be an aid, instead of a clog, to the wheels of progress. Will the Lords recognise the critical nature of their position, accept reform as inevitable and as the only alternative to destruction, and themselves initiate that reform? If they do so, in no hesitating or niggardly spirit, but fully recognising that a body claiming power to legislate for Englishmen must be representative, and must be elected either directly or indirectly by the people, then it is probable that even the ever-growing Radical party would willingly accept such a reform. They would be wise to do so; because they would thus obtain a legislative chamber probably as good as any that could be obtained after a lengthy and profitless struggle; and, further, because a chamber such as is here suggested is of a nature to admit of continual improvement, and would necessarily develop as the nation developed, always keeping, as it should do, in the van of advancing civilisation. When titles are given only for life, and are bestowed exclusively as recognitions of merit or of exceptional ability and integrity, there will grow up among us a true aristocracy characterised by the highest intellectual and moral qualities, while the old aristocracy of birth will be less and less esteemed, except in so far as it possesses similar characteristics. Educated public opinion will, from time to time, indicate the men who should be made eligible for election to the Upper Chamber, and no Ministry will then dare to advise the Sovereign to bestow this honour on the unworthy, or as a reward for mere political support, thus lowering the standard of those who are eligible for election by the peoples' local representatives. If, further, it was the rule that each of the great political parties should give titular honours to not more than a fixed number in each year, the balance would be kept even, and at successive elections each party would have an equal range of choice.

    There are many matters of detail which it is not necessary to discuss at present. Among these are--the term for which the Lords should be elected; whether they should change with a change of Ministry, or by a portion retiring at intervals; whether the judges, when they leave the bench, should be ex-officio members or should be eligible for election. These are matters of minor importance, which will be easily settled when the main principles of the scheme of reform are decided on. These more fundamental points may be summarised as follows: (1) The limitation of the number of members in the new House of Lords to about two hundred; (2) The extension of the range of choice to knights and baronets; (3) All titular honours in future to be granted for life and only in recognition of distinguished merit; (4) An age-qualification of about forty years; (5) [[p. 122]] Representation of counties as units, by two members of each; (6) The constituency to consist of all the members of the County, District, Town, and Parish Councils in each county.

    I now submit this scheme of reform, first, to the leaders among the existing peers, to whom it offers an honourable mode of escape from a difficult position, not by an ignominious surrender to popular demands after a long struggle which they know must terminate in defeat, but by voluntarily recognising their anomalous character as hereditary legislators in an otherwise representative government, and by themselves initiating the reconstruction of the Constitution which at no distant date is inevitable. By so doing they may preserve the continuity of the aristocratic Upper Chamber, add greatly to its dignity and power, and give to the world the too rare example of a privileged class voluntarily resigning such of its privileges as are inconsistent with modern civilisation. This I conceive to be true conservatism.

    To the Liberal and Radical parties--and I am myself an extreme Radical--I submit my scheme as one that will remove all the evils and anomalies of the present House of Lords, transforming it into a representative chamber of the very highest character, which must always be in harmony with advanced public opinion as expressed by the whole body of its freely elected local representatives. Such a House of Lords would be really capable of fulfilling what is supposed to be the special function of an Upper Chamber--that of calm and judicial consideration of such measures as were the result of sudden waves of prejudice or passion, either in the population at large or in the House of Commons. It would thus appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober, and would give expression to deliberate and permanent, rather than to hasty and temporary, public opinion. To secure a body capable of doing this--and I cannot see how it could be more effectually done than by some such method as I have here suggested--would be, in my opinion, a measure of radical, yet safe and judicious, reform.

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