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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

A New House of Lords:
Representative of the Best Intellect and
Character of the Nation (S635: 1907)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay printed in the 1 February 1907 issue of Fortnightly Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S635.htm

    [[p. 205]] Recent experience must have convinced most thinking people that the present House of Lords cannot be endured much longer. The powers which it claims and is able to exercise neutralise the self-government we are supposed to possess by subjecting the legislative body to the prejudices of an effete aristocracy. Its pretensions to override the will of the people are at once so degrading and so irrational that they cannot be any longer admitted. Its continued existence renders much-needed reforms impossible, while others, which are permitted to become law, are often so weakened or crippled as to be comparatively worthless. It is difficult to point to any good thing that it has done or any useful purpose that it fulfils, and the question now is whether we shall so limit its powers as to reduce its bad influence to a minimum; abolish it altogether; or replace it by a truly representative body of such a character as to be worthy of the highest position in the legislature of a civilised people.

    During the last quarter of a century many suggestions have been made to improve it, such as the expulsion of the bishops, the limitation of the peers' veto to a single session, or the creation in future of life-peerages only, any or all of which changes, it was thought, would remove the most glaring defects of the present house. But--perhaps fortunately for us--nothing of the kind has been done; for if, after a severe struggle and through fear of something worse happening to them, the Lords had consented to such a change in their constitution and powers, it would almost certainly have conferred upon them a new lease of life, while still leaving them much power to thwart or delay the realisation of the people's will.

    It must be noted, however, that the Lords themselves have never admitted that they needed, or would submit to, any reform, and there is much reason to think that at any former period they would have resisted all aggression on their constitutional powers with almost as much energy (and probably with as much success) as they would resist complete extinction.

    But to-day circumstances are propitious for a much more fundamental change. Not only has public opinion become vividly conscious of the anachronism, the inconvenience, and even the [[p. 206]] absurdity of allowing an hereditary chamber to retain a power which the Sovereign has long ceased to exercise, but at the very time when a Government wholly adverse to their pretensions is supported in the House of Commons by almost the largest majority on record, they have chosen to reject Bills on Education and on Plural Voting, to legislate on which the House of Commons had a special mandate from the constituencies. By these acts they may be said to have filled the cup of their iniquities to overflowing, and thereby have excited such a feeling of resentment in the country as will probably lead, not to any mere reform of the present House of Lords, but to the creation of a new Upper House which shall be in harmony with advanced opinion, and which shall be a help instead of a hindrance to those great social reforms so distinctly called for by the intellect and the morality of the nation.

    It is true that many thinkers are opposed to any "Second Chamber" as being altogether unnecessary, but I believe it will be found that they form a rather small minority in the present House of Commons, and also in the country. The fact that in all our self-governing Colonies and in almost every civilised country the legislature consists of two chambers must be held to have some weight, though it is by no means conclusive, since it may be said that each has only followed the prevailing rule. In our own case I believe that there are weighty arguments in its favour, some of which will be stated in the latter part of this article, while one of the most general may be here briefly referred to.

    Our House of Commons now consists (and is likely to consist for a good while to come) largely of the representatives of wealth, of the landed interest, of manufacture and commerce, and of what are termed the learned professions, all of which are influenced by class interests more or less directly antagonistic to those of the great majority of the population. Hence probably the result that much of our legislative efforts, apparently conceived in the public interest, are so often ineffective or altogether inoperative, and are so rarely based on political science or social morality. Questions of expediency and of the various supposed interests of these influential classes largely determine the details of much of our legislation.

    What we require, therefore, in an Upper House of Parliament is, a clearer moral atmosphere and a loftier general character--a body which shall largely consist of men of the best intellect and the widest political and administrative experience--men who would be guided by principle rather than by expediency, and who would disdain to allow private interests or class [[p. 207]] prejudices to influence them in deciding those great questions which affect the welfare of the whole community. A House of this character would be of inestimable value as a non-party, advisory, and truly legislative body. It would be able to condense and simplify Bills which had been so mangled in the House of Commons by party conflict that they have become unintelligible or self-contradictory, as is now so frequently the case with complex Acts of Parliament, while it would be the proper body to deal primarily with the more difficult problems of our civilisation, as well as with those which involve Colonial or Imperial interests.

    To fulfil these important functions it is of course essential that the new House should be substantially in harmony with the House of Commons, and at the same time be in sympathy with the aspirations of its best men of all parties. It must therefore be an elected body, but so chosen as to render it more stable in character, and altogether on a higher plane than any assembly is likely to be that depends upon the direct suffrages of the whole body of parliamentary voters. How such an Upper House may be most surely obtained without departing from the democratic principle of election by the people I will now endeavour to point out.

    In order to render possible the choice of the very best men to constitute our Upper House we must employ whatever selective agencies are available, always premising that these must be neither personal nor of a class or party character. Of such agencies there seem to be three to which no such objection applies--two of them serving as qualifications for the candidates, and the third that of the constituency. In the first place, in order to secure extensive knowledge, wide experience, and deliberate judgment, and also to afford a sufficiently extended life-history to enable the electors to form an accurate estimate of character and qualifications, I suggest that the age of all candidates shall be over forty-five years.

    In the second place, in order to limit the possible candidates to men characterised by some mental or moral attributes which have secured the recognition of their fellows in various ways, I suggest a qualification based mainly on the fact of a person having been already chosen to fill offices or to perform duties which imply some superiority in education, ability, or character. This qualification must be a broad and comprehensive one, including every class and every school of thought, and so elastic that it may be easily made to include every individual recognised by his fellows as being of exceptional merit either morally or intellectually, in any and every department of human thought and action. The following list may be enlarged, if desired, [[p. 208]] always keeping to the rule of some appreciation implying intellectual or moral superiority. The only large class not specially provided for is that of great writers in various departments of literature. These might perhaps be included by the simple method of publishing every year a list of the literary men over forty-five years of age who are willing to be candidates for the Upper House, leaving the electors to choose any they consider to be worthy. It is probable that the number thus offering themselves would not be excessive. I therefore add this category provisionally.


1. Peers of the United Kingdom, Baronets, and Knights.
2. Ex-members of the House of Commons.
3. Members of the Privy Council.
4. Justices of the Peace.
5. Ex-Governors of a Colony or Dependency.
6. Ex-members of a Colonial Legislature.
7. Ex-members of the Diplomatic Services, Consuls-General, &c.
8. Ex-mayors of Boroughs.
9. Ex-chairmen of County or District Councils.
10. Fellows of the Royal Society.
11. Presidents of Chartered, Literary, or Scientific Societies.
12. Great writers, who offer themselves as candidates?

    Of course, the above twelve categories include a number of quite commonplace men who would never think of being candidates, and if they did would never be chosen for a position of such responsibility and dignity. But, on the other hand, they comprise a large proportion of the eminent men of the kingdom, and may be so extended as to include nearly all, or at least all who would consent to be candidates. It may perhaps be considered that the last of the series would include so many mere writers as to swamp all the rest, but I do not think so. The second- and third-class men would not offer themselves, as that would imply that they considered themselves to be "great," and the claim would cover them with ridicule. The practical result would, I think, be that none would claim to be candidates under this qualification unless publicly asked to do so by a large body of admirers who guaranteed them a respectable place in the poll of a particular county. It would thus do exactly what is required--open the way for men who are quite worthy of being elected, but who are not otherwise qualified.

    It is to be hoped that when honorary titles of all kinds serve as a qualification for members of the Upper House of the legislature, they will cease to be given as mere personal favours or as rewards for purely party services, but will be reserved more [[p. 209]] exclusively for men of high intellectual and moral qualities such as are implied by the term "noble-man." For the same reason the semi-barbarous and altogether irrational practice of giving titles that are to be indefinitely hereditary should altogether cease.

    The duties of members of the Upper House would be such as to call for continuous attention and study. It would therefore be imperative that they should not be actively engaged in any business or profession, or in the management of any public company. They must be men who could and would devote their whole time and abilities to the service of their country. To enable them to do this in every case, a liberal, but not excessive, annual payment should be made to them.


    As this assembly should exist for the purpose of furthering the development and well-being of the whole nation, quite irrespective of those local, class, or party interests which members of the House of Commons are too often called upon to advocate, the power of electing it should devolve upon the various divisions of the three kingdoms, as a matter of duty to their country. The members chosen should be considered to represent the whole of the kingdom, not the particular district or body of voters that chose them. Each such district should feel it an honour to take part in the formation of the highest chamber of the legislature, and an especial honour if the members of their choice performed their duties in such a manner as to earn any special distinction.

    In order that these ideas and principles should be carried into effect, it would be advisable that the elections should be based on a different principle from those of the House of Commons--a principle that should free them as much as possible from the taint of class-interest or of party politics; and this I believe may be best effected by making the elections secondary instead of primary--that is, by forming a limited constituency of a higher character, whose duty it shall be to elect the members of the Upper House.

    We fortunately possess in our counties a series of autonomous subdivisions in every way suited to choose the members required, while the whole of the various councils or corporations, whose duty it is to carry out the local government of these counties, constitute a large body of elected persons, thoroughly fitted to perform the duty of actually electing them. We will briefly consider each of these points.

    The counties into which our territory is divided are all of [[p. 210]] them of considerable, and many of them of very great, antiquity. Each of them has an individuality--some almost a nationality--of its own, often with a well-marked history, and with peculiarities of race, of customs, and of dialect which give to each a distinctive character. A great many of them can lay claim to a special county history, usually a dignified folio or quarto volume of some antiquity, while in more recent times they often possess distinct works dealing with the flora, the birds, or the general natural history of the county. There is also a healthy rivalry between them in the establishment of field-clubs, museums, public parks, and other local amenities, but especially in the various sports and pastimes, which hold a place in local interest almost equivalent to that of the "Games" in the heroic age of Greece. There are also some indications of a dawning rivalry in more important matters, such as education and sanitation, and we may therefore confidently expect that the same healthy interest will be taken by each county in striving to obtain candidates and elect members of the Upper House whose distinguished character and services to the whole nation may do honour to their choice.

    The counties of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, with the addition of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, and including the three "Ridings" of Yorkshire as separate counties, are 121 in number, and I propose that to each of these shall devolve the duty of selecting the two best available candidates to be members of the Upper House of Parliament. We should thus obtain a body of 242 members, which, as almost the whole would be constant workers, would probably be quite sufficient for the very important duties they would be called upon to discharge.

    Having thus made a first rough selection of those who are available as candidates, we have now to determine the body of electors on whom shall devolve the duty of choosing the actual members in each county. Here again we find a body of individuals well suited to the purpose in the various parish, district, borough, and county councils combined. They are all democratically selected bodies, which are especially suited to the purpose in view because their members have all been chosen for an analogous, though quite distinct, purpose--that of actually carrying on the local self-government of the country. They are thus free from any of those sinister influences (by means of Caucuses or other party organisations) which inevitably rise when a body of electors is to be chosen for the one purpose of electing representatives, as in the election of the Presidents of the United States.

    [[p. 211]] Other advantages of this elective body are, that they comprise all classes of society, from the highest to the lowest; that they are drawn fairly and uniformly from every part of the country; and, more especially, because they have been chosen, for the most part, by those amongst whom they live, and to whom therefore their characters and previous conduct are thoroughly known. It is, I think, certain that by no other mode of choosing the elective body would it be possible to secure one that would be so truly representative of the various good qualities that characterise us as a nation.

    If it is said that many of the members of these various councils are quite commonplace and uneducated men, it may be replied that they are at all events above the average, and in most cases very much above the average, in their respective classes. The large majority of them are certainly men of good character, of fair education, and with some special qualities--such as business-capacity, experience of life, or general knowledge, which raises them above their fellows. Even the smaller Parish Councils consist mostly of the best men among the workers with some of superior education, and are often as well able as those of a higher class to form a sound judgment as to the real character and high qualities of our more eminent public men. We have in the present House of Commons a striking proof of the fact that comparatively ignorant and (socially) low-class constituencies can fully appreciate, and do actually choose as their representatives, the best men that are available. The Labour Members are generally admitted to be not only among the finest examples of their class, but to be fully equal, in ability and in power of expression and of reasoning, to the representatives of any of the higher-class constituencies.

    A great incidental advantage of limiting the elective body to persons who have themselves been elected as representatives of the people for purposes of local government is, that it obviates the necessity for any inquiry whatever into qualification, and furnishes the list of voters for each county by simply combining those of the separate "councils" of that county. The actual election of members of the Upper House then becomes a matter of the greatest simplicity, and can be carried out in the office of the Clerk to the County Council (or other qualified official) through the post-office, as has been already suggested in my article on "Personal Suffrage" in The Fortnightly Review of January last, without any excitement, canvassing, or political demonstrations.


    In order to enhance the character and dignity of the Upper House, and to render it independent of the vicissitudes and rapid changes of party government, it seems advisable that it should be of a more permanent character than the House of Commons; yet it should be subject to continuous change of material, so as to keep it fully up to the standard of the most advanced knowledge and opinion on political, social, and moral questions. This would, perhaps, be best effected by fixing the period of service of each member at fifteen years, one-third of the whole number retiring every five years; and being eligible for re-election. But as this would be pre-eminently an assembly of workers of the highest class, and exercising the most important legislative functions, regular attendance to their duties should be compulsory, and any serious deficiency in this respect should entail the necessity of resignation.

    As, however, the first-elected house would be chosen under such novel conditions, it would perhaps happen that, owing to the absence of adequate knowledge by the electors of the characters and life-records of the various candidates from whom their choice was to be made, the best men would not be chosen. It would therefore be advisable that the first house should be elected for only five years, in order to avoid the possibility of giving to a number of inferior men a fifteen years' lease of power and influence. During this five years of probation the various bodies of electors would carefully watch the conduct and characters of the members they had chosen, while the careers of other men of eminence would be also studied as possible candidates at the next election. We should thus probably ensure a better choice being made on the second occasion, so that the new house would be of a higher quality than the first, after which it would be kept up to its standard of ability and efficiency by the change of one-third of its members every five years.

    One other point of some importance may be here touched upon. To secure the satisfactory working of the system of two legislative chambers, it is essential that there should never be too great a divergence of opinions or ideals between them, while maintaining the full independence of both. It might, therefore, be advisable, at every change of ministry, for a limited number of members to be appointed by the Crown (on the advice of the Prime Minister) from persons having the necessary qualification, such members to retire whenever the ministry which appointed them ceased to hold office. The number of such nominated [[p. 213]] members should be small, perhaps ten or twelve, but their presence in the Upper House might be of great value when opinion on some important and pressing question was nearly equally divided. Their number, being so small, would hardly affect the elective character of the house.

    With regard to the name of the new house, and the official rank of its members, it would probably be thought advisable to retain for it the time-honoured designation of "House of Lords," and also, if only to avoid invidious distinctions of rank, to confer upon all the members the honorary title of "Lord," to be retained during their lives, if desired.

    Having thus sketched out a superior branch of the Legislature that shall be in harmony with modern ideas of constitutional government, I wish to say a few words on the objection that will inevitably be made by timid reformers--that the change proposed is far too great, that it upsets our ancient constitution, and that in such an important matter we must move slowly and carefully.

    To all such objections--and they will no doubt be numerous--I reply, that this is essentially a case in which the boldest course will be at least as likely to be successful as a more timid one; that to obtain any reform worth having, a hard struggle must be made, and that it will be altogether irrational to enter upon such a struggle without being determined to obtain not only the best Upper House that is possible at the present time, but one so constituted as to be necessarily and always a true reflex of the highest intellect and morality of the nation. If it can be shown that this aim is not a worthy one, that there is danger in having too good a Government even when it is of our own free choice, or that by some other altogether different method, and one more in harmony with popular ideals, a still better Government may be obtained, then no one will be more willing than myself that such views should prevail. But against any proposal to make a reform of this nature bit by bit, or the being content with the mere diminution of an admitted evil when we can secure a positive good, I enter my most earnest protest. If the people decide, as I think they will decide, that a second legislative chamber, representing the best intelligence, the widest experience, and the highest morality of the nation, would be in every way beneficial, that it would smooth the road of progress and aid in the continuous development of a higher civilisation, it is clear that such a chamber can only be constituted on the principles of representative government, that it must be--"Broad-based upon the people's will."

    Under the title "A Representative House of Lords," I stated [[p. 214]] my views on this question twelve years ago in The Contemporary Review. I have here expanded and modified them so as to bring them into harmony with the more advanced opinions that now prevail, and I submit my matured scheme to the Liberal majority in the present Parliament, as affording, I hope, some small assistance towards the great work of establishing a Constitutional and really worthy Upper House of Parliament--one which will give to our amended Constitution the highest place among the Governments of the world.

    Most independent thinkers will, I feel sure, agree that nothing less thorough in principle and less far-reaching in results will be worth fighting for. What is termed the "British Constitution" has been slowly built up, step by step, by what were at the time quite unconstitutional means, and as the Constitution itself provides no legal mode of bringing it into harmony with the needs of a more advanced public opinion, we must follow the example of our forefathers, and not be too particular as to the method by which we effect changes demanded by the people, and which, when effected, will be ratified by them. The exact mode of procedure may be left to the knowledge and judgment of the present Government.

    A very important consequence of the great constitutional reform here advocated would be that it would render possible any future reforms in our Constitution that may be deemed necessary. Two such have been much discussed, and are perhaps almost ripe for more active measures. One is the establishment of local Parliaments for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland for all internal affairs, while retaining a modified House of Commons, perhaps consisting of about half its present numbers, which might be chosen by the counties in proportion to population, and which would be able to devote itself exclusively to legislation affecting the whole United Kingdom, in association with the new House of Lords. The other and perhaps even more important question is that of the suggested federation with our Colonies and Dependencies. This might be initiated by each Colony, &c., sending one or more representatives to the House of Lords, to assist it by their local knowledge in the decision of all great Imperial questions.

    In view of such far-reaching possibilities, it is to be earnestly desired that the Government and the whole Liberal party will be content with no half-measures, but will establish the new chamber on such broad foundations and such wise democratic principles that it shall always reflect the highest qualities of the nation, and thus be as enduring as the Nationality itself.

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