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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from London

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Friday, July 26, 2002
From the Field
Gray Jeff


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Pictures from London

Queen Elizabeth gives a speech to the House of Lords.

Photo: Max Nash/AP

A barge carrying Anti-Hunt slogans sails past the House of Commons. Photo: Russell Boyce

The worst thing about having tea with a peer is not knowing what to call her.

I'm talking about the Baroness Rawlings, who -- after a hushed consultation with some fellow foreign journalists at the table -- we called Lady Rawlings, not really sure whether that was right or not.

The setting had disarmed us of our normal egalitarian instincts. A group of reporters were invited to tea in the House of Lords dining room as part of a day-long program run by the Foreign Office to welcome new foreign journalists to London.

Eighteenth-century portraits stared down at us from the dark wood-paneled walls. Every piece of gleaming china had a Lords insignia, and men in waistcoats and white gloves asked you what kind of tea you would like, rhyming off what seemed like a dozen different varieties.

In front of me, a silver pot was overflowing with clotted cream for the scones, which were still warm. There were cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and intricately designed pastries filled with custard.

And the baroness - I want to call her Ms. Rawlings, but can't quite bring myself - certainly looked the part, with her sculpted, Thatcher-like hair and a golden, crown-motif broach that was about the size of my fist.

But despite the titles and all of the feudal trappings, being a peer is not what it used to be.

Certainly, not for the baroness, who has served as a Tory member of European Parliament and was appointed by prime minister John Major to a life peerage in 1994. She works diligently as the Conservative opposition's foreign affairs spokeswoman, and is basically a Canadian senator, but with a more imposing title.

The House of Lords has now become a grander version of the Canadian senate, thanks to Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's House of Lords Act in 1999. (Except, unlike senators, Lords remain unpaid, although they do receive tiny allowances for expenses incurred while attending sessions.)

The act stripped hereditary peers of the automatic right to sit and vote in the House of Lords, but an amendment spared 92 such nobles - for the time being - because they held important positions or were chosen by their own party to remain temporarily.

Most of the other 700 Lords are now essentially appointed by the Prime Minister, although the Opposition can put forward suggestions. That's how the decidedly anti-Labour Conrad Black became Lord Black of Crossharbour, dropping his Canadian citizenship along the way.

But Labour promised that this would be only the first phase of its plan to drag the House of Lords into the 21st - more like the 20th - century. Two years on, there are various proposals floating about, and a new committee of MPs and peers has been struck to chew them over and come up with a plan this fall.

The ideas up for grabs are certainly radical ones, especially in a country that seems to dislike change as much as Britain, where there are still serious debates about whether a grown man who might be king one day should be "allowed" to marry the woman he clearly loves.

(Speaking of resistance to change: There is a pub in Islington that still posts its prices in British currency before decimalization, when shillings and all that were discarded.)

The proposed changes to the House of Lords - which I admit, have not yet quite set public debate here on fire - also put Canada to shame for failing to do anything with its undemocratic Senate since the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord 10 years ago in 1992.

For one thing, some MPs from the Labour backbenches have called for either a wholly or a least a substantially elected chamber. The government's original plan to have only 120 elected members, with hundreds more appointed, looks sure to fall by the wayside.

Another influential parliamentary committee has called for a 60-per-cent-elected Second Chamber, and Robin Cook, the government's House Leader in the Commons, has promised that British voters will be picking peers as well as MPs in the next election, expected by 2006.

The problem is Britain has been here before.

There have been various attempts and half-starts at major reforms to the House of Lords since the 1880s. Countless reports, commissions and proposals have languished on Westminster shelves for the whole 20th century.

In the hundred years before Mr. Blair, reformers accomplished only two major changes: the Parliament Act of 1911 that weakened the Lords' powers and ensured the elected Commons had the upper hand, and the Life Peerages Act of 1958 that allowed for the appointment life peers - giving women, who were denied hereditary seats, a chance to take part.

Whether today's more radical proposals will ever come to pass is still not an easy bet. Governments are easily distracted, it seems, when it comes to the Upper House.

And seeing a late afternoon session in the impossibly ornate Lords chamber, I couldn't help but feel the weight, and inertia, of history.

Various peers in rumpled pinstripes were taking part in a rambling debate about the disestablishment of the Church of England, which remains the official state religion here. A half-dozen Anglican bishops in purple-and white robes - amazingly, they are still given seats in the Lords - looked on.

Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor or head of the government in the chamber, rose to rebut arguments against separating church and state, looking all too comfortable in his ceremonial black robes.

It would raise too many vexing constitutional questions, he said, or something to that effect. And noble lords, he added, it would take ages, and there are other priorities at the moment for the government. (One imagines he meant fixing health care and getting the trains to run on time.)

It's a wonder things here in Britain ever change at all.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.