Les Lords, passé et présent : le point de vue d’un historien et d’un pair
Author(s)Morgan, Kenneth O.
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AbstractLe plus surprenant à propos de la Chambre des lords est qu’elle existe toujours. Tant dans sa composition que dans ses pouvoirs, elle est restée une institution forte, malgré la disparition du Lord Chancelier et des Lords-juges. Les effets de l’introduction des pairs viagers à partir de 1958 se sont fait sentir après le départ de presque tous les pairs héréditaires en 1999 qui a donné à la Chambre haute un sentiment de plus grande légitimité ; depuis elle s’est fréquemment opposée au gouvernement. En tant que pair travailliste depuis 2000, j’ai pu observer cette institution à l’œuvre et constater qu’elle remplissait plusieurs fonctions importantes : contrôler le gouvernement, amender et retarder les propositions gouvernementales, intervenir dans la définition et l’examen des mesures « constitutionnelles », contribuer au débat public autour de grandes questions notamment dans le cadre de commissions, permettre la nomination de ministres non issus du parlement... Elle constitue également une tribune pour un segment significatif de l’élite culturelle et intellectuelle britannique. Depuis 1999, la réforme de la Chambre haute est un processus sinueux et les Lords, comme les pauvres, sont toujours parmi nous.
Walter Bagehot, the English political commentator, writing in 1866, thought that the House of Lords had lost its constitutional importance and was in a process of long-term decay. In fact, the untruth of his judgement soon became apparent in the later nineteenth century, both in relation to the composition of the Lords and their powers. Important ministers continued to sit there, a Prime Minister in 1902, a Foreign Secretary as late as 1982, an important Labour minister like Lord Mandelson down to the general election of May 2010. In its wider composition, there have been life peers since 1958, while nearly all hereditary peers departed in 1999. There are many more women and representatives of ethnic minorities. And in its powers, while the Lords are obviously subordinate to the elected House of Commons, they can still delay a bill for one year (as happened over the ending of hunting with dogs) and important powers of amendment and scrutiny of government bills are still actively used. Quite often, the government compromises or gives way altogether. Despite the loss of the hereditary peers, the Lord Chancellor and the law lords, the House of Lords remains an active part of the constitution. There are several striking instances now of the active role of the Lords. First, its composition is useful for a government to bring in ministers from outside parliament, and both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have recently done so. Secondly, it plays an active part in committee in considering government measures, and does so with particular effect on ‘constitutional’ issues where the Lords stake a special claim. Third, government legislation can sometimes start off in the Lords, as in the Post Office bill in 2009 and the Academies Bill this last summer. Fourth, Question Time enables the Lords, who include many distinguished scientists, lawyers, academics and intellectuals, to hold the government to account. Fifth, despite the creation of the Supreme Court, the Lords play an active legal role, notably on civil liberties issues like asylum-seekers and extradition treaties with other countries. Sixth, there are influential Lords select committees, for instance on the constitution, human rights or Europe. Seventh, the Lords are part of the party System – the main work is done by lords taking the party whips. And finally it is a forum for an intellectual and cultural elite, probably much more able than the Commons of MPs, and with its morale less tarnished than the Commons by recent financial scandals. Reform of the Lords since 1999 has been a very difficult business. There is a clear tension between trying to create a democratic, elected House of Lords, and one that preserves its detachment and independence of party. There has been no consensus on how the Lords should be reconstructed, while a thorough reform might include complex aspects such as disestablishment of the Church. The powers of the Lords, as a scrutinizing body, seem unlikely to change. Now, however, as part of the programme of constitutional reform proposed by the new Coalition, to satisfy the Liberal Democrat minority within it, there is a proposal for an all-elected second chamber to be created. Its voting System, duration and composition are not yet clear, and it is likely that any such reform will have a slow and troubled passage through parliament. Since the May general election, in fact, far from the Lords being abolished, over fifty more peers have been created, most of them Labour. If Bagehot were alive today, he would see that the constitution of his day was hardly recognizable. The Cabinet and perhaps the House of Commons are almost ‘dignified’ parts of it now. There is a powerful thrust for judicial review of the work of the legislature. And the unelected House of Lords is not only active and alive but can claim to be reasonably ‘efficient’. It will not go without a fight. Like the poor, it seems, the Lords are always with us.