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Changing the House of Lords

The recent attempt at House of Lords’ reform and the capacity of the issue to do serious damage to the cohesion of the governing coalition invites comparisons with the past, says Jeremy Black.

In need of reform? 'Queen Anne in the House of Lords' c. 1708-14 by Peter TillemansThe Peerage Bill of 1719 aimed to transform the composition of the House of Lords to the political advantage of King George I and his supporters. It did not create or threaten to create more peers, a tactic used to ensure the passage of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and, later, the Great Reform Act of 1832. Nor was it a case of altering the power of the Lords while not transforming its composition, as with the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. As for the recent proposals, they were clearly designed to ensure that the Liberal Democrats, the governing coalition’s junior partner, had a more prominent role in the political system and, indeed, might have enabled them to introduce a system of proportional representation.

The 1719 measure was intended to preserve the ruling ministry from the threat posed by the heir to the throne, the future George II, and his leading advisers, Robert Walpole and Charles, Viscount Townshend. They were politically opposed to the prince’s father, George I, and his ministers, notably Charles, 3rd Earl of Sunderland and James, 1st Earl Stanhope.

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