“The House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England.” Not words uttered in the endless debates to reform the upper chamber over the last two decades, but a line from an Act of Parliament to get rid of the House of Lords altogether in 1649.
At the start of that year, King Charles I was beheaded. The king had fallen out with the Commons in spectacular fashion over tax revenues in the preceding decades and lost the First and Second English Civil Wars that followed. On 17 March, the monarchy was abolished.
But there was still the small matter of the House of Lords. Although its power and size had been greatly diminished with the Bishops Exclusion Act of 1642, there were still enough royal sympathisers to be a thorn in the side of the victorious ‘Parliamentarians’. So, the upper chamber had to go.
Two days later, by Act of Parliament, the House of Lords was dissolved – but not, as it turned out, for long. The Parliamentarians argued among themselves in the years that followed, and in 1660, the future Charles II seized his chance to grab the throne.
Charles offered up a host of concessions to Parliament in his Declaration of Breda. Parliament responded by offering to forget the whole thing. The English republic had never existed and Charles had, in fact, been king all along since his father’s death.
With the return of the king came the return of the House of Lords, along with many of the powers it had enjoyed prior to the wars. And that’s how things more or less stood for the next 250 years.
Since 1911, there have been numerous attempts to reform the unelected upper chamber, with marginal degrees of success. The latest was last year’s House of Lords Reform Act that allows members of the House to resign.