Unelected, and with an average age of 69, members of Britain’s House of Lords rarely dominate news headlines, except when the occasional scandal spurs talk of cutting numbers in what is now the world’s largest legislature outside China.
But, after inflicting its 14th defeat on the government’s legislative preparations for leaving the European Union, or Brexit, the low-key second chamber of Britain’s Parliament has put itself at the heart of a fraught debate and become something unfamiliar: a big political stage.
In vote after vote, this holdover from Britain’s aristocratic history has acted as a brake on the government’s Brexit plans, sending them back to the House of Commons where they could face uncertain, knife-edge votes.
Defenders say the House of Lords is merely fulfilling its constitutional duty by asking lawmakers to think again, and by making sure they have the details right about how, precisely, Britain will untangle itself from the European Union.
Hard-line critics, however, accuse the House of Lords of seeking to sabotage Brexit, which a majority of its members did not support in the first place. A majority in the Commons did not want Brexit either, for that matter, but the lawmakers there are beholden to their voters, and live in fear of the tabloid press.
The lords, having no constituents to answer to, are more at liberty to oppose the plans now, or at least to make sure that Brexit does not invite chaos.
All of this is significantly complicating life for the already embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, and has made the House of Lords the object of fury from Euroskeptics. On Thursday the main front-page headline of the pro-Brexit Daily Mail read: “It’s time to pull the plug on the Lords.”
The Daily Express has lamented that one Brexit critic was none other than the Duke of Wellington, a descendant of a British military hero, “the Iron Duke who helped defeat Napoleon and his French army.”
By contrast, the current, ninth, Duke of Wellington, Charles Wellesley, was siding with “France, Germany and the rest of the European Union,” wrote the Express, which accused him of seeking to “thwart the British electorate and stop Brexit,” in defiance of the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to quit the bloc.
Nowadays, most of the 781 members of the upper chamber, known as peers, are political appointees, rewarded for a career in politics or public service with a lifetime