WALTER BAGEHOT, the 19th-century scholar of Britain's unwritten constitution, once declared that ``the best cure for admiring'' the House of Lords ``is to go and see it.'' Over the years, the upper house of the ``mother of parliaments'' has been considered a citadel of aristocratic reaction, a ``Sunset Boulevard'' for politicians of pensionable age, and a constitutional rubber stamp. But despite such barbs and brickbats, the House of Lords has survived. In recent years it has even appeared to flourish. Now, suddenly, it is a focus of argument.
The stimulus for this surge of controversy about a chamber that traces its origins back to the Middle Ages was a decision by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher last month to summon an army of hereditary peers from the countryside to dig her out of a political fix. She asked them to vote down a threatened rebellion in Lords over her plan to reform the system of local taxes and replace them with a per capita, or poll, tax.
When these Tory ``back-woodsmen'' - most of whom never darken the portals of the upper chamber from one year's end until the next - arrived to do their Tory duty by voting down an amendment of the poll tax bill, Britons were reminded that the House of Lords remains an undemocratic body with a built-in right-wing majority.
Tony Benn, a radical Labour MP who renounced his family title as Lord Stansgate in the early 1960s in order to remain an active politician, used the incident to expound his view that the Lords should be abolished.
Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Benn believes, has hastened the day when the Lords must bow to the modern era and either accept drastic reform or quit the parliamentary stage altogether.
The ``other place,'' as the upper chamber is known to members of the House of Commons, used to be the dominant wing of Parliament. But its powers were greatly weakened by reform acts in the 19th century, and all but wiped out in 1911 when the elected lower house won control of financial legislation.
Page 1 of 4