Peer Pressure in London

So Britain's new ruling coalition is about to reform the House of Lords -- again.

The new British government plans to replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber of Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Wednesday.

The plan to replace the Lords -- whose membership was largely hereditary from the 15th Century until reforms introduced by Tony Blair's Labour government -- is part of a raft of proposals Clegg unveiled to overhaul British politics and "hand power back to people."

But aren't Peers people, too?

The decline of the landed aristocracy by the mid-twentieth century introduced a surprising element of economic randomness into Britain's upper house. The noble members have included a bus driver (who married his conductor), a telephone saleswoman, a bingo caller, a male model, a police constable, a municipal gardener, and a delicatessen assistant. The hazards of fortune were doing their job in pre-Blair 1993, when Kevin Helliker wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Heredity produces a more diverse bunch of legislators than sits in the democratically elected U.S. Senate. Originally a highfalutin bunch of business, military and political leaders in the British Isles, the House of Lords now boasts members in every social class and on nearly every continent.

Maybe descent from an Elizabethan courtier or a Victorian brewer is not the greatest qualification for office. But I suspect that with the backlash against educational meritocracy, many American voters would now be interested in mechanisms for injecting more chance into our own public life.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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