Baron Norton of Louth, one of the greatest living experts on the British constitution, delivered the 2012 Magna Carta lecture in the glorious setting of the crossing of Lincoln Cathedral.
Imagine, if you will, the delicately carved screen beneath the organ but with a vivid image of a freedom fighter alongside words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was against this backdrop that Baron Norton spoke.
His subject was the role of the House of Lords where the Barons now sit in the British Parliament. He explained first the origin of the term Baron, as being those men in medieval England who held their land directly from the crown and it was the most powerful members of this elite group who demanded Magna Carta from King John. It was this group whom the King would summon to advise him. In the fullness of time, a second group emerged of the lesser Barons and Knights, whom the King would summon annually. This is the origin of two chamber government.
In 21st century Britain, the function of the House of Lords, often referred to as the second chamber, is essentially to take a second look at the work of the elected first chamber, the House of Commons. It does this by looking in much greater detail at legislation but at the same time standing back and taking a wider view of the context of legislation. In this way, as did the Barons at Runnymede, today’s Barons, to a degree, hold government in check.
An issue that is likely to emerge over the coming months is the government’s intention to reform the membership of the second chamber. Until 1958 the second chamber was populated by hereditary Barons, many of whom could trace their line back to the origins of Parliament. The change allowed for the creation of political ‘life’ peers, appointed by the Prime Minister. A further more radical changed came in 1998 when the number of hereditary Barons was drastically reduced and a third group of life appointments introduced to bring into the chamber a wider range of expertise and experience. Lord Norton saw this as perhaps the chamber’s greatest asset.
You can download the full text of Baron Norton’s lecture here