- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

LONDON — The job is unpaid, but it includes a uniform of fur-trimmed robes and membership in an exclusive club.

Even in 21st-century Britain, where most barons are appointed rather than born to rule, a seat in the 900-year-old House of Lords retains its luster. Media mogul Conrad Black gave up his Canadian citizenship to get one, and now Prime Minister Tony Blair is racked by accusations that some got theirs in return for hefty loans to political parties, particularly Mr. Blair’s Labor Party.

What makes a peerage so desirable?

“It’s for life; you get to be a member of one of the most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in the world; you get to have your own coat of arms; you get to call yourself Lord whatever,” said Peter Facey of Elect the Lords Campaign, a reform pressure group. “For lots of people, that is something attractive.”

Parliament’s unelected upper chamber today is a collection of former lawmakers, lawyers and corporate leaders, tasked with ratifying legislation passed by the elected House of Commons.

Its members are mostly appointed by political parties or by an independent commission. But for centuries, it was made up of hereditary nobles, memorably described by David Lloyd George, prime minister from 1916 to 1922, as “500 men … chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.”

Supporters say the Lords, unbeholden to voters and less bound by party discipline, offers a forum for sober reflection, counterbalancing the scrappy, politics-driven Commons.

But critics say the Lords’ nonpartisan flavor has been diluted by the increase in political appointees, and its image tarnished by cash-for-honors charges.

British police are investigating accusations that all three major political parties — Labor, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats — improperly nominated financial backers for peerages.

Mr. Blair has acknowledged that his party accepted secret loans from supporters he later nominated to the Lords, but he has denied any impropriety. He says all his nominations were made on merit — but the scandal has further eroded his popularity.

Last week, police arrested and questioned Michael Levy, Mr. Blair’s Middle East envoy and chief fundraiser. Mr. Levy, 62, was released without charge. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mr. Blair’s government came to power in 1997 vowing to reform the Lords. It expelled more than 600 hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons, allowing 92 to remain while it decided how the body would be chosen in the future.

It is still deciding. It wants “a more representative, more modern” Lords but has not said whether the body should be appointed, elected or a mixture of the two.

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