Searching for a solution: Lord Salisbury (1893-1972)
Legislation to bring in non-hereditary 'life peers' had been attempted several times during the 1920s and 1930s, and a Bill to allow the appointment of ten life peers a year was introduced in 1951 by the Liberal peer and former lord chancellor, Viscount Simon. However, Churchill's Conservative government was anxious to fulfil its recent election pledge to consider wider options for modernising the composition of the House.
From 1953 a Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Marquess of Salisbury, the Leader of the House of Lords, attempted to devise an acceptable scheme that would ensure new blood and expertise, and curtail the attendance of 'backwoodsmen'.
Salisbury, grandson of the late 19th century Conservative prime minister, was a staunch advocate of Lords reform, but he was anxious that the 'hereditary' element should be preserved in some shape or form. At a Cabinet meeting in November 1953, Churchill warned him of the difficulties: 'you won't get agreement on a fancy House of Lords. And you may, by trying, weaken a structure which would otherwise creak on usefully for generations'. Salisbury replied that in 10 or 20 years the older generation would have died out, leaving a 'completely effete House'.
Salisbury continued his consultations among peers, though often dogged by ill-health. A major debate on Lords reform in March 1955, prompted by the veteran Liberal politician Viscount Samuel, failed to produce any signs of consensus. In 1956, after some goading from Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Salisbury finally produced a plan for a House of 400 peers, half of whom would be hereditary, while the other half would be life peers, including women. But the basis on which these peers were to be selected, in order to make the House 'representative', remained a problem. It was also felt that a radical restructuring of the Upper House might enhance its authority too much in relation to the Commons.
For these reasons, and because the parliamentary timetable would not permit a complicated reform measure, the more favoured option was simply to appoint life peers. When Harold Macmillan succeeded Eden as Prime Minister in January 1957, he declared himself against Salisbury's more complex proposals, and a short Bill was prepared to enable the appointment of life peers including women peers.
Cartoon by Victor Weisz [Vicky], New Statesman, 15 December 1955
British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent