Category Archives: Aristocrats

In Parliament, there’s more talent in the Lords. Or so Lady Thatcher told me

Stop me if I’m boring you, but here is the second in my series of extracts from my book Inside House of Lords. It was published in 1998, on the eve of the last paroxysm of reform, and so in some respects has a nostalgic cast.  But I like the quotation from Lady Thatcher.

The best moment to see the Lords is at Question Time, which starts at
two thirty–five on every day that they sit.  Your first impression is
probably of the chamber itself: rich, solemn, encrusted with decoration,
dominated at one end by the blaze of gold which is the throne: on all
occasions except the State opening of Parliament, an empty seat.    Red
is the colour: it has been since the sixteenth century. 
Look a little more closely, and you will start to think that architecture is telling you something.  There are knights in the canopy above the throne,
knightly figures (in fact Magna Cart barons) along the walls between
the windows, frescoes (if you look for them) showing the Black Prince
and other chivalric heroes, all manner of heraldic devices in the
ceiling, if only distance and the bright lights necessary for the
television cameras would let you see them.   Valour is interwoven with
religion, since much of the ornament, with it angels and other carving,
might have come from a church.  A big fresco above the throne depicts
the Baptism of King Ethelbert by St Augustine.  As represented through
the decoration, this is an Upper House for saints and heroes. 
But then regard the peers, sitting on their leather benches in rows,
rather as though they were in a particularly well–appointed railway
carriage.  Unexpectedly, perhaps, every seat on the benches is taken.  In
the middle of the room, in front of the throne, reposes the rather lonely
figure of the Lord Chancellor, isolated both by his position on the
woolsack and the unusual circumstance of his wearing a long grey wig. (Remember, I wrote this before the Blair reforms outlawed the Lord Chancellor’s stockings.  In fact abolished the Lord Chancellor altogether.  He’s been replaced by the Lord Speaker.) There are three clerks, also in gowns and wigs: short wigs but of different styles, either soft and round like a powder puff or rolled into hard curls.  Around them peers who cannot fit onto the benches have lodged themselves on any available surface.  Some stand at the bar: so to speak, the altar rail that separates the holy of holies from the outside world.  Peers speak; ministers answer; most of the figures on the benches sit immobile as effigies.  But there is also a constant
current of movement, as the chief whip passes a note to one of the
clerks and a doorkeeper, immensely grand in his tail coat, white tie and
gilt chain –– far better turned out than any of the peers –– scans the
faces of those present to deliver a message.  At the end of each reply, a
handful of peers half rise to their feet, then subside again, deferring
with good–humoured, if sometimes over–elaborate, courtesy to the one¿
of their number upon whom it falls to ask the next question.  The
constant bustle suggests a station waiting room when the train is
about to move off.
Ignore all the movement, and even the questions, and run your eyes
along those robustly upholstered benches.  They present a remarkable
study in physiognomy.  The rich panelling, with its endlessly repeating
linenfold, could almost have been designed for the display of heads.
There are heads of all kinds: some familiar from political stardom and
media appearances, some unknown outside the chamber, some
intellectual, some etiolated, some fleshly, some shrunken, some
bearded with a profusion one had thought to have gone out of fashion
with the daguerreotype, some of an singularity so marked as to be
unbelievable at first sight.  The character and variety of these heads is
really one of the wonders of Britain.  They show individuality.  Often
they bear the impress of years, and are none the worse for it.  These
are not the septuagenarian baby faces that one sees, for example, in the
United States, from whose tanned surface all evidence of past
struggles has been erased; the physiognomy of Britain’s peers is, on the
whole, an essay in long experience.  Here we have what might be
described as a whole menagerie of facial types, from marmoset to
marsupial, from ox to osprey, from collie dog to camel.  There are peers
who are squirrels,  peers who are reptiles, peers who are tufted owls.
A menagerie or an aquarium: the gene pool from which they are fished
is, quite obviously, deep indeed. 
Some peers inherit their titles, some are appointed by the prime
minister of the day for life.  It is for god, rather than man, to say
whether this assembly possesses wisdom, but it certainly forms a
repository of specialist knowledge.  ‘There is more expertise per
square foot here than in any forum in the world,’ says the rabbinical
scholar Lord Jakobovits.  He finds that he must put more effort into
preparing a speech for the Lords than for a learned society.  Lady
Thatcher, who never seemed to have much time for the Lords when she
was Prime Minister, now says there is ‘better talent here, particularly
in the sciences, than in the House of Commons’.  The talent takes
various kinds, balancing knowledge of world of politics and men with
expertise in science, foreign affairs, agriculture, the arts, justice and
religion, which can in turn be broken down into a thousand specialisms
from pesticides to fine art auctioneering.
More on the wide-ranging expertise of the hereditary peers in my blog for the Daily Mail.  I see that Oxfam in Wallingford are offering a good deal on a second hand copy of the book if you’re interested.

The Corinthian capital of polished society….and of the British Parliament

‘Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order.  It is the Corinthian
capital of polished society.’
                           Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.  

In 1998, when the House of Lords was on the eve of its last reform — the one that threw out most of the hereditary peers — I wrote a book about it.  Inside the House of Lords was the title, and it was magnificiently illustrated by one of the peers, although one who did not attend very much: Derry Moore, whose other name is Earl of Drogheda.  It was a sumptuous production, but now out of print.  Now, Lords reform has limped back onto the agenda.  After blogging about it yesterday for the Daily Mail, I thought I might see if I could find the electronic text.  Yes, and by a miracle of digital memory, I did.  Over the next few days I’m going to resurrent salient passages in case anyone thinks they’re worth revisiting.  

The House of Lords is, almost literally, an incredible institution.  You
can hardly believe it.  Nobody would have invented it, in its present
form.  Nobody have done so: no single brain, even that of a
constitutional genius or comic opera librettist, could have devised the
peculiar means of selection, the character of those attending, the
rigmarole to which grown men happily (usually it is happily) submit
themselves, the anomalies, the curiosity of the traditions or the
panoply of the architecture (it took both Charles Barry and A.W.N.Pugin
to do that).  Nor, in an age of democracy, can very  much of it be
defended, except by one cogent argument –– the most cogent of all.
Most people, certainly if they are peers, seem to think that it works.
Governments wishing to reform Britain’s upper house are apt to find it
a tough bird to chew.    
The Lords have influence, but remarkably little power: that lies in the
Commons.  But they are the senior house.  Their history is longer;
constitutionally, the Commons look up to them just as they look up to
the monarch.  Their chamber, not that of the Commons, is, strictly
speaking, the Parliament, for it is only there that the three estates of
the realm –– Monarch, Lords and Commons –– assemble together (albeit,
these days, only at the State opening of Parliament).  This hierarchy is
expressed in the architecture.  The Palace of Westminster is still
exactly that: a royal palace.  The most ornate, most gilded, parts are
those associated with the Queen.  Decoratively, the climax of the whole
work is the Queen’s throne in the Lords chamber.  Naturally, since the
monarch has not been persona grata in the Commons since the Civil
War, these areas of pageantry occur only on the Lords side of the
building.  And the whole of the Lords, being the upper house, is more
sumptuous than the Commons.  There is more carving, more colour and
more gold.  The architecture implies that, to its nineteenth century
creators, the Commons might just as well have been peopled with
tradesmen as Members of Parliament.  It is the Lords that forms, as the
Illustrated London News ineffably put it on April 17, 1847, ‘the most
elaborate specimen –– the artistical nucleus, as it were, of the superb
and stupendous whole.’
In the twentieth century these differences have been exaggerated by
the Blitz –– a time still remembered by the ninety–year–old Lady
Hylton-Foster (until two years ago the convenor of the unaffiliated
cross–bench peers in the House of Lords), whose nightly job it then
was, as a red cross nurse whose father happened to be the Speaker of
the House of Commons, to patrol the dozen or so first aid posts around
the blackened corridors of the Palace with the aid of nothing but a
pencil torch.  (‘One night I got lost,’ she remembers.  ‘I sat down on
something and found it was the Woolsack.)  Bombing destroyed Barry
and Pugin’s Commons chamber, blew out most of Pugin’s glass from the
palace, but did little damage to the Lords.  When the Commons was
rebuilt after the War, its decoration was simplified, while that in the
Lords, however, survived with every crocket and trefoil of its original
splendour.