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. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *