Thursday, 26 April 2012

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  He’s been replaced by the Lord Speaker.)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.

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