The Proper Gander column from the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
The House of Lords isn’t just a holding bay for octogenarian Caucasian aristocrats before they pop their clogs. As BBC2’s documentary series Meet The Lords shows us, it’s a weirder and more interesting institution than its fuddy-duddy reputation suggests. Despite the House of Lords’ important role in the state, and therefore capitalism, we don’t usually see all that much of it on the telly. There’s an occasional glimpse on the news, when we get someone like Paddy Ashdown (now The Right Honourable The Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon) or Melvyn Bragg (aka Baron Bragg of Wigton in the County of Cumbria) standing next to those tightly upholstered red benches talking cobblers and looking older than we remember. The producers of Meet The Lords have been allowed to film the wider goings-on in the House, including the debates, corridor chats, rituals and mealtimes. However, the price of this unprecedented access is that the series isn’t going to show us anything the state doesn’t want us to see. An undercover expose with hidden cameras and smuggled-out documents would be much more revealing, but there’s as much chance of that being made as there is a new series of Eldorado.
The image that the programme wants to present is that the House of Lords is home to wily mavericks keen to hold the House of Commons in check and who are crazy enough to go out for a curry to celebrate winning a vote. The show focuses less on the doddery old traditionalists we tend to assume make up most of the Upper House and more on livelier Lords and Ladies. Baron Bird, having gone from working in the House of Lords kitchen when he was much younger to sitting in the House itself, via setting up The Big Issue magazine, is certainly more grounded and relatable than many of his peers in the Peerage. He, at least, seems sincere in wanting to use his position to help out plebs like us. Baroness King wants to give the same impression, and says that the House of Lords is vital in tidying up the ‘chaos’ which comes from the House of Commons. This includes a proposed benefits cap for adopted children, which she fights against because she has three adopted children herself. Another peer acting on self-interest is Lord Borwick, a big-shot property developer involved with amendments to planning laws which will make it easier for him to build houses. Even if they succeed with making reforms which have some small benefit to workers, it’s still part of a system structured to defend the interests of the elite. The reforms have to fit in with what’s economically viable, meaning whatever measures keep as much wealth as possible in the hands of the capitalist class. So, both the Houses of Commons and Lords share a goal, however much the programme emphasises a ‘war of wills’ between them.
The two Houses certainly differ in culture, though. The House of Lords seems much more laid-back, albeit in a starchy sort of way. Rivalries between peers of different political parties aren’t expressed with the shouty point-scoring common in the House of Commons. Instead, they’re politely discussed over dinner, with the seating arrangements deliberately random to encourage different people to meet at each sitting. The odd procedures carried on in parliament underline how it’s an archaic, bizarre institution. Clerks wearing gowns unchanged since the 18th Century pass messages wrapped in ribbon between the Houses of Lords and Commons, while phrases in Norman French are still used in official declarations when laws are passed. ‘The most ludicrous part of our constitutional set-up’, according to The Electoral Reform Society’s chief executive Katie Ghose (quoted in Morning Star, 4th – 5th March 2017) is the hereditary peer ‘by-election’. The House of Lords Act 1999 led to most hereditary peers losing an automatic right to sit in the Upper House. When one of the remaining 92 dies or retires, the others elect a replacement from a tiny pool of aristocrats with an inherited title. Ironically, these hereditary peers are the only people elected into the House of Lords, not that this represents democracy in any meaningful sense to anyone outside the bubble.
The vast majority of the 800 members of the Upper House are life peers, appointed by the Queen and named as such because they’re there for the rest of their life. So, if you’ve ever wondered where David Blunkett, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, Betty Boothroyd, Nigel Lawson, Tessa Jowell and Floella Benjamin ended up, then it’s in ‘the best day care centre for the elderly in London’, as one member calls it. Also skulking about in there is Neil Kinnock (now Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty in the County of Gwent), who at his inauguration speech presumably didn’t repeat his quote from Tribune (19th November 1976): ‘The House of Lords must go - not be reformed, not be replaced, not be reborn in some nominated life-after-death patronage paradise, just closed down, abolished, finished’. Now, he’s acquired a taste for ermine and collects his £300 expenses each day.
All the above are ‘Lords Temporal’, which sounds like something from Doctor Who. The remaining 26 are Church of England Bishops, collectively ‘Lords Spiritual’, which sounds like something from Game Of Thrones.
Meet The Lords is an interesting insight into those who, literally, lord it over us. The colourful characters and the strange rituals it focuses on, though, are really just window-dressing on a stodgy, elitist institution which props up our divided society.