Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

One of the joys of living in Britain is that you get to make fun of the House of Lords, and I’ve had at least my share of fun with that and probably used up someone else’s portion as well, but a recent (okay, not so recent; it’s taken me a while to get around to this) article in the Guardian’s weekend magazine made me wonder if the chamber may serve some genuine purpose.

But let’s go for the ridiculous first. I learned from the article that the House of Lords has a blue carpet that you can only walk on silently. If you stop and stand on it, you get told off. I’m not sure how you walk on a carpet noisily—maybe you need spurs—but you can’t do that either. The house’s senior official is called Black Rod, but his full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He comes to work in pantaloons and wears a ruffle where a twenty-first century male would wear a tie. Or—well, he probably wears street clothes until he gets to work and then changes. Absurd as the get-up is in the House of Lords, wearing it on the bus would be worse. (I’d love a photo, though. Rush hour. People hanging on the poles. Frilly tie. Pantaloons. I don’t know what kind of shoes you wear with that.)

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

When the lords vote, they line up in corridors, one for Content (adjective, not verb, with the accent on the last syllable) and one for Not Content. Their names are ruled off a list and they’re then counted off by a peer holding a drumstick (“musical, not chicken,” added the lord who described the procedure). When women first joined the Lords, they weren’t allowed to address the doorkeepers.

Why not?


In case anyone’s interested, I’m capitalizing Lords when it stands in for House of Lords but not when it applies to members of the house, unless the name’s included, in which case it becomes a title and is capped. Is that baroque or what? Normal usage is probably to capitalize it both times but it just seems too damn worshipful and, good (L)lord, I can’t do it. Besides, a lot of Brits capitalize all sorts of words that I’d leave lower case. I suspect they’re overdoing it not just according to American usage but to British as well, but it’s so widely done that it must mean something. Maybe that they’re closer to the German roots of English than Americans are. Or maybe capital letters are on sale and no one’s told me.

I should rush out and Buy and half Dozen.

But back to the Lords: The speaker sits on a woolsack (the current speaker is, apparently, short enough that her feet dangle) and the clerks are equipped with both white wigs and iPads. Is that a great combination or what?

The lords meet in a room built to seat 240 members and there are now 859. Of those, 92 are hereditary. Under Tony Blair, there was a massive cull of hereditary peers; they’re what’s left. Why them instead of some of the others? Haven’t a clue. Other peers are appointed for life and the theory is that they’re experts in one thing or another—science, history, law, medicine, chutney, building blocks—but they also include party hacks and donors, former civil servants, a cheese maker, a children’s TV presenter, a rock star or two (or seven, but who’s counting?), former MPs, 26 bishops (whose bench is the only one that has arms), and the occasional stray novelist.

Peers are nominated by political parties and can be nominated by the public as well. Good luck with that, public. If anyone wants to nominate Wild Thing, go ahead. It’ll be interesting. The governing party gets to make more appointments than the parties that aren’t governing. Are you surprised? Then the appointees have to be approved by an independent commission (exactly how independent it is I’m couldn’t say, although I could take a reckless guess or two), which can make its own nominations, and the list is then approved by the prime minister. I don’t know if he gets to do any final tinkering or not. After all that, the queen waves her magic feather over it. Of 45 appointments in August 2015, 26 belonged to the party currently in office, the Conservatives. One of them is a former MP (that’s Member of Parliament, in case you don’t speak British) who stepped down in 2010 after the public learned that he’d claimed the £2,200 he spent for cleaning his moat on his expenses.

So yes, the system’s working perfectly. They don’t seem to have appointed the guy who got caught claiming the cost of a floating duck island for his country house.

The average age is 69, but the lone Green peer is quoted as saying “You can’t die in parliament. You’re not allowed.” I’d put that down to comic overstatement, but since we’re dealing with the House of Lords it’s probably not.

When the Lords were considering a bill that many people thought would have a disastrous effect on the National Health Service (it passed, and we were right: it has), several friends and I divided up the list of lords who we thought might be swing votes and wrote to all of them. I learned from this that some of them are elderly or ill and don’t show up anymore. They’re not required to, although they’re paid only for days they show up. Last I heard it was £300 a day.

A person could live on that.

I also learned that the peers aren’t provided with a clerical staff. They answer their own mail or they don’t. Mostly they don’t, but one member, Baroness (that’s what the women are called; the men are called Lord) Someone or Other, emailed back. And I emailed her back and she wrote back again and we argued the bill endlessly and purposelessly, since it quickly became clear that neither of us was going to change the other one’s position. It was all I could do to keep from asking, “Why are you writing me? Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

Anyway, she assured me that the bill would work to the benefit of the entire universe and that the sun would shine twenty-five hours a day and Britain would bask in eternal summer. I later saw her name on a list of peers who had investments that should have barred them from voting on the bill (but didn’t), since they were conflicts of interest.

I comfort myself with the thought that when she was writing to me she wasn’t accomplishing anything else.

But. Some of the peers interviewed in the Guardian article made a good case for the Lords having a use.

“A lot of bills are not debated at all in the House of Commons,” one said. “They fall to the House of Lords.”

A lot of the MPs barely even read them.

In the Lords, a certain number of members will actually read the damn things, line by line by dreary line, instead of just voting as their party tells them to. For one thing, they have the commitment and time. For another, since they’re appointed for life they can, if they want to, be independent of their party.

Still, the Lords is an unelected body, and that’s a dangerous way to govern.

The Lords has less power than the Commons (don’t ask; it’s as complicated as the rules governing carpets), but it can in some situations slow legislation down and in others amend or kill it. Since the British system gives a hell of a lot of power to the party that holds a majority in the Commons, the Lords is the only brake the system has. The current gridlock in the U.S. has made me understand what’s wrong with the checks and balances system the U.S. Constitution created. All it takes is one party dedicated to stopping the other for everything to grind to a halt—as long as that party is large enough and ruthless enough. But the British system has made me understand what’s wrong with efficiency. The governing party has a huge amount of power, which can be equally destructive if the governing party’s ruthless enough. The Lords is the one place it may (emphasis on may) not entirely control. Unless it’s in office long enough to stuff it with donors and hacks.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as the senior official wears a frilly tie and you can’t stand still on a blue rug, at least we get to laugh about it.

67 thoughts on “Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

    • Mmm, I think we’re going to have to do some serious editing of her past to get her past that independent committee. Should I start on that and you can, um, I’m not actually sure what else is involved. Maybe you could research that.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The US does have one other unelected body. It’s called the Supreme Court. Of course, the current majority party is trying to hijack that but in theory it remains independent. And they’re better paid—approx $102/hour which works out to approximately £570/day. Plus their bailiffs don’t have to wear a white wig. On the minus side, their bailiffs don’t (as far as I know) sport ruffles or a drumstick.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that you put the Supreme Court in that context, you’re right, of course: unelected. I was always told that insulated them from political pressure, but then I’ve been told lots of things in the course of my life.

      Pass the drumsticks, please.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Still, if you compare them to what the US Senate is doing – or not doing – these days, give me a House of Lords any day, wigs and all ! Besides, their nomination process, however arcane, seems to be more efficient than nominating a new Judge to the US Supreme Court…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I did a bit of research on this when the welfare bill was going through and it was only then I realised that all the House of Lords could do was amend bills, after the third time the House of Commons would force it through regardless. So far not one of my friends has come up with a good reason as to the point of the House of Lords.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I certainly seems like odd rules and procedures, but you have to look back through time and ask when would have been a good time to update the process. I mean, the guy could be standing there in bell bottom jeans and a tie-died shirt. When the best thing you can say about your (meaning ours) political process is “at least they weren’t able to accomplish much”, it’s really pretty sad.

    I’m also glad that you added “musical, not chicken” because I was imagining the later.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is sad when “they didn’t accomplish much” is a compliment. Odd times we’re living through. About the tie-dyed shirt and bell bottoms–you know, there comes a time (and I suspect it’s when the clothes you like aren’t available anymore, even in second-hand stores) when we all need to ask ourselves whether we shouldn’t adapt our just look a bit. The same could apply to the House of Lords.

      As for me, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a piece of chicken. That probably says something disturbing about me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You have done a great job explaining the traditions and complexities of the House of Lords. I wonder where you stand on the Lords being unelected given the comparison to the US system. I have only visited the House of Lords once and it was mostly empty apart from one man reading a speech and a few very obviously slumbering old men. It did not scream effective government to me. However, witnessing the locked horns of the US system at closer quarters doesn’t scream effective government either. I wonder if any country has really got this democracy thing sussed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Before I read the article I linked to, I’d have shut the Lords down without a second’s thought if I’d had the power. Now I’d be inclined to turn to someone else and ask, “What do we do with this mess?” and hope they had an answer because I sure as hell don’t. But given the destructiveness of the current government, I do seem to see some wisdom in something–anything–that slows them down. However absurd and ineffective it is. That’s not a well-considered argument and I know it. It depends entirely on the situation of the moment, not any consideration of an ideal system. So no, I can’t see any way to support an unelected legislative body and if any country has it all figured out I don’t know where it is. I’d like to hear about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh I definitely laughed through this post. It makes for great relief from our own government, which others may see as hysterical or ironic, but which I personally find terrifying.
    But there are thoughtful moments in this post as well — For instance, Maybe I’m wasting time wishing I had more fencing, when I could ask my youngest to dig a moat. Or, I could, if my dog didn’t enjoy swimming…
    And then there’s the idea that I should buy more capital letters. When I type in less public places, I seldom touch a shift key, and may actually be in lower case Debt. Oh the horror.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always assumed that using exclusively lower case would build up savings, not put us in debt. This is seriously upsetting.

      In practical terms, I’m not sure how useful a moat is these days. The boat’s been invented. The neighbors complain if the water goes stagnant. And if you get caught adding the cost of cleaning to your expense account–. Well, it’s embarrassing. And then you end up in the House of Lords.

      Liked by 1 person

        • You’re probably right. About all of it but especially the letter banks. I’ve been trying to build up a stock of letters–capital or lower case, I’m not fussy–that I could then add to my words to impress the neighbors. I tell you, a person just can’t win these days.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Hilarious, especially since your physical description is more entertaining than the fashion worn by our US House of Congress. I’m sure I’ll continue seeing frilly ties, pantaloons, and a wigged Lord with an iPad in my minds eye for the entire day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think anyone designed it–it just sort of grew out of historical accident and the occasional misjudged intent. (Someone will surely either correct me on that or add a few actual facts. Whichever it is, I welcome it.) President Trump, though. Will you excuse me for a minute or two? I want to go shoot myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think most MPs – Lords or not – do damn all. But Britain does like its ceremonies. I do wonder how much reality it all covers up, though.
    Oh – and do we use more capitals? You’re not getting confused with those odd souls who capitalize every word Like This And Are Probably Doing It Because Someone Told Them It Looks Impressive or somesuch BS.
    What’s a synonym for ‘great post’? Oh well, whatever it is – great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have a new MP, and all he seems to do is what he’s told by his minders–which makes him sound like a toddler.

      Sigh. Let’s talk about capital letters. They’re less depressing. I do think the average British person putting letters on a page uses More of them than the Average American doing same. I have no idea why, but I’m tempted to blame the House of Saxe-Coberg-WhateverItIs, because it does strike me as very Germanic. In edited copy, that doesn’t seem to be true. So I’m guessing it’s some streak of unauthorized capitalization that’s loose in the culture.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have been so ill for the last couple of weeks that the memory or brain isn’t functioning very clearly (if at all), but this reminded me of a newsletter from my state’s (Oregon’s) representative (not the DC version. He’s Republican, I’m not. But I get a big laugh about his belly-aching over being in the minority and complaining about the stuff the Democrats are pushing through given their majority. It’s especially funny when he moans about the Dems taking advantage of rules that were put in place by the GOP when they had the majority. There’s much to be said for efficiency when you’re the one in charge, not so much when you’ve got the short end of the stick. (I bet you have a witty story for how that phrase came to be?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to hear you’ve been ill. As a get-well present, I Google the short end of the stick and the most coherent theory I found is that it’s a euphemism for the shit end of the stick. It’s just a guess, but it does seem to make sense. A stick goes from one end to the other. What makes one end shorter than the other?

      I couldn’t agree more about efficiency looking like a great idea when you’re in the majority and a disaster when you’re not. I’m not sure what the solution to that is. If the political poles in a country are far apart, efficiency leads to each one tearing up what the other one accomplished with such vigor and pride.


  10. I spend at least 50% of my professional life removing superfluous capital letters from sentences.

    the people I work with put them in for emphasis, and because they think every noun needs one (although they can’t explain why) and sometimes just because they have paused in a sentence and capitalise the word they start typing with.

    Or possibly they do it to annoy me…

    Or because they don’t care about getting it right because they have me to fix their messes…which is not technically my job. :-/

    I am more cross about this than the House of Lords at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

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