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?

Because.

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.