They like it there

Ian Aitken

  • Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain 1884-1914 by Andrew Adonis
    Oxford, 311 pp, £35.00, May 1993, ISBN 0 19 820389 6
  • The House of Lords at Work: A Study Based on the 1988-89 Session edited by Donald Shell and David Beamish
    Oxford, 420 pp, £45.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 827762 8

Bagehot remarked of the House of Lords that anyone who had a high opinion of its contribution to the governance of Britain should go and have a look at it. He clearly believed that the mere sight of the so-called Upper House at work would cure any tendency towards excessive reverence. He had sound reasons for this judgment, since the outstanding feature of the Victorian House of Lords was, in a word, absenteeism. A mere handful of peers bothered to turn up, and they treated it more as an extra club than as a legislature, with the result that its debates were so brief as to be scarcely worthy of the name. In addition, the acoustics of the place were so bad that one member described addressing their lordships as ‘like speaking by torchlight to the corpses in a charnel house’. Reporters in the rudimentary press gallery found it so hard to hear what was going on beneath their perch that they frequently attributed even greater nonsense to the speakers than anything actually uttered, with the result that they were for a time permitted to sit in the chamber itself.

All these intriguing details, and many more of a similar nature, are squirrelled away in Andrew Adonis’s extraordinary lumber-room of a book. My first visit to the Other Place, some thirty years ago, remains a vivid memory because the conditions were so similar to those described by Adonis. After recovering from the vertigo induced by stepping out into the (still rudimentary) press gallery, my first reaction was incredulity. Spread out below me was an Alice in Wonderland assembly of ... well, corpses in a charnel house. There they all were, people who had once dominated the pages of one’s newspaper, but whom one had long since assumed to be dead. Most were pressing curious sticks like black lollipops against their ears. These turned out to be one of the few tangible reforms introduced since Bagehot’s day – hearing aids. They were not available in the press gallery, however, so I could only assume that the wispy figure making faint quacking noises from a standing position was delivering a speech. After a moment or two I realised it was Earl Attlee, alias the Blessed Clem, prime minister of Great Britain from 1945 until 1951.

Needless to say, not a word he or anyone else said that afternoon got into the next morning’s newspapers, and not just because what they said was inaudible. The simple truth, which applies just as much now as it did then, is that few newspapers care a hoot what happens in their lordships’ chamber unless their lordships are actually defeating the government of the day on an important item of its legislative programme. This remains true even though one of the big changes since Bagehot’s time is that debates in the Lords can be, and often are, extremely good. It isn’t the quality of the debates that is the turn-off: newspaper editors know when an institution’s members represent nobody but themselves.

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