W.G. Runciman

The publisher’s launching party for David Cannadine’s Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on 22 October was the third occasion on which I had been inside that curious place since taking my seat as a hereditary member of it. The Moses Room is evidently so called because its walls depict, in tableaux more impressive for their size than their quality, the appropriate Old Testament scenes. But it gave rise, in this context, to ironic reflections about the more or less gentlemanly anti-semitism of many of the declining and falling aristocrats whose stories Cannadine tells, as well as a puzzlement that for no reason which anyone could explain to me the publishers were not allowed to offer us the customary plonk and snacklets then and there. Instead, after Asa Briggs had introduced Cannadine and Cannadine had given us an encouragingly comical puff for his book, Robert Rhodes James reminded us that Lloyd George, despite doing so much to reduce the Upper House to impotence and discredit, had ended his days as Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor, and then led us off down miles of corridors to a cellar under St Stephen’s Hall where we were finally allowed a drink.

The House of Lords is not, to be sure, the only British institution which reduces unsuspecting observers to a state of giggling incredulity. But for unblushing anachronism, it defeats even the Church of England, the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Household Cavalry and the Morris Dancers of Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh. Lord Quinton, when told that I was proposing to sign in, described it as ‘pure Gilbert and Sullivan’. Lord Annan told me that his wife calls it ‘Noel’s play-group’. Lord Adrian told me that I would find it like a prep school. And I remembered that years ago the late Lord Gage, whom Lord Briggs regards as a notably regrettable omission from Cannadine’s richly stocked cast list, said to me about it, ‘ ’strornry place, the House of Lords – I look acrawss and see Bertie Russell sittin’ next to a fella whose mother used to run the Bag o’ Nails’ (who is this, and is it true?). Nobody that I know pretends that the principle of hereditary entitlement to participate in the legislative process is anything other than indefensible, or that the failure of successive governments to push through a reform of it is anything other than astonishing. But the show goes on quite as if Max Beerbohm’s Duke of Dorset had just taken his First in Mods and was about to make the maiden speech for which he was instantly awarded the Garter.

When I joined, I discovered that Richard Adrian is quite right: it is like a prep school. There are any number of corridors down which to get lost. Nobody tells you how to find the Gents, and you’re too shy to ask. The rituals are as arcane to the newcomer as they are familiar to the old hands: I’ve actually voted once, but not until after getting into the wrong queue for doing so. Most crossbenchers choose not to sit on the actual cross-benches, but the only guidance I was given when I consulted my assigned mentor about where to place myself was not to get mixed up with the Labour peers by mistake, chuckle chuckle. In the first debate I attended, a speech was made by a bishop in full fig which I swear must have been scripted for him by Alan Bennett: as he delivered it, he actually performed the gesture of appearing to be washing his hands which I thought even the most unctuous prelates had been teased out of decades ago. The prefects, as it were, are tail-coated men who look like, and probably are, regimental sergeant-majors, and are no less alarming for being superlatively polite. On my second visit, when I had taken a gingerly seat on what I hoped was a not unsuitable cross-bench, one of them came over to me and whispered in a resonant bass: ‘Excuse me, m’lord, but I’m afraid we’re not quite sure of your exact title.’ It must be the politest version on record of ‘who the hell are you, buddy?’ but I was petrified. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear myself confessing to being under age, out of place and improperly dressed on parade.

But does the institution, despite or because of all this, serve any useful purpose? Professor Lawrence Stone, in his London Review review of Cannadine’s book, says that paradoxically ‘in this age of mass democracy and party rule, the only feeble defence of individual liberty and the public interest against the tyranny of a prime minister is that long-derided institution, the House of Lords. Some of these landed aristocrats, led by life peers, are coming in useful after all.’ Are they really? I am hard put to it to think of any landed aristocrat led by any life peer who could convincingly be cast in the role of even the feeblest village Hampden. Peers may speechify to their hearts’ content, but the party which controls the House of Commons can reverse any defeat inflicted on it in the House of Lords as it pleases. If it doesn’t, it’s nothing to do with respect for individual liberty or the public interest as their garrulous Lordships may have sought to define it. It’s simply that ministers can’t be bothered so to use up Parliamentary time. More convincing is the argument that imperfect legislation can be improved by modest amendments which the Government is prepared to adopt, and that by mustering the votes and mastering the procedures a sufficiently persevering protagonist can do something not wholly insignificant for a favoured cause. Thus, students in higher education have, I am told, much to thank the present Earl Russell for besides his distinguished contributions to 17th-century Parliamentary history; and one of my colleagues on the executive committee of the Child Poverty Action Group has described to me being reprimanded in the gallery by one of the regimental prefects when he embraced his companion in irrepressible delight at the outcome of a close vote which would, they believed, inject a little more generosity into at least a part of the social security system. To whatever minimal extent kind hearts go with coronets and broad minds with broad acres, perhaps a revising chamber, however weird the methods by which its members are selected, may not deserve to be done away with entirely and forthwith.

Cannadine’s attitude, on my reading of his book, is a little ambivalent. Most of the time, he seems to think the decline and fall both inexorable and well-deserved. He has great fun with the bungling spendthrifts who end up abroad in flight from their creditors, the appalling shits who go off to do white mischief in the Kenyan highlands, the paranoid eccentrics who embrace ridiculous or distasteful political crusades, the pompous proconsuls who deceive themselves into mistaking the trappings for the power, and the deference-hungry nonentities who clutch at any official or civic position where they can pretend to themselves that their social inferiors are grateful for their services. But he has to acknowledge, however reluctantly, that they haven’t all gone down the tubes since land ceased to be the foundation of wealth, political influence and social prestige, and that some of them have even done rather well in their chosen careers. So when any of them gets anywhere near the top of the greasy pole, he is driven to an almost frantic dismissiveness: Oliver Chandos as Colonial Secretary ‘did not fulfil his potential’, Peter Carrington at the Foreign Office ‘was far less assertive than it was common to suppose’, Willie Whitelaw was ‘unhappy and unsuccessful’ at the Home Office and thereafter ‘elevated to decorative impotence’, Alec Home, whose prime ministership was a ‘fluke’, was at best ‘a decent stopgap’ and at worst ‘the unacceptable face of an outdated aristocratic style’, and Winston Churchill himself, ‘although undoubtedly an aristocrat’, was poor, half-American and by the Thirties ‘almost a parody of the alienated and irrelevant diehard’. Yet if Cannadine’s view is right, it becomes all the more astonishing that anything is left of them at all after a change in the mode of the distribution of power which historians of all schools can agree to have been inevitable in a capitalist-industrial and bourgeois-democratic age. Perhaps what is remarkable is not that the glass is three-quarters empty but that it is still a quarter full. How on earth can it be that enough of this irrelevant and functionless residue of an antiquated social system should still be left for academics to sneer at, militants to hate, nostalgics to romanticise and tabloids to exploit? ‘Disintegration’ is the word which Cannadine uses in his Epilogue. But on his own account, the disintegration should long before now have been implosive, catastrophic and complete.

So what do I think I’m doing in joining an unelected Upper House on the basis of no damn merit, in Melbourne’s phrase, whatever? I’m not sure. When I was young, it was mainly an embarrassment that I preferred not to think about. I don’t mean that I woke up screaming, like Philip Larkin at the thought of being made Poet Laureate. It was simply that I assumed that the whole silly business would have been abolished long before my healthy and vigorous father was gathered in by the Reaper. It is true that renunciation is now possible, thanks to Lord Stansgate aka Tony Benn. But in my case, that would merely leave me a baronet, and you can’t formally renounce that; all you can do is conceal it, like Indian villagers who, by changing their names and their districts, can sometimes manage to pass as belonging to another caste. And then people whose judgment I respect brought to bear all the arguments about disapproval of the system not being a reason not to participate in it, the self-importance implied by renunciation, the need for people not affiliated to a political party to contribute their expertise, and so forth. Just what my own expertise might consist in I’m somewhat at a loss to say, although I do have a powerful maiden speech up my sleeve about the iniquity of the British taxpayer still having to subsidise Irish light dues. But the truth of the matter, I suspect, is that although I am a shipowner by trade I am a sociologist by vocation, and I have found it impossible to resist the opportunity of participant observation in an institution so strangely constituted, so hilariously conducted, and so mysteriously durable.