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.

The lack of media attention is still the most widespread complaint among members of the House of Lords, just as it apparently was in Queen Victoria’s day. Any reporter who strays down the corridor from the yobbish end of the building must expect to be mobbed by peers who are overjoyed, poor things, to find a member of ‘the meeja’ apparently paying attention to their doings. But once the first drink has been bought and paid for in the exquisite surroundings of the peers’ guest room, it is a pound to a penny that the next subject of conversation will be the infrequency of our visits, and how rarely they lead to column inches in the papers. It is no good pointing out that even the proceedings of the elected chamber go increasingly unreported in these illiterate times, with the so-called quality papers almost as negligent as the tabloids. Many peers really do believe that their debates are now of such a high standard that they deserve better reporting than the yah-boo proceedings of the Commons.

Nor is this hunger for ‘media exposure’ (as the spin doctors would call it) entirely due to self-love on the part of individual peers. For the thing that must eventually strike all visitors to the House of Lords is the obsession of its members, whether Labour or Tory, hereditary aristocrats or proletarian life peers, with the survival of the place in some form or other. They like it there, believe passionately that it has a genuine part to play in running the country, and want everyone to know just how much better they are at the business of legislating than that brash lot down at the other end of the building. And it is certainly true that the statistics demonstrate that the Lords, an essentially amateur institution whose members are mostly well past retirement age, put in an extraordinary amount of work compared with thirty years ago, let alone one hundred and thirty. The House of Lords at Work provides impressive evidence of this over the single Parliamentary session of 1988-89: there were a mere 16 divisions (i.e. recorded votes) in the 1959-60 session, but this had soared to 189 by 1988-89. Legislation had rocketed from a thousand pages a year during the 1945 Attlee Government to 2540 pages a year in the first five years of Mrs Thatcher’s allegedly less dirigiste administration.

Then there is the number of amendments to all this legislation, many of which are dealt with in the Lords because of its much-vaunted role as a more effective ‘revising’ chamber than the more overtly partisan Commons. Their lordships passed on average between six and seven amendments per sitting day during the Heath Government. This rose to nine during the Wilson-Callaghan Government, and climbed to 16 a day under Mrs Thatcher. During the final stages of the 1988-89 session their lordships were zipping through an amendment a minute. This is undeniably high productivity – which may have been just what Mrs Thatcher intended when she put the heat on them. But it is hard to argue that legislative Stakhanovism on this scale is evidence of, or even compatible with, the work of an effective revising chamber. Moreover, Donald Shell and his co-authors point out that most of these production-line amendments were not attempts by the Lords to improve government bills but efforts by ministers to tidy up their own badly drafted legislation. Almost all the amendments carried by the noble galley slaves – nineteen out of every twenty, according to Shell – were in fact tabled by ministers.

This puts into perspective the trumpeted record of the Lords in inflicting a whole series of defeats on the Thatcher Government – a record which their lordships seem bent on maintaining under her successor (see the embarrassing defeat inflicted on Mr MacGregor’s Rail Privatisation Bill early last month). The unpalatable truth is that the House of Peers defeated the Wilson-Callaghan Government more than three hundred times in five years, and emasculated at least two of its key measures. By comparison, Mrs Thatcher suffered just 156 defeats in the course of 11 years, and did not once give way to the stroppy peers on anything of real importance to her game plan. Admittedly even a single defeat is remarkable when we recall the nature of the Thatcher regime and remember that almost half the members of her House of Lords were nominally Tory. But it is a long way short of establishing the Lords as a genuinely impartial chamber, bent on doing the right thing irrespective of party loyalties. The falsity of that idea was conclusively demonstrated last month when the Tory whips were able to bus in several tame backwoods peers in order to vote down Lady Thatcher and her Euro-sceptical allies over a referendum on Maastricht.

So why has this preposterous and indefensible place survived the advent of universal suffrage, a succession of nominally socialist governments, and even Citizen Major’s classless society? The answer which emerges loud and clear from both of these dryish but valuable academic works is quite simple: the invention of life peerages. Without Harold Macmillan’s inspired wheeze – which amounted to a back-door and strictly temporary ticket into the aristocracy – there would by now have been majority support for outright abolition of the Lords, or at the very least for its replacement by an elected second chamber with even more restricted powers. I don’t doubt that Supermac – who was, after all, notorious for his aristocratic sympathies, and certainly relished the extra armoury of patronage afforded him by doling out peerages – knew exactly what he was doing when he set out to dilute blue blood with red. And so, I believe, did the Labour Opposition, which opposed the legislation in Parliament.

The occasional defeat of a Tory government at the hands of a strong (but not too strong) Lib-Lab alliance of life peers is a price which sensible Conservatives are happy to pay for keeping the dear old place in existence. Moreover, the opportunity to participate in these elaborate games has turned most of the beneficiaries of the Life Peerages Act into slightly shamefaced supporters of its preservation. Very few opposition peers have shown much enthusiasm for the Labour Party’s latest plan to replace their existing House with an elected chamber, and even fewer of them campaigned enthusiastically for the abolitionist programme to which the Party was committed until a few years ago.

There is a difficulty here for the members of the Labour group in the Lords. It is clearly a Good Thing, both in itself and as a means of projecting their own usefulness to the Labour cause, that they should inflict as many defeats on the Conservative Government as can be engineered. But it is also a Bad Thing in the sense that too frequent success could provide a framework for Tory peers to do the same thing to a future Labour or Lib-Lab government. Such a confrontation would almost certainly goad Labour into reviving its pledge to get rid of the Lords once and for all – just as the three hundred defeats inflicted on the Wilson-Callaghan Government led directly to the 1977 Labour Conference voting for outright abolition.

As Shell implies, the main factor which has so far ensured that there has been no serious attempt at reforming (as opposed to wing-clipping) the Lords is the realisation that a Bill to achieve this would dominate Parliament to such an extent that there would be virtually no opportunity for a reforming (i.e. a Labour or Lib-Lab) government to do anything else. But the state of the economy, the state of the health service, the state of the education system, the state of manufacturing industry and similar matters are likely to be so pressing that no incoming government could possibly commit itself to such an expenditure of legislative time. In other words, reform of the Lords is a fair-weather issue which any imaginable left-of-centre government in the present climate of perpetual crisis is almost bound to put on the legislative back burner. The odds, therefore, are that their lordships will stagger on, unreformed and unabolished, for a good few years.

That isn’t necessarily good news. Shell and Beamish’s meticulous study establishes that for all its pretensions and protestations, the House of Lords isn’t really all that good at what it does – whatever that may be. In fact, Shell concludes that it is overwhelmingly the Government which benefits from its existence in its present form. Given the slapdash way in which first the Thatcher and now the Major Governments have gone about drafting their legislation, ministers badly need something like the House of Lords where they can quietly and unobtrusively put right their own gaffes and errors before they reach the statute book. Indeed, in many cases the noble workhorses enable ministers to change Bills as they go along, in response to harsh realities in the world outside. Shell describes this as ‘legislating as you go’, and remarks that ministers like having a dull but reasonably diligent revising chamber with a whiff of expertise, no boldness and very little credibility which can sort all the problems out. In Shell’s felicitous phrase, it makes the Lords ‘a kind of legislative long-stop’. This isn’t exactly an accolade which peers eager for recognition will welcome enthusiastically. On the other hand, the more subtle among them might see it as a comforting guarantee that things will probably carry on much as now, at least until they no longer have any personal interest in the matter. Life peers, after all, do not have heirs to worry about.

Meanwhile, their lordships can take pleasure in their colourful memories. By that I don’t mean the great historic moments when their vast power as the voice of the landowning class enabled them to throw out entire budgets – as they did (with disastrous results) Lloyd George’s celebrated People’s Budget in 1909. Instead, I mean that brief but joyful interlude when an unaccustomed radicalism emboldened the Lords to admit the television cameras to their chamber before the Commons plucked up enough courage to do the same. It was indeed a halcyon period, when peers with the gift of the gab were virtually assured of a moment or two on the main television news, and those without that gift could at least get on telly by bobbing about behind whoever was on camera. Just for a while, noble lords had the unfamiliar but exciting experience of being recognised in the street. Luckily for them, it didn’t last long enough to turn their heads permanently. For I suspect that in their heart of hearts they know they are a lot safer when the great British public doesn’t have any idea who they are, let alone what they’re up to.