The Sacred Sofa

E.S. Turner

  • The House of Lords: From Saxon Wargods to a Modern Senate by John Wells
    Hodder, 298 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 340 64928 3

Those who have visited the House of Lords as tourists may remember a notice entreating them not to sit on the Woolsack. Nobody at all will remember a light novel of thirty years ago in which the hero, detained in the Palace of Westminster for contempt of Parliament, was found on the Woolsack passionately entwined with his girlfriend. Reader, I wrote it. I well recall that a film producer of modest fame expressed an interest and asked me whether I thought the House of Lords would lend the chamber and the Woolsack for filming. Eager though I was to sell the film rights, I had to say I thought this unlikely. Not long afterwards the producer died suddenly and that was that.

The scarlet Woolsack, described by John Wells as ‘a sofa sacred to the law’, plays a sit-on part throughout this book. Though periodically restuffed with Commonwealth wool, it retains all the ‘ritual magic’ of medieval days. During the Gordon Riots of 1780 it was the holy refuge on which Lord Mansfield, deputising for the Lord Chancellor, at last subsided after being manhandled by the mob in ‘a sudden flare-up of the old Eurosceptic anti-Catholic mania’. There he sat, the Lord Chief Justice, spectacles broken, ‘quivering like an aspen’ according to Horace Walpole, while his fellow peers, who had been torn from their chariots and chased over roofs, arrived ‘dis-wigged’ and debris-spattered; one had been relieved of his watch and a bishop had had his lawn sleeves ripped off. There, too, I would have thought, were the makings of a good film, with a spectacular bonus in the sight, up the road in Holborn, of frenzied Eurosceptics turning into pillars of fire as they tried to drink flaming spirits flowing from the newly sacked distilleries.

John Wells’s The House of Lords is not one of those histories in which the text is infested with tiny numerals, like greenfly, and padded out with fifty pages of notes (there are no notes). Its approach, described as anecdotal, is informal to the point of perverseness, but the man is obviously happy in his work and only the costive academic will grind his teeth. We open with the mystery of how Lord Milford came to be the Lords’ only Communist peer (‘D’you know, after I’d spoken, not one of them would buy me a drink? None of them. Not anything at all’). The next chapter describes the theatre of a state opening of Parliament, featuring such kenspeckle figures as ‘Sir David Frost arriving to exchange a word with his father-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal’, and the Earl Marshal pointing out the patriotic wall paintings to his French guests and saying: ‘Vous voyez? Agincourt. Autre victoire pour nous. Victoire des Anglais contre les Français.’ Only in the next chapter does Wells think of investigating the Saxon origins of the Lords, but we do not spend too long with the witanagemot; somehow the chapter drifts into an examination of heraldic whimsy, with a mention of Harry Secombe’s motto ‘Go on’, which can be read as ‘Goon’. Wells wondered whether jokes like that irritated Garter King-at-Arms. Not at all, Garter said, ‘I happen to think that’s rather nice.’ The next chapter sees Mrs Thatcher being led into the Lords for ennoblement, with Garter commanding ‘Sit!’ at the appropriate moment (‘I was amazed. She sat’). Then, bravely, back to ancient days.

‘To try to write a comprehensive history of the Lords would be like trying to write a comprehensive history of Asia,’ pleads Wells. He describes his book as being about the conflict between the hierarchical and the egalitarian visions of society. A touch mystically, he sees this struggle in terms of the rivalry between devotees of the Shining Ladder and those who favoured the Bright Horizon. It was not in such terms that we learned history at school. The Shining Ladder was the Jacob-style ladder on which the aristocracy occupied the upper rungs under their king, with God waiting to welcome them at the top, symbolising hierarchy, subordination and the chain of command. The Bright Horizon, which had somethting in common with the Level Playing Field, was the goal of the secularists, believers in reason and ‘the industrial principle’. The terms make useful shorthand, though they become rather overworked.

Most of the flak attracted by the House of Lords is directed against the hereditary principle. Few seem to object, in these days of life peers, to seeing the House topped up with union bosses ennobled to augment their pensions, losers of by-elections, widows of workhorses, public relations men, placemen and placewomen nominated as to a quango. All the scorn is reserved for the dependants of royal mistresses, or of thugs who, as one whinger complained, merely pushed somebody off a horse; less scorn, as Wells points out, is visited on descendants of those who bought their rank from James I, or of war profiteers who wrote fat cheques to Lloyd George. Keeping faith with the hereditary principle has not always been easy. We are treated to a whole chapter about a peer who owed his seat in the Lords to being the product of a virgin birth, which might be thought the highest qualification of all. This is the story, strictly for grown-ups, of ‘the Russell baby case’, which shocked the nation into passing a law to limit the reporting of evidence in divorce cases.

As this book reminds us, Tony Blair raised a loud laugh against the Lords by summarising the vicissitudes of a latter-day noble creation. The first of the line bought his peerage from Lloyd George, the second was a Nazi sympathiser and the third ‘was a jailbird who had first attended the House of Lords to plead for a tougher line on crime’. Many would argue that a truly representative chamber needs a leavening of riffraff. Wells sees a warning for Blair in the fate of the Other House, which Cromwell formed when the House of Lords was abolished for eight years. This substitute body was

an experiment that any modern prime minister, enjoying comparable power of patronage, would be wise to study. It was not a success ... Snubbed by the hereditary peers and packed with his own supporters, Cromwell’s Other House was not taken seriously. Snobs objected to two of Cromwell’s colonels, one of whom had been a drayman and another a baker. Few people ‘scrupled to own them as lords’.

The author is, of course, no snob, though he seems to have it in for ‘cookery experts, pop stars, sportsmen and weather forecasters’. Who indeed would want to see that lot in ermine?

The book offers us several set pieces, other than the Russell baby case, which have caught the author’s fancy. The best of them is the account of Lord Brougham’s heroic speech as Lord Chancellor in 1831 in support of the Reform Bill. For this occasion he laid on for himself two bottles of port with spice and slices of lemon. He was not, we are told, entirely sober when he began, but he delivered a tremendous oration, warning his audience that slit throats and oblivion awaited them if they did not pass the Bill. Two and a half hours later, when he had finished the second bottle, and the temperature in the House was 85 degrees, he was, as one observer said, ‘almost mad’. Finally, kneeling before the House in a theatrical gesture of entreaty, he fell over blind drunk. According to a lenient account in the Dictionary of National Biography, the Lord Chancellor’s friends picked him up and laid him on the Woolsack, that divan for all purposes. The peers he had been addressing had the death wish on them and voted against the Bill. Two days later the mob sacked Nottingham Castle. Brougham, it is worth recalling, made an even longer speech in 1834, urging the House to end the abuses of poor relief by villainous layabouts, but on that occasion he was sober when he finished.

Another set piece describes the rumpus in 1909 over Lloyd George’s threat to flood the House of Lords with 500 new peers if the existing ones persisted in blocking his budget. It was this proposal that led the Duke of Beaufort to say that he ‘would like to see Winston Churchill and Lloyd George in the middle of twenty couple of dog hounds’. Lloyd George egged on the peers by saying that an aristocracy was like cheese – ‘the older it is, the higher it becomes’. The last event to get a chapter to itself is the fight by Tony Benn to escape being sent to the Lords. This was a fine feast of humbug, with Lord Elton saying a man should not run away from ‘the situation in which he had been born’. Asked to produce a witness in support of his birth certificate – perhaps to ensure that his was not a virgin birth – Benn said that’ he knew that he had been there and his mother had, but he didn’t know if anybody else was.’

In view of the concern expressed by Wells about the current neglect of Parliament by the press, it is a pity he did not remind us of the long rearguard action by the Lords to keep journalists at bay. Both Houses in the 18th century regarded their debates as the equivalent of conversation in a gentleman’s club and therefore inviolate. They were also extremely touchy about jokes at their expense. In 1798 the Lords visited their collective anger on James Perry, editor of the Morning Chronicle, who had written in sarcasm that their lordships had taken it on themselves to regulate the dresses of opera dancers. Lord Minto objected strongly to this foul insinuation and the upshot was that Perry served three months in Newgate, his penance alleviated only by lavish banquets with invited friends. Those newspapers which won the right to report Parliament often filled their meagre four-page sheets with Parliamentary news, whereas today’s newspapers, with prodigious space at their command, discharge their duties with an occasional knockabout sketch. Wells is fully qualified to be a sketch-writer, but here he is saddened by the thought of all that theatrical dignity staged unseen and unheard. ‘What was ... terrible was the silence and the emptiness of the press gallery when peers of intellect and experience were talking.’ It may all be in Hansard, but Hansard is no longer affordable. Admittedly the business of revising clauses is something to set reporters yearning for a new wave of abseiling lesbians (that invasion gets only a passing mention) or for another dies mirabilis like the one in 1979 when the Lords ‘became the first and last legislative chamber on earth to discuss Unidentified Flying Objects’. First and last? Can Wells be certain? Did UFOs never find their way into the American Congressional Record, or the annals of the more free-thinking Mississippi senates?

The Lords’ manners, as everyone knows, are always impeccable. There is a reference to the fourth Earl Russell, ‘who usually took the precaution of sending his speeches in advance to the Lords for the clerks to blue pencil the more obscene passages’, and who held their lordships ‘spellbound in the Seventies with an appeal for universal nudism on the dole’. Unaccountably, the well-read Wells fails to tell us about an occasion in 1763 when the Earl of Sandwich held the Lords spellbound with a reading of the wildly obscene ‘Essay on Woman’ filched from the private press of John Wilkes. This parody of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ had been concocted by Wilkes and the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and had never been intended for the public ear. The excuse of Sandwich (‘Jemmy Twitcher’) for his performance was that the poem had been addressed to him and was thus a breach of privilege, and also that it had mock-learned footnotes attributed to the Bishop of Gloucester, whose honour was therefore involved. A notorious rake, Sandwich reeled off the lubricities in the spirit, as someone said, of Satan rebuking sin. It was not only the bishops who blenched, but while some peers cried ‘Stop!’ others howled ‘Go on!’, and the occupant of the sacred sofa let filth have its day.

Being more than half in love with gilt and circumstance, Wells never misses a chance to set the rich architectural scene. He relishes, too, that medieval language which endows the Sovereign with the qualities of Especial Grace and Mere Motion. All of which helps to point up the human comedy to be seen on the ground – like the beefy types ‘squelching along with the flat-footed delicacy associated with the overweight’. One of these is Lord Hesketh, who looks ruefully at a picture of bearded Danes demanding Danegeld and says ‘Early Maastricht stuff, what?’ Wells is always ready to do funny voices, as in the overheard exchange, ‘Are you vill? – Tirribly vill, nauseatin’ly vill,’ or Lord Tonypandy in ‘dying evangelist’ mode: ‘The Suvve-reign-tee uv our countree is at steyake!’ You never got that sort of thing in Froude or Lecky, though it would have been fun to know what Brougham sounded like, drunk or sober.

The impression may have been given that this book is less a history than an entertainment, but it is both. Nor should it be supposed that the general portrait of the Lords is a hostile one. There is praise for the maturity and legal expertise the House gives to the often ‘impulsive response’ of the House of Commons, or as the Lord Chairman of Committees put it, ‘tidying up the messes they make at the other end of the building’. Wells is not far wrong when he says ‘if the Commons is Caesar drunk, the Lords is Caesar sober.’ As for the hereditary principle, he believes that ‘there is a sense of intertwining tradition, of experience and political attitudes passed on from one generation to the next that seems obscurely valuable.’ And to be obscurely valuable is a condition not to be mocked. Readers should remember that if they ever feel tempted to sit on the Woolsack. If they are determined to do so they should hurry, because current gossip says that the present Lord Chancellor would like to replace it with something more comfortable.