Legislative chambers of sage elders are politically unfashionable, though they crop up oddly often in science-fiction films set on other planets. While in galactic fantasy (particularly American galactic fantasy), vaguely imagined senior councils of wise dudes are standard fare, for many of Britain’s proudly bland corporate types the fact their country still has one of these things for real touches a raw nerve. [pullquote]Stop Press: Experts say UK weather set to worsen following Brexit.[/pullquote]
The House of Lords has for just over a century been an embarrassment for a certain kind of self-consciously modern-minded urban Briton. It makes them cringe: the wigs, the funny robes ….lords writing to the Times signing their letters ‘Norfolk’ or ‘Kent’. While our love of dressing up for fun continues (mourners at the death of David Bowie this year missed his wild range of outfits almost as much as his music), dressing up for serious, let alone ritual, reasons rubs a lot of us up the wrong way. Foreigners are more relaxed about enjoying our culture: One 1970s Philadelphia funk band not only adorned themselves in tinsel robes and coronets, but actually named themselves ‘Parliament’. So weird costumes are fine in this era, even welcomed, as long as the spirit is mocking or ironic.
But June’s vote to leave the EU has given a strange new angle to everything, the House of Lords included. Several things stand out.
One is that many members of the upper chamber are – right now – threatening to disrupt Britain’s exit from the European Union. Notice how its members are now overwhelmingly packed with recipients of grace-and-favour peerages, of the type recently making both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn look silly. After Tony Blair’s confused attempt to reform the Lords in 1999, almost all the hereditary peers were removed, leaving around 90 as the “sand in the shoe” to promote further reform. So today’s obstruction to the democratic decision of British voters wishing to leave the EU comes not from the birthright aristos, but from the life peers. These people were gradually filling the place up for much of the 20th century between Lloyd George’s honours-for-cash scandal and Tony Blair’s honours-for-loans scandal. Since the mass eviction in 1999 of over six hundred hereditary peers, the life peers now hugely outnumber the people the chamber originally served to gather in one room.
It makes sense the life peers want to stop Britain leaving the EU. Most current Lords members are overwhelming from the class of people who got Brexit and the EU wrong. These are the same desk weasels that clutter Brussels and Strasbourg committee rooms, doing (they believe) serious & valuable work harmonising complex legislation from the different (oh such a backward, primitive word!) nations still marring the smooth uniformity of the great tariff cartel.
Furthermore, life peers and Eurocrats fulfil similar roles. Their chambers have similar functions. They’re places where people who think they’re meritocrats can take time off from proving their merit. Brussels is a bit like those first-class waiting rooms at major airports where businessmen get free brandies. Good food, seamless WiFi, smart addresses where someone who isn’t actually liked very much by the rest of us can hang out on expenses, deciding things. These people imagine themselves as councils of sage elders, even if they more resemble conventions of retired salesmen. People like Peter Mandelson or Neil Kinnock can move from struggling to get a bit of power in London surrounded by enemies – to smoothly acquiring oodles of influence in Brussels without a critic in sight.
What blessed balm for wounded egos being one of the Commissioners must be after the rough and tumble of Westminster yah-boo name-calling! After all, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (“When it gets serious, you have to lie”) had his elected political career ended by a spy scandal in Luxembourg. The European Commission is a sort of life-peer-ised House of Lords for EU-apparatchiks. In turn these apparatchiks see our Blairised upper house as an antechamber to the more glamorous EU institutions.
Realising what the life peers have become, it’s hard not to ask what the House of Lords view on Brexit would be if the 650+ evicted hereditary peers (I have trouble not calling them real peers, but I must manfully try) were still the majority. Is there really any dispute they would be supporting the Leave voters?
If for no other reason than that their tenant farmers have been telling them for decades how much ordinary Britons hate and distrust the EEC/EC/EU? Despite their lack of technocrat credentials, lots of their lordships actually appear to listen to their tenant farmers. It would of course be appallingly rude to suggest that many of Britain’s nobility understand better what upsets normal people in this country than most MPs, so let’s pass that by. Instead recall the eerie summer months of 2003 when Britain suddenly realised Tony Blair had pledged a US president our loyalty in a bizarre American war. Pledged it so firmly that an inquest into the strange death of a weapons expert was cancelled on its first day – a man who had predicted he would be found “dead in the woods” and then was. Thinking back to 2003, who can really doubt that had the pre-1999 hereditary peers still dominated the House of Lords, they would have voted to delay? At a crucial moment when a pause for reflection was exactly what was needed?
Sometimes over here in Eastern Europe I get an odd shock when engineers, programmers, managers (exactly the kinds of Brit who blush with angry shame that the UK has a House with actual Lords in it) casually list for me reasons why they think hereditary peers are good for Britain. Slavs and Magyars tell me hereditary nobles think of their future family reputations, motivating them to be less corrupt…; if Hungary/Poland/Italy/etc had “real” aristocrats, they go on, this or that two-faced elected rodent could have been stopped…; lordships by inheritance make it harder to change the constitution quickly or stupidly, their family histories giving them a long view…; the hereditary peers add some gravitas that scuzzy but snobbish elected buffoons want to live up to. The list goes on.
Is it surprising that people who spent generations under communism should be positive about one of Britain’s most sneered-at ancient institutions? Both East Bloc and Mediterranean countries understand that autocracy corrupts, but they grasp how badly wrong pure democracy can go too. They also know just restoring a token king doesn’t fix everything. They’re no longer reflexively anti-American as they had to be in Soviet days, but they’re not uncritically pro-US now either.
This means June’s vote to step away from the latest dimwit Franco-German project to unify Europe is a chance to ponder my East Bloc friends’ questions.
So …since the removal of almost all hereditary peers in 1999, has British politics become a little more corrupt? Have elected politicians cut a few more corners, now there’s no-one left in their way who’s really different from them? No longer under the jaded gaze of the centuries-old families, has the country’s constitution been changed quickly or stupidly?
Last but not least, have Britain’s elected politicians since 1999 become slightly more clownish? More unscrupulous, less dignified?
Take as long as you need to answer. No rush.
Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org