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Nicholas Hancock

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Copyright  ©  2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.



This Government has called for reform of the House of Lords ever since its manifesto of 1997. Now the word reform has favourable connotations: it doesn’t just mean re-forming or changing; the idea of improvement sticks obstinately to the texture of the word.
¹The question to be answered then is what changes have made the Other Place any better in well over three thousand days.

     A detailed answer to this would be highly tedious. Here then is a nutshell: in 1999 there was the removal of all but 92 peers by the House of Lords Act and the setting up of a Royal Commission to decide on where to go from there; in 2001 the resulting white paper and the first public consultation followed; in 2003 a vote took place in both Houses on several options from 0% elected to 0% appointed leading to a 0% decision, as a result of which a Joint Committee was established, which in turn led to the creation of the Department of Constitutional Affairs and a second public consultation;
² and, out of breath now and purple in the face, I come to 2006 and new discussions along with a Cash for Peerages inquiry.

     Not even an infinitesimal movement in seven years.

     I want to ask a very different question: not how should these lords come to be in the upper chamber but simply why do they have to be lords? We could dream up some neologism of course, but why not a word that has few detractors – good old-fashioned senators?

   The answer, my friend, is not blowin’ in the wind but buried deep in our British genes. Our visceral hatred of aristocrats conceals a surprising wish to emulate them. If we had a Senate, you and I would never be eligible for the rabbit fur, scarlet and gold. Now even were we appointed to the House of Lords we’d only wear the loaned robes on three occasions: our introduction to the Chamber, state openings of parliament and coronations – but what a thrill to wear such clobber even for a few hours! Yet this modern fairy tale doesn’t end in fancy dress. Whereas most achievements result from prolonged personal effort, the one you win as a peer of the realm falls straight into your esteemed lap, complete with crest, supporters, helmet and motto together with the shield itself and all its charges and fields. Go out and design your own dinner service with its colourful coat of arms; or else the achievement can be stamped into your silver, and dinner guests can wow you on your aristocratic success.

     Royal only? No, godlike. Lord is a frequent name for the Judaeo-Christian God. We will not want the commons to worship us, but we’ll expect a margin of increased respect. And what are peers? – Not members of the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society of Esquimalt, British Columbia, but of a prestigious club with a fine red debating chamber for the empowerment and education of fellow members.

     Businessmen who think it would be a right aristocratic laugh to be a life peer reckon that few people need anything longer than a single life. Politicians, on the other hand, are not only responsible for the reform that didn’t happen; many of them may be even keener to become barons or baronesses. Let’s hypothesise a future peerage for Tony: Lord Mendax of Liehampton. His achievement will be a field azure bearing three Iraqi atomic devices gules surmounted by the rusted helmet of truth and flanked by suicidal New Labour supporters standing on a scroll that bears the motto Numquam admisit culpam.

¹The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary insists on this as a necessary aspect of the word
² Were you consulted in either of these?