The British House of Lords has variously been described as an anachronism, ridiculous, absurd, and the best day-care centre for the elderly in London. Its members have sometimes encouraged these comments: In the 1980’s one peer stood up in a debate and said that insanity should not bar peers from taking part in the House of Lords.
The House has often been tainted with farce, with pictures of elderly lords sleeping peacefully on their benches, and speeches from certain members that defy belief: In 1974, the fourth Earl Russell stood up during a debate on aid policy for victims of crime and explained that the House of Lords was the true heir to the Soviet Union and that “naked bathing on beaches or in rivers ought to be universal”. He concluded his completely non-sequitured intervention by stating that Britain was currently governed by “spiritless papal bum-boys”.
Insanity obviously did not/does not prohibit participation in the House of Lords.
However, the House of Lords is actually far more valuable than it is often given credit for. True, it personifies British eccentricity in many of its activities, but it also contributes incalculably positive inputs to national politics and policies. Sitting on its tiered seats are former heads of MI5, the army, the police, veteran politicians and statesmen, former senior law officials and academics. The wealth of knowledge and expertise that these members bring would be impossible to corral in any other setting, and the country benefits enormously. They all earn £323 a day, a fraction of what their skills could command in the private sector, and some of them don’t even claim a penny of that stipend.
The Lords is undoubtably easy to mock. Its traditions date back to Norman times (1066 and all that). Its ceremonies feature robes that date from 1850 and feature many flunkies in tights. Its operations involve an unconscionable number of wigs, and far too many ruffles.
However, the House of Lords has a feature that most countries’ political systems don’t have, and would die for, and that’s stability combined with power. In really basic terms, the House of Lords cannot be bought in the same way the lower house can. (The fact that there are over 800 members also makes it somewhat invulnerable to outside coercion). It is a reassuring element of British politics, and its longevity points strongly to its efficacy in Britain’s public life.
Even the current attack on the House of Lords by the outgoing Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will be met with equanimity, poise and an indifferent countenance. Boris has plans to ennoble up to 30 of his chums as he leaves office. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher ennobled seven and Harold MacMillan only one. Boris has already ennobled his brother, generous donors to his party and the son of a former KGB officer, but the House of Lords will absorb these misfits, as it always has, rather like an amoeba. Perhaps being a repository of powerful lunatics and misfits is one of its more auspicious attributes since it tends to keep them off the streets and other places where they might do harm?
The fact that the House of Lords epitomizes stability, vast knowledge covering most sectors of British society and professions, as well as an ability to be immune to the influence of transitory partisan politics, makes it the envy of many other political systems that call themselves democracies: The fact that being a member of the House of Lords is a lifetime appointment also helps.
I have to say that the contrast between the House of Lords and the U.S. Senate, which is constitutionally supposed to perform approximately the same elder statesman-like function, is stark and pitiful.
Perhaps the Queen should reissue the letter she supposedly wrote many years ago, which was published, at the time, in Punch Magazine and has been replicated many times since. It was a letter to the people of the United States in which she said she was revoking their independence from Britain because they had conclusively demonstrated that they were incapable of governing themselves in an appropriate manner, and that she would be sending representatives from London to take over and show them how it should be done.
I have to say that the statistical fact that Queen Elizabeth II has been around for fully one third of the entire history of the United States perhaps gave her that right!