November 22, 2007
As we watch Gordon Brown prepare to follow Tony Blair’s path into the sands of Levantine catastrophe, I am led to reflect on Blair’s lasting legacy for Britain. To be sure, there is much rich material to choose from. Memories of his early years in office flood the mind—his demented smile, for instance, which never failed to remind one of a chipmunk caught in the headlights. Who can forget Tony’s Millennium high-jinx, and his boogying to the Rolling Stones at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee? (His generation were not supposed to age, and it is VERY sad to watch). Blair came in promising to change Britain, and that he has done, if the decline in civility and the rise in crime are measurements. While gutting the military, he gleefully increased the nation’s commitments abroad, to include the war in Iraq.
But perhaps the most important wind of change visited by the ever-imaginative Tony upon his hapless subjects was the final gutting of the House of Lords. While this may seem an obscure internal event to those of us who live outside the UK, it is actually a development worth pondering for the lessons it teaches us about reality and illusion in public life—lessons which are applicable anywhere in the Western World, not least in the United States. Having removed the majority of the hereditary peers from the House in 1999 (save for 90 “representatives” and two Officers of State), he proceeded to appoint more life peers—“Tony’s cronies”—for which service some of his minions accepted money for the PM’s campaign coffers. Blair went one step further—or at any rate tried—in proposing to introduce an elected element into the Upper House. His plan called for the removal of the remaining hereditary Lords, and formation of a new chamber, half appointed in his “special” way, and the other half elected. To his enormous chagrin, on March 8 an overwhelming majority of the Commons voted for an entirely elected House of Lords. To understand the real significance of all of this, we must start by looking at an essential ceremony of Parliamentary life, which sees gathered together the constituent members of the British legislature, Queen, Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons: the Opening of Parliament.
There can be few more inspiring spectacles in British public life than the State Opening of Parliament. It begins with a glittering procession down the Royal Route from Buckingham Palace to the House of Parliament (legally, Her Majesty’s Palace of Westminster). As troops line the street, a detachment of one hundred red-coated and bearskin-hatted foot guards marches in the front of the parade. Following them is a coach, in which the Imperial State Crown and the Sword of State are carried, accompanied by six mounted guards in shining breastplates and plumed helmets; as these regalia pass, the street liner present arms in tribute to the ultimate symbols of British Sovereignty. Then comes the Queen herself in the Irish State Coach, with another band of horse guards. All along the route, Her Majesty is saluted and bands play.
Upon arrival at the Sovereign’s Entrance at the House of Lords, the Queen alights and the Royal Standard replaces the Union Jack atop Parliament’s Victoria Tower. It will remain there so long as she is present in the building. Received by the Earl Marshal of England and the Lord Great Chamberlain in their splendid court dress, the Sovereign is then conducted by them up the Royal Staircase to the Robing Chamber, where she will put on the Crown. Her Majesty then enters the House of Lords, and sits upon the Throne. Prince Philip sits to her left, and other members of the Royal Family take benches close by.
At this point, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, the messenger and chief security officer of the Lords, proceeds to the lower chamber to summon Her Majesty’s “faithful Commons.” He knocks upon the door of the other place three times, only to have it unceremoniously opened and shut in his face. This commemorates the unsuccessful attempt of King Charles I to personally arrest revolutionary members of the Commons in 1641. Since then, no member of the Royal Court has been suffered to enter the Commons without that body’s permission. This ritual insult accomplished, the Black Rod enters and delivers his summons: “Mr Speaker, The Queen commands this Honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” The speaker and some representative M.P.s then leisurely make their way to the Lords, where they stand in the rear. The Queen then reads “the Most Gracious Speech from the Throne,” in which she sets forth the legislation “My Government” intends to place before Parliament. Her Majesty then invokes God’s blessings upon the legislature’s doings, and departs the way she arrived, glittering procession and all.
Back in the Commons, the M.P.s, after introducing and tabling a pro forma bill—solely to symbolically demonstrate their independence of the Crown—witness one of their number proposing the “Address-in-Reply.” This is a most inspiring document, indeed. One of the members rises to say, “I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows: ‘Most Gracious Sovereign, We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.’”
The whole affair is a truly beautiful and moving sight—so much so that it echoes across the Crown Commonwealth, through Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to Barbados and the Solomon Islands, with Her Majesty’s various Viceroys taking her place. Even in the United States, the “State of the Union” message and its attendant ritual is vaguely based upon the British prototype. So is much of our civic ritual, from the mace in the House of Representatives, to the fireworks transferred from the King’s Birthday to the Fourth of July, to patriotic songs—My Country ‘Tis of Thee is a parody of God Save the King, as Columbia the Gem of the Ocean is of Britannia the Pride of the Ocean. Indeed, our whole panoply of State and local official, governors, mayors, coroners, sheriffs and so on are derived from British sources.
But as is true of so much of the realm of British governmental pageantry, the reality is almost the opposite of the appearance. Since that unfortunate day we mentioned in 1641, the Royal prerogative has shifted into the hands of those able to command a majority in the House of Commons—themselves supposedly answerable to an ever-expanding electorate; at one time, the lower house itself was thereby automatically a check upon the government of the day. But bit by bit, to no small degree as a result of the example shown by the American “Imperial Presidency,” successive Prime Ministers have become, practically speaking, ever less responsible to Parliament.
This process has become almost complete since Tony Blair became the tenant-in-chief at 10 Downing Street in 1997. Since that time, intent on both transforming his allegedly museum piece of a nation into “Cool Britannia” (a phrase little heard of now, but common in the PM’s first years, and reflecting the roots of himself and his minions in the 1960s), integrating Britain into the EU, and “democratizing” the country’s allegedly class-ridden system, Blair has stuffed an enormous amount of extremely unpopular legislation down the throats of an unwilling but supine people. Were one to catalogue all of these changes in their historical roots, Blair’s actions, and their actual and probable effects, a long volume would result. The bans on hunting and smoking (eerily imitating Hitler’s diktats in these areas) are perhaps most often referred to; his legalizing of gay sex in public restrooms is not. Ironically, less unnatural acts remain forbidden from the loo, since it is still illegal for one sex to enter the other’s lavatory.
But the most lasting action of Blair the modernizer was the so-called “reform” of the House of Lords, a stated goal of his since the 1997 campaign. When Blair and Labour assumed the reins, the Lords were already a shadow of their former selves. Originally a body descending from the Medieval Monarch’s chosen abbots, barons, and bishops, who would advise, assist, (or resist, ala Magna Carta) their Sovereign, the Lords have undergone many changes in their history. Most obvious, of course, was the 16th century change of religion, with its concomitant removal from the House of 30 abbots and replacement of independent-minded Catholic bishops with more Tudor-friendly Anglican ones. During the Civil War, the Lords split; the rump who sided with the Commons against the King were themselves abolished by Cromwell after Charles I’s judicial murder in 1649. Every moment of British history has had its mark on the Upper House—the Acts of Union with Scotland and Ireland, for example, saw 16 Scots and 32 Irish representative peers added to the House.
The 19th century saw the rapid decline of the Lords’ prerogatives, as the landholding aristocrats’ power withered in the face of the growing industrial elite and the formation of the modern political and media classes. The Lords ceased to initiate legislation, although throughout the 19th century their power to reject bills remained equal with the Commons; as the price for this, the convention grew up of their never derailing budget bills, though they retained the right to do so. Except for a few “Law Lords” chosen for life (they exercised the Upper House’s right to act as a sort of Supreme Court), the dawn of the 20th century saw an almost entirely hereditary body of noblemen (albeit the larger proportion of these inheritable titles were actually created in the 19th century) who fielded an unchanging Conservative minority. This became a crisis in 1909, when a Liberal majority took over in the Commons, committed to passing a Home Rule for Ireland Bill (anathema to the Tory peers).
Not only did the Lords reject successive Home Rule Bills; to teach Prime Minister Herbert Asquith a lesson, they rejected his 1910 budget. He called for new elections, and won. The stage was now set for a showdown, as Asquith resolved to pin the Lords’ ears back. The one way to force the Lords to back down was to threaten to create enough new Peers to swamp them—something Edward VII refused to do (since, then as now, the creation of peerages was formally in the Monarch’s gift, though for long years it had been done on advice of the PM). But as the crisis dragged on, the King died. His successor, the young and inexperienced George V, agreed to pack the Lords should they refuse to pass a bill “reforming” their House. Despite the resistance of such die-hards as George Wyndham in the Commons (actually one of the most visionary statesmen Britain has ever produced) and Lord Halsbury in the Upper House, the Parliament Act of 1911 was passed.
This measure removed money bills from the Lords’ purview entirely, and allowed them only to delay legislation for two years, after which time it would become law despite their Lordships’ objections. Successive legislation in 1949 and 1963 reduced their delaying ability to a year, and virtually ended the creation of hereditary nobility—henceforth, the government would create life peerages. These were noble titles to be sure, but they could not be inherited. The Bishops remained members (thus continuing lip-service to the once-Christian identity of the State), but by 1997, the Lords were a shadow of their ancestors. Despite this century of change, the ceremony of the State Opening remained virtually unchanged, symbolizing continuity in the midst of upheaval.
Even with their enfeeblement, however, there was much to be said for the Lords. For one thing, the accident of birth created Peers who were far more diverse than the members of the Lower House. The hereditary peers brought women, blacks, communists and young people into parliament before the Commons did. Moreover, unlike the M.P.s, who have the same level of general ignorance to be expected in elected politicians everywhere, the Lords, being possessed of a wide variety of interests, produced specialists in virtually every field. The bringing to bear of their expertise to fine-tune the practical flaws of legislation reduced the damage done by innumerable poorly-thought-out bills—thus alleviating their impact on the great British public.
But all of this was secondary to an even more important fact, recognized—at least instinctually—by most voters: namely, that the political classes, despite being elected by majorities, do not really represent the people. The fact is that most elected politicians (save some back-benchers) are like artists and athletes: they do things that we, the ruled, cannot do—run the machinery of governance. Moreover, as the first two named groups will often sacrifice anything or anyone, people, loyalties, or beliefs, to the pursuit of their art or sport, so too with politicians. Their drive to power, like the drives that push artists and athletes, is entirely alien to normal people. So too are their interests: where most citizens are concerned with things like an eroding quality of life, rising gasoline prices, increasing crime and incivility, unemployment, pot-holed roads and a decaying infrastructure and the like, their elected betters are far more interested in banning smoking and spanking, stamping out hate speech, redefining marriage, and ensuring that as many girls die in battle as boys. Regardless of what polls and referenda may show to be public opinion, things shall be as the rulers decide. If the votes turn out incorrectly, they can be repeated over and over until the populace cough up the right response, as with divorce in Ireland (and doubtless a republic in Australia, once Labour returns to power there), or simply voided by judicial fiat, as we do in California. Then again, a plebiscite made invalid by low turnout may be validated willy-nilly by Parliament, as happened with the bill legalizing abortion this spring in Portugal. And, of course, we all know what effect popular disdain for Brussels bureaucracy and the expansion of the Euro on the Continent has on their political class. Of course, one of Mr. Blair’s more totalitarian actions was simple abolition of the Lord Chancellor (one Britain’s oldest offices, once held by such as Ss. Thomas a Becket and More) by fiat. Needless to say, Blair’s refusal to turn the proposed EU constitution over to the people to vote on was in keeping with his manner of dealing with things.
In a word, the dominant politicians are not like the people and they do not represent them. Who, then, do they represent? The folk who count—men like Rupert Murdoch. The Chevalier Murdoch (made a Papal Knight of St. Gregory by Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles) is certainly prototypical of today’s “New, Unhappy Lords.” A media magnate, he can be conservative, if you need him to be (he is the owner of Fox); liberal (he financed both the Australian republican movement and Tony Blair—the PM is going to work for him after retirement); or even an aesthete: Murdoch was a major funder of Los Angeles’ abysmal new cathedral. The good knight has his finger in every pot. But he is not some evil Dr. No figure plotting at the Bilderberg Hotel. Nor is he alone—in fact, he is drearily typical of our modern oligarchs. They differ from both the ancient hereditary nobility and the more modern industrialists in several ways: the new class of kleptocrats seem incapable of building beautiful structure or inspiring wonderful art, nor do they believe (as did the historical aristocracy) that if they misrule us, they will fry eternally in Hell.
In the face of such a political class, and the plutocrats who own them, who then can really speak for the people? Who could, under the right circumstances, act as a check upon the more monstrous of their excesses? Ironically, it is the very class that is being sacrificed in the name of democracy. Because the Hereditary Peers—like the Royals—are much like the rest of us. Born into a position in society they are not personally responsible for achieving, like the mass of real people everywhere, their approach to issues was not based upon re-election or pandering to the super-rich, but upon real-world results. Just as Prince Charles’ views on education and architecture, no matter how ridiculed by the “specialists” and politicos, reflect those of ordinary people, so too with the Hereditary Peers. A quick perusal of the pre-1997 Lords’ Hansards (the British version of our Congressional Record, and available online) shows that the questions the Peers demanded of government about its legislation were pretty much the same the man in the street would ask, were his government forced to listen to him, did he speak in complete sentences, and if he had sufficient knowledge to understand the issues. But for long years there has been little the Lords could do beyond that, if a government were determined to have its way. Thanks to Blair, even their questions will be silenced. An elected Upper House will ensure the complete sway of the politicos and their masters. Instead of the lingering influence of Bertie Wooster, they will be subjected entirely to Rupert Murdoch. Or Roderick Spode.
If it were left to me to reform the House of Lords, I could certainly make some suggestions, although there is no hope that any will listen—especially as the Tories have endorsed an elected Upper House. But humor me. The first thing I would do is repeal most of the legislation dealing with Lords back to and including that of 1911 (although the Scots Peers could stay in, and I would admit the Irish as a body). To safeguard the impartiality of the House, I would remove the appointment of peers entirely from the Prime Minister, and place it solely in the hands of the Queen (the same would go for knighthoods as well; the two orders she can directly appointment, the Garter and the Order of Merit, are filled with far more deserving types, as a rule, than those who buy their honors from the cabinet). Her Majesty would decide upon the worth of each of the life peers—those whom she wished to make hereditary would remain, those whom she did not, would not.
I must add that I am not against democracy. Nor do I oppose the tooth fairy. Nothing could be further from my mind than removing the political class. But like (for instance) the hopelessly insane, they need to be diagnosed, checked, and supervised. In many countries, most notably Britain, there still exist institutions which, if refurbished, could act as a restraint on the politicos. (The United States, alas, having been created by political professionals at the outset, have few of these at the national level. Only localist movements offer any such hope.) Whether or not anything of this sort ever happens anywhere, as the rulership become increasingly removed from reality, national survival depends ever more upon what one might call “reactionary reform.” If ever the State Opening of Parliament ceases to be a sort of meaningless kabuki and begins to be a concrete statement of reality, Great Britain will have begun to climb toward truly representative government. Moreover, she will be an example to the rest of us.
Charles A. Coulombe is an inmate of Los Angeles.