17 May 2010

"Ye see yon 707 birkies ca'd the Lords..."

According to the Times and much to the chagrin of critical commentators, the Tories and Liberals are going to make an early bid to demonstrate their credentials on social mobility by repopulating the House of Lords with their own creatures. Loyal hacks, party bumfluffers, discreet secret-keepers, lame old warriors, windbags they are wanting shot of - and sundry other slitherers, toadies and pocket-men - will be lifted from the gritty dishonour of a merely bourgeois existence and delivered from the social disaffection which it undoubtedly causes. New lords and ladies need endure no longer that exquisitely awful embarrassment when they attend bigwig champagne-receptions, and discussion turns to introductions and their commoner credentials stain their cheeks burgundy.  The Con-Dem coalition will see that all stigmas are effaced and that the unequal number Misters or Misses will accordingly be reduced. (Perhaps a Commission of enquiry should be started to examine whether they should be phased out entirely?) Your government - delivering the long-yearned-for fairness of a wider distribution of silly costumes and magic names at the top tier of the Big Society. Hear the voters clamour.

I am sure there are any number of salivating status-seekers speculating where they might fall on the list. And such a long list! It seems as if the red lords adapted rather too nicely to their red-benched habitat, breeding mercilessly under the title-dishing Tony Blair. Such is the extent of Labour overpopulation, that in order to compete in voting stakes...

"Lib Dem estimates suggest that the number of Tory peers would need to rise from 186 to 263 and Lib Dem peers from 72 to 167."

Adding up to a weighty 170-odd new Liberal and Tory barons and dames and all their associated cuifish flummery. This is, needless to say, a total absurdity and a flimsy tissue, barely covering the degenerate stuff of patronage and the risible vanity of these puffed up Peers. The only other people who might be celebrating are tailors and robe makers, Ede & Ravenscroft, who can stitch you together the Peer's peeled mink and spangly sequinned overcoat for a pretty penny. On the most positive side, this does give me another opportunity to quote Thomas Paine  on the abolition of aristocracy in his Rights of Man. “The French Constitution” he wrote, “says, There shall be no titles; and, of consequence, all that class of equivocal generation which in some countries is called “aristocracy” and in others “nobility,” is done away, and the peer is exalted into the Man. He continues,
Titles are but nick-names, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it. It reduces man into the diminutive of man in things which are great, and the counterfeit of women in things which are little. It talks about its fine blue ribbon like a girl, and shows its new garter like a child. A certain writer, of some antiquity, says: “When I was a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

That said, the anthropolgical side of my interests - the admittedly more patient, forgiving dimension - can't help but think about the solicitous and contemptible creature who accepts their ennoblement and trips into Westminster for the first time. Prideful twinges about their new 'magic name' are unlikely to cut the mustard as they enter the institution uncertain, timorous, perhaps never having tread through its portals before. Mysterious and purposeful looking officials click through the hallways. A vast and confusing order is encountered, which others seem to understand implicitly, but to the novitiate seems bemusing, irrational, wildly confusing.  Even the simplest encounter is seasoned with its capacity to deliver up a shaming faux pas. And very few people are sufficiently robust to resist the desire to be well thought of.

I'm sure we've all felt this gaucherie at some point in our lives, as we encounter a novel institutional life order and gradually accrue the understanding of an insider and thoughtlessly learn to trade in its short-hand, grow to forget our initial surprise as the order becomes a self-evidence. A very similar sort of initiation will take place in the newly constituted House of Commons, of course. Newly elected members share lost looks, trying to seem brave and assured, while old hands stalk the halls confidently, their institutional literacy assured. 

The good news for the would-be lordships, anticipating ennoblement, is that the mysterious inner workings and the House of Lords' occult standards of propriety have been revealed somewhat in a relatively recent piece of unusual social research. Dr Emma Crewe, an anthropologist at SOAS, published Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics in 2005.  Based on extensive field research and interviews with Lords and staff, she has been able to relate a profoundly interesting sense of the Lords' institutional texture and its social practice. As an ardent foe of the institution, I'd happily pitch all of the bunkum and polite old-school-tie civilities described by Crewe into oblivion. Despite this, Crewe is a sympathetic ethnographer - and it behoves an interested reader to try his best to share her sympathy. We ought to know what we're gleefully dismantling, after all.


  1. Another wonderfully written piece. As open-minded as it is (legitimately) censorious.
    Time for your ennoblement- step forward Lord Peat Worrier of ColumnInTheMainstreamPress.

  2. Given the state of the newspaper industry, voiceofourown, I don't think I'll be waiting by my phone just yet! More importantly, I'm quite content as a humble commoner, having complete control over my output. Being edited always upsets me!