June Books 1) Lords of Parliament

1) Lords of Parliament: Manners, rituals and politics, by Emma Crewe

My second anthropology book this week, also on a corner of the British Empire where the researcher finds unexpected truths. In this case, rather than Cyprus, the territory being studied is the House of Lords, which, as the author notes at the start of Chapter 11: “provides almost an excess of things that excite anthropologists: myths, hierarchies, symbols, rituals and rules, all manifesting themselves within a building whose contents alone could divert a social scientist for years.” If that sounds a bit earnest and academic, I should add that the title of Chapter 11 is “Men in Tights”. Crewe spent a year embedded in the House of Lords in classical participant-observation mode, feeding the Queen’s horses during the State Opening of Parliament, helping to administer the vote on which hereditary peers were to survive the great cull of 1999, and preparing to write this witty and fascinating book, applying the classic methods of anthropology as developed for the study of non-industrialised societies to one chamber in the heart of the British system of governance. “Most [peers],” she says, “were mystified by why I was there, and some seemed displeased that I had done research in East Africa and South Asia, as though ceremonial robes of ermine (the winter coat of the stoat) should not be considered in the same light as those of fish skins, or feathers, or cowry shells,” and you can imagine both sides of the exchange.

As it happens, by historical accident I’ve spent more time hanging around the House of Lords than any other parliament except the European one. About fifteen years back I was responsible for the administration of the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, tightly supervised by his widow, who was a Labour life peer; for the next few years, I was on the Northern Ireland policy committee of the Liberal Democrats, whose meetings were often convened in the House of Lords committee rooms by Lord Holme of Cheltenham; since 1996 the former leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has also been a life peer; and I gave evidence to the influential European Union Sub-Committee a few years ago. But I confess I knew very little about it.

Crewe really brings the whole institution to life. Of course, she concentrates most on the actual peers themselves, but also takes into account the roles of the permanent staff of the House, from the clerks to the housekeepers and catering staff. The 25 clerks are effectively Brahmans, the only ones allowed to enter certain sacred areas (ie the table in the middle of the chamber). The peers bow to the “Cloth of Estate”, which does not actually have any physical manifestation though it is believed to be in the vicinity of the Queen’s throne, rather as I was taught to genuflect to the Real Presence in church.

She also goes into the political structures of the House – the visible ones, ie the four political groups (including the Cross-Benchers, who lack many of the characteristics of a political group), and the invisible ones, most specifically the “usual channels” which are the combination of the business managers of the three political parties (cross-benchers are not included). Fascinating stuff there – to pick just one example that I thought (in my innocence) that I was following pretty closely at the time, I had no idea about the real story of how closed lists were brought in for the UK’s European Parliament elections, and I suspect that few of the peers actually involved in the debate or the vote did either.

There is one section of gripping political narrative: the successful attempt of the Conservative leader in the Lords, Lord Cranborne (now the Marquess of Salisbury), to drive a bargain with the Labour Party to preserve the most active of the hereditary peers, by doing a deal with the Lord Chancellor, in dismissive, aristocratic defiance of the Conservative Party’s then leader, William Hague. It is clear that, like many researchers, Crewe was a little in love with her subject, and her account of the dismissal and departure of those whose families had been parliamentarians for many generations is surprisingly moving. One point that surprised me was that she disparages the quality of the debate within the House on its own reform. One of the best parliamentary speeches I have ever read was that by Melvyn Bragg on the issue. Perhaps it comes across better on the page than it did in the chamber (though I notice subsequent speakers in the debate praising Bragg’s eloquence). You can’t always tell. I think Yeats’ 1925 speech in the Irish Senate opposing the abolition of divorce reads awfully well but he was clearly being barracked from all sides and even a sympathetic observer Donal O’Sullivan, in The Irish Free State and its Senate) states that the speech completely “poisoned the atmosphere”.

Crewe does reference some research by other anthropologists, on the US Congress and the French National Assembly, and feels that the House of Lords is closer to the latter than the former, in that debates are much less staged for the benefit of the public and actually may have an influence on the way members vote (thus completely different from Congress). She finishes up with some half-formed thoughts about further reform of the House. Myself I think what comes through clearly is that any elected component is going to kill off the Lords. In so far as it works, it works because of the independence of nominated peers, and also because of the creative but delicate tension between the Lords’ greater expertise and the Commons’ much superior political legitimacy. I don’t detect any great keenness from Gordon Brown to tackle the issue and I’m quite sure the Conservatives won’t either, so the House of Lords in its current shape, including the bizarre contradiction of elected hereditary peers, is likely to continue in its current form for sometime yet.

Anyway this is an unexpectedly brilliant book, and anyone interested in British politics should read it.

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