British Institutions: the House of Lords

Next Wednesday morning Lieutenant-General David Leakey will arrive at work early, walk round his domain and check that everything is in place – the access routes, the security precautions, the fine details – for what is in a way the Queen’s most important engagement of the year: the state opening of parliament.

He will then get dressed for a second time, putting on his court jacket, breeches, a pair of tight stockings (“Tights?” “No, that’s what ladies wear”), patent leather shoes with diamanté buckles, a jabot – the frilly bit round his neck – and frilled cuffs.

When Her Majesty arrives in the Palace of Westminster, Leakey will join the procession but as she approaches the throne in the House of Lords, he will swerve off, nip round the back, emerge into the Peers’ Lobby, and stand on the Tudor rose in the middle of the floor to get a distant view of both chambers. When the Queen is ready, she will give a discreet signal, whereupon he will march towards the Commons to perform his only duty all year of which most of the British population are even remotely aware: having the door of the House of Commons ritually slammed in his face.

Leakey is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, an office dating back about 670 years which, in the context of the House of Lords, is nothing special. He is effectively number two in the Lords’ executive hierarchy – the enforcer, some say, for his notional CEO, David Beamish, the clerk of the parliaments. (Note the plural: it is supposed to indicate continuity.)

However, an institution which is the very embodiment of British hierarchy is surprisingly vague about its own. Leakey is just one of those quick to deny his own authority, although I found, when allowed to study the inner workings of the place, that the phrase “Black Rod said” had a magical effect on any staff inclined to bar the way.

The flummery, Leakey insists, is “a nano-part of the job”. His prime responsibilities are security (in conjunction with the Commons’ Serjeant at Arms), event management (eg planning the state opening) and “business resilience and continuity” (eg working out how the Lords would cope with anything from a burst water main to a nuclear attack).

It is a job traditionally undertaken by a retired military man. This Black Rod seems both competent and amiable, the very model of a modern lieutenant-general. He graciously accepts my fascination with the dressing-up. He relishes it himself in part because he was a young officer in Ulster when it was dangerous for soldiers to wear uniform off duty. Occasionally, rushing between engagements, he now finds himself on the street or the Tube in full-fig: “On the streets, the tourists smile and ask for photos while the British studiously ignore you. On the Tube, no one fixes you with eye contact. And the way to make absolutely certain of that is to wear a very extraordinary uniform.” The idea of Black Rod on the Tube is fairly extraordinary in itself. But this place is full of bizarre notions.

The history of the Lords can be dated at least 917 years: the bishops and nobles met at Rockingham Castle in 1095 to try to resolve a dispute between William II and Archbishop Anselm. For the last of those nine centuries, it has been under intermittent siege, since the peers took on the post-1906 Liberal government over Lloyd George’s reforming budgets and lost.

It has survived partly through the British genius for incremental change, and that has been quickening: life peers, including the first women, appeared in 1958; most of the hereditaries were kicked out in 1999; Tony Blair’s “people’s peers” appeared in 2001; the role of Lord Chancellor was separated from the Lords in 2007; and the House’s judicial functions passed to the new Supreme Court in 2009.

Primarily, though, it has survived because no one could agree on an alternative. A Labour government first tried to boot out the hereditary peers in the 1960s and was thwarted by an alliance between Enoch Powell from the right, who wanted the Lords left alone, and Michael Foot from the left, who wanted total abolition. “Think of it!” said Foot. “A second chamber selected by the whips. A seraglio of eunuchs.” In 1977, with a Labour PM in Downing Street, the party conference voted by a trifling 6,248,000 to 91,000 to go with the Foot option. Nothing happened. The Lords maundered on, its huge Tory and hereditary majority getting het up only, as one observer put it, over “badgers and buggery”.

Now the threat is greater than ever before. Consensus seems to have rallied round the plan for a mainly elected second chamber. Behind the scenes, though, opposition is building. This is partly a manifestation of the Lords’ most enduring skill: the defence of their own privileges. But there is another side to it too: a sense that an institution that has no justification whatever in theory may be playing a surprisingly useful role in practice.

The Lord Speaker Baroness D’Souza of Wychwood

If the House of Lords is embodied in a single individual, that person is now the Lord Speaker: Baroness D’Souza of Wychwood, otherwise Frances D’Souza, who gained a DPhil in evolution and became an expert in overseas aid and human rights. She is very ungrand, and comes over as both erudite and motherly, like one’s favourite university tutor. It is the kind of combination that works well in this place, hence her election.

Her main formal role is to preside over the Lords’ sessions – not to chair them, she insists. Like Black Rod, she is a bit weary of the public fixation with the trappings. “Whenever there is a picture you show us in ermine,” she says wearily. “We wear ermine once a year.” She talks zestfully about her outreach work, which includes sending peers out to schools to talk about the Lords and bringing kids into the chamber to stage their own mock-parliaments. These have included inner-city children from the Debate Mate programme: “People were terribly worried about this, and said there would be chewing gum everywhere. Of course they were impeccable, so much better-behaved than some of the peers.” For her, this is very relevant. “My job is to promote and protect the House of Lords.”

Right now protection seems the more urgent need. An elected chamber? “As Lord Speaker I don’t have a view on that. But if you change the form you must also change the function. The role of the House of Lords is not to make laws. Our aim is to improve legislation. We are not representative. And there are a lot of advantages in not being representative.

“There are a lot of extreme experts,” she says, and points to the doctors who could talk about stem-cell research in a way unimaginable in the Commons, and the ex-Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Condon and the ex-MI5 head Baroness Manningham-Buller, whose withering opposition to Labour’s plan to lock up suspects for 42 days caused it to die of shame: “That counts with the government and it happens here time and time again. And there’s much more work across the parties than in the Commons. It’s not politics-driven, it’s issue-driven. On healthcare and welfare reform and legal aid, people sat for hour after hour after hour to try to improve the law, a comma here, a word there. I’d die in a ditch for the work we do here like that.”

Baroness D’Souza was herself one of the early “people’s peers”, a characteristically over-blown Blairite formulation which disguised the introduction of a new appointments commission to bring apolitical talent on to the crossbenches. “Most of the people who come in as people’s peers have an expertise that with luck isn’t covered elsewhere in the House,” she said. “They tend to attend rather well, be very vocal and carry some weight. We’ve got lots of lawyers, lots of doctors. I’m not sure nursing is as well represented as it should be. And for a long time there weren’t enough representatives of the media, but now we have people like Peter Hennessy and Tony Hall … ”

Black Rod Lieutenant-General David Leakey

Good Lord! Not enough peers from the media? If only I’d known! One can apply for this people’s peers lark. And there we were, sitting in the Lord Speaker’s splendid office beneath the charming artwork (“No, it’s not a Monet,” she said hurriedly when she caught me staring). Beneath us was Black Rod’s garden, the grass glistening after the spring rain. Above us was the River Room, where Lord Chancellor Irvine infamously spent a fortune on renewing the wallpaper. It is now used for functions but still has a statue of a naked Narcissus, looking very narcissistic. Later, I was able to glimpse their lordships amiably wandering through the division lobbies in an atmosphere rather like that of an unconvincing late-night fire alarm at the Savoy.

I should be here! I could do this! They even pay you! (£300 per day for turning up, or £150 if you don’t think you have earned the full whack.)

Everything about the Lords is more opulent than on the other side of the building. And everything is so much more fun. There is the gloriously arcane terminology: my particular favourite is “The House adjourned during pleasure,” which I like to imagine as the Westminster equivalent of the French politician’s cinq à sept visit to his mistress. Wandering the corridors, half the people you pass remind one of semi-forgotten celebrities, somewhat aged. One keeps wanting to say “Hey, didn’t you used to be …?” Which is the right question, since they have all changed their names.

Newcomers revel in the company. Peter Hennessy, constitutional historian and journalist, and now Lord Hennessy (hey, you swiped my peerage!), marvels at the “weapons-grade gossip”. The long-serving Tory MP Patrick Cormack, now Lord Cormack, relishes the company at the long table in the peers’ dining room, where members dine, refectory-style, with whoever sits down: “There was one meal where there was Lady Butler-Sloss, Lord Carrington, Lord Rix and a couple of Labour peers as well. It was a marvellous mixture.” Well, yes, a pioneering judge, a former foreign secretary and a famous farceur – how wonderful to be there. But does it improve the governance of the country? “Yes,” replied Lord Cormack. “We start to understand each other as people, not as representatives with a political label.”

In one of the corridors there is a painting of Lord Salisbury addressing the House in 1893. The chamber today remains wholly unchanged except for a few concessions to technology – microphones, cameras, message screens – and a small red modesty curtain placed around the bottom of the public gallery in the miniskirt era to prevent their Lordships getting distracted by the view. The Nazis bombed the Commons chamber and it had to be rebuilt amid post-war austerity; the Lords retains all the building’s original 1830s confidence. More gilt than guilt.

Question time 'desultory' by Commons standards

But the Salisbury picture depicts a full house and gallery, implying a cockpit of the nation as vibrant and boisterous as the Commons. The benches were quite full the other Monday for “ping-pong”, the pre-Queen’s Speech ritual whereby Lords and Commons bat amendments backwards and forwards on bills that must be passed before the parliamentary session ends. Much of the time, however, I was the sole spectator; it might have been a wet-Monday county cricket match.

The throne lies unused except when the Queen is present, and the Lord Speaker sits on the woolsack, a sort of giant pouffe with a backrest attached, on the floor of the Lords itself, so that the backbenchers tower above her. Baroness D’Souza is not kidding when she says she merely presides. The Commons Speaker carries on like an exasperated teacher in a sink comprehensive; the Lord Speaker sat for 90 minutes before handing over to a deputy, having said nothing that was not procedurally essential. She did not admonish; there was no need. She did not even call the speakers: they take turns, party by party, governed by an elaborate honour code spiced with understated menace. If two wish to speak, the peer who retreats is making a very British kind of point: I-am-giving-way-so-you-owe-me, mush. Here courtesy is itself a political weapon.

If any control is needed it comes with a quiet word from the government front bench. But in other respects the front bench has no power at all. “There are whips,” explained the Labour peer Lord Lipsey, “but they just look at you remorsefully if you ignore them. They can’t get you off the committees and they can’t stop you travelling. They’re more like counsellors.”

After question time, a desultory affair by Commons standards, the business in hand was what a visitor (had there been any) might have heard as “the panic amendment”. It was in fact an amendment introduced by the lawyer Lord Pannick, trying to add a fairly theoretical presumption in favour of claimants to the government’s legal aid bill.

In the Commons, the subtext of almost every manoeuvre is a party point. Among the peers it is a constant justification of their own existence. The Lords as a whole are the exasperated teachers, conducting a running rebuke of the Commons’ inattentiveness and procedural sloppiness. The Pannick amendment and several others, which had diverted their Lordships for hours, were granted just 27 minutes in the other place. “You would not hang a dog on such a procedure,” said Lord Elystan-Morgan.

The House divided, the “contents” narrowly defeated the “not-contents”, which meant the amendment passed. A clerk was sent across the building amid cries of “Message from the Lords”. Sometimes such messages produce changes or compromise. This time a get-knotted message came back from the Commons. And two days later Pannick gave way, as an unelected parliamentarian has to do in a democracy.

Regarded as irrelevant from outside, this place entrances those within it. The notion that it runs its own debates is charming and surprisingly workable. Behind the scenes it is remarkably friendly and even first-namey: many modern peers try to pretend they haven’t got titles and, since you can’t Mr them, Peter and Tony it has to be. And I noticed attendants greeting David Beamish as “David” (mind you, he did join as a trainee 37 years ago). Carl Woodall, the director of facilities, was previously domestic bursar at Balliol College, Oxford and says Balliol was far more formal.

The clerk of the parliaments David Beamish

Beamish does not think of himself as a chief executive. When I pressed him to explain the command structure, he said: “There is a flow chart. Somewhere. Anyway, the line is a dotted one.” He thinks of himself as “the House’s adviser”, rather as the House as a whole thinks of itself as the Commons’ adviser. And he adores his job. “There’s never been a moment when I thought this place was on the way out or that it’s moribund or ‘why am I supporting this institution?’ It’s as relevant as it ever was.”

Lord Lipsey says the relevance has been enhanced by word-processors: it has got so much easier to keep adding ill-considered bits to legislation that need to be queried: “A special adviser will have a thought at breakfast and it will be in a draft bill by lunchtime.”

“Somewhere in the legislative cycle,” says Lord Hennessy, “there is a need for people who are there primarily because they know things rather than believe things. It’s the oh-come-off-it chamber. To be effective in it you need to have been round the block a bit.”

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? The peers themselves are the prime beneficiaries of the Lords’ existence. But there is corroboration. An old pinko, not ennobled, told me after a spell on secondment: “I’ve completely changed my mind. I think it’s a model of having experienced people, who have been there, done it and aren’t trying to impress the whips. At its best you get a Socratic dialogue. You couldn’t say that about the Commons.”

Yet a few hours before ping-pong began, Lord Richard, who was a Labour MP a very long time ago, announced the (bare) majority findings of a joint Lords-Commons committee to back the government plan for a mainly elected chamber. The plan is manifest rubbish, intended to solve Nick Clegg’s political problems (he needs a win), rather than improve the process of governance. Regional party lists? Fifteen-year terms? The worst of every world, designed to attract the numpties on the make who fill the European Parliament and giving them power without accountability. Richard suggests there could be a Californian-style recall procedure. Recall them? We won’t even be able to recall their names. Opponents within the Lords claim that the scheme will endanger the primacy of the Commons, which sounds like dressed-up special pleading. But, as the product of 917 years’ thinking, it does sound dire.

Lord Hennessy breaks down the current Lords into four groups: “blood, piety, political and what I like to think of as meritocracy”. Personally, I favour electing the House through interest groups. But if that’s too radical I would suggest we need to get rid of all the blood (no special places for hereditaries); some of the piety (26 bishops is too many); most of the politicals (fewer clapped-out second-raters) and have a house far smaller than its current 807, chosen largely on apolitical merit.

Obviously, the Lords needs a procedure to get rid of its proven crooks. Less obviously, it also needs to break the list between membership and a title, to get rid of the social climbers. Ermine and Black Rod’s diamanté buckles are optional extras.

The current House of Lords has many flaws but at least they are the obverse of those of the Commons. And the weird thing is that, with root-and-branch reform now closer than ever before, it may actually be working better than at any time in the past 917 years.

To read more by Matthew Engel on British institutions go to

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