Not with a bang but a whimper, last month Britain’s hereditary lords slid out of their ermine robes and off the scarlet-padded benches and retired to their country seats. A line of continuity from feudalism has finally been broken.
Parliament still has its upper house, and it still has 92 hereditary peers in it. But they are outnumbered by over 300 life peers. The Conservatives still have a scant majority, but the remaining powers of the Lords — to revise and delay legislation from the House of Commons — have been so undermined that it is hard to imagine them doing anything but add to the spectacle of politics. Which is pretty much all that our major institutions do anyway.
By promising reform of the House of Lords, Labor redeemed a pledge made in 1911 when a reforming Liberal government threatened to banish the Lords permanently if they did not stop blocking Commons legislation. That was the government that first introduced some basic welfare measures, like old-age pensions and, much more alarming to Britain’s lords, threatened to give trade unions new powers to take strike action.
That serious world seems much much more than a scant century ago. This reforming Labor government has no intention of vesting new powers in the trade unions — although it has honored its pledges to introduce a national minimum wage and sign up to the European Union’s “Social Chapter.” But according to Prime Minister Tony Blair, many trade-union practices count as “forces of conservatism.” These forces, he argued at Labor’s last party conference, are what hold Britain back from its future as “New Britain.”
Compounding the oddity is that Labor’s last battle with the old Lords was over welfare; then, the Lords were holding out against cuts to social security that the Labor government has now pushed through. Anybody approaching British politics armed only with a textbook written, say, in 1963, would be quite mystified.
Still, if nothing fits the rules any more, we can sit back and enjoy the spectacle — as long as we are not hoping for anything serious or meaningful. The week since the Queen’s Speech — another formally feudal procedure, when the queen sits on a throne, wearing a crown, and tells us what “her” government has in store for us in the next parliamentary session — has been great fun. Into the middle of the usual verbal display about the Queen’s Speech came the astonishing announcement that Cherie Blair is pregnant, unplanned, at age 45. This will make Tony Blair the first prime minister to father a child while at No. 10 Downing St.
In an instant, the country divided between those who went soft in the heart and thought “Aah, new baby, how lovely, how human, how much better than politics. What will they call it, will aging Cherie be OK, will vigorous Tony be getting up in the night saying bother the EU, I have to change a nappy”; and those who snorted with cynicism and assumed that somehow the prime minister’s demonic press secretary, Alastair Campbell, had planned everything, from conception to announcement, and even now is preparing the sex and name of the child and the place and length of Cherie’s labor. The jokes on New Labor, and Blair’s babe (the new intake of loyal women MPs in 1997 were rudely named “Blair’s Babes”), have been endless. Meaner minds have pointed out that if Tony and Cherie Blair can make such mistakes in their sex life, how does this preachy government expect uneducated feckless teenagers to do any better?
This one will run and run — at least until next May, when the new Blair babe arrives. Meanwhile, there have been more amusements in the lives of our governors. A central part of New Labor’s “New Britain” project has been constitutional reform. Both Scotland and Wales now have their own assemblies and various legislative powers. Northern Ireland is moving crablike toward its suspicious and jumpy self-governing assembly. And London, the capital city, is also to have its own assembly and mayor.
While no one even smiles about the setbacks and knee-jerk responses and threats and scowls that accompany the Irish peace process, every hiccup in the business of devolving power in London has been greeted with shrieks of dismay or hilarity. According to the pundits, this has been because of the difficulty of finding a person of distinction to stand for the new post of mayor of London, and this is in turn because the new office will have very little power. This is true. The point of an elected lord mayor is not power but “personifying” local politics in such a way that local people might show some interest in local government. So the parties have had to try to find melodramatic, if not pantomime, figures to stand for the job and break the wall of indifference.
True to form, London Conservatives chose as their candidate one of Britain’s strangest, most ridiculed and most self-dramatizing men, the ex-MP, ex-bankrupt novel writer and now ex-Tory, Jeffrey Archer; sorry, Lord Archer. He was much favored by Mrs. — sorry, Lady — Thatcher, for his ebullience and fabulous hospitality to the Conservative Party bigwigs. Among his more notorious acts was bringing a libel suit against the Daily Star newspaper, which had accused him of visiting a prostitute and paying her off with 2,000 pounds at Victoria Station. He had indeed handed over 2000 pounds to this prostitute, but — he claimed — only because she had asked him to. Eh?
The story is too bizarre and complex to explore in detail here. However, last month an ex-friend revealed that he had given Archer a false alibi if he needed it during the libel trial — at which point Archer abruptly withdrew from the mayoral race and retired to his country retreat. All that — and no space to describe the strange story of the Tory Party treasurer Michael Ashcroft, who lives somewhere in the Americas and makes vast donations to his party out of a trust fund set up for tax-avoidance purposes in Belize. Nor, indeed, to explore exactly what opposition leader William Hague was thinking of when he set up an Ethics and Integrity Committee to wash his party “whiter than white.” It’s been fun.
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