Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Lords' Tale

This is a rather odd documentary on the hereditary peers in the House of Lords made by the Canadian filmmaker Molly Dineen.  The hereditaries were removed from the House in 1999, with the exception of a rump of 92 who remained under a deal struck between the Conservative Lords leader Lord Cranborne and the Labour Government (which opposed the making of the film).

It is interesting to see some of the behind-the-scenes operations of the Houses of Parliament, against the backdrop of the Palace of Westminster's ornate furnishings, antiquated buildings and elaborate uniforms. At one point, we catch a glimpse of Prince Charles's coat hook label in the Lords cloakroom.

The film wasn't broadcast until 2002, but filming began in October 1999, so we see the rehearsals for the 1999 Queen's Speech, the Lords' desperate attempts to amend the bill that threw out the hereditaries, the Government's creation of a contingent of new life peers, the controversial secret Cranborne deal and the endeavours of Cranborne's successor Lord Strathclyde to get the deal through the House.  Among the life peers on the red benches, we see Jim Callaghan, Norman Tebbit and the rather supercilious figure of Baroness Jay, Tony Blair's lieutenant for the Upper House.

One of the episodes covered by the film is the ballot in which the outgoing hereditary peers selected 90 of the 92 hereditaries who were to remain.  Peers talked about the wrenching difficulty of voting for more competent candidates over their friends.

There are some serious moments.  The Liberal Democrat hereditary Earl Russell and the Conservative hereditary Lord Carrington both agree that the executive is increasingly unconstrained, while Lord Mancroft bemoans the rise of the career politician.  Lord Strathclyde laments being a member of "the generation that lost the honours that were bestowed on our forebears", while Earl Ferrers complains that "yet another part of the constitution is being irrevocably altered".

At times, however, one gets the impression that Dineen is interested less in serious politicians like Ferrers and Carrington than in the more eccentric and doddery members of the peerage.  She follows round the good-natured 89-year-old Earl of Romney, who cheerfully describes himself as lobby fodder, has never made a maiden speech because he didn't think anyone would be interested in hearing what he had to say, and dismisses democracy as meaning "consulting everybody and doing what nobody wants".  She also takes an interest in the self-ironic 65-year-old Lord Pender, the 68-year-old Lord Gray, who works in his own petrol station, and the 77-year-old Lord Westbury, a keen charity worker who said that he thought that Tony Blair wanted to become president and that his ancestor (the first Baron Westbury, born in 1800) would be turning in his grave.  He describes Dineen as a "heavenly bird".

There is probably something in the comment made by a House official to the effect that the work of the unreformed House was not sufficiently appreciated by the public.  Maybe the hereditary peers can't just be written off as wrong but wromantic.  Not that there was much of a case for entrusting real legislative power to hereditary peers at the end of the 20th century - we see Gerald Kaufman pointing out to his Labour colleagues in the Commons that those MPs who had rebelled against Tony Blair's first welfare reform bill had voted on the same side as "two dukes, 28 earls, 22 viscounts - and Andrew Lloyd Webber".