Friday, July 13, 2012

The House of Lords

Gorgeous: democracy at work...? The House of Lords

This post is as much about architecture and history as it is about politics. As you may know, the reform of the House of Lords has been in the news lately, though whether there is the political will and public sympathy to see reform move forward is moot. Despite the export of the Westminster System of parliament to various far-flung corners of the globe (including, of course, Australia) most countries who have adopted it have opted for some form of election to the Upper House. The UK, however, clings to an unelected House of Lords. "Lords" is a loose sort of term, encompassing as it does "life peers"and "inherited peers" (you'll note immediately that the former may include females while the latter not). The Lords also includes all Bishops (Church of England only). The definitions are quite fluid with the result that the numbers elegible to sit in the House of Lords is quite considerable, over 800 in fact. On the one hand, these include people such as the Baroness Thatcher (who is sadly rather non compes mentes these days); and various very able Captains of Industry, and Ex-Parliamentarians.

The courtyards of power....

My initial reaction to calls for reform was that of course the Lords should be elected. However, a mere moment's consideration of the bevy of beauties that election delivers for the Commons was enough to convince me that there is merit in an unelected House of review appointed through a careful process. Currently Members of the House of Lords are not paid a salary like the those of the Commons. They are paid £300 per day when they turn up, of which they may elect to take only half, or none at all. Thus, their contribution falls clearly into the category of self-less public service. To have a pool of talent willing to serve in this capacity is actually a rare and precious thing, and if the Brits have managed it so far, I encourage them to keep it alive, albeit with some tweaking (e.g there are way too many of them, and those Bishops really have to go).

But I digress. The purpose of this post is to recount this evening's visit to The Palace of Westminster (as it is called, though it hasn't been a Royal Palace since Henry VIII abandoned it for Wolsey's Whitehall.) First, there was a tour which took us through the pubic areas: the Central  Lobby (where any voter may fill out a green card and request to be attended upon by his or her local member); the "Noes" and "Ayes" Chambers on either side of The Commons (where parliamentarians gather to be head-counted when there is a voting division); The Commons itself, with it's British Racing Green leather seats; the Peer's Lobby and the absolutely gorgeous House of Lords itself, dark red leather in this case, which extracted a gasp from me when I entered - mainly because of the splendiferous gilded Throne which dominates the Chamber.

'Sovereign's Entrance'

The Queen sits here when she attends Parliament. Indeed, she may only sit here, because ever since that unfortunate incident in the early 1600s, involving Charles I trying to arrest some members of the Commons (and we all know what happened to Charles I), no monarch has ever been permitted to enter the Commons Chamber. But I say, why woud they want to when the Lords Chamber is so splendid?

According to the story, when Charles I asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the individuals he wished to arrest, Lenthall famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."

You may think that I am displaying rather too much interest in a foreign parliament. However, I would like to point out that as a council tax-payer in the UK, I am entitled - nay, encouraged - to vote in any and every election. Since I have been eligible to do so, there have been two elections, in both of which I have participated (though voting is non-compulsory here): the referendum on the "Alternative Vote" - designed to reform the ridiculous first-past-the-post voting system they use here ("lost" despite my vote in favour); and the election of the Lord Mayor of London (I voted for the Greens candidate who lives on a houseboat on the Thames; Boris Johnson got back in).


But I digress again - back to the Palace of Westminster. Apparently - according to our diminutive guide - there are over 1100 rooms in the Palace. The whole thing actually burnt down in the early 19th century, the only bits to survive being Westminster Hall ( which we sadly ran out of time to see - need to go back), the Jewel Tower across the road, and a Chapel underneath. The rest of the place dates from 1834, though it is fearsomely Gothic revival, as commissioned. The interior is encrusted with recreated Gothic details (as indeed is the exterior); the Central Lobby boasts some lovely mosaics representing the four Saints of the  four members of the United Kingdom: Saint George (England); Saint Andrew (Scotland); Saint Patrick (Ireland) and Saint David (Wales) -- as if emblazoning this in architectural splendour could cement the Union. We'll see.

We spent a little time in St Stephen's Chapel, which was once used as the Commons Chamber (it is said that this is where suffragettes chained themselves to statues). Interestingly, it is decorated with wall murals which date from the 1920s - scenes of traditional themes, painted to order by modernist artists of the day - adhering to greater and lesser extents to their briefs.

After our tour of the Palace & Chambers, we retired to a terrace overlooking the Thames, and were the guests of a real live Peer and Member of the House of Lords, Baroness Flather, who proved to be  very friendly and personable lady. We drank pink champagne and considered the interesting vagaries of the Westminster parliamentary System, embodied right here in the hallowed halls of Westminster.

Big Ben in his tower - this year renamed 'Elizabeth Tower'
in honour of her Majesty's 60th Jubilee.
The other tower at Westminster is 'Victoria Tower', named for
the other long-reigning Queen.

Interior images from:

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