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Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics by Emma Crewe

14 September 2007

If I happened to be inventing cute titles for these book review posts, this one would probably be something like ‘Kind Hearts and (Ninety-Two Remaining) Coronets’.

Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics by Emma Crewe

One of the better-known quotations of Walter Bagehot is his assertion that the cure for admiring the British House of Lords is to go and look at it. Even today, after nearly a century’s worth of quite radical constitutional change beginning with the Parliament Act of 1911, the thought of the House of Lords still tends to conjure up an image of doddering old men in fancy dress making rambling speeches to their sleeping (or possibly deceased) peers. But with all the talk of further changes to the House of Lords, possibly even to its abolition and replacement with an elected upper house, it’s increasingly apparent that very few people actually know what the House of Lords is like in this day and age. The cash-for-honours scandal certainly hasn’t helped its image at all in recent years, for one thing. And even though all but 92 of the hereditary peers were removed from the Lords in 1999, doing much to redress the balance of the Lords’ political composition and vastly reduce its inbuilt Conservative majority, for the most part the Lords is still regarded as the last bastion of intolerance, privilege, aristocracy, and tradition-for-tradition’s-sake.

Lords of Parliament seeks to challenge many of these long-standing assumptions. Researcher Emma Crewe spent two years doing an in-depth anthropological study of the House of Lords, both of the institution and its denizens. She was given almost unlimited access to areas of the Lords that are usually never open to anyone save the peers and the Lords staff. She observed debates, ate and drank with peers and staff, sat in on committee meetings, conducted interviews with dukes and doorkeepers, and in general immersed herself in the day-to-day life of the upper house. And over the course of her research, she uncovered any number of subcultures and hierarchies within the Lords, unspoken rules that govern the conduct of those who work within its precincts, and a remarkably deep sense of social and political committment that all too often manages to rise above the party politics of the Commons. If a week is a long time in politics, as the saying goes, then the Lords operates at a much slower pace — which at times can be viewed as foot-dragging, but at other times may well be the necessary pause for reflection that can prevent a too-hasty rush to ill-judged action.

I can’t comment on the soundness of Crewe’s writing as a piece of anthropological research, but from a political-historical perspective, Lords of Parliament is an absolutely fascinating study in the British Constitution as a working document. If I were to teach a course on contemporary British politics, I’d make the book required reading. Crewe delves deeply into the numerous symbols and rituals that are part and parcel of the work of the Lords, from the highly stylised speech patterns used in debates to the symbols of office that are always on display when Parliament is in session. She looks at the role of peers as experts in certain topics, and at the relationships between the political parties and with crossbench peers who have no specific party affiliation. Crewe also explores relationships amongst the peers themselves and between peers and members of staff, pointing out the ways in which subtle but strict checks are kept on those who somehow deviate from established procedures and protocols. These self-governance procedures tend to regulate conduct in the Lords — for instance, a peer’s eccentricities of habit may be tolerated if he or she is unfailingly competent in debate and courteous in the chamber, but rudeness (which can take many forms) or persistent incompetence during debate is met with stern disapproval. Trying to go through and explain all of Crewe’s findings would take a very long time, but her writing style strikes the right balance between academic and anecdotal, making the book a smooth, comprehensive, and eminently readable piece of research.

One final thing to point out: Crewe doesn’t openly say whether she’s for or against the abolition of the Lords and its replacement with a different kind of second chamber, but she does give a few points for further consideration. Symbolism, she argues, is the stuff of which national identity is made — and there’s no getting around that. There’s a difference between a ritual that deliberately creates a sense of social distance or superiority and a ritual that preserves a sense of continuity with the past. Writing off the House of Lords as a complete anachronism is just as problematic as insisting that nothing about it should ever be changed. Further reform to the House of Lords is always going to be a tricky issue on many levels, but if nothing else, Crewe’s book does quite a bit to dispel the worst of the outdated stereotypes about what goes on in the red-carpeted halls in the less well-known half of the Palace of Westminster.

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