Lost Pines, Texas
When I first moved to America in the early 1990s I arrived as a republican, full of a furious rhetoric about the end of monarchy and the abolition of hereditary privilege. I’d sent a hefty donation to Charter 88, who wanted to see PR, a written constitution and an elected second house. Social justice could not be improved by traditional methods and all the Lords Temporal were good for was raising prize pigs and holding the hands of serial killers whom they visited in jug. The Lords Spiritual were the symbol of an Anglicanism reduced to giving a home to the WI and holding the odd carol service on Christmas Eve.
While some decent old buffer might still be heard speaking up for fair play and moderation and could understand what some other decent old buffer meant when he quoted Pliny the Elder, it was definitely time for a change. We needed deputies not dukes; senators rather than the sons of chaps whose ancestors had given their names to whiskers, fast food, overcoats, hats and sturdy gumboots. The honours system was shot through with corruption and political preferments, and a form of senile dementia gripped the Crown and those who represented it. My letters to the US political weeklies and the local papers spoke up for the faith of the Founding Fathers and their impatience with a unified church and state or a monarch convinced that only God could make a ruler or a tree — and who was somewhat confused about whether he was one or the other or both. Functioning democracy, I was sure, could not be furthered by the continuing presence of either a royal family or an unelected second chamber. Much better to have a constitution supported by a Congress in office entirely because people had voted to put them there, who properly reflected the opinions of the electorate.
Not all American friends agreed with me. They liked the idea of our eccentric institutions, which, they pointed out, were probably at least as effective as their own. Convinced that they expressed a sentimentality brought on by reading too much Wodehouse and Waugh, I would respond that the monarchy and the Lords were expensive anomalies quite unsuited for a nation taking its place among the democracies of the European Union, that it would be like Virginia ruled by a prince and sending the daughter of Thomas Jefferson’s second cousin’s great-grandson to Washington DC in order to represent the interests of the state. To which many of them replied that this didn’t seem to be altogether a bad idea, considering the scallywags they sometimes did elect to Congress.
My Uncle Jack turned down a title, so my aunt told me, because he said there was no money in it and it would have created a gulf between himself and his friends. Winston Churchill, whom he worked for, had recommended him. Churchill had advised me to go into journalism before I thought of politics and, no matter how tempted I was, never to become a Liberal. My uncle reminded me of this when, as a young journalist, I started working for the Liberal party and dallied with the idea of standing for election. He said that an elected politician was duty-bound to represent everyone but himself, while a journalist could, if lucky, choose the people and causes he wanted to represent, irrespective of party. Impressed by this, I decided that my best political position would be to become an anarcho-syndicalist. That way I could maintain my principles without reference to whose policies I favoured. I’m pleased to say that since then no one in politics has ever made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
After I came to live in the USA, I grew to appreciate many of her political institutions and, while I sometimes think they could do with a bit of tweaking here and there, any quarrel I have has been with the nation’s extraordinary puritanism rather than with the far-sighted humanism of her Founding Fathers. But I have also come to appreciate the sturdiness of Anglo-Saxon common law and the usefulness of certain seeming anomalies in the British political system, including the benefits of a flexible and unwritten constitution, a monarch representing the state, with whom the people can do business (as we have done from Magna Carta to the BBC Charter) and a second chamber, much of which is above party politics, allowing a large proportion of its members, as my Uncle Jack would approve, to be responsible only to the dictates of their own consciences and to common sense.
In the US, I’ve seen far too few senators voting according to personal conscience, because they are worried about getting re-elected or are receiving campaign funding, tied to party politics rather than the interests of their electorates, while constitutional law has been used to impose legislation on the country, rather than that legislation coming out of parliamentary debate. This has created a sense of resentment among those whose voices have not been heard and an uncertainty about the safety of some decisions, so that the Supreme Court is constantly having to debate fresh attempts to reverse, for instance, Roe v. Wade. The Senate, in my view, has a far narrower range of independent thought than the Lords, including on matters of religion.
In our House of Lords, our church and state have appeared rather more separated than in the US, with the moral voice of the bishops most frequently raised against prejudice and injustice, and for every cartoon peer snoring peacefully through a debate, there has been one whose voice booms with the authority of experience and a sense of fair play. For, in my mother’s words, ‘a bunch of smarmy, scheming, hair-splitting lawyers’ to lay hands on more of Britain’s institutions in the name of social reform can only mean a further erosion of a subtly democratic institution.
While I have nothing against the Lords being brought into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, I can see only a reduction of individual liberty resulting from piecemeal abolition. Blair and his band of political pomeranians, yapping mockery at the Gilbert and Sullivan images of men in tights, and snapping self-importantly at the ermine trimmings of men and women who owe only the nation and their own consciences their loyalty, will chew another hole in the fabric of our idiosyncratic brand of democracy and, in the name of reform, weaken not only the value of the UK’s moral wealth, but also leave Europe and probably the world considerably poorer.