A Visit to the House of Lords
MICHAEL MACDONAGH IN THE MONTHLY REVIEW
To many the House of Lords is but a name. As to its appearance, its constitution and its functions the average person on this side the Atlantic knows but little. The illuminating article, which follows, is but introductory to a long description of the character and work of the upper chamber.
"THE Gilded Chamber !” Gladstone’s descriptive phrase springs at once to the mind. It is glowing in gold and colors. All the glory of the “tiger moth’s deep damasked wings” is seen in its splendid decorations. Yet there is nothing gorgeous in the scene. The subdued light of a cathedral—“dim and yellow” as Shelley found it at Milan— prevails, making things that might otherwise strike upon the senses as garish a delight and refreshment to the eye. Everything heightens the impression that one is in the beautiful shrine of an ancient cathedral rather than in a modern legislative chamber. The lofty stained glass windows have blue and crimson figures of the kings and queens of England. Worldly-minded men and women were most of them, but like saints they look in their antiqu.e garments, seemingly deep in rapt meditation and ecstatic introspection. On pedestals between the windows are large bronze statues of knights, telling of times when the battle of principles was fought, not with words employed by subtle-minded and ready-tongued men in frock coats and silk hats, but with sword and battle-axe, wielded by brawny soldiers in armor on prancing steeds. These are the barons who, in the dawn of English freedom, beat out the eternal provisions of Magna Charta with their mailed fists. Bold men they were, and wicked too, many of them. But here they look like patriarchs and apostles.
At the top of the chamber is the
imposing canopied throne. Superbly carved, glistening with gold, sparkling with precious stones, it looks like an altar, flanked on each side by magnificent candelabra of brass, having wax candles in their elaborate branches. The throne of England is often spoken of constitutionally or in the historic sense. If there be a real, tangible, material throne of England it is surely this imposing structure, for here the sovereign sits at the opening of Parliament in presence of the three estates of the realm.
There are two chairs of state under the canopy. Formerly there was but one. The old chair was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin. It has been in the House of Lords since the chamber was first used in 1847, and Queen Victoria sat in it on the occasions that she opened Parliament in person. But an historical innovation marked the first opening of Parliament by King Edward VII. on February 14, 1901. By command of His Majesty the throne was provided with a second state chair for Queen Alexandra. It was the first time, perhaps, in English history that a queen consort accompanied the king in equal state to the opening of Parliament. The new state chair—that on the left of the throne—is almost an exact replica of the old in design and ornamentation, the only difference being that it is an inch and a half lower. Both chairs, with their fine carvings, gilt with English goldleaf, and the rich embroideries of the royal arms on their crimson velvet
backs, greatly enhance the imposing splendor of the throne.
Everything in the chamber helps to indicate the large place which the House of Lords has so long filled in English history and tradition. You feel in the presence of an institution of which ages are the dower. Here is manifestly a survival of an ancient constitution of society. “There is no more reason in hereditary legislation,” said Benjamin Franklin, “than there would be in hereditary professors of mathematics.” How is it then that this strange anomaly, this curious hereditary ruling chamber, this assembly of men who are lawmakers merely by the accident of birth, still lifts its ancient towers and battlements high and dry in an apparently secure position, above the ever rising tide of democracy ? Perhaps in the lessons which are taught by the frescoes in this temple of the hereditary principle the explanation of its survival is to be found. There are three above the throne, set in archways with elaborate gilt moldings. The centre one is “The Baptism of Ethelbert,” and on either side are “Edward III. conferring the Order of the Garter on Edward the Black Prince,” and “Henry, Prince of Wales, committed to prison ior assaulting Judge Gascoigne.” Behind the strangers’ gallery are three other frescoes of the spirits that are supposed to reign over the deliberation of the peers—“Religion,” “Chivalry” and “Love.” This order of patricians has survived because it has taken to heart the lesson of a time which smiles at the claims of long descent —the constitutional as well as the religious lesson of the native equality of men.
It is only when the Lord Chancellor, a severely judicial figure in big
grey wig and black silk gown, takes his seat on the woolsack—that crimson lounge just inside the light railing which fronts the throne—that the illusion of being in the splendid chapel of a great cathedral is destroyed. Seated at the table fronting the Lord Chancellor is the clerk of the Parliament, and his two assistant clerks, in wigs and gowns. Next, in the centre of the floor, are three or four benches which are known as “the cross-benches.” On the first the Prince of Wales sits, when present in the House. The others are used by peers of “cross-bench mind” (as Earl Granville once happily described them), who owe no allegiance to either of the two great political parties. This is a fact of considerable significance. It indicates the independence of the lords, to some extent at least, of the party system. In the House of Commons there are no cross-benches. Nor are they needed. There is no such thing as an independent member. All the elected representatives of the people are pledged party men. Even in the Blouse of Lords the non-party men are easily counted. I have never seen more than six sitting on the cross-benches. The peers temporal are divided into dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons—titles which take precedence in the order given—and certain of the crimson benches on each side of the chamber are allotted to each of these grades of the peerage. But except when Parliament is opened by the sovereign, this arrangement of the peers according to rank is not observed. They sit indiscriminately, dukes and barons cheek by jowl, on the right or on the left of the Lord Chancellor, according as they belong to the party that is “in” or “out.” The spiritual peers, however, always
occupy the same benches on the Government side of the House, and close to the throne, no matter which party may be in office. In the popular fancy, fed on fabulous novelettes dealing with high-born society, the peers are glittering beings, always clad in magnificent robes and each with a golden coronet flashing with jewels upon his head. That notion, of course, is entirely erroneous. The lords attending to their legislative duties wear sober suits of customary black or grey, iust like the Commons, and when a joint committee of both houses sit together for the consideration of a bill there is nothingno, not even a strawberry mark—to distinguish the hereditarv legislators from the elected. The lords dress simply and quietly, just as they speak and do aU things. There is no ostentation of demeanor. Indeed, personal simplicity is perhaps the most marked characteristic of these noblemen. But the spiritual peers are distinguished from the lords temporal by their flowing black gowns and their ample lawn sleeves.
The presence of the bishops harmonizes with the religious atmosphere of the chamber. But they are rather an anomaly in this sanctuary of the hereditary principle because they are but life peers. To the eye of the stranger they may also seem an obtrusive element, on account of their distinctive garb. But really they play a modest and retiring part in the work of the House. It is true that in times past the bishops, mitre on head and crozier in hand, led the cohorts of the peers in stubbornly contesting every effort of the Commons to sweep away the disabilities, constitutional and educational, of Roman Catholics, Jews and Dissenters, to make civil and political rights
independent of creed, to guarantee to all subjects perfect liberty of conscience and worship, in the odd conviction, it wTould seem, that these things of evil were the stoutest fortifications of the Church Established. They also strongly opposed the Reform Bill of 1832. But it would be impossible now to deny that their influence on the whole is most beneficent. For years they have ceased to act the part of narrow sectarians. They have been touched with a new spirit, singularly worthy of their great office as pastors. Politics give them no concern. But they are deeply interested in bills which affect in any degree the morals, the fortunes, the comforts, and the pleasures of the disinherited and the poor. Everything that tends to spiritualize the national life, every effort to lessen the sufferings of sobbing humanity, may count up their fullest support.
What a contrast is presented by the two chambers of Parliament in deliberation ! The House of Commons is a responsive, emotional and boisterous assembly. Humor it most indulgently encourages. Any joke will dissolve it into smiles and laughter. Party statements are punctuated with shouts of approbation or vehement dissenting retorts. There are even disorderly scenes. The atmosphere of the House of Lords, on the other hand, is ever calm and serene. How quietly and reposefully are discussions conducted ! There is little rivalry or competition. The attendance is scanty, except on an occasion when urgent summonses are issued for an important party division. The House is composed of close on six hundred peers ; but three form a quorum, unlike the House of Commons, where forty members must be present to “make a House.” It is,
however, provided by the standing orders that if on a division it should appear that thirty peers are not present the business in hand must be adjourned. But on normal occasions ten or twelve peers scattered over the expanse of red benches is a common spectacle. Oftentimes the lowvoiced peer addressing them in the solemn hush of the superb chamber might be likened to some lonely and isolated being talking to a strange and indifferent company on a topic far remote from the realities of things. The nobles are politely listening to the speech, certainly. If there is no imperious haughtiness in their demeanor, there is what, perhaps, is worse—a coldness which nothing, seemingly, could melt. Their way of listening, some with an apathy chilling but well bred, others with a lounging listlessness, adds to the curiously unreal effect of the proceedings. The restlessness and aggressiveness of the Commons are here unknown. Nothing heartier than a faint and perfectly polite laugh disturbs the solemnity of the chamber. A low murmuring “Blear, hear” does duty for a shout of approval. The stirring sense of life that pervades the representative chamber is usually altogether wanting. It is only on the faces of the bishops that you will find that look of anxious sympathy which is the secret of those who come into close contact with people and things. On the episcopal benches there is usually a glow of apostolic zeal.
No wonder, then, that over the visitor in the gallery, especially if the spell of the past be strong upon him, there steals a sense of loneliness and solitude. The strange and beautiful chamber seems to become filled also with the immensities of time
and space. And are not these placid, irreproachable, and intensely modern gentlemen in frock coats and tall hats sitting on the red benches below, but the statues, and the barons on the pedestals above arrayed in all the panoply of combat, from plumed crest to spurred heel, the living, pulsing things ? See, the heads of the knights are bent as if they were listening with the deepest attention. Surely, if they were but addressed by an orator of intense and glowing mind, they would raise their voices in tempestuous uproar and shake their swords and lances with thunderous menace !
On great party issues, or on subjects of high national importance, debates in the House of Lords are often sustained throughout at a higher level of ability than debates in the House of Commons. Discussions, of course, are of shorter duration in the upper than in the lower chamber. The Commons take a week or a fortnight to thrash out a topic which the peers will exhaust in a single sitting. More eloquent speeches are made in the representative chamber ; but there are also long intervals of dull and pointless talk. In the hereditary chamber, on the other hand, only the ablest and most distinguished peers venture to take part in a big debate ; and the speeches give the impression that they are delivered because there is really something to say, and not—as is too often the case in the House of Commons—because something has to be said in order to get into the newspapers.
The debates in the House of Lords are not only models of grave discussion. In them is displayed to a remarkable degree matured statesmanship and administrative experience. Archbishop Magee remarked that no-
thing struck him more in the House of Lords than the large amount of special knowledge it possessed. No matter how generally little known the subject of discussion might be, he said, some obscure peer was certain to rise on a back bench and show that he had made a special study of it. The House is not composed entirely of landed aristocrats, of great hereditary magnates, who are lawgivers only by the succession of lineage. In it also are merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, soldiers, bankers, civil servants, administrators of distant portions of the empire who have been promoted to the peerage for their success in business or their services to the state. Moreover,
many of the peers who succeeded to seats in the House have had the advantage of previously serving in the House of Commons. John Wilson Croker, in a letter written shortly before his death in 1857, mentions that going over to the lords from the Commons one evening he noticed, as a fact, “not unimportant to constitutional history,” that every one of the thirty peers than present had sat with him in the House of Commons. “It shows,” he says, “how completely the House of Commons has been the nursery of the House of Lords.” There are usually in the House of Lords about two hundred peers who have sat in the House of Commons.
In half an hour we skip through our morning paper in the train, and scan something like 20,000 words. This intellectual quick lunch kills the power of remembering. The cure is to glance at the headings of the articles and paragraphs, select those that interest us, read them carefully, and leave the rest alone. At the end of each item we should pause and think of what we have read.
Here is a good memory exercise. Glance into a shop window for one second only, and then try to name all the things displayed in it. At first you will recall only two or three, but this number will rise to thirty with practice.
Another good plan is to sit down at the end of the day’s work and think of all you have done since morning—where you have been, whom you have met, what you have \ spent, and so on. In time you will be able to recall exactly what you said and did at a certain hour, and the advantage of possessing this faculty is obvious. Incidentally, it will keep you from wasting your time, for it is not pleasant to remember that you did nothing at all.
If your weakness lies in forgetting faces, make a mental note of such details as the color of the hair, the straightness of the nose, and the curves of the mouth.