21 NOVEMBER 1992, Page 61


House of frauds

It is the purpose of ritual to dignify the expedient, and nowhere more so than in the House of Lords, whose only function these days is to stand in the way of some- thing more sensible. The Lords is all about ritual, most of it risible, but it is almost impossible to take the piss out of, as Denis Healey found in his first day as a new boy (Cutting Edge, Channel 4, Monday, 9 p.m.). 'Wotcher mate,' he boomed to a flunkey, before switching accents from Hackney to Leeds. `Ah've coom to see Black Rod.' But in minutes he had become a solemn stu- dent of flummery, rehearsing his initiation under Garter King of Arms.

`Now the bow is a head bow, not from the waist. And you must be six paces back from the supporting peer.' `And I do the first bow where? Here?' said Healey.

`No, no, no,' said Garter, with the weary tolerance of a kindergarten teacher coach- ing the school Nativity play. 'In the middle here. Facing the throne.' What better metaphor could you have for social assimilation than this? one won- ders. An ex-communist, and ex-Labour Chancellor, bobbing and bowing to the bid- ding of a scarlet-nosed old fraud in a frogged coat. And what better proof could you ever have of Ezra Pound's taunt at the corruption of the professional politician: We are six hundred beefy men (but mostly gas and suet)'?

The governing image of this fine docu- mentary was the public school where, indeed, most of the 1,200 peers had begun their careers (400 of them at Eton). There were the shared coat-pegs in the lobbies, the solid Victorian ugliness of the building, the petty humiliations of a hundred Inscrutable customs. And just as a school is ruled by its janitors and stokers, so the real Power in the Lords lay in the hands of lack- eys like Black Rod, whose main function was control of car-park passes and of the tea-room waitress, courted by the noble peers for her cream-filled éclairs.

`They do the most marvellous tea,' Lord Teviot enthused. 'Tea-cakes and crumpets in winter, muffins, toast and sandwiches

• . . and the naughtiest cakes.' With his flop- PY grey fringe and sellotaped spectacles, Lord Teviot was the star of the show: a perfect specimen of that cultivated idiocy which is the armour of the upper class.

`How did you get to be in the House of Lords?' an interviewer asked him.

`Well, urn, because my father died,' said Lord Teviot, after some thought.

`And what did you do before the Lords?'

`Oh, um, various things. Nothing terribly special. I went to Eton. Then I went to Spain for three months . . . worked on the Brighton buses for six months. Then the bacon counter at Sainsbury's.' For visiting the Lords he gets £29 a day attendance allowance, £29 secretarial allowance plus

Martyn Harris travel and overnight stay expenses. 'I can't

end of the month.'

As he submitted his expenses another formidable lackey cross-questioned him: 'I see you have claimed for today, my Lord. You have been in the chamber, haven't you?'

`Ooh yes. Though I can't think what I lis- tened to at the moment. It will come to me in two seconds.'

Of course the Lords has a serious consti- tutional function, as Lord St John of Fawsley would remind us — namely to delay and to advise. The Lib Dem peer Lord Russell was conscientiously engaged in just such an activity, which would have provided extra money for people in bed and breakfast hostels. To everyone's aston- ishment he won his vote against the Gov- ernment. To nobody's astonishment the Government ignored it completely.