In my previous post, I referred to the late Lord Longford’s A History of the House of Lords. In it, he refers to the post-war House and the work of the then Marquess of Salisbury, a Conservative Cabinet minister in the 1950s and an advocate of reform of the House; his pressure was probably responsible for the 1958 Life Peerages Act. Longford recounts the occasion when a respected Labour peer criticised Salisbury in his absence, appearing to cast aspersions on his motives in relation to Rhodesia, leading to some Tory peers walking out. Longford writes:
‘Salisbury himself met the Labour peer in question and hastened to assure him that he was quite right to express his opinion if that was the way he felt. “This is a House of Parliament, not a Club”. But he, in fact, more than anyone, has made sure that it has been a House of Parliament and a Club during all those years. I would suggest deliberately that it is the most unsnobbish Club in the world.’
While the House has some of the characteristics of a club (private dining rooms, members’ library and the like) this, to my mind, is less significant a feature than the unsnobbishness referred to by Longford. The background of members is extremely diverse. Some were born in poverty (read Lord Donoughue’s The Heat of the Kitchen for a notable example) while others were born into wealth. In previous centuries, rank did matter (peers used to sit according to their rank – Dukes etc), but it no longer does. Peers are peers – that is, they are equals. Though one occasionally gets a member who adopts a ‘don’t you know who I am?’ approach, such members are notable for their rarity. The fact that we have limited support resources means that we have to look after ourselves. We do our own research, have to do our own photocopying, and generally just get on with the tasks we believe are necessary to make the House work. It is fairly unobtrusive work – rarely high profile politically – but necessary and rewarding.