I ask myself, first of all, whether I am talking to a hereditary peer or a life peer. No problems with the latter; life peers have done something. But I shall be cross with myself if it is the former and regret my instinctive genuflection.
The easiest way through my defences is if my fellow guest bears an historic title. The aura of the first duke, or first baron, extends to their descendants. Who could meet, say, the present Duke of Wellington without wondering about his famous ancestor. The titles with the least reverberation in my imagination are those of the royal dukes, Edinburgh, York, Kent and Gloucester, all alike meaningless to me.
And even if I recall that Lord X is a life peer, my carping mind may still not be quite satisfied. For I shall wonder whether I am confronted by someone who has been rewarded with elevation to the House of Lords solely for having done favours for one of the political parties - a crony of some kind. I wish to bow only to genuine achievement.
Until now our absurd system of lords and ladies has been part of the scenery, made venerable by age. I have been frequently to the House of Lords recently to meet peers, some of them hereditary, who take an interest in film and video classification. Charmingly and disarmingly, the fifth earl types, when you find them in their lair, are often hesitant and self- deprecatory, even though, in the corridors, dining rooms and bars you hear a lot of "my lords". These ones are engaged in public service. I respect them, although afterwards I reflect how strange it is that Lord So-and-So should have this particular opportunity simply because an ancestor was, for whatever reason, ennobled.
I make these reflections in light of the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords by removing the hereditary element. For the White Paper states that the plans will not affect the peerage itself and that hereditary peers will retain their titles and their status. Thus, as so frequently occurs, we are to change the inner workings of the system without adjusting the outward form.
For example, it is 150 years or more since the sovereign ceased to have a political role and became truly a constitutional monarch. Yet the elaborate paraphernalia of the Queen's speech has been maintained unchanged until this year, when the Lord Chancellor was allowed to remove himself from the Queen's presence without having to walk backwards.
It is even longer since men commonly wore wigs in public, yet they must still be used by counsel and judges - males and females - in the law courts. When I took my degree at an ancient university, the proceedings were conducted in Latin, even though scholarly use of the language came to an end during the 16th century.
For the most part, this maintenance of ceremony is satisfying and imparts a sense of continuity with the past. I was pleased to utter two words in Latin when I knelt in front of the vice chancellor. The pleasures that the redundant forms provide are like the joys of exploring an old building or clambering about a ruined castle. Moreover there can be clear political benefit in keeping change below the surface. It avoids vindictiveness. There is no loss of face, nor is there anything abrupt about it; life seems to go on, at least for the time being, much as before. It is one of the reasons why we generally avoid revolutions on this island.
Nonetheless in this matter, I think the Government's proposals as they stand are too timid. On the present plans, when reform of the House of Lords is completed, the purely social distinctions will remain. When foreigners observe that British society is obsessed with class, I often wonder what is meant. But this is one aspect they surely have in mind. The undue reverence we give to people with hereditary titles is a noxious thing. It is demeaning It is unhealthy. I could do without it. I wish it wasn't a feature of British life.
There are two ways of making progress in this matter. The more radical measure would be to remove the legal status of the peerage. This would mean that the Duke of Devonshire would receive a tax form addressed to Mr Cavendish - Mr Andrew Cavendish. Likewise the Duke of Marlborough would receive his summons to sit on a jury addressed as Mr John Spencer-Churchill and his elder son, at present entitled the Marquis of Blandford, would be known as Mr Charles Spencer-Churchill, and in turn his son, the young Earl of Sunderland, would be referred to as Mr George Spencer-Churchill when he grows up.
I know that, even with the legal basis for the use of titles removed, they would still be widely used. Burkes Peerage wouldn't go out of business; however, now it would be a subversive publication representing a vanished Britain rather than the establishment.
Instead of legislation to extinguish the peerage, however, I prefer the more softly-softly approach, which would be to change the name of the upper house and of its members. Let us say the revising chamber became a senate and its members senators. It is likely that they would be addressed as "senator" in social settings, just as officers of the armed forces are referred to as admiral or general. We would never say at a party "let me introduce you to Mr X" when the gentleman was a serving admiral; we would use his official rank. So it might be with senators, or whatever title was chosen.
To be a "senator" would be to be something - as it is to be a senior officer. By contrast, lords and ladies would at last become anachronisms and the continued insistence on the use of their titles would come to be seen as a bit pompous, or somewhat fuddy-duddy. And at a party, I could look forward to being introduced to Senator and Mrs X and being suitably impressed.Reuse content