I don't know whether this story is true, but it hardly matters. What better qualification could a man offer for service in the counsel of his country than this magnificent ignorance of the details of everyday life? If the English aristocracy is for anything - and the question is as live now as it has been for years - then it is surely to preserve exactly such sublime detachment from the abrasive banalities of existence. Such unpolluted innocence is the mental equivalent of an Area of Outstanding Beauty, and the hereditary seats in the House of Lords have long been the best place to relish its virtues.
Not for much longer, though. Soon the hereditary peers will have to compete amongst themselves for the right to be one of just 92 of their number allowed to remain in the House of Lords, a concession granted by the Labour Government to forestall months of legislative foot-dragging over Lords reform. When first mooted, this offered the prospect of a dignified act of self-decimation to the hereditaries. Their Lordships could imagine that it represented a distillation of their virtues rather than a dilution of their strength. It is true that the notion of an election was mildly distressing, exposing them to vulgarities from which their birth had hitherto protected them, but even that could be seen in a less distressing light as an occasion for noble rhetoric - a demonstration that aristocrats could do these things differently.
So the announcement that hereditary peers would be required to restrict themselves to 75 words or less in presenting their qualities to the electorate was delicious in its calculation, instantly converting a qualified triumph into a humiliating contest. Peers have not been required to send in four cut- out tokens from recent editions of Hansard along with their entries, but otherwise the sense that they are taking part in a promotional competition could hardly be stronger - the rump of hereditary privilege that eventually makes it through the election process will have to be known as the Tie- breaker Peers.
There's also something slyly mischievous about the way the gesture targets one of the hereditaries' most cherished privileges - that of untrammelled prolixity. "I take the view, and always have, that if you cannot say what you are going to say in 20 minutes you ought to go away and write a book about it," Lord Brabazon once said, proposing the virtues of brevity to his parliamentary colleagues.
This is not a sentiment shared by all the current members of the House of Lords. Indeed, it is instructive that Lord Brabazon thought that 20 minutes represented a short speech - since in the House of Commons MPs are frequently restricted to half that time during important debates. In the context of most Lords' speeches, though, 75 words barely permits communication at all - a mere 20 seconds if spoken aloud, perhaps 30 if delivered with full patrician drawl.
Some peers won't find themselves in difficulties. Lord Onslow, one of the front-runners for the oxymoronic role of elected hereditary, gamely declared himself to be perfectly happy with the restriction: "It does put a little bit of intellectual discipline on it," he said, for all the world like some pencil-gnawing puzzler sitting down to complete a punning slogan for Pedigree Chum dog food.
He may feel quietly confident that he can bring his own election pitch in well under the cut-off number, simply by reminding the ermined electors of his past record as a sharp and independent speaker, and there are others who will not need their full allocation of words.
By my reckoning, Lord Haden-Guest can spare at least 58 words to one of his troubled colleagues, needing just 17 to make the incontrovertible case for his own retention: "My wife is Jamie Lee Curtis, and if I win she'll come to the State Opening again."
Others will have to sweat a bit to compress their case. Here we offer some rough first drafts for those to whom economy - of speech or anything else besides - has not been given as a birthright...
in CVs They Trust: How The Good Lords Might Save Themselves
Lord Trevithin & Oaksey
"My Lords, I will not be familiar to you since I missed every one of the 228 sitting days in the last recorded session. Others can claim as much, I know, but I venture to suggest that there is a quality to my non- attendance that others cannot match. Many can do nothing, few can do it well. Vote for me and I promise that I will continue to make you look good."
"My Lords, without my talent for covert assignation, honed over generations of service, hereditaries could easily be a thing of the past. Instead, 92 will remain - reduced to procedural mischief and elegant sarcasm, a living reminder to the Labour Government to complete its reforms. I got you into this mess and, in all humility, I suggest you may wish now to repay that debt."
"When Lord Malmesbury observed in a recent debate that it would be `difficult for a nominated House to produce the youth we get here', there were those who mocked his argument. But he was right. I stand on my face, my Lords. Consider its pinkness, consider its unfurrowed rotundity, consider the air of guileless glee I bring to the front bench. Think of your children - vote Strathclyde."
The Duke of Buccleuch
"You should study the Peerage, Gerald. `It is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.' Oscar Wilde was right, my Lords, but this Noble House is now threatened by the worst kind of kitchen-sink realism. Soon we will offer nothing but drab statistics and dull logic. Strike a blow for British Magic Realism. Vote for me: I'm quite incredible and pledge to remain so."
"You may be surprised that I am standing, given my voting record on Lords reform. But my recent activism against GM crops has led me to reconsider my opposition to old-fashioned genetic inheritence. What could better demonstrate the House's long tradition of principled perversity than the election of a hereditary peer dedicated to the abolition of hereditaries?"
"My Lords - our presence in this House is not justified by merit, it is justified by our indifference to what it can offer the ordinary. Being rich, we cannot be bribed; being powerful, we cannot be tempted; being innately superior, we cannot be flattered. By rising so far above democracy we lift it with us. Give me your vote - because frankly I don't need it."Reuse content