House Of Lords: `I, being the acting returning officer for Hereditary Peers South...'

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The Independent Online
THAT'S THE great thing about moments of history - they never feel very moment-of-historyish. They fit into the day as if by chance, between the Really Important Events, like getting the kids off to school and rescuing a cat stuck up at a tree at the end of the road.

When the Berlin Wall broke open, the Communist boss who related the news seemed to have little idea of what he had announced; he said afterwards that his papers had got out of order, hence his vague confusion. When the Soviet parliament abolished itself, ending 70 years of Communist rule, most of the members hardly appeared to notice; they were more interested in scoffing the cheap posh food at the buffet.

Thus it was, too, in the House of Lords yesterday. The main event, which will have reverberations for a hundred years or two, lasted for a few monotone minutes between 1.10pm and 1.15pm. If any peers had been held up in the sandwich queue, they would havemissed it. Nonetheless, dramatic it was - 394 years after Guy Fawkes failed so miserably, the House of Lords was legally being forced to explode.

The official business of the day was a debate on the Report of the European Communities Committee on Electricity from Renewables. There were long speeches, full of portentous talk about the destruction of biodiversity. Everybody looked bored. The biggest cheer one speaker, Lord Judd, received came when he declared: "Finally..." (Like all public speakers using that word, he was, of course, nowhere near the end.)

The only thing that really mattered was the handing out of the spoils, which would be over in the blink of a hereditary eye just as soon as Lord Judd was ready to sit down. As the fateful hour approached, the chamber started filling up with nobility of all kinds - lords and ladies, earls and viscounts - waiting to hear the results of this special prizegiving. Would Ferrers minor get a special prize? Who would be elected Most Popular Member? Who would be expelled? Who would stay? Who would care?

A couple of small groups in the public gallery wore the beatific and hopeful smiles of proud families on Speech Day. As the chamber filled up, a little clutch of peers made themselves comfortable on the steps of the throne behind the Woolsack, with legs stretched out or knees clutched cosily to chins.

The list was all about missing names, as much as about those whose names were read out because they had survived the cull. The list began with "the smallest group, namely Labour", and concluded with "the largest group", namely... Well, quite. Six Labour hereditary peers, of whom four were ditched; 113 Tory hereditary peers, of whom 71 were ditched. No wonder the Tories have been less than happy about this successful version of Guy Fawkes Day.

The selection process that separated the survivors and the condemned - a thick black line on the official list marked the division between political life and death - was, as one hereditary noted afterwards, "a peculiar business". True enough. But not half so peculiar, some might argue, as what came before.