Parliament: The Sketch: Lordships flounder as they swim against the tide

THERE ARE times when, staring down into the House of Lords from the press gallery, it's possible to imagine the chamber as a vast rock pool, the water so limpid that it has become effectively invisible. At the far end there's a great outcrop of golden coral and, ranged along the walls like pin-striped anemones adhering to weed-covered ledges, their lordships themselves, waving their tendrils in response to some consensual tide of opinion. It has its fish too, some colourful, some snappy, some sleekly menacing, and yesterday it was considering the fact that several hundred of the pool's more exotic occupants were to be plucked from the water, whipped away by the Government's House of Lords Bill, like lobsters from a restaurant holding-tank.

The Labour Chief Whip introduced the first day of debate on the second reading of the Bill by pleading with his colleagues for restraint. He had no powers to constrain, he conceded, but an average length of seven minutes per speech would be nice. Earl Ferrers rose to protest: "Does he realise that some of your lordships are going to be restrained for the rest of their lives!"

I hadn't understood that the Government's Bill included measures to place all the hereditary peers under house arrest but Earl Ferrers' extravagance of speech accurately set the tone for several of the Conservative contributions that followed, with their curious habit of inverting the terms of the argument - so that the belated withdrawal of an indefensible privilege could be depicted as the infliction of an entirely novel cruelty. Such is the distorting effect of life in a rock pool, where the occasional cold splash of fresh water can be represented not as a reviving intrusion from the sea beyond, but as a catastrophic disruption of that enclosed universe.

One of the most cherished delusions of the rock pool inhabitants is that of "service to the nation" - as if an automatic right to a place in parliament were not in truth a privilege at all, but a burden which only the aristocracy is fit to bear. Even Labour speakers pay lip service to this fantastic notion, anxious not to hurt the feelings of their noble colleagues, though when Baroness Jay raised the matter, during her opening speech, there was a barb inside the bait; there were many ways of giving service to the country, she pointed out, whether it was by serving in the Army or teaching in a school: "All those same opportunities are now open to the hereditary peers who will leave us." And if neither of those jobs suit, they can be hospital disc jockeys or lollipop men.

Lord Strathclyde was not soothed by this reminder that the thwarted impulse to duty could be expressed in other ways. He was still moved by the plight of the distinguished refugees who would soon be fleeing from the brutal prejudice of Labour's constitutional militia. Listing some of Lord Carrington's political distinctions he pointed out that he was to be excluded from the House, not for any sin but simply "because of where he was born". You cannot hope, he continued, "to score a knife across one of the arteries of our history and leave the body politic unaltered". This sounded rather terrifying, but for the fact that altering the body politic is precisely what the Labour Party wishes to achieve.

Lord Carrington, incidentally, made a rather good speech himself, already moving on beyond dispossession to ask some pointed questions about the shape of the new chamber, which he believed should be an elected body with the power to call a referendum in cases of constitutional import. When he spoke he generated a wave that splashed beyond the confines of the rock pool. Most of his colleagues could only manage ripples that rebounded from its walls, even if they convinced themselves they were mighty surges.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee