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.

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