Parliament: The Sketch: Quavering swansong of an ancient and doomed species

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The Independent Online
TORY MPs had fun yesterday with Jack Cunningham's statement on Modernising Government, yocking with increasingly noisy contempt as the Minister for the Cabinet Office doggedly worked his way through his speech - one of those bullet-pointed mission statements that should ideally be presented with the help of a flip-chart and an Innovations catalogue laser pointer.

They hooted at his promise to create government that was "joined-up and responsive", giggled at the phrases "one-stop-shop" and "common-life-episodes" (the latter presumably being consultant-speak for Births, Marriages and Deaths) and spluttered at the idea of civil servants attending "Learning Labs". But the biggest ironic cheer was reserved for Mr Cunningham's pledge to develop government for the information age.

This did contain one substantive promise: by 2008, 100 per cent of dealings with government will be capable of electronic delivery.

By chance, this answered a question asked on Monday in the House of Lords: Lord Lucas, a young hereditary, making a last bid for modernity with a question about e-mail. The more significant debate about modernisation that followed lasted well into the early hours. Yesterday it was taken up again, 180 peers queuing to make their swansong - or, alternatively, to put the case for culling the swans.

One feels that some embattled hereditaries may not have caught up with e-mail yet, still struggling as they are to digest the enormities of universal suffrage. Lord Inglewood, speaking against the Government, was prepared to define his Conservatism yesterday as a preference for "evolutionary rather than revolutionary change". This may put him at odds with more traditional-minded colleagues, who probably take the view that evolution itself was recklessly precipitous in its methods. You can imagine them solemnly convened up a tree, contemplating the possibility of bi-pedalism. "We have been urged to surrender our prehensile tails," says one ancient silver-back, "but what is to replace them? We have not been told!" His fellows then break off from mutual grooming to mutter that swinging from branch to branch had served the community well for hundreds of years, so why change now?

If we are to believe the generality of speeches in the House, the hereditaries are paragons of selfless duty. The attribution of merit is undoubtedly deserved in some cases (though I would have thought that the allocation of 92 spaces will comfortably accommodate the creme de la creme with a few seats left over for the semi-skimmed). But not many speakers mention that the sense of service was accompanied by a comfortable living and a hefty wedge of unaccountable power. And when they do, it is only because they wish to claim it as just one more asset. Because the hereditaries "have no ladder to climb", they can't be compromised; because they owe their position to no party, they can speak free of inhibition.

This isn't by any means the most perverse defence of their privilege. Lord Malmesbury, a man so venerable that you wouldn't dare to nudge him in case he disintegrated, quavered: "It would be difficult for a nominated House to produce the youth we get here."

Such speeches were best answered by Lord Shore of Stepney, who pointed out that the cause notionally espoused by the hereditaries - that of protecting an effective second chamber - would be best served by their departure, since the Commons would no longer be able to dismiss its contradictions as the bray of embedded privilege. If duty and sacrifice is their prime mover, they should be consoled. They have one last service to perform by falling on their swords with dignity.