Everyone wants to be a Lady

The new House of Lords is as undemocratic as the old one, but women especially are keen to partake of this Blairite patronage
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The Independent Online

I once had a bizarre conversation with the editor of the Times, who accosted me in the library of the Reform Club and launched into a fantasy about my imminent elevation to the House of Lords. I was mystified, given that I have little time for the present Government or the institution itself. No one in their right mind is going to ask me and, even if they did, I would no more say yes than walk naked across Trafalgar Square in a snowstorm. The conversation quickly descended into a pantomimic exchange of "You'll get there before I do", leaving me puzzling over it ever since.

I loathe titles. I never use Miss or Mrs, and Ms only reluctantly. I feel much the same about "lady", a prissy word whose class associations have always made me squirm. I mean, nobody ever talks about the ladies' movement, do they? And whether you prefer "women" or "wimmin", there certainly weren't any ladies at Greenham Common, thank God. (Would you be so kind as to pass the wire-cutters, Lady Violet? Thank you so much.)

Now, to my horror, there are suddenly ladies everywhere. I don't mean the old-fashioned sort, who wore white gloves and got their engagement pictures in Country Life. I met one of the new kind only last week, a thoroughly modern specimen who goes around introducing herself as plain old Liz Symons even though we all know she is actually Lady Symons of Vernham Dean. She is also, as defence procurement minister, responsible for selling arms to awkward places like Indonesia - rather like the fathers, I imagine, of the girls who used to grace Country Life.

This is not exactly a step forward for women's liberation. But Lady Symons is not, sadly, the only lady I have encountered recently. A few weeks ago, I met Lady Massey, a geography professor who was recently elevated by Tony Blair. I also know Lady Kennedy QC, barrister and chairman of the British Council, and a brace of noble crime novelists, Baronesses James and Rendell. As for lords, I have debated with Lord Bragg, sailed with Lord Rogers, and I used to be published by Lord Evans, chairman of Faber and Faber. I have even been denounced on Radio 4 by Lord Hattersley, although that was when he was plain Roy Hattersley MP.

They are sensible, decent human beings. Lady Massey is in the forefront of the fight to overturn the pernicious Section 28, while Lady Kennedy opposed the Government's disgraceful plan to limit trial by jury. But no one elected them. None of us had the chance to say whether we wanted Lady Symons or Lord Evans to legislate on our behalf. They have no more right to be there than my mum, who lives in a depressed town on Tyneside and could tell ministers a few things about how the NHS treats the elderly.

The quango which was appointed last week to choose independent peers is a quintessentially New Labour body. Its seven members include three lords, a lady and a dame; instead of appointing crossbench peers himself, Mr Blair has picked the people who will do it for him. Oligarchies are self-perpetuating and I doubt whether the Lords Appointments Commission, chaired by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham (management consultant, chairman of Pearson plc and Halifax plc) will present us with a list which includes plumbers, rap artists and single mothers from council estates.

All this means is that a supposedly modernising Government has made a slight adjustment to what constitutes the great and good. It now includes fewer viscounts and more lawyers, broadcasters and trade unionists. When the hereditaries sat en masse in the House of Lords, there were always a few drug addicts or obvious loonies who were manifestly unqualified to occupy any part of the legislature. But the same is true of the partly reformed upper chamber. For every life peer I admire, such as Lady Kennedy, there is some ghastly ermined creature like the mendacious, self-aggrandising Lord Archer.

But the fundamental objection to the old House of Lords was not the freakish assortment of peers thrown up by the hereditary principle. It was that the institution itself was undemocratic. It still is: a system of inheritance has been replaced by one of patronage, which Mr Blair shows little sign of relinquishing. It is clear that the last thing he wants is an elected second chamber which can legitimately claim to keep a watchful eye on MPs on our behalf. (Elections. Can't control them. Look at last week.)

For the foreseeable future, Mr Blair and Mr Hague will continue to bestow peerages on their friends and people who have made big donations - sorry, entrepreneurs who bring a wealth of experience in the business world to the upper house. (I recently asked a lawyer, by the way, why no one is being investigated for selling honours in view of the close relationship that appears to exist between writing large cheques to political parties and the arrival of a letter offering a title. He was no more able to explain the authorities' lack of interest than I am.)

At this rate, half my friends are going to end up as Lady This or Baroness That. They will no doubt excuse themselves by saying they don't take the title seriously or they only accepted it in order to abolish the whole shebang. But it is hardly what the pioneers of the women's movement had in mind when they struggled with sexist language and worried about being female eunuchs. I don't suppose it ever occurred to them that, three decades later, so many women would discover that they really do want to be ladies after all.

Learning Latin is supposed to make children groan and pester their parents about why they have to learn a dead language. Not so at Christ Church primary school in Bristol, where the pupils petitioned their headmaster to continue lunchtime Latin lessons at the end of what was supposed to be a one-term experiment. The course has proved so successful that their teacher, Barbara Bell from Clifton High School for Girls, is now appealing for Latin scholars to contact her so she can organise classes at other primary schools. This flies in the face of a trend which has seen university classics departments offering Latin and Greek in translation as a degree course because so few children learn the languages at school.

One of the reasons for the disappearance of classics from the syllabus is its association with public schools. Seen as an elitist subject, with no obvious career associations, there was little serious opposition when it stopped being offered in state schools. Yet I can think of few better preparations for writers, politicians or anyone with a humanist outlook. I'm sure my own writing style was formed by reading Cicero and Tacitus (in the original) from the age of 12 to 21. Though I doubt whether Juvenal, as famous for his misogyny as his Satires, would approve of the use I've made of his lessons in polemic.