Don't drop your tights, Lord Irvine

Dressed like a glittering beadle, he can blame his true ludicrousness on something else

Philip Hensher@PhilipHensher
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:22

NOW, IS he absolutely sure about this? The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, fresh from establishing his credentials as an upholder of Heritage Britain in a small matter of some hand-blocked wallpaper, is, it appears, somewhat less historically minded in the matter of hosiery. After a little gentle pressure from the incumbent, the relevant committee of the House of Lords, ratified by the House itself, recommended that the Lord Chancellor should no longer have to wear tights, breeches and buckled shoes when sitting on the Woolsack. When speaking in his role as a minister in the House, he will be excused the full-bottomed wig and gown.

It is certainly a very absurd sort of outfit, making the Lord Chancellor resemble one of Charles II's mistresses in a gold lame dressing gown. And, it must be said, Lord Irvine of Lairg looks even more absurd in it than most Lord Chancellors; it perfectly accentuates his slightly spaniel aspect. But absurdity has its uses, though, perhaps through tact, none of the speakers in the debate in the House of Lords yesterday touched on its most obvious benefit to the Lord Chancellor. The fact is that, dressed up like a glittering beadle, he can blame his patent ludicrousness on something else, and if small children howl at him, throw stones or simply start laughing, he can reassure himself that it's just what the office obliges him to wear. In a suit, the Lord Chancellor would be naked.

The debaters in the House of Lords limited themselves to more conventional arguments. Lord Ferrers, for the opposition, said that it was a matter of tradition and standards, a part of our country since time immemorial, the druids themselves blah blah blah. The Government side went on about new exciting modernity; one peer said, amazingly, that not to change would be to "lose the people's confidence in the House of Lords". A bit late for that, one might have thought.

Lord Irvine's desire to get rid of a certain amount of flummery follows in the line of some distinguished precedents. When Betty Boothroyd took over as Speaker of the Commons, she announced bluntly that she wasn't going to wear the full-bottomed wig, and nobody suggested that a debate need be held or committee set up to discuss the matter; I mean, who would have dared? Chris Patten, going as the last Governor to Hong Kong, declined the offer of the traditional ostrich-plumed hat.

But before Lord Irvine starts thinking that he can follow in these distinguished precedents and start sitting on the Woolsack in his usual single-breasted grey worsted, he ought really to take a realistic look at himself and at the general dignity of his profession. Madam Speaker Boothroyd was not someone who was ever going to need any kind of assistance from ceremonial dress or who derived any part of her grand authority from a big wig. When she was appointed, the respect, not to say awe, in which she was held by most members of the Commons was such that, frankly, she could have kept order in a pair of hotpants and a bowler hat.

Similarly, Chris Patten, arriving in Hong Kong, must have realised that this was not a moment to start going on about authority, tradition and the ancient customs of the imperial Governors, and that, if he had no dignity in himself, no number of slaughtered ostriches could possibly help him to establish it.

I rather fear, though, that Chris Patten and Betty Boothroyd are not examples that Lord Irvine can dream of emulating. It is not that he, or the legal profession - for he must be thinking, at least, of letting judges and barristers follow his lead - need worry about their apparent absurdity. It is more that the profession needs all the external absurdity it can get.

Everyone knows that most of the opinions of the House of Lords aren't worth the paper they are written on. We accept their views, as we would accept, unquestioning, the views of lunatics, because they issue from a bunch of old men in extraordinary fancy dress, presided over by a man in tights and buckles. And, once the wigs go, and the gilt and the buckles, once judges preside over their courts dressed much as everyone else in the room, perhaps everyone else in the room will listen to the extraordinary manners and opinions held by the legal profession in a different way. Not as the sort of thing that any man, once he puts on a pair of tights, might start to say, but just as the opinion held by another human being, and one which may be argued with.

The problem is that large parts of the legal profession are absurd and undignified. If I were in it, I would be very concerned to stop the public discovering that its absurdity does not reside in the clothes that it has to wear.

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