Chris Bryant: Lord this, Lady that...class-obsessed job titles that belong in the Middle Ages

A Political Life

Chris Bryant
Friday 22 June 2012 19:10

A parliamentary quiz for you.

What do Norton-sub-Hamdon, Eaton-under-Heywood and Hinton Blewett have in common? No, they are not Midsomer Murders villages. It's something they share with Chiswick, Brentwood, Upholland, Abersoch and Thornton-le-Fylde, and a whole range of towns, villages and cities, for in each case they have been adopted in the new title of a life peer. Needless to say, nobody has ever bothered the good burghers of said hamlets to ask if they mind. In some cases there might be a rather charming sense of pride. After all, the Rhondda's very own (and very only) peer, Anita Gale, right, is Baroness of Blaenrhondda, a three-street village nestled into the mountains at the top end of the Rhondda Fawr, where Anita was brought up. And the former MPs who have selected the name of their old seat or a town in it have a decent enough claim.

But I wonder quite what the people of Henley-upon-Thames make of the fact that the Lib Dem peer Jonathan Marks, who stood twice for the Commons in the 1980s for Weston-super-Mare and Falmouth and Cambourne (for the SDP), has declared ownership of their town, even though not a single Lib Dem is elected at any level to represent it. The same could be said of the Tory peer Pauline Perry, who has seized Southwark (really, a Tory baroness of Southwark?) even though she is "of Charlbury in the county of Oxfordshire".

This hangover from the old days of baronial tenants-in-chief meeting the monarch, each in actual possession of vast tracts of land, is just one element of our ludicrous class-obsessed political system. But when we reform the Lords (I'm sticking with "when" rather than "if"), let's please stop creating peers in any shape or form, put an end to the ludicrous invention of nonsensical titles and ditch the language of lord and lady this and that. I know this might upset the four Kings of Arms that govern the granting of new coats of arms, but foreign visitors to our Parliament must look at our 26 parliamentary earls, 19 viscounts, three marquesses and two dukes (there are others who didn't survive Labour's cull of hereditary peers) plus the growing multitude of life peers and think we are still living in the Middle Ages. Quaint maybe, but thoroughly out of tune with any other part of modern life.

Baronets must be the first to go

Incidentally, could we also not get rid of that bastard part of the squirearchy, the baronets? These hereditary knights were invented by Edward III but became commonplace when James VI & I sold 200 baronetcies for £1,095 each in 1611 when he needed cash and the Commons had refused it. We still have a couple of them in the Commons, Sir George Samuel Knatchbull Young, the 6th baronet of Formosa Place, and Sir Robert Smith, 3rd baronet, the Lib Dem MP who represents the same seat as his grandfather, the first baronet, Sir Robert Workman Smith.

Since we now seem to be acquiring four new parliamentary knights or dames every year, it seems a shame that these unearned knighthoods should clutter up the place, especially when a baronetcy cannot be inherited by a woman. I suspect I may have one ally in this campaign, George Osborne, whose reputation as arrogant, out of touch and über-posh hardly needs the additional handicap of the family baronetcy that will one day be his when he becomes Sir George Gideon Oliver Osborne, 18th Baronet of Ballintaylor and Ballylemon.

Nostalgia on the curriculum

The Tories are a bit in love with Michael Gove. Every week he comes up with some wolf-whistle education policy or other that engenders that favourite Conservative emotion, nostalgia. Learning poems, preferably Kipling's "If" or Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", by the age of three; fluent Greek (classical rather than modern) by the age of six; lots of competitive sport dressed in long shorts and plimsolls (only white allowed); weekly recitation of the Magna Carta; religious instruction instead of sex and relationship education. It's all daft window dressing, of course. Dragging children and teachers back to a classroom that time forgot is not going to improve standards. And constant tinkering with the exam system merely leaves today's students demotivated and tomorrow's employers completely uncertain as to what a particular qualification means. But Gove has the personal air of a man who wants to make his mark. Cameron and Osborne's slender charms are waning and Gove reckons he's in with a chance. So, parents, beware the clever Education Secretary on manoeuvres.

A bird in the hand

Peter Kellner of YouGov was the speaker at the National Policy Forum meeting in Birmingham last Saturday and told us of Norman Atkinson, erstwhile MP for Tottenham, who used to say he had no time for pollsters as he could find out what the public mood was from his local Labour Party general management committee. The one thing he didn't see coming, though, was his deselection, courtesy of that very same GMC in 1987.

At the Parliamentary Labour Party affair in honour of our popular chairman, Tony Lloyd told a similar tale of Peter Hardy, formerly MP for Wentworth, who declared himself singularly unimpressed by François Mitterand's campaigning, arguing that the eve-of-poll rallies in Wentworth really were something to behold. Hardy was also a passionate campaigner for wildlife preservation, and in a late night debate on the Felixstowe Docks Bill in 1987 he did an apparently impressive impersonation of the widgeon, a bird threatened by the proposed development. Hansard, always keen to render such innovations in parliamentary language, records it as, "whee hoo". Ornithologists will doubtless let me know whether this is right.


Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments