Page last updated at 02:14 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Shaun Ley's week

By Shaun Ley
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's World at One

Edwardian theatre
An Edwardian comedy of manners had uncanny modern-day echoes

This column is in danger of becoming a theatre review, at least whenever I write it.

Last month, a production of Loot seemed to chime with the problems affecting the Metropolitan Police. This month, it's an older play that provided me with an insight into an even older institution: the House of Lords.

The play is Mary Goes First, an Edwardian drawing room comedy, just coming to the end of a six-week revival at The Orange Tree, a theatre perhaps more associated with the radical plays of Vaclav Havel.

Yet 1913, the year it was written, wasn't a bad one for political reformers. It was only a couple of years since Asquith's government achieved perhaps the single most significant change in the Lords before or since, ending the power of peers to block changes - in this case a budget - on which the elected House of Commons insisted.

The allegations made in recent days - of peers using their legislative influence for financial gain - is a reminder of the paradox which the House of Lords remains, one which the government has been unable to unravel, 11 and a half years after it was first elected, promising its own radical reform.

Pecking order

Mary Goes First is a wonderful evocation of the peculiar mix of vanity, snobbery and hard politics which explains the modern House of Lords.

Although written long before Lloyd George's estrangement from his party made expedient the blatant auction of peerages for political donations, that idea was sufficiently in the news to raise laughs on the West End stage.

Mary Whichello has been the society belle of the fictitious town of Warkinstall. But the recent award of a knighthood to Thomas Bodsworth, manufacturer, Mayor, and provider of the town's new sanatorium ("Oh, yes. I saw his name in the New Year's honours last week — very low down," as one character remarks) means his wife Fanny ("she was a grocer's daughter") is now a Lady, giving her precedence, and meaning that Mary will no longer be first into dinner at society parties.

David Lloyd George in 1914
Lloyd George later rendered the satire all too accurate

So she hatches a plan to procure her husband Richard a title which in turn will push the Wichellos above the Bosworths in the pecking order. To do so, Mary approaches a junior Government whip, Harvey Betts:

Mary: It's about the baronetcy.

Betts: Yes, but you know I'm only an under-strapper. I'm the little boy who blows the organ. The Chief plays the tune. And the Chief is very touchy about the way these things are done. We've got to put on our moral frock coats and top hats, and avoid scandals.

Mary: But couldn't you give me some idea ?

Betts: Of what ?

Mary: Of how much it costs - for a baronetcy.

Betts: Costs? The Chief's hair would turn white at the bare idea of any traffic in honours. There must be no bargain. But if Wichello wins the seat for us - and comes down handsomely for party funds …

Mary: Yes?

Betts: The Chief is too good a chap to let his patriotism go unrewarded.*

The play makes a number of timeless observations which feed people's cynicism about political parties ("The object of going into politics being to get something out of it, the question for a sensible man is from which party he can get most"), and even a modern Liberal Democrat might wince at the way another would-be Liberal MP for Warkinstall, Felix, has to face both ways as he scrabbles for votes :

Betts: I say, old man, you'll have to play a tune or two on the Socialist trumpet.

Felix: Shall I?

Betts: I've promised Chorley.

Felix: That's awkward. I've been telling everybody that the Liberal Party is the only bulwark against Socialism.

Edwardian socialists saw the House of Lords as a bastion of their enemies. Even under this government, one of its leading ministers in the Lords adorned his office wall with a poster showing working men storming the Lords.

A dock worker's son, he'd certainly breached the barricades; but the institution itself has remained relatively impervious.

There is some consensus on reform. All the main parties think members should be elected, although the Justice Secretary Jack Straw is less keen on a fully-elected House than the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.

There remain plenty of unresolved areas, such as the voting system to be used, whether members should be elected at the same time as MPs, and how existing peers should be removed.

Chopped and changed

Mr Straw - who'll join us on The World This Weekend on Sunday - admits that it's unlikely we'll see reform completed before 2011.

No wonder the Public Administration Select Committee has recommended that, in the meantime, the independent Lords Appointment Commission should have more control over who gets nominated.

It's surprising the government hasn't wanted to move more quickly. For all the attention the media gives to Commons rebellions, ministers have hardly ever been defeated there. The Lords, though, has defeated this government hundreds of times.

Yet Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have chopped and changed the Leader of the Lords. Six people have held the job since Labour came to power; only one has served longer than three years, in a Chamber where the pre-eminence of custom over formal rules can make it hard for a new boy or girl to make a quick impact.

Jack Straw
Jack Straw is one of Labour's longest-serving ministers

Small wonder, then, that the reform process has lacked momentum. One of those who sat around the cabinet table during Tony Blair's first term told me the issue had been discussed at the cabinet for about 45 minutes during that entire first term.

Some worry that an elected Second Chamber could claim equal authority with the Commons. That needn't happen, provided the reforms are explicit about retaining the difference between the authority of the two chambers.

A greater problem will be ensuring that the kind of people elected to the Lords are different from those in the Commons.

The problem is illustrated by Gordon Brown's latest ministerial appointment. He found his new Trade Minister not by scouring the green benches of the Commons but by drafting into the Lords Mervyn Davies from Standard Chartered Bank.

When, in his first broadcast interview, he spoke to The World at One on Friday, I asked how his department, known by the acronym BERR, could be held truly accountable when most of its ministers, including the boss Lord Mandelson, sit in the Lords.

Lord Davies suggested expertise was more important than electability. Finding that expertise may be even harder if no one can be in the Lords without winning an election first.

Such a problem didn't face the good folk of Warkinstall when I watched them on the stage the other night. None of their titles came with a Lords seat.

Still, my ears pricked up in the play's final act, when Sir Thomas Bodsworth magnanimously offered his congratulations to the newly dubbed Sir Richard:

Sir Thomas: We are all delighted at the honour, particularly Lady Bosworth and myself. Nobody who knows the burden of a title, the amount of public duty it entails, and the subscriptions to charities, would envy those whom it pleases His Majesty to select for the honour.

After the events of the last few days, Lords Moonie, Snape, Taylor of Blackburn and Truscott, would probably agree.

I hope you have a good weekend,


* Quotations from Mary Goes First by Henry Arthur Jones, published 1913. Extracts taken from the online archive at The University of California at Los Angeles.

Martha Kearney is away.

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