Beckoned toward our temporary home by an illuminated Big Ben, we walked past Westminster Palace, only to find that the line was nonexistent, and that Security was still letting people inside.
After being scanned, probed, photographed, and our belongings x-rayed, we were issued with badges displaying our names and faces. We walked through the security room, out into a courtyard, and then into another building, which we learned was the old parliament building. From atop the steps of this cavernous room, President Obama had addressed England’s cabinet ministers and both houses of parliament the previous week. The building was filled with statues and other points of interest, but as the House of Commons had retired for the evening, we hurried upstairs, intent upon visiting the House of Lords before they too called their deliberations to an end.
At another checkpoint, we were required to handover all cameras, phones, packages, and even our jackets to a cloakroom attendant. So, just as Moses could not gaze directly upon the Lord’s face, so we could not photograph the faces of English lords.
While the greeters had given us several brochures, none explained to my satisfaction how the House of Lords differs from its more popular cousin. From the “Yes, Prime Minister” episode “The Bishop’s Gambit,” I know that some of the older bishoprics include a seat in the House of Lords. From “Yes Minister” and its sequel I know that one way the Prime Minister can curtail an ambitious minister’s power is to make him a Lord. Alternatively, for a politician who cares more about serving the public than swaying the electorate, or who merely wishes to enjoy the status associated with being an English Lord, I gather that such a “promotion” would be welcomed.
|A TV show, a play, and a learning experience?|
The chamber of the House of Lords is smaller than the House of Commons, and while arranged similarly, its chairs and benches are upholstered in red, not green. We sat in the visitors’ balcony, and looked down on a chamber that was barely half-full. The Lords were discussing an issue regarding what was appropriate for appointed (not elected) officials who performed certain police-type duties in their community. Obviously, the topic held us enthralled. The Lords took no notice of us, but participated contentedly in their debate. The instant one sat down, another rose to comment upon the previous Lord’s statement, or to make a point of his own.
Watching with us were not only TV cameras, but also carved life-size figures holding weaponry such as swords, which gave the chamber a regal feeling one may not get from the chambers of less-historic government bodies. But impressive or not, there is only so much interest in the domestic debates of another country that can be summoned up after a day spent (mostly) on one’s feet. So we left the House of Lords, and picked up ice cream bars along the way back to our hotel to put a sweet finish to our busy day.
In our room, we flipped channels, and watched as the coverage of the debate continued. Unlike the House of Commons, in which a member of parliament (MP) will have to ignore cheers and jeers while he is speaking, the Lords’ conduct was more dignified. There might have been the occasional “Here, here,” but no one booed another member of chamber, necessitating that the person orchestrating proceedings bang his gavel and demand quiet. The greeters I had spoken with had said that the House of Lords is largely powerless these days, that it was in the process of reform, that gradually England was doing away with life-time appointments, and moving toward a point where all members were elected for shorter terms. It is not my place to judge the merits of their reform process, but one wonders what will be lost in the process. Will the House of Lords emerge as dignified as they are now, if those arguing in the red chamber are more aware of the cameras televising the debate? Will they be as concerned with weighing a particular issue’s merits, as opposed to grandstanding for viewers, if in the near future they must seek the voters’ approval to serve another term? Time, the great revealer, alone knows the answer to that question.
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