Baroness Jenny Jones: Parliament, theatre of the absurd
Last week at the Lords, I felt as if I’d been watching a two-part play by Gilbert and Sullivan, with a touch of the Carry On films.
This consisted of a Royal Commission, which involved five peers putting on red robes and black hats and sitting, backs to the throne, like hanging judges. There was some jostling for seats for the show as the Liberal Democrats were well represented and had now moved from the government benches to those of the opposition. Although there were some spaces on the Labour benches, there was no welcome for seatless Lib Dems and some had to stand while others sat on the steps or the floor.
As the five seated robed peers – all Privy Councillors – were identified by name, the three women merely nodded, keeping their tricorn hats firmly on, but the two men swept off their long, thin bicorn hats with a bit of swagger. They then summoned the Commons to hear the Queen’s wishes, handed down to them as a Royal Commission, as she wasn’t present. Black Rod went to bang on the doors of the Commons and summon some MPs.
We expected a few backbenchers and first-timers, but in walked many from the front benches – Cameron, Osborne, May, Harman, Cooper, and the Father of the House, Gerald Kaufman, as well as 50 or so others. Our five peers gave instructions to the MPs, consisting of such things as to go away and appoint “some proper person to be your Speaker”. There was quite a bit of laughter at that, from both peers and MPs.
As the MPs started to leave, Black Rod was to lead them out and in energetically turning to depart, with his gold-tipped black rod on his right shoulder, he nearly swiped the Prime Minister, who managed to duck. That brought another huge burst of laughter, even from the PM himself – and could have raised an interesting constitutional crisis.
We were then told that we peers would have to swear an oath of allegiance. We all do it when first introduced, and for me that was hard enough – an egalitarian, swearing allegiance to the Queen and all her offspring. But I had thought I only had to do it once in my life. It doesn’t show much trust that we peers have to do it for every parliament. It meant hundreds of peers, including some quite frail, having to queue for hours. I asked the Clerk if we couldn’t find a better way, and he seemed thoughtful.
This was a slightly shorter Act, consisting of royal approbation of the Commons Speaker. The Leader of the House, in her usual clothes, read out the name of the new parliament’s Speaker in the Commons, John Bercow. The five senior peers then trooped out of the Chamber to get robed and hatted. They then paraded in, sat again with their backs to the throne, and told Black Rod “to let the Commons know that we demand their immediate attendance”. Off went Black Rod, to hammer on the door of the Commons again, and he brought back Bercow, followed by Cameron, Kaufman, Harman and perhaps 40 other MPs.
Bercow said he was presenting himself and submitting himself to her Majesty. He was then told that the Queen knew “he has ample sufficiency” – even Bercow grinned at that – and that the Queen approved his election. There was much doffing of hats, and all the MPs exited in the wake of Black Rod.
Some of us might find it rather heartwarming that we have managed to keep alive a ceremony for 200 or more years. I’m an ex-archaeologist and have a lot of respect for tradition and continuity, and also picturesqueness, but even I found the Royal Commission process to be archaic, arcane and a tedious waste of time. This government has all but ruled out Lords reform, but as they hold less than a third of the seats in the Lords – and as their legislative defeats in the upper chamber pile up – they may rethink that decision.
Since the election, many of our political parties have decided that reform to our first-past-the-post voting system is needed urgently. After an election where 1.1m votes earned the Green Party just one MP, and it took over 4m votes to return a single Ukip Member, we have to ask ourselves if many aspects of our system are too old fashioned to continue.
And last week was the State Opening of Parliament. This was preceded on the day by a ‘search for gunpowder’ by costumed men with lamps with candles, behind the throne and in the cellars. I was there again, to see Act Three of this continuing drama.
Baroness Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer