The first televising of the House of Lords, on 23 January, was, I found, a pleasant shock. It might well be that the other viewers consisted entirely of the unemployed, but I doubt if even the most bitter among them felt that time and money were being wasted. Helping to make the broadcast a surprise were one’s expectations, which could not help but be dire.
Somehow the idea had got about that it was a lively moment in the House of Lords when Lord Hailsham bounced up and down on the Woolsack, and that in the normal course of business there was nothing to be heard from the buttoned red leather benches – pictures of these had been seen in the colour-supplements – except the death rattle of octogenarians. Things turned out to be not like that, either because they never had been or because they had been tarted up for the day. If the latter, it was a good argument in favour of televising Parliament.
The argument against was rehearsed at the eleventh hour by Lord Chalfont, talking to David Dimbleby on BBC 1. Lord Chalfont was against the televising of the House of Lords because he suspected that it was just a stratagem on the part of the broadcasters so that they could force the door of the House of Commons, after which the House of Lords, having served its purpose, would be once again plunged into obscurity. This sounded like a shrewd analysis. He was also against the televising because the peers would quickly become concerned with nothing else expect fashioning an image, since television isn’t interested in reasoned arguments, only in creating an impression. This sounded like a shrewd analysis only if you believed the premise, which I don’t: television is just your eyes and ears on a stalk and doesn’t like unreasoned arguments any better than you do. There is even a case for saying that it likes reasoned arguments better than radio, which won’t tolerate dead air, whereas a pause on television makes you look as if you’re thinking when you are. Television also makes you look as if you aren’t thinking when you aren’t, and thus helps to strip rhetoric of its binding energy. It is a bad medium for demagogues and offers its maximum excitement when one talking head is talking well. This is a hard point to prove, however: heads that talk well are in short supply.
Suddenly there they were, in abundance. The idea of starting off with Question Time was inspired, because the convention that a question must be kept short meant that a whole cast of characters were on their feet in the first hour, all choosing their words carefully so as to pack the most provocation into the briefest time. Probably they had rehearsed in front of the bathroom mirror, but it didn’t matter. The level of language was high: that was what mattered. Would-be camera-hogs were steered back to the straight and narrow by a mass murmur of ‘Too long’. Properly constructed sentences were to be heard, many of them with subordinate clauses. Contributions from Conservative, Labour and Alliance peers were all at the same respectable level of diction and articulacy, as if the English language were the common property of the British people, instead of, as in the House of Commons, something drawled by those who vote Conservative, bellowed by those who vote Labour, and spoken in recognizably human tones only be David Owen. Indeed the growing idea that Parliament might have to be dissolved and Dr Owen elected in its place will need to be revised, now that the House of Lords turns out to be full of people who are even better than he is at speaking as if you were listening. Some of them are a bit older than him, of course, although none of them actually died during Question Time. Lord Shinwell was seen to be sitting very still, but next time the camera came back to him he was sitting very still in a different position.
The reaction shot immediately showed its power. When the directors and vision mixers get more practice, the reaction shot will unquestionably become a principal feature, but even during this test run you found yourself listening harder when the face on screen was listening too. Whether Lord Hailsham was listening was hard to judge, because of his wig. All the other peers except the bishops were in street clothes: another expectation falsified. Despite having read quite a lot of journalism on the subject, I had somehow expected to see my noble lords in full drag. Doubtless they would have carried it off, but their looking ordinary made other conventions more immediately assimilable. The convention of calling your interlocutor ‘my noble lord’ or ‘the noble baroness’, for example, rapidly came to sound like ordinary courtesy, and one looked forward with regret to the next time the Speaker of the House of Commons would be obliged to eject Mr Dennis Skinner.
The Minister for the Arts, who is also the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and who when neither of those things is the Earl of Gowrie, was referred to at all times as either ‘my noble lord’ or ‘the noble Earl’, or a combination of both. To be thus addressed is probably more comforting than otherwise, especially when your job, as far as the Upper House is concerned, hasn’t got much else to offer except the obligation to field flak from above, below and all sides. During Question Time Lord Gowrie was asked to answer for the Government’s economic policy, but because he was due to speak on that subject in the upcoming debate he staved off the question with a joke.
His jokes were no better than anybody else’s. The House of Lords, like the House of Commons, seems to learn its humour in the Oxford and Cambridge Union debating chambers, where the audience will laugh at anything. An audience which will laugh at anything can teach you nothing about humour, which requires self-criticism. But when the peers stuck to questions and answers on serious points they were impressive, especially the women. Baroness Young almost got you convinced that the BBC’s Overseas Broadcasting services, far from declining under this government had actually flourished. In the reaction shots, however, the sadly shaking heads of her questioners showed you that something was up. Lord Whitelaw allowed the baroness to be questioned repeatedly, indeed repetitively, on the subject, so he was certainly not protecting her.
Lord Beswick opened the debate for Labour. He was no television star, but that was what made him a television star, and will eventually make them all television stars. He showed no sign of juicing his speech up for the camera or even the microphone. On the other hand, he showed every sign of speaking reasonably. His attack on government policy made sardonic use of the British Telecom flotation. Well-composed and ably enough delivered, his argument was hard to answer, as Lord Gowrie proved. My noble lord the noble Earl did his best to evoke a booming economy, but was hampered by lack of factual material. Baroness Seear, leader of the Liberal peers, made telling points which Lord Gowrie, seen in the reaction shots, either acknowledged for their skill or else simply agreed with. (Mrs Thatcher has probably already convened Lord Gowrie, the three other Cabinet nobles and every other Tory peer in order to tell them that it is no longer enough to be careful what they say. They must be careful what they think, and Lord Thorneycroft must not smile so much.) Making Baroness Seear’s forensic sallies doubly impressive was the fact that they were spoken extempore. Again this was no television star, but most of television’s female pitch-persons were going to sound pretty club-tongued by comparison. Imagine Esther Rantzen speaking for twenty minutes without notes.
The Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, fruitily delivered a maiden speech which took me back to Great St Mary’s in Cambridge, where I listened to him earlier in his career. Familiarity bred indifference, but Lord Cledwyn, next up for Labour, offered what sounded like sincere compliments. Then Lord Stockton, after a commotion in the Strangers’ Gallery which we were not allowed to watch, rose to offer insincere compliments. He too, he began, had ‘recently passed through the ordeal of a maiden speech’. Everybody knew that his maiden speech had been a triumph. The sly old walrus was poor mouthing himself again. But not as much, it turned out, as he was going to bad-mouth the government.
Lord Stockton’s use of language verged on the exquisite (‘this motion, drawn up in very wide, almost Pecksniffian terms’), but he was out for blood. Lord Gowrie was complimented on ‘the very best defence of government I’ve ever heard made’. But this was a build-up for the let-down. Quickly it became clear that there could be no real defence of this government. In Stockton sixty-three years ago unemployment had been 29 per cent. What was unemployment in Stockton today? 28 per cent. ‘A very sad end to one’s life.’
He took no credit for the years in which he, in his earlier incarnation as Harold Macmillan, had told the people that they had never had it so good. The economy had been collapsing steadily since the First World War, and the Second World War had only appeared to shore it up. When the crash became obvious to all, the Labour Government had not known what to do. (As in a well-scripted movie, there was a reaction shot of Lord Wilson not reacting: giving points for liveliness, in fact, to Lord Shinwell. Whoever was on the buttons had a flying finger. When television is as well-directed as this, you’re not only there, you’re looking in the right place.)
‘What is really happening,’ Lord Stockton said, as if the whole crafty edifice of his oration were being made up on the spot, ‘is that the third industrial revolution is on its way…and we’re somehow out of it.’ It was permissible to reflect that it isn’t on its way, it’s here, and we’re not only out of it, we have little chance of getting back into it. But you had to allow him his measure of optimism, especially if it doubled the effect of his condemnation. And what he was condemning was Mrs Thatcher’s government.
Mrs Thatcher will probably not be much concerned by the question of which it was that dealt her such a blow, an image of a shuffling old man or a real shuffling old man. She is doubtless sufficiently preoccupied by the likelihood that her back-benchers, should they be offered the same chance of television stardom, will show similar signs of independence. If her quondam image-expert Mr Cecil Parkinson has been consulted he will have had further implications to point out, among them being the possibility that unless the cameras are put into the House of Commons, or else removed from the House of Lords, then the Upper House will render the Lower House incredible. Augustus, reserving power for himself, lived modestly while allowing the senators all the glory. It didn’t matter what they said because nobody could listen. But a national debating chamber to which the people can listen, and not only listen to but look at, becomes a power in itself.
After Lord Stockton sat down, Lord Taylor stood up to an emptying house, which was rather tough on the SDP. This, we were told, was how the benches normally looked. But the damage had been done, if damage it was. Back being interviewed on television that same night, Lord Chalfont explained how the cameras had made the whole thing histrionic. But he wore a Garrick Club tie to say so, and if television can’t abide reasoned arguments, why was he arguing? Denis Healey, a realist, called Lord Stockton’s speech ‘a lulu’, in the tones of one already planning a few lulus of his own.
London Review of Books, 7 February, 1985