Last Wednesday I was invited to lunch at the most exclusive club in the world. It only has a few hundred members, yet it has enormous premises overlooking the Thames.
Quite how you join is unclear: they never advertise vacancies, yet I have a few friends who joined quite recently, and others who are there through family connections. There’s no enrolment fee (though some are said to have paid handsomely for the right to be there) nor is there an annual subscription. On the contrary, once you’re in the club, they actually pay you to visit, though you have to buy your own lunch, and your membership doesn’t expire till you drop down dead.
My friend had been given his membership card by an uncle; then, in 1999, the club took it away. It caused a huge row – it was in all the newspapers. He had to wait for somebody to die, and then they gave it back to him. I’m glad they did, because it gave me a chance to go behind the club’s impressive façade and try out its beef stew. I wore a tie.
The House of Lords is a bit like being back at school, except it has blue carpets instead of parquet flooring, the paneling is polished and nobody runs down the corridors. It also doesn’t smell of stale rugby shirts. Everyone has his own metal coathook with his name on it: I hung my briefcase on my friend’s, before we went down a long corridor to lunch. Like school lunches, the dining room starts serving at precisely 1pm. But unlike school, we waited in the bar: I had a gin and tonic. The chairs were covered in red leather.
Despite the club’s exclusivity, there’s clearly no Gordon Ramsay behind the scenes. The dishes are mostly roasts, stews and grills. Mine had a herb dumpling, and there was spotted dick for dessert. This was boarding school comfort food: not that I went to boarding school, of course, but I used to quite like the spotted dick at the RGS. Everyone was very polite and smiled at each other. At one point, the impressive shape of Lady Trumpington sailed across the room and barked “Good Day” to anyone who caught her eye.
After lunch, my noble friend (for so he is) invited me to see him work. We sat outside the “chamber” until precisely 3pm, presumably to allow the spotted dick to clear the noble oesophagi before proceedings could begin. Suddenly the doorman snapped us to attention and we all stood up. Like a sergeant major he marched in slow motion across the room until he faced a closed door, then turned on the spot and stamped his feet. A mini-procession then ambled in, consisting of a man with a large silver mace, another wearing breeches and a lady whom I took to be the Speaker. The door to the chamber swung open on some kind of hydraulic mechanism and they entered. The proceedings began with prayers – presumably a throwback to school assembly.
The House of Lords inhabits a curious constitutional time warp. The day (or, rather, afternoon) starts with questions. The Speaker sits on a large cushion, called the Woolsack: you’d think they might run to a chair, though while I was there she didn’t actually speak at all. Instead, it was first come first served. Without warning, arthritic hips leaped up and their owners start talking on top of each other. Eventually someone would give way and the winner had his moment in Hansard. Every seven-and-a-half minutes a clerk in a wig announced another question and after half an hour the four questions were dealt with and the chamber emptied as quickly as it had filled.
It’s an extraordinarily cumbersome way to run a modern democracy, but it kind of works, thanks largely to the passion and commitment of its ageing membership. The Lords is part anachronism, part essential check on the elected people housed what the Lords disparagingly call “the other place”. There they have green leather seats instead of red, but I hear the beef stew isn’t half as good.