Jason Goodwin: ‘The boys, saucer-eyed, watched the Lord spoon his soup, indifferent to the suffering of his fairy slaves’

Our Spectator columnist considers the House of Lords.

The Lords have recently found themselves a host of unlikely admirers by opposing the Government’s plan to implement the Brexit negotiations without a Commons vote. ‘Everybody loves a lord,’ as the Americans say.

When the boys were small, we went on holiday to an attic flat over the stables on a Tuscan estate. The place belonged to a lord who was the friend of a friend and very slightly notorious.

It was one of those glorious holidays that stick in everyone’s minds and help to establish the chronology of our lives. We saw the Piazza del Campo in Siena and a snake in the garden. We ate fresh ravioli the size of a paperback. There wasn’t a pool. In the evenings, we read The Whispering Mountain to the boys; it’s Joan Aiken’s masterpiece and contains a lord, also a hereditary. Lord Mayln is very frightening and cruel – he keeps a race of diminished fairies slaving under the mountain – and, for reading aloud, I gave him a slight stammer and a thin, posh voice.

Near the end of our stay, our host generously asked us for lunch. The table was laid beneath a ziggurat of steps, which mounted to the hilltop, and there we met the Earl, who wore a white jacket and dark glasses. He was interesting and reserved and, in a thin, posh voice, he pointed out the place where he and his family had watched an Un-unidentified F-flying Object descend on New Year’s Eve.

Nothing was missing. The boys, rigid and saucer-eyed, watched him spoon his soup, indifferent to the suffering of his fairy slaves. They managed their lunch, but only in fear of being banished to the mines under the hill after ice cream.

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People do love a lord. On the Eleventh Day of Christmas they come a-leaping, which is an endearing notion. They have no power outside Government, except to get reservations in restaurants and to support charities.

Ninety-two hereditaries sit in the House of Lords. Some people think our remaining hereditaries ought to go, which would take us a step closer to a republic, yet, in fact, they are the only democratic element in the Upper Chamber. Life peerages are handed out by politicians, but the ranks of the hereditaries are filled by election, as occurred last week. It’s a bit like the constitution of the Venetian Republic, which hedged the temptations of power with a fiendishly convoluted system of election aimed at preventing any one family from becoming too entrenched.

Across the Adriatic, the Ragusans, of modern Dubrovnik, had an even more fantastic set of safeguards. The nobility in Grand Council – the Ragusan lords – set tariffs and issued decrees; 51 of them were elected by the rest to a Legislative Council, who deferred to a Little Council of 11 men.

The head of state was the Rector, a sort of doge, who was elected once a month and permitted only one term of office. He had no power at all, but was bathed in all pomp and glory as long as his month lasted; thereafter, he was never allowed to display any emblem of his Rectorship until he died, when the regalia of office was placed on his coffin.

The city’s defences were commanded by a man selected by the senate in secret conclave. He learned of his appointment by being winked at in the street, was led blindfold to his post and replaced after 24 hours. The Ragusans enjoyed a national health service and banned slavery by the 15th century. Rarely – perhaps once in a generation – the courts imposed the death sentence. The whole city went into mourning and a Turkish executioner was brought in to carry it out.