Full disclosure: the hard-working staff here tends to not pay that much attention to British pomp and circumstance. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to demonstrate any knowledge whatsoever of British royalty/nobility trivia, beyond one Pippa Middleton dress.
But like most Americans who don’t live with it on a day-to-day basis, I do have a soft spot for the sillier parts of British tradition. So when I was asked to provide expert testimony to a House of Lords EU External Affairs Subcommittee investigating European Union foreign policy and Britain’s role in the European Union, I accepted out of sheer curiosity.
Last week the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts decamped to London to answer questions posed by the House of Lords about the European Union, and to answer a series of questions that had formed in my head:
- Would everyone be wearing wigs?
- What would be the silliest Lord name in attendance at the hearing? Cause there are some really silly names.
- Would any Peer disapparate using Floo Powder?
- Would any fresh House of Lords contretemps break out while I was testifying?
Having now completed my testimony — which you can listen to here — I must say that while some illusions have been preserved, many have been permanently altered from the experience. In no particular order:
1. Oddly laid-back security. I showed up at Parliament, explained that I was testifying, and was then sent on my way into the building. I had to go through typical airport-type security, with one significant exception: at no point in time did I ever have to present any identification whatsoever. This was simultaneously refreshing and a bit disconcerting.
2. Very little pomp and circumstance. The hearing was in a room smaller than the one the Senate Foreign Relations Committee used when I testified in Washington. The members were in business dress, there were no wigs of any sort. Not a single representative from the Ministry of Silly Walks was in attendance. Unlike the Ministry of Magic — or Senate hearings, for that matter — I was at the same height as the members. It was hardly an inquisition: indeed, the committee e-mailed me the questions in advance.
3. Very little to caricature. I testified in front of three Baronesses, one Earl, and five Lords. None of them had truly silly titles. I suppose the closest was the chair of the committee, Lord Tugendhat, but he was far too sensible for the name to be all that amusing.
It was more than that, however. Truthfully, this House of Lords Subcommittee put the U.S. Senate to shame. When I testified for the Senate Foreign Affairs, less than half the committee members showed up — which was actually a pretty high turnout as these things go. For the subcommittee, however, all the members appeared to be in attendance, they were all paying attention to the testimony, and there was very little staff in the room.
All of that said, there were a few moments that sated this American’s desire for something completely different:
1. The building. The hearing was in the Palace of Westminster. With all due respect to the U.S. Capitol, this is just a much more impressive building. The highlight of the whole experience for me was walking from the main lobby to the committee room and appreciating the architecture.
2. The honorific. In answering a question, I was instructed to begin with, “My Lord Chairman…” U.S. diplomats will be cheered to learn that I was in fact able to do this without any serious giggling fits.
3. The throat-clearing. Maybe Lord Tugendhat had a cold or something, but at various points he cleared his throat, and it was as if the ghost of Winston Churchill was revived, it was so glorious-sounding. It almost, but not quite, got to this level:
So, my dear wonks, if you are ever asked to testify in front of the House of Lords, I recommend that you accept the invitation. It’s very much worth it. Just remember: There will be no wigs, and no capes.