Friday, September 07, 2012

GUEST POST House of Lords reform in a 1950s whodunnit

Charles Beaumont looks An English Murder by Cyril Hare
"England, alone of all civilized countries, retains in its constitution an hereditary legislative chamber." - An English Murder, Cyril Hare (1951)
The Tory media screeched that the idea of an elected legislature would lead to “blood on the floor and the walls and the ceiling” and Boris Johnson, who owes his job to the largest direct election in British politics declared “[i]t is crucial to the success of the Upper House […] above all that it is at one remove from the electorate”. The average liberal got a forcible reminder of conservatism’s tight grip on the gullet of British politics.

At times like this, it’s important to be reminded that liberals are not crazy, dangerous or unpatriotic. And I can think of no better way to do this than by wallowing in the shameless nostalgia of a favourite novel, An English Murder, by Cyril Hare. First published in 1951 but still in print, this tells the story of a Christmas house party at Warbeck Hall, the crumbling family seat of impoverished aristocrats. It’s a classic whodunnit: an unpleasant bully is murdered on Christmas Eve and as the house is cut off by snow those present must solve the mystery. All of the main characters have a motive for the killing and the wonderful Dr Wencelaus Bottwink, historian late of Prague University, who is at the hall researching the Warbeck archives, has the role of detective thrust upon him.

So far, so ordinary, conservative even. However, as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that the motive hinges on knowledge of an obscure aspect of English law.  The novel ends with a dig at the hereditary legislature, demonstrating that it was outdated in 1951 and (in this case) had in fact led to blood on the floor.

An English Murder is a gentle parody of the classic country-house mystery.  Its author, Cyril Hare, did not have an obviously radical background: he was an Oxford-educated judge from a well-off Surrey family who enjoyed field sports. Although his works demonstrate a generous and progressive mindset, An English Murder is not a campaigning tract. I can find no evidence that at the time it caused Daily Mail outrage or foaming at the mouth from the 1950s equivalent of Boris Johnson. As such I find it an important reminder that we liberals aren’t crazy or bloodthirsty and even 60 years ago people found it bizarre that the activities of your ancestors might entitle you to legislate for others.

'Charles Beaumont' is a pseudonym as the author holds a politically restricted position.

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