It was the incident with the melon peel at the Palace of Westminster that did it. I just didn’t realise this until today, many years later, after a banquet at the Palace of Holyrood.
Being marched out of Black Rod’s gate, by a machine-gun touting policeman, clutching the offending melon peel in sticky fingers, was a bit embarrassing but more amusing in hindsight. “Would you do that in your own home”, the London policeman scolded upon catching me discarding fruit into a plant pot at the public entrance to the House of Commons while I waited for my friend inside – then a Judicial Assistant to one of the judges at the adjacent Supreme Court – to meet me. Well, yes, I would, if my home didn’t provide litter bins. And more to the point, this IS my house. It is OUR house. Us, the plebiscite, the humble electorate, the friggin COMMONS.
Fast forward and it’s 2015. The Equality Act and Human Rights Act are enforceable law and hereditary peerage is being phased out. I’ve been invited to have lunch with the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – the Queen’s appointed representative in Scotland (a title that dates back to 1580 and is currently held by a former Supreme Court Judge) and assembled guests at the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. A very polite and rosy-cheeked man in uniform is negotiating the silver service of a cous cous maincourse alternative onto my plate as we all rise to toast Her Majesty the Queen and The Church of Scotland. It is a brave atheist, republican and vegetarian that remains seated in a room full of polished swords.
I stand up. Mid-way through the toast, I catch the eye of a theatre director I’ve been newly introduced to and notice a similar expression of ‘WTF’ on her face. I hope we meet again in different circumstances.
We’re in the State Dining Room surrounded by sixteenth century tapestries and portraits of Mary Queen of Scots, George IV and Queen Victoria. I’ve Sirs to the left of me and Lords to the right but no one’s singing Baker Street. This is privilege street. With a few over-achievers, former party political leaders, and grafters, sprinkled amongst us. I think that I’ve been invited because of my day job in the arts or it could be a tenuous legal connection. Lawyers like to be surrounded by other lawyers. I chose not to bring a spouse.
You, the taxpayer, are treating me to a four-course meal, wine flows, and conversation turns to the pay cut judges must take upon accepting public office (a substantial decrease on fees at the Bar) and whether the transparency and equalities monitoring of judicial appointment (by application not phonecall as before) now risks diminishing the calibre of the Bench. A Major General pipes up to say that in the Army promotion is by invitation only. People nod in approval. I eat my baby carrots, sip the fizz, and make some banal chat about how art saves lives. I despise myself for having carefully selected the most demure and formal of dresses from my work wardrobe earlier in the day and that I swotted up on Scots history factoids from Wikipedia. I notice that my boots are scuffed from a long winter and that my voice has become a hesitant mumble. That’s the thing about privilege, or perceptions of being the best, it sucks the confidence out of the rest.
The nice choreographer from Dundee says she likes my dress. I remind myself that I took the bus and that a champagne socialist is still a socialist. But one mile down the hill to Leith and there were people counting out coppers for the bus fare this morning and looking in need of a four-course lunch.
Outside the Palace, tourists peer through the metal railings and take photographs of the chauffeur-driven cars. Visitors are not permitted to tour the Palace while the Queen or her representatives are in residence (normal admission price is £11.60 or £20.20 including garden and gallery visit). Another polite man with a military cap and a sword taps me on the shoulder to say that my lift is waiting. I thank him and step back outside into the drizzle; looking across the road to the other Holyrood – the Scottish Parliament, ‘the people’s Parliament’.
Scottish nationalism under an anti-austerity, pro-equality manifesto has been branded by the press as a ‘tartan tsunami’ that swept through Scotland and down to Westminster at the UK General Election earlier in the month. Our newly elected MPs have a lot of high expectations to live up to. I wonder how many of the Palace lunch guests found themselves looking around for higher ground to keep themselves afloat on the morning of 9 May.
Tsunamis are devastating, natural disasters. For me, a wave of civic empowerment and parliamentary accountability is a positive and deliberate act of democracy. It could be the start of a peaceful but seismic revolution in re-balancing power and wealth. I don’t want reform of the Lords, I want abolition. Affirmative action in access to legal education. Land reform of Highland estates owned by absent aristocracy. Repeal of the bedroom tax, unless every one of the spare bedrooms at Holyrood Palace is offered to a homeless person for the 50 weeks of the year that neither the Queen nor the Lord High Commissioner are resident. And P45s for the ladies in waiting, purse bearer assistants, keeper of the official horses (yes), and all the other hangers on that I am now aware of you and me funding.
Everyone, from whatever walk of life, is interesting to meet with on a human level in some regard and I met some interesting, and pleasant, people over lunch. I learnt that most of the bedrooms at the Palace are not en suite and so the guests are instructed to bring suitable nightwear for their stay, in anticipation of sharing bathroom facilities. The image of the Lords and Ladys queuing up in their goonies and baffies to brush their teeth en mass is one that will stay with me. But I know that I couldn’t sustain polite conversation with some of the hangers on beyond lunch while they enjoy hospitality in official residence, at our expense, for a further week. Rather, I’ve written an angsty blog post that few will read and probably says more about the lack of ease I have with myself than with others. .
Does this make me churlish, petulant, naive, or the ungrateful recipient of well-meaning hospitality? Perhaps. But unlike the melancholy incident outside Black Rod Gate, I don’t find exclusion and privilege very funny anymore.
I used to think that you had to be around the table to influence change. But some tables just aren’t round enough and the table manners lacking. I probably won’t get invited back to dine. And that’s as it should be. I can make my own lunch. Melon is a favourite, for starters.
I was telling a version of this story, some days later, to my grandfather. He paused contemplatively and then said, “Well, you’re the first person I know who has had lunch at the Palace”. And that, right there, about sums it up.