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My noble friends

On entering the Lords, and joining the debate on arts funding.

It's like going up to university for the first time: exciting, bewildering and alarming in equal measure. The House of Lords has its own identity - as strong and mysterious as Hogwarts and, in other ways too, not dissimilar. Initially it's more like school; on arrival, I am given my own peg in the cloakroom and a locker with my own key. On my first day, Patience Wheatcroft, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe, has the peg next to mine. Now her name tag has gone. What does she know that I don't? Plenty, because I know so little.

I ask where I am to nest, where is my place. Ah, well, there is not a desk yet designated as mine, so I am invited to float, using whatever desk I find free. Hot-desking would be the term, but it sits uneasily in this splendour of gold and scarlet. In fact, there are desks everywhere, distributed throughout the splendid library, but also to be found round corners in writing rooms and in the Women Peers' Room (peeresses are the wives of peers). It is the only place in the entire building where I see flowers. Odd rules make it hard to operate: I retreat to a bar to do some texting but am given a kindly reprimand that mobile phones are not allowed in eating or drinking locations. The new technology poses something of a problem: iPhones are, I believe, allowed in the chamber, obviously switched to silent, but iPads are disapproved of, though I see peers using them out of sight, like naughty schoolboys. I have taken to making my phone calls from the corridors - wide enough to accommodate benches along the walls. Strangely, like many things in this place, it works well, but is hardly state of the art.

The House runs an induction course for all the new arrivals. I attend a seminar on "Understanding the Work of the House". Among other things, we learn about forms of address: "my noble friend" or "the noble lord" must be augmented to "noble and gallant" (military folk), "noble and learned" (legal eagles) and "noble and right reverend" (bishops). The bishops also pull rank when it comes to debate: any other member must defer when a man of the cloth stands to speak. We are told that "the word baron is never used". This raises a query from Julian Fellowes about the upstart word "baroness", not an ancient English title at all, surely? Quite right: it was used for the first time when the life peers were introduced.

As to the baronesses themselves, I am impressed by how many outstanding women there are here. But it is, after all, the Mother of Parliaments. I see the philosophers Onora O'Neill and Mary Warnock; the novelists Ruth Rendell and P D James attend regularly. Among the latest intake are Fiona Shackleton, Susan Kramer, Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, Ruth Lister and Oona King. Stripped of the flummery of titles, these are women with strong identities and plentiful skills. What's more, killer heels have entered the chamber.

At once we are plunged into the mayhem of the Parliamentary Voting System and Consti­tuencies Bill. Labour is trying to persuade the government to compromise over certain provisions and, to do so, is tabling loads of amendments. Hence those of us who take the Labour whip are asked to stay late into the night, all night if need be. Words like filibuster and guillotine are flying around. Apparently things have not been so acrimonious for a long time. It's said the crossbenchers are unhappy. What to do? I'm too much a newcomer to do more than turn up and listen. It's a steep learning curve.

And so to my maiden speech: I seize the chance of a debate on public funding of the arts, which turns out to be outstanding. Speaker
after speaker endorses how important public money is for the arts. Lord Ramsbotham, who once ran prisons, speaks of how drama helps in the rehabilitation of offenders; Lord Moser declares that the creative industries earn 7 per cent of GDP and employ two million; David Putt­nam praises free admissions to museums and galleries, citing a rise in attendances of 70 per cent over ten years; Melvyn Bragg goes for the jugular, denouncing the scything of public money - swish, swish, swish, cutting down the weeds but also the poppies.

Tory peers speak lyrically of classical music, and jazz. The Lib Dem peer Jane Bonham Carter, while extolling coalition policy on the Lottery, also regrets the closing down of Creative Partnerships, a scheme that sent artists to work in schools. I harp on about outreach programmes: small schemes that went unnoticed but had the power to transform lives. This debate carries the arts shoulder high on its rhetoric. I hear from all sides an endorsement of values other than money. It is a fine occasion and makes me proud to be here.

But what happens next? There is no vote, no message to the government, or even the public. Merely a sense of informed voices setting on record powerful support for funding the arts. I remain optimistic. Creativity cannot be quelled. Slowly the message will spread that, in some deep sense, it is at the heart of all that is worthwhile. l

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East