(For some reason this didn’t autopost on Sunday. I only just noticed)
Even during a war unlike any that had been seen in the history of the world, the business of government still had to continue, and in Britain part of that business is allowing the hereditary aristocracy a space in the legislature in which to voice their opinions on every topic known to humanity.
There are countries in the world in which the voice of the people is paramount – vox populi, vox dei – while in other countries it is the voice of a single leader that must not be countermanded in any circumstances. For the British Empire, though, the voices of those who were bred for privilege and power, and the leaders of the Established Church, had veto power over all others. Continuity, and the establishment, were all.
Britain’s legislature had, for centuries, been split into two houses. The lower house, the House of Commons, was, as the name suggested, made up of common people. Or at least, people who hadn’t yet risen to the first rank of the nobility – the members of Parliament had very few coal miners or street sweepers among their ranks, and rather a lot of men with knighthoods.
The House of Lords, on the other hand, was for the uncommon – the hereditary aristocracy, the newly ennobled, and the Bishops.
The same night that Hess had made his flight, the Palace of Westminster, in which both houses of Parliament sat, had been bombed by the Germans. Parliament had lost its ancient home, and both houses were currently relegated to the church annexe of the Palace. But the change of venue did not mean that the ancient role of the Lords had changed.
Since before Parliament had a home at all, the nobility had had its say in the affairs of state. They represented continuity – their families had owned England, and later the United Kingdom, for centuries, and they intended to keep it that way. Elected politicians could come and go every few years and change their views with the prevailing winds, but there would always be a Duke of Westminster, and he would always have the same interests as his grandfather had and his grandson would.
Of course, some things had changed over the years. Many of the older peers were still nostalgic for the days before Lloyd George had filled the place up with boot-polish merchants and jumped-up tobacconists, who had bought their way to an Earldom. And even more so, they were nostalgic for the time before the other great change that the Liberals had made to their privileges, introducing the Parliament Act and making it clear in law that the House of Commons, not the Lords, had primacy when it came to legislation.
Nonetheless, the Lords still had their place, and still represented Britain’s traditions. They were there to advise the monarch, and to ensure the Government had regard to events further away than the next election.
And so, as they had since the days of Simon de Montfort, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual were assembled in Parliament, and were making their views known to a public that hung on their every word, at least as far as they were aware. Their words were duly recorded by the few reporters given access to Parliament during the War, and then largely unprinted in favour of the events of the day. But this lack of public interest did not concern them, any more than the fact that the Prime Minister was largely ignoring them and governing according to his own sense of military strategy.
The Lord who was, at the present moment, voicing his opinions was Lord Keynsham, a short, podgy man, with a shock of white hair that looked as if someone had stuck a mop on top of his head. The subject of the great man’s speech to the nation was the threat of Satanist-controlled Communists taking over the country, and in particular the threat caused by Tom Driberg, the Daily Express‘ “William Hickey” columnist.
“Hitler is a distraction, mark my words. Man needs to be put down like a rabid dog, of course, no question of that – no-one can be allowed to attack the British Empire and get away with it, still less to have this place and the other place bombed. Damned impertinence of the man! – but we mustn’t let him take our minds off the Reds. Hitler is a man. Stalin is controlled by Satan himself. The very Devil. Mark my words.”
Driberg, sat in the gallery, laughed to himself. Keynsham was a relic, like one of Wodehouse’s more pompous Earls or Dukes. Driberg was more of an Evelyn Waugh man himself, and saw Keynsham as one more symbol of the decline and fall of the British Empire.
Even had Driberg been a spy for the Russians – and had Keynsham had as much access to the secret world of espionage as he pretended, he would have known that in fact Driberg was spying on the Russians – he would not have been worried by Keynsham’s rambling threats. The poor man was deluded.
While Keynsham liked to pretend he was a great aristocrat, everyone with any real knowledge knew his father was a brewer who’d bought a peerage from Lloyd George thirty years earlier, and promptly dropped dead, leaving his idiot son with the title. Driberg liked to remind him of that in his column, to Keynsham’s evident ire.
“And the worst fifth columnist in this country – the one who, more than any of the Mosleyites, is doing his bit to destroy morale and weaken our great nation – is William Hickey of the Daily Express. The evil of his words is all the greater for their apparent patriotism. This is a man who pretends to support the war effort, and who pretends to support Britain, but who through drips of insinuation is slowly wearing down the public morale. Mark my words. Mark them, I say. William Hickey is the man who will bring about the destruction of the British Empire.”
Driberg started to realise that Keynsham actually didn’t know that William Hickey was merely a pseudonym. This could be interesting…if Keynsham was genuinely unaware of his identity, then Driberg might be able to make use of him. This would require some serious thought…
This is an excerpt from my novel, Destroyer. If you like this chapter, please buy the book. It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle and paperback editions are available from Amazon (UK) and (US). For non-Kindle ebook versions This Books2Read Universal Link will give you links for your preferred ebook retailer.