How I Became a Lord

Question: What is the process for becoming a Lord?

Robert Skidelsky: Well, appointed as a Lord, you're right to say that all members of the House of Lords are appointed and they're not elected.  Some have been, some are still hereditary, they sit there by virtue of the fact that their families have sat there in the past.  At one time, they were all appointed.  Well, ideally for outstanding public service and ability to contribute advice to the Queen as required.  It's all done in the name of the Queen.  This is the wonderful, fictional character of the British constitution.  I mean, when I was made a peer, I was made so by the Queen and the Queen, in a way, summoned me to advise her on matters of high policy.  And that is the standard formula that is used and one got a sort of, a wonderful bit of parchment or handwritten, "I, Queen," whatever, and so on.  But she doesn't actually have anything to do with it at all.  I think if she disapproved enormously of someone who it was proposed to make a peer, she could probably stop it.  But I think this would be a very unusual intervention.

Question: What power does the Queen exercise in British politics today?

Robert Skidelsky: No overt power.  But the power of being there and having been there for a long time now, her right to be consulted and to advise, because she has a weekly, usually a weekly meeting with the Prime Minister.  And at that point, she can say, "I'm worried about this or I don't like the way this is going."  The Prime Minister doesn't have to take any notice of that at all, but it's just the authority of being there and being in that position.  She has a few formal powers left, which, some powers of appointment.  But broadly speaking, she's a symbol.  If things, all her powers, in other words, are outsourced.  But if things go very, very badly wrong at any point, the theoretic possibility is they could be in-sourced again.  Now, in Britain, of course, that's almost inconceivable, it hasn't happened for, you know, a couple of hundred years, virtually.  But it's possible that they could be in-sourced again and the Queen's prerogative could be invoked by the Monarch personally if some terrible calamity occurred to the political system.  I think that's as accurately as I can describe it.

Question: What lessons can the history of Britain teach America, if China supersedes us?

Robert Skidelsky: Well, it's going to be a different story because Britain's world power was really based on a territorial empire and it lost that through de-colonization.  America's isn't, really, America's power in the world is based on its economic supremacy and also, I think the attraction of the American way of life and it's economic supremacy allows it to maintain very, very large military forces all around the world.  I mean, as America's economic power shrinks in the world relative to others, as it's bound to, doesn't mean it has to decline absolutely, but relatively speaking, America's role in the world will diminish.  So it's military power relative to others will diminish and so its attractiveness will diminish.

It's a question of how, it's a psychological adjustment, isn't it?  I mean, I feel sometimes Americans feel as though the only position they can possibly occupy is number one and if they're not number one, well, the end of the world has come.  But for many, many centuries, America wasn't number one and it's been number one, you know, relatively, for relatively few years really, since the Second World War.  Less than 100 years.  That's a short time.  I don't think America is doomed to decline quickly.  America is still way ahead of most every other country, really.  And so I think it's premature to talk about the end of the American empire.

But I think America has to be careful now.  It has to try and do more things in partnership with other countries and get other countries to sort of go along with it, more than was usual under the last president.  I think President Obama understands that, he's rhetoric is much better suited, I think, to this phase of American world leadership than was President Bush's rhetoric. 

Recorded on December 16, 2009

Robert Skidelsky appointed to the British Parliament to advise the Queen on matters of high policy, discusses the psychological adjustment America might need to make as it’s superseded by China.

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