Before you can take your seat, you have to have a series of meetings with a number of strange and wonderful feudal functionaries with mediaeval titles. Like Black Rod – or to give him his proper title: The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, then General Sir Edward Jones KCB CBE. Or firstname.lastname@example.org to give him his e-mail address.
Then you have to see Mr Peter Gwynn-Jones LVO, who is the Garter Principal King of Arms, to “settle the question of your title”. You don’t know who the Garter Principal King of Arms is? That’s easy. He’s the Chief Herald. Still not clear? Let me give you a clue: he’s the one who dresses up like a playing card in the State Opening of Parliament.
Now I had been warned about him. I was told he might be difficult. So I wrote to him in advance to ask him what the rules were regarding the choice of titles. By return of post I got back a letter saying that Garter (as he likes to be known) has discretion under Rules (capital R) agreed by Her Majesty the Queen. So that puts people like you and me in our place.
And then the letter went on for three or four paragraphs to summarise these rules. But what it actually said was that you should call yourself after an area that was neither too small nor too large. Frankly, not too helpful.
Now I knew that I wanted to call myself after Haringey, the Borough I had been brought up in, live in and whose Council I had led for nearly twelve years. But I was aware of one problem: Andrew McIntosh, then Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, was already called Lord McIntosh of Haringey. Could I use the same place name?
Anyway the appointed time came for my meeting with Garter at Garter House in the College of Arms (where else would you expect it to be?). So I explained my concern.
“Oh, that’s not a problem” came the immediate reply. “Who would mistake a Harris for a McIntosh?””
“Fine,” I said. “Where do I sign?”
“Oh no, you can’t call yourself Harris of Haringey. It’s against the Rules. London Boroughs are now too important for mere life peers to be called after them.”
“But what about McIntosh of Haringey, or Turner of Camden, or Fisher of Lambeth, or for that matter Morris of Manchester. There is even another Harris – this time of Greenwich.”
“Oh I think you’ll find that their titles were all created before the Rules were changed.”
All of this was beginning to take on even more of an Alice in Wonderland feel. I began to understand why Garter dresses up as a playing card. Every time I mentioned a name called after a London Borough, a dusty card index was produced. A card would be pulled out, waved triumphantly, and I would be told “No that was in 1991 before the Rules were changed.”
“Are these rules actually written down.”
This was an insult: “Of course they are” and a dusty paper was pulled from the bottom of a pile of papers and read out aloud.
“But that doesn’t say what you said the rules said.”
A pause. Garter looks at the paper. “Aah. That’s because these are the 1963 rules.”
What was being proposed was that I should call myself after part of Haringey. And I kept explaining that I couldn’t do that because I had spent the last ten years trying to hold the different parts of Haringey together. I couldn’t show favouritism to one part at this stage.
Haringey could not be permitted. If the Rule was bent for me, then everyone would want to be called after a London Borough. And where would that end?
Eventually, to try to be helpful, I said, “What if I call myself Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham?” – thereby covering all the constituent parts.
There was a long pause while Garter digested this.
“Well, it’s not actually against the rules, Mr Harris, but ask yourself is it practicable? People will shorten it. The newspapers in particular. Then there will be confusion. There will be trouble. People will complain.” I had a vision of the massed ranks of Lords Harris marching on the College of Arms.
Finally, I said “Look we seem to have an impasse here. I want to call myself Harris of Haringey. You tell me that’s against the Rules – Rules you yourself have changed in the last few years. The alternative is Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham that we both agree is a little unwieldy. Would you like time to think it over?”
Now I don’t think that anyone had ever suggested that Garter should think something over before – certainly not a mere Life Peer.
We arranged to meet a week later. “But there’s no point in coming back if you are not prepared to be more flexible,” he warned.
Anyway, a week later I returned – stubborn as ever – to be greeted by a beaming Garter. “Mr Harris, you are in luck. I have found a precedent.” Pause for effect. “There is a Lord McIntosh of Haringey.
“I know, we talked about him last week. I’ve known him for thirty years.”
It was though I hadn’t spoken.
“If my predecessor in his infinite wisdom, decreed that he could be called after Haringey, I don’t see how I can prevent you doing the same.”
Huge relief all round. Where do I sign?
“There is one little thing you could do for me.”
Warning bells ringing. “Yes?”
“I’ve been checking in the Domesday Book.” (As one does.) “Would you mind using the alternative spelling of Haringey – with two “R”s and an “A”?”
So I said: “Well, you do realise don’t you that in the local area Harringay spelt like that is either associated in people’s minds with a Sainsbury’s Superstore or with the old greyhound racing stadium. I mean do you think it’s really fitting for a Life Peer to be called after a greyhound stadium?”
There was a very long pause. “I think you’re going to win on this one, Mr Harris.”
So that’s how I became Lord Harris of Haringey.
But then we came to the really serious part of the meeting.
“Here in the College of Arms, we always feel very sorry for Life Peers. They have nothing to hand on to their children.”
At this point a price list was slid across the table. “A coat of arms at £4,035 costs less than a car and lasts forever.” (I believe the price has risen since then.)
“What do people use them for,” I said.
Another question that hadn’t been asked before. “Well, people used to put them on their shields when they rode into battle.”
However, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced that it would come in useful in the hurly-burly of London politics.
So now – or at least once my Letters Patent had been Sealed – I was a Lord. The final step was to take up my seat.