Lords Clerks Go Wigless

Earlier this week it was revealed that the clerks in the House of Lords will no longer wear their traditional uniform on a day-to-day basis. Gone are the horsehair wigs, court jackets, and white bowties; the gown will remain, but it will now be worn over normal business attire. The customary attire will, however, still appear on ceremonial occasions.[1] The stated rationale for the change is that, since the pool of clerks who can serve at the table has been expanded due to the pandemic, it would be too expensive to procure extra uniforms.[2] This brings the Lords’ practice in line with that of the Commons, where clerks have been dressing down since 2017.

The announcement has provoked a furor in some quarters. It’s not just the change itself that’s controversial, but also the way in which it came about. As Lord Cormack explained to The Spectator, “I don’t think that changes of this sort should be made without consulting the view of the House. There should have been a vote on this and the House should have decided. If it had been the majority view of the House, I would have spoken against it but I would have accepted it – I am a democrat. I deeply regret the way in wish this was decided.”  

Regardless of what one thinks about the traditional uniform, Lord Cormack has a point. If The Spectator is correct, the Clerk of the Parliaments made this change even though it was opposed by the Lord Speaker and the party leaders in the Upper House. Given that level of opposition, the matter should have been subject to wider consultation, or even decided by a vote of the whole House. When Lord Irvine of Lairg wanted to stop wearing knee breeches and tights when presiding over the House, he made his case to the Procedure Committee. They endorsed his proposal, and after debate, the whole House approved it as well.[3] The system worked.

There is an argument to be made for updating the clerks’ dress, but it’s one that needs to be made rather than imposed. To do otherwise just generates unnecessary ill-will.   

[1] The court jacket and bowtie will be worn for introductions and prorogation, while wigs will appear at the State Opening of Parliament.

[2] People on social media have questioned this claim, but without more information about the cost of the uniforms or the way such things are funded, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions on the matter.

[3] Earl Ferrers tabled a motion to block the change, but it ultimately failed.

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