Braille Monitor                                                     November 2007

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Blind and a Peer of the Realm

Lord Colin Low is pictured here wearing the official robe of members of the House of Lords.by Colin Low

From the Editor: One of the high points of last summerís convention was the address delivered late on Tuesday afternoon, July 3, by Lord Low of Dalston. The audience was exhausted after the early-morning March for Independence and a full day of convention presentations, but these remarks at the close of the afternoon session were delightfully warm and witty and full of information unknown by most of us. The result was a very attentive and responsive audience. This is what Lord Low said:

I've only ever been to one NFB convention, and that was over twenty-five years ago, in 1979. It was a truly memorable experience. The electricity generated by the largest gathering of blind people anywhere in the world was, and is, palpable--though registration can prove something of a challenge! Anyhow, it's great to be back.

I may not have been back in twenty-five years, but in truth I've felt that the Federation has never been far away. I've made periodic visits to the National Center--to attend Dr. Jernigan's memorial and for the opening of the Jernigan Institute for example. I have maintained regular contact with friends amongst the Federation's leaders, and its work and example have been a constant source of inspiration. I may not always have agreed with it, but five things have ensured that the Federation stood out for me amongst organizations of the blind worldwide.

First there is its philosophy. Everything the Federation does is thought through and solidly grounded in principle. Did not Dr. Jernigan say, "Philosophy bakes no bread, but without philosophy no bread is baked?" and Dr. Jernigan's speeches surely are a wonderful corpus of writing and thought about blindness.

Second, there are the Federation's powers of communication. The Federation has always been extremely good at getting its message across. I am always recommending the Kernel Books, not just for their message, but for the beautifully honed quality of the writing they contain.

Third, there is the caliber of the Federation's leadersóDr. Jernigan of course, but before him there was Dr. tenBroek, and Dr. Maurer is a worthy successor in this tradition.

Fourth, there is the premium which the Federation places on independence and blind people learning to stand on their own two feet.
And fifth, flowing from this, the Federation has not made the mistake made by disabled radicals in England of assuming that society is the source of all the problems. The Federation is clear that the demand for equal treatment from society places an obligation on the disabled individual to contribute to the maximum of his or her ability. It is because blind people are capable of making a full contribution that a mean-spirited response from society is so discriminatory.

In the meantime blind organization in the United Kingdom has undergone a lot of change. We haven't followed quite the same course as you. Because of the size and diversity of the USA, services for the blind are that much more fragmented. The dispersion of government amongst the states means that there isn't the possibility of any one service organization coming to the fore and assuming a dominant position in the way that RNIB has done in the United Kingdom. Because that's what RNIB has done, it has been very difficult for blind people to organize with the same effectiveness as in the USA. So we followed a different strategy. We took over the RNIB. This had already started by the time I came to Miami Beach in 1979, but it took some time to come to full fruition. From the mid-1980s all of RNIB's top trustee leadership was blind, but the revolution could not be said to have been completed until the year 2002 when we adopted a new constitution changing the name of the organization to the Royal National Institute of the Blind and requiring that a majority of RNIB's board, assembly, and membership must be blind or partially sighted. We are now embarked on recruiting a mass membership of blind people, but this is proving to be far from easy. This is where a few lessons from the NFB would probably come in very handy.

But to the title of my talk. I will start with the peerage and begin by introducing you to a few of the mysteries of the British peerage. On learning of my appointment, your president wrote to me saying: "We in the United States have a prohibition in our constitution against titles of nobility. This is one of the reasons that we value them so much.Ē For both reasons I figured I had better give you a quick crash course on the British peerage.

First then, the pecking order: Under the sovereign and any princes of the blood royal you have, in descending order, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. The wife of a marquess is a marchioness and of an earl a countess, and they may also be peers in their own right.

Next we come to modes of address: A duke, and an archbishop for that matter, is addressed as "Your Grace," as in "yes, your Grace," "no, your Grace," "three bags full, Your Grace." If you are speaking to him, he remains "Your Grace," no matter what part he is playing in the sentence. So we have "Will Your Grace be taking tea today?" "Sometimes I would dearly love to murder Your Grace," "Shall I fetch Your Grace's slippers?" "Too much whisky will give Your Grace a hang-over," etc. If you are speaking about His Grace it would be "His Grace" rather than "Your Grace" in all the above sentences. Thus, when we are talking about RNIB's president, the Duke of Westminster, we might say, "Do you think His Grace would be willing to do so-and-so?" unless of course we simply refer to him as "The Duke."

All other peers are addressed as "My Lord," so if you're in any doubt how to address me, "a glass of Whisky, My Lord?" might be a good way to start. However, if you're feeling less generous, plain "Colin" will do. The equivalent of "Your Grace" and "His Grace" in the previous examples would be "Your Lordship" and "His Lordship"--"Your Lordships" and "Their Lordships" in the plural. We need to remember these forms of address when speaking in the House of Lords--you begin with "My Lords" and continue with phrases like "your Lordships will be aware," "I would remind your Lordships," etc.

Because peers were originally landowners of some sort, you are usually Lord so-and-so of somewhere, and you have to choose a place for your title. I chose Dalston because itís the part of London where I live. If you want to write me a letter, put me on a program, introduce me, or refer to me for some reason, "Lord Low of Dalston" will do, and that's what to put on the envelope. You can give me the CBE there too after all the rest if you want. I'll explain that presently. Some people say "The Lord," but that's entirely optional. I don't.

Knights, known as Sir somebody something, are not members of the British peerage, but because they are sometimes confused with the peerage, I'll just mention them. They were also originally landowners, small ones, who would contribute some horsemen to the kingís army. They are now one of the most senior ranks in a number of orders, many based on ancient orders of chivalry, which are used to confer an honor on someone and acknowledge his or her achievement, distinction, or service in some walk of life. The commonest, the Order of the British Empire, which came into being in Victorian times, is not however an ancient order of chivalry. This order, the Order of the British Empire, or should I say the "Most Excellent Order of the British Empire," contains various gradations: so you get Members, MBE; Officers, OBE; Commanders, CBE--I got one of those at the turn of the millennium; and Knight Commanders, KBE. Other orders are the Order of the Bath (that's an older one, usually given to civil servants); the Royal Victorian Order, for courtiers; and the Order of St Michael and St George, which is used for diplomats, generals, and the like. They all have similar gradations--Commander, Knight Commander, and even Grand Commander. Thus, in the case of the Order of St Michael and St George, you have Commanders, denoted by the initials CMG, popularly referred to as "call me God"; Knight Commanders, KCMG or "kindly call me God," and Grand Commanders, GCMG or "God calls me God." But none of these, as I say, are part of the British peerage and should not be confused with it. I hope you're remembering all of this as there's going to be a short test at the end.

All this is of course highly arcane and archaic. It's a load of mumbo-jumbo really, and I would strongly counsel you not to get too hung up on it. The hereditary peerage is a quaint relic of the days of feudalism, of which only a vestige survives. You can see why the Americans wanted to have done with it. It may be of local interest to some people in some rather rarefied circles, but it has largely ceased to signify as a working part of the constitution. In 1958 life peerages were introduced, and now virtually all peers are appointed as barons, the lowest degree of the peerage if you remember, for their life only. In 1999 all but a compromise 10 percent of hereditary peers lost the right to sit as legislators in the House of Lords. Now reform is in the air again, and I do not think the remaining 10 percent can survive much longer.

How do you become a peer? Traditionally you were appointed by the sovereign on the recommendation of the prime minister. He appoints senior politicians--people who have retired from mainline politics or been defeated in an election but still have a contribution to make--recommendations may also come from the leader of the opposition; persons of distinction in their chosen career; or, more murkily, people who have been of service or even given money to the party. In 2000, as an innovation, an appointments commission was introduced with a view to getting greater diversity into those appointed to the peerage. That's how I became a peer. Applications are invited. Some three thousand were submitted when I applied. The great majority were not pursued, including some very good ones. A small number were interviewed, and only about forty people have been appointed via this route to date. It's a very long, drawn-out process. It took me six years and the announcement of at least three lists before the list on which my name appeared. They just rang up one day in November, but I wasn't appointed until the following May because of the desire to avoid the announcementís being contaminated by allegations of money changing hands in return for peerages, which were being investigated at the time.

What are the criteria of appointment? In actual fact they are rather vague. You have to be able to demonstrate you have a contribution to make. You need to have the time--you can say that again. I'm sure that my position as a leader of the blind who is himself blind had a lot to do with it.

What is the process following your appointment? First of all, you go to see an ancient official called Garter King of Arms to fix your title. After about a month Letters Patent are issued. That's a summons from the Sovereign to attend Parliament as a peer. From that point on you can use your title. During this time you go to the House to be welcomed by the speaker and briefed by more people with fancy titles like the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, known for short simply as Black Rod, who looks after the Parliamentary Estate, and the Clerk of the Parliaments, who is effectively the chief executive of the place. As this official showed me out after one such meeting on 15 May, he asked if I had any further questions. I said, "Well there is one question to which I'll obviously need to know the answer sooner or later: where's the loo [menís room]?" He replied, "I'll be able to show you that when you come for your briefing on 14 June." I'm afraid I had to say I wasn't sure if I could wait that long.

After about another month, as soon as they can fix a date, you are formally introduced into the House of Lords. You process into the Chamber escorted by a couple of sponsors and take an oath of allegiance to the sovereign. Some time after that you need to make a maiden speech, and then you are off.

A word about the composition of the Lords. Before the 1999 changes, the House of Lords had a membership of over a thousand. It currently has a membership of around 740, 92 of whom are hereditaries--you remember the compromise 10 percent. This is larger than the House of Commons, which has 646 MPs and is one of the largest parliamentary chambers in the world. It is highly unusual for a second chamber to be larger than the first. However, not all members of the Lords attend on a regular basis. For instance, taking the 2005-06 session, the average attendance was around 408, which better reflects the working size of the House. The 740 peers are split roughly equally between government, opposition, and those who sit on the crossbenches, or independents, as I do, having been appointed by the Appointments Commission.

How do things work in the House of Lords? What's it like being a blind peer? The first thing to say is that there are precedents. It was suggested that I was the first, but this is not the case. Lord Kenswood, an early president of the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom, and Lord Fraser of Lonsdale, the chairman of St Dunstan's for many years and founder of Talking Books, both sat in the House of Lords within living memory, and I have been able to trace four more blind peers going back to medieval times, including Lord Lyndhurst, the nineteenth-century Lord Chancellor who faked his own death so that he could read what the obituaries had to say. On the other hand, most of these people seem to have gone blind in later life, so I may be the first peer who was blind from birth.

There have been and are quite a few wheelchair-disabled people in the House of Lords, so I am proud to be able to raise the profile of blind people. I spoke about the need to raise blindness higher up the political and social agenda in my maiden speech, and I make it my business to do that on a regular basis. On the other hand I hardly stick out like a sore thumb. There are so many walking wounded there as the result of strokes and other infirmities of old age that I just feel one of the crowd. On the other hand again, I make it my business to get involved in things other than blindness issues. Disabled politicians sometimes get criticized for not identifying sufficiently with their disability, but I think that's wrong. I suppose it's a matter of degree, but I don't think you want to get typecast as a blind peer. I don't think that does much for your overall credibility.

What of the practical working arrangements? I'm afraid they leave a lot to be desired. I visited the Texas State Legislature the other day, and their working conditions are vastly superior. They sit at an ample desk in an opulently upholstered armchair with all mod cons--phone, mike, voting buttons, buttons to summon messengers, and a place to put your computer--and that's before you get to their offices. We have none of that--just a bench to sit on, which gets very overcrowded when the Chamber is full. I have four other peers in my office plus my Parliamentary assistant, provided by RNIB.

I have a place reserved for me in the Chamber, which is easy to get to. I can write there easily with my BrailleNote on my knee, but standing up to speak from it is more of a problem, so they've constructed a little wooden flap on the back of the bench in front, which I can let down to rest my BrailleNote on whenever I want to speak. I said I hoped that this was something which could be considered as a practical and harmless adaptation and not an act of wanton vandalism in a hallowed place.

How do you know when to speak? Unlike the House of Commons, people are not called by the speaker when they manage to catch his eye. The whips produce a speakers list, which you need to get hold of so that you can get up when it's your turn without being called. Access to the paperwork hasn't proved to be much of a problem either. It's mostly ephemeral, and you can get most of it from the Internet.

I thought identifying who was speaking was going to constitute more of a challenge. They all sounded the same at first. But you soon begin to recognize quite a lot of them, many of whom are well-known figures in British life anyway. As often as not, when I ask someone who is speaking, they don't know either, and I've been able to pick up brownie points for referring to people by name to general amazement.

It may seem rather self-regarding and vainglorious to apply to be honored in this way, but if you think of it as a job rather than an honor, it puts a slightly different complexion on it. And even if you think of it as an honor, a number of people have said to me that it's the only one worth having. I tend to agree with that, as it's an honor you can do something with. It's not really the speaking. I often wonder what difference that makes. But the access and what you can do behind the scenes is phenomenal. Government departments are supposed to reply to peers' letters within two weeks. I will get a side and a half of explanation, where others receive a bare acknowledgement. I was able to get in to see Gordon Brown with David Blunkett, which I think would have been very difficult otherwise. You can personally put a letter into a minister's hand. I did that the other day only to find that he'd been moved a couple of days later. But I was able to do this when the Customs and Excise people threatened to send RNIB a bill for £100,000. I put the evidence into an envelope, sat the relevant minister down, talked him through it, put the letter in his hand, and invited him to go away and sort it out. I hope that's the last we will be hearing of that.

I expect you're beginning to hope that's the last you'll be hearing of me, so I'll stop. I haven't got on to reform, but someone said you should always leave them wanting to hear more. All I'll say is that it is a fantastic honor and a recognition not just of me but of blind people generally--someone said "of every blind person in the world." That may be going a bit far, but I hope you feel able to share in a bit of it with me. I certainly feel I'm working for you. It's also incredibly interesting and a fantastic opportunity, which I'm determined to make the most of for all my brothers and sisters in the worldwide movement of blind people.

Thank you very much.

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