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AIIA NSW presents the 11th Earl of Sandwich

Published 04 Mar 2014

It’s not every day we Australians get to meet a Lord, particularly one with the fascinating ancestry of John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich. The first earl was famous for the creation of the first sandwich shop in the Kentish coastal town that bears his name.

But the present Lord Sandwich is active in one of the oldest institutions of Western politics – the House of Lords – where he is deeply involved in European Union affairs, sitting on the committee dealing with the EU, and issues such as the Syria crisis, enlargement, free trade and, historically, the Kosovo settlement. As an independent crossbencher, he also has a close focus on asylum seeker and development issues.

Some have dismissed Britain’s upper house as an outmoded and irrelevant institution that should be abolished. However its critics would appear to have lost the argument, because the House of Lords now comprises no fewer than 780 members, a motley group of Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. The first are mostly bishops from the Church of England, but the latter are nominated by Queen Elizabeth on the advice of the prime minister, who in turn is advised by a selection committee.

Apart from hereditary peers like the Earl of Sandwich who wear ermine by virtue of a birthright, there are present and past business leaders, politicians, academics, writers, entertainers and even the odd convict. They sit as a House for 137 days a year, four days a week from post lunchtime until 10pm or later, and sometimes on a fifth day. They review legislation passed in the lower House of Commons, and make numerous amendments. Apart from these sittings, there are numerous committees, dealing in detail with such issues as foreign affairs. The Lords sits rather more than either the Australian Senate or the House of Representatives.

The current members of the House of Lords include senior EU official in charge of foreign affairs, Lady Ashton, is a member of the Lords, as are Joan Bakewell, TV presenter and writer; the industrialist Anthony Bamford; former BBC director-general John Birt; the writer, Melvyn Bragg; former BP boss John Browne; the Archbishop of Canterbury; television executive Michael Grade; BBC director general Tony Hall; former Labor chancellor, Denis Healey; Peter Imbert, one time Metropolitan Police chief; song writer Andrew Lloyd Webber; banker Benjamin Mancroft; former Labor minister and Blair-aide, Peter Mandelson; Claus Moser; and Zahida Manzour, former Legal Services Ombudsman and Complaints Commissioner. And that is just a handful. There are also the renegades Jeffrey Archer (Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare) and Conrad Black (Lord Black of Crossharbour, former Fairfax owner), both of whom recently served prison sentences.

Question: Does such a disparate group offer a better review of legislation than the present, elected Australian Senate?

Our guest, the Earl of Sandwich reviews the contribution of the House of Lords to British and European decision-making, as well as sheds light on the referendum in September on whether or not Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, and the proposed later referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, currently a strong possibility.

John Montagu, 11th Earl of Sandwich has been an independent hereditary peer in the House of Lords since 1995. One of 90 hereditary peers sitting as a cross-bencher, he speaks mainly on international development and asylum issues. Paying homage to his heritage he has opened a sandwich shop, Earl of Sandwich, which has now become a franchise across the United States with one opened in London in 2011.