When Hollywood Screenwriters Don’t Understand How Parliamentary Government Works


The plots of some films hinge upon fundamental misunderstandings of how parliamentary government works, and I thought that outlining an example would prove both entertaining and instructive. Sherlock Holmes from 2009, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. and his ridiculously contrived attempt at Received Pronunciation, presents one such example.

The preposterous villain, played by Mark Strong, faked his own death after murdering several young women, in what the film no doubt considers an allusion to Jack the Ripper. He then relied on occult trickery to carry out his climatic Bond Villain plan of releasing a poisonous gas into the House of Lords and assassinating all his rivals in one fell swoop. Hans Matheson’s character — hilariously called “Lord Coward” — plays an implausibly young Home Secretary and Blackwood’s most loyal and fanatical follower. He set Blackwood’s plan in motion by nodding ostentatiously to other peers and by addressing his fellow peers to order by yelling out “My Lords! Milords!” (As Tywin Lannister told Arya Stark, the high-born would never say “Milord”). In this universe, the Lord Speaker does not preside over debate in the House of Lords either. Blackwood then made his dramatic entrance on queue and gave one of those grandiosely evil speeches.

He attempted to execute his plan, and several peers, after dramatically re-appearing in the chamber of the House of Lords itself, in which he himself apparently had the right to sit as a member of the nobility. This attack would have killed only the peers who did not support him because he had already given an antidote to the peers on his side. That would seem to preclude the possibility of convincing any of the other peers from changing their minds, but no matter!

This mass assassination would, in turn, somehow have enabled him to impose a personal rule and dictatorship over the entire British Empire. He had mentioned earlier in the film another plot to re-annex the United States of America into the British Empire as well, which he could apparently achieve simply because he assassinated the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom. Presumably, he would also have sought to abolish the self-government of the Dominion of Canada, the Dominion of New Zealand, and the Australasian colonies, too, though he and his supporters don’t say.

Needless to say, none of this makes any sense.

Earlier scenes in the film established Lord Blackwood as the illegitimate son of a law lord, so it is unclear how he became “Lord” Blackwood in the first place and in his own right. He must have somehow secured a new peerage for himself before the events of the film by persuading the prime minister to advise the Queen to ennoble him. If they hadn’t already thought that Blackwood, a convicted murderer, had been sentenced to death hanging for his crimes, the House of Lords would probably have exercised its collective parliamentary privilege to expel him from their ranks. But these details pale in comparison to the gaping plothole at the heart of Blackwood’s plan, which rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how parliamentary government works.

This film took place in 1890. Cabinet Government had evolved in the United Kingdom to the point that cabinet consisted of a mixture of members of the two houses; even when the Prime Minister himself sat in the Lords, the government could only remain in office when it commanded a majority in the House of Commons, the confidence chamber. These scenes seem to depict only hereditary peers themselves within the House of Lords and not something like a Speech from the Throne where Members of the House of Commons would also have presented themselves in the House of Lords. (Queen Victoria delegated the reading of the Speech from the Throne to a Lord Commissioner, so Blackwood would have needed to assassinate the Sovereign separately, if that formed part of his plot). In real life, Conservative Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury occupied Number 10 Downing Street and led the ministry in 1890, so perhaps in this fictional universe the Prime Minister also came from the upper house and would have perished in the House of Lords under Blackwood’s plot. But some of the cabinet — those from the House of Commons — would have survived Blackwood’s coup d’etat. They and the Queen could have regrouped to stop Blackwood.

Even if Lord Blackwood’s Bond Villain plan had succeeded, he would have assassinated some hereditary peers – which means that their male heirs and successors would have immediately inherited those titles and peerages and could then take their seats in the House of Lords. If he assassinated lords with no male heirs and successors, then the Prime Minister could simply have advised the Queen to appoint new peers. Blackwood would have to have kept assassinating peers with successive administrations of his poisonous gas until exhausting the existing hereditary peerages, and then he would have to have killed any new peers ennobled under new titles. Even if he had also gassed the House of Commons, Queen Victoria and the remaining cabinet could have issued writs to elect a new House of Commons. Blackwood would then have to murdered another crop of hundreds of MPs.

And even if Blackwood’s Bond Villain plan had succeeded, he might have assassinated the Prime Minister and some other cabinet ministers, but Her Majesty Queen-Empress Victoria would still have remained the ultimate source of executive authority. And the government would still have needed to command a majority in the House of Commons, which Blackwood did not attack. The scene showed no evidence that any Members of the House of Commons were present. If Lord Blackwood planned on forcing Queen Victoria to commission him as Prime Minister, he would have needed to secure the confidence of the House of Commons as well. He doesn’t seem to have taken either the Queen or the possibility of coercing himself into the office of prime minister into consideration. Even if he sought to make himself dictator, he would still needed to assassinate or imprison or somehow co-opt the Queen and Prince of Wales and other members of the Royal Family as well as to bring brought the armed forces and police onto his side – and all this in the high noon of empire when the monarchy basked in the afterglow of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee of 1887 and enjoyed immense popular support. Lord Blackwood, a known and convicted murderer, would also have faced the prospect of coercing the Empire to submit to his dictatorship under his creepy demonic cult in a thoroughly Christian society, which seems unlikely.

We’re not supposed to think about these sorts of things when watching an action-adventure film, but I simply can’t help myself. While I enjoyed the spectacle of the film overall and found it entertaining, I still can’t help but laugh at Blackwood’s “I’m a bad guy” monologues and Robert Downey Jr.’s surreal and unnatural Received Pronunciation.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively in my field. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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9 Responses to When Hollywood Screenwriters Don’t Understand How Parliamentary Government Works

  1. Jim says:

    JD I was convinced you were wrong but following further research, all the lords I had believed were expelled from the upper house were actually expelled from the Commons – all the sources that I had read to the contrary were merely confused because they forgot that certain lords could sit in the Commons. Fascinating

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  2. JD Mussel says:

    Lord Speaker? Surely you mean the Lord Chancellor, who presided over the house until about 2005. And you do see someone sitting, appropriately, in full-bottomed wig sit on the Woolsack; I assume that’s him. Presiding in the House of Lords has always been much more hands-off.

    The House of Lords did not have the power to expel members until the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. If they had had it earlier, the appointment of new members would have been a much less severe threat in 1911 or any other time.

    Everything else is, of course, extremely accurate.

    Were Law Lords never hereditary peers?

    That is a VERY full House of Lords for anything other than a State Opening of Parliament. According to Lord Adonis’s ‘Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain’, the chamber’s turnout in this period was usually around 60-100.

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    • Ah, I see! Now I understand why the British North America Act expressly gave the House of Commons and Senate of Canada all the privileges of the British *House of Commons* in particular and made no mention of the House of Lords.

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    • Mark Roth says:

      There were hereditary peers who sat because they or an ancestor was in the House for their legal expertise. But not hereditary Law Lords came around in 1876.

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  3. leah27z says:

    It would be great if you could spell. It’s ‘on cue’, not ‘on queue’. FFS.

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    • leah27z says:

      Oh, and the grammar is pretty dreadful also.

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    • Christopher Stephen says:

      Queue is, in fact, a word. It refers to a lineup, while ‘cue’ is defined as a signal for a performance. What you meant to say, was that it was an improper word choice. It’s an exceedingly minor error which does not radically alter the meaning of the sentence it was placed in.

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      • leah27z says:

        No. In this context it’s a misspelling, akin to writing ‘towing the line’.
        The comma in your third sentence is otiose.

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  4. Mike Donison says:

    As I recall from my reading, Salisbury chose not to personally occupy 10 Downing Street when he was Prime Minister.

    Like

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