The House of Lords is even more absurd than you think

Welcome to the world of hereditary by-elections
July 18, 2018

On the day that Americans were celebrating the birth of their republic, back in Britain an election was taking place that perhaps reminded them of why they broke free in the first place. There were 19 candidates, and just 31 voters. One candidate’s manifesto regretted that he could “only offer… my right-side of the brain.” A second mentioned his membership of a glee club called “The Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club.” A third was written in a cadence which brought expensive wine to mind: “Age and experience is a given, an element of ‘youth’ and modern experience is as well a proven mix for the House.” The winner, after an exhaustive six rounds of voting, was the Earl of Devon, whose father famously banned gay marriages at his castle. His family motto is Floret Virtus Vulnerata: “Virtue Flourishes (although) Wounded.” He is married to a former Baywatch star.

This is a hereditary by-election, a process by which aristocrats, like the heroes of 17th-century novels, can fight to win back their ancestral place in the world—in this case in the House of Lords. Traditionally, the whole of the Upper Chamber, bar a few Bishops, was appointed in this way, elected from among thosewhose great-great-great-grandfather had happened to be “in” with the monarch and been rewarded with a title. Then came the Life Peerages Act of 1958, a mid-20th century Conservative government’s idea of “reform.” It created a new class of peers, with titles and seats which “only” lasted for life, and that is how all those retired statesmen, mandarins, professors, businessmen and occasionally more glamorous denizens of theatre and the arts have gone into the Lords ever since. They took their seats, however, alongside the old guard.

By the end of the 20th century, the hereditaries seemed like an absurd anachronism, and New Labour vowed to boot them out. But in a very British compromise between Tony Blair and the then-Viscount Cranborne, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, whose family have had a close hand in running England since Elizabethan times, the legislation got through only on the basis that some 92 out of 759 hereditary peers would remain. And in a very British twist, the initial 92 selected were not turned into “mere” seats for life, who would slowly die off, but were instead topped up in perpetuity through the provision of aristo-only by-elections.

It wasn’t meant to be in perpetuity, of course: there was supposed to be a second stage of reform which would finally clear Britain’s inherited lawmakers out of parliament. But this second stage never arrived, fizzling out amid a couple of fierce but unresolved arguments about introducing elections to the Lords in 2003 and 2007. -Seasoned Lords watchers won’t be surprised: the preamble to the 1911 Parliament Act described it as a preliminary step to later democratisation which, 107 years later, we are still waiting for. Yet another attempt at reform, under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, ran into the ground in 2012. -Britain can, and often does, talk about becoming a less deferential, meritocratic society, and yet it never quite gets there.

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When you consider the case of the Benn family, the hereditary peerage begins to seem entirely indestructible. When the Labour MP Tony Benn—a radical democrat—inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate, along with a seat in the House of Lords, in 1960, he was immediately barred from the Commons. The newspapers refused to call him “Mr Benn,” and would only refer to him as Viscount Stansgate. He had to fight and win not one but two by-elections and get the law changed to allow him to renounce his peerage before he could get back on to the green benches. But after three years, his campaign to reclaim his commoner status succeeded, and he won the right to renounce his peerage in 1963. He immediately did so—and not quietly. He would flash about a vial of his blood he’d had drawn to demonstrate that it wasn’t blue, and was unsparing on the absurdity of hereditary legislators: “If I went to the dentist and, as he started drilling my teeth, he said, ‘I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a very good dentist,’ I think on the whole I would go somewhere else.”

So you might well imagine that that would be that for the Viscountcy of Stansgate, but you would be wrong. Tony’s son Stephen decided to formally reclaim the title in 2014, as he was entitled to do. And he thereby made himself eligible to stand in future hereditary by-elections. Peers might come and go, but this remains—it would seem—a country where peerages live forever.

It is all a bit of an embarrassment to the Lords, which, like an ancient country house that first installs winter-proof plumbing, then comfortable beds, and then opens its doors to the National Trust, is attempting, amid much creaking protestation, to modernise. But for every sincere reformer, there is a dogged conservationist trying to preserve it as a piece of history. As a result the Lords has retained strange little annexes and foibles—such as a State Opening of Parliament ceremony in which the door of the Commons is slammed in the face of Black Rod, a senior officer in the Lords.

Hereditary by-elections—the oddest feature of all—are part of this half-completed refurbishment. But they are also ridiculous: we are left with a situation which is a satire on the process of reform—it is as if republicans stormed Buckingham Palace but succeeded only in forcing the royal family, in the name of democratic fairness, to elect any new heirs from among their relations.

Absurdity trickles down from the concept to the process. To the extent that votes are counted and cast it resembles democracy, to a greater extent than anything else in the Lords. But this is certainly not democracy as we know it. Birthright determines who is eligible to stand, and political faction settles who can vote. The largest chunk is, naturally given the leanings of the aristocracy, the Conservatives: they have a few dozen hereditaries who sit in the Lords, who can—when one of them dies—top themselves up by choosing from anyone from among a few hundred Tories with inherited titles who might fancy standing. There is also a large contingent of apolitical aristos, from whom the inherited cross-benchers get to replenish themselves, and another little group of seats which is reserved for hereditaries that the whole House of Lords gets to choose. Then there are the tiny Labour and Liberal Democrat hereditary factions, only three or four strong. These form a micro-electorate, which can be out-numbered by the candidates, as happened in 2003 when the death of Lord Milner, the Labour peer, triggered an election in which 11 hereditary hopefuls competed for just three votes.

And let’s not forget the 75-word manifestos—a concept dreamed up by grumpy peers fed up of being buttonholed by hopeful candidates in the corridor. These have landed somewhere between dating adverts and letters home from the front during the Napoleonic wars. The first cohort, in 1999, set the tone. Lord -Pender’s was just one word: “Duty,” while Earl Grey said he had a “GSOH,” and Lord Geddes ran on the slogan, “Brains; Breadth; Brevity.” Earl Alexander of Tunis was a little more earnest. “By the living God who made me, but I love this country,” he wrote. “My father fought for her all his life, and I, too, have worn her colours with pride. If it is given to me to remain in your Lordships’ House, I will struggle with all I have to offer.” Meanwhile the Earl of Onslow used his to stage an objection to manifestos in general: “It would be as vainglorious to proclaim a personal manifesto, as it would be arrogant to list any achievement,” as did Lord Craigmyle, who compared serving in the House of Lords to jury duty or the draft. “Had I wanted to stand for election, I would have tried another place, long ago,” he said, rather mournfully.

In the years since, two trends have emerged, one for short lists: “Fluent in Italian. Nonconformist. Optimist,” and another for long ones. In 2013 Lord Ampthill told his fellow peers he liked the “United Kingdom, understatement, rain, Hornblower, the law, Georgette Heyer, Spain, immigration, tax incentives, liberality, history, oak furniture, family, belonging, the Commonwealth, national service, apprenticeships, C of E, -credence, local government, subsidiarity, peonies, quiet and competent government.” His list of dislikes was equally long, and included “prejudice” and “bus lanes.”

And of late, some manifestos have become a little more concise: “I have been a member of Ukip for seven years so my political views are really summed up that way. Thank you very much,” one reads, while others have lapsed into poetry—such as this offering from the 7th Earl of Limerick: The Upper House knows none so queer. / A creature as the Seatless Peer. / Flamingo-like he stands all day. / With no support to hold his sway. / And waits with covert eagerness. / For ninety-two to be one less.

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Some may look on all of this as great fun: it is certainly the kind of thing that turns British parliamentary procedure into cult viewing for Californians. But it also taints the legitimacy of our law-making process, and makes parliament a laughing stock. Oh, and after long centuries of male-preference primogeniture, of the 92 hereditary peers, just one is a woman.

Little wonder some Lords bristle when a by-election is called—they know it attracts exactly the wrong kind of attention. And their regularity is only likely to pick up. Those saved in 1999 are ageing: to date there have been 33 by-elections to replace peers who have died or retired. And this summer there are two: one to succeed the cross-bencher Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, and a second for the place of Lord Glentoran, a Tory peer who once won an Olympic gold medal in the bobsleigh. Oddly, there has also been a recent rush amongst the titled to put their names down on the candidate list—perhaps because they sense the chance may not be there for much longer.

Some people are certainly trying to do something about it. Lord Grocott, a Labour peer and former MP, has proposed a bill to scrap the by-elections and let hereditary peers die off. It is widely supported—in fact it has just two detractors: the Earl of Caithness and Lord Trefgarne. But these two are sticklers, and have so far been successful in frustrating the bill, along with the rest of their colleagues. (“I used to feel a bit sorry for him because he always used to look a bit grumpy about something,” says one former colleague of Trefgarne’s, when asked to guess his motives.)

Things came to a head in March during a debate on the topic, after Trefgarne proposed a motion of “regret” that the legislation was proceeding. Unlike the recent row in which the Conservative backbencher in the Commons, Christopher Chope, made himself a figure of national notoriety by single-handedly scuppering a ban on “upskirting” because, he said, he had a procedural objection to law going through on the nod, Trefgarne at least claimed to have an argument on the substance. He argued that hereditary peers represent an “independent element because they do not owe their presence or their right to sit in this house to prime ministerial patronage.”

Those against him included the former Labour home secretary, Lord Blunkett, who described the current system as a “bizarre medieval process,” and said: “If you had a debate like this anywhere else, people would think you had lost your marbles.”

Lord Tyler also spoke against the regret motion, making use of an extended thought experiment in which “suddenly and truly sadly the noble lords Caithness and Trefgarne were, heaven forbid, called to greater things.” Despite such morbid musings, with just two votes in favour, and 127 against, the regret motion was overwhelmingly rejected.

But signs do not augur well for Grocott’s bill. This is not the first time a Labour member has tried to get rid of hereditaries. The main problem is that it is unlikely to get far without the support of the government and the guarantee of parliamentary time that comes with that. And governments have grown wary of getting involved, because as soon as they tinker with one absurdity of the Lords, they raise questions about others. This brings them up against the powerful argument, “yes, of course it needs to change, but let’s wait until there is a wider rationalisation.” But as the last century of thwarted reform efforts has shown time and again, there is never enough agreement to give the Lords the wholesale overhaul it needs. Theresa May, who has a lot on her plate and no majority, shows no sign of wanting to get involved. Little wonder.

And after all, some hereditary peers have their merits. Unlike other peers, they do at least have to win their seats through election, even if it is an absurd one. They have made sensible decisions in by-elections: tending to reject the whackier and lazier candidates, choosing instead those with impressive life experience and long careers behind them—people arguably better qualified for parliament than many of those in the Commons. In recent years, some of them can point to decent work: some of them blocked compulsory ID cards, others helped preserve live music in pubs.

But they are doing harm too. To its supporters the House of Lords is a vital check on an executive which can generally command the Commons through the Whips’ Office. The standard of debate is often high, and it regularly forestalls and refines half-baked laws made by half-baked MPs. Insults may seem especially unfair this summer, as the Lords has taken on an even greater importance, providing much-needed scrutiny and pushback to the government’s plans for Brexit. But as we have also seen with the Brexit legislation, the chamber’s lack of legitimacy also means that, in the end, it always feels obliged to blink in confrontations with the Commons. These odd, outdated by-elections strip further dignity from the institution. Time to let them go.