Welcome to the world of hereditary by-electionsby Martha Gill / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.