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…