The Case As Yet Unheard: a defence of the hereditary peerage

This appeared as an essay in Social Affairs Unit pamphlet Research report 29 in 1999

 

The hereditary peers are to have their right to vote in the House of Lords removed, as part of New Labour's devotion to modernising the country and making it somehow "young" and "forward-looking". This is very odd, since the country has never had greater need of the hereditary peers: they are the very thing a country which was actually modern and young would hang on to. Less surprisingly, the party most of the peers support, the Tories, seem to have agreed that the demise of their special role should be polite and uncontested, perhaps even in advance of its being very clear what a "reformed" House will look like.

We will see. Their Lordships - hereditary or not, Tory or not - are certainly notable for their politeness, but they are not particularly predictable. Except perhaps in this: they do seem to understand that their role is to be an independent voice. This may lead to even more surprises than we saw during 1998 when this decorous backwater of the British state saw the sacking of Lord Richard as the leader of the Labour peers, covert deals, Commons drama, and the sudden sacking as leader of the opposition of Lord Cranborne, a scion of the incomparable Cecil family. The Cecils, by the way, could in a few years' time claim a 400 year tradition of speaking and voting in the House of Lords, and may yet achieve it as part of a rump of "hereditaries" condoned during an interim period before total abolition.

The ending of the hereditaries' rights seems so natural to most people that it is important to see why it is not sensible or natural.

 

The hereditary peers in practice: independent and conservative

 

Abolition of hereditary voting isn't an extraordinarily popular cause. Feelings and views on the whole business of Lords reform are divided and largely uninformed. Pollsters' trawls of public opinion demonstrate that about two-thirds of people favour some change or other for the House of Lords.[1] About a quarter favour outright abolition of the House, and presumably want a unicameral system. According to various polls, between around a fifth and a third of people favour leaving the House exactly as it is. Gallup puts the matter very clearly. Its numbers suggested a bit under a third of people in favour of unspecified reform; a slightly smaller number in favour of outright abolition of the House; and very slightly more than a third in favour of leaving the House as it is, replete with hereditaries.

This last is especially the option favoured by those who are older, who claim to take an interest in the subject, or who vote Conservative. On two and possibly three counts, these are the very people one would listen to when trying to preserve the country's valuable traditions. Now of course, it is a serious failing of opinion polls that they can seldom measure the seriousness, depth or value of people's feelings and views. Indeed, the real difficulty is that calling any opinion polls as evidence for anything to do with the Lords is flawed. The Lords has traditionally operated as a check on the predominate power in the land. This implies that it must now be a check on public opinion, which currently rules us, just as it once was on the King, who used to.

It is peculiar and paradoxical, but true too, that an effective defence of the House of Lords could only have come from a political class which had vision and self-denying concern for the well-being of the country rather than the political class itself. Tony Blair may not pack the Lords with cronies. He may enjoy enhancing his reputation for a post-political approach to power even more than he would have enjoyed exercising more obvious power. He is not, in any case, the man to understand the merit of leaving a committed awkward squad at the heart of the legislature.

Politicians of the modern sort fancy themselves to be members of a profession which is moulded by, and moulds, public opinion. New Labour and "new" Tories can contemplate the erosion of power amongst politicians because they have figured for themselves an interesting and lucrative career as people who are more like pollsters than leaders. In this thinking, opinion polls and focus groups are much more easy to deal with than peers whose most obvious feature is that they carry over into the present prejudices garnered from the past.

The present House of Lords performs quite well the role of sceptical oversight of a political world dominated by the need and longing to be popular. Of course, it must not go too far: it must never seriously compete with the Commons. But within these limits, it has been a useful piece of grit in the process, and the hereditaries have played a proper part in that.

Good government has required that they not merely be mildly reactionary, and sceptical of change, but a reliable source of these qualities. But the hereditaries are usefully surprising, too. Most of them are Tory, but what is more peculiar, granted the dislike by socialists and others of the Tory majority in the Lords, is the way that Tory hereditaries simply do not dominate the House of Lords. Lord Mottistone, a busy and committed hereditary, has been watching the situation since the mid-70s and concludes in an unpublished paper:

 

"From 1977 to 1997, at any one time only about one fifth of the eligible hereditary peers attended the House sufficiently regularly to have a serious influence on legislation and the conduct of the country. By a mysterious process of self-selection, a constant number of peers of both sorts [hereditary and life], then averaging 300, attended regularly with about 250 on any one day. These came whether the business was normal and dull to most of them or exciting and politically interesting. In the latter case, the whips of organised parties might seek to add to their own numbers; more, I suspect, to impress their partly-informed colleagues in the Commons than in the certain knowledge that the added numbers could both come and be effective in party interest. The 300 regular attendees of both sorts of peer then balanced out, over the years between 1977 and 1997, to approximately 120 Conservative, 120 Labour and Liberal and 60 Crossbench."

 

It isn't even easy to find a worrying general drift of attitude and approach amongst the hereditaries. What instead we find is what one might expect of people who have no particular constituency to satisfy. The hereditaries are not schooled in diplomacy. Usually with infinite courtesy, but also plainly, they are freer than any of us to speak their minds. They are, as a body of people, the least fashionable people we could possibly invite to help us legislate. Their circumstances of life insulate them from ostracism and worse by those they offend.

These are not trivial matters. Political correctness is the name we give an attitude of mind and a habit of speech which a pluralist society must develop in order to defend the prickly sensitivities of all the many self-appointed and genuine minorities of which it is composed. Absurd as much of all this is, we could not do other than go through a period in which it happened. The hereditaries are amongst the few people who have not been inculcated in this new discipline, and they are certainly the only people in the entire political system who can say, when they want to and with complete impunity, what a lot of nonsense they think it is.

Thus we see and can delight in a quality rare, especially in public, in the general public, but quite common, even in public, in the best of the hereditaries. Naturally, this sometimes takes trivial forms. It is mildly offensive to some people when Lord Cranborne says that the hereditaries are now like "fuzzy-wuzzies" facing the Maxim gun in the time of the Boer War. But we know that is what even quite nice people then called the blacks, and so the expression is perfectly appropriate for use in an example drawing on history. Besides, we know that a few very nice people of the older generation still do use such language, partly as a deliberate snub to modern fashions. No harm is done, and the thing adds to the gaiety of nations. It happens that Cranborne is arrogant as well as incautious, and it would be a pity if his style predominated in the House. But it doesn't.

We know that sometimes the hereditaries speak for large sections of the country, perhaps even a majority, and for people who keep tactfully silent on some matters. On other occasions, they speak equally boldly for under-represented minorities. The widowed, disabled and the poor find their most reliable allies in the House of Lords. As do the young. Their Lordships' House - acting in this case as the grandfathers' union - was not in favour of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, and though that might seem undemocratic and much else, there were hurrahs for the decision all over the country. Of course, in the end, the Commons must prevail. But on just such issues, the Lords can usefully go against the grain, just as they did when - thirty years ago - they agreed that homosexual acts in private should not be illegal. On a limited reform of the laws on cannabis, on Mrs Thatcher's proposed Poll Tax, on the expense of tertiary education for poor families, on the open list system for proportionally representative elections and on dozens of other matters, the reliable unpredictability of the Lords is not the least of the reasons for maintaining the hereditaries' part in it.

Then there is the occasional matter on which the Lords are indeed predictable. Where country matters are concerned, and especially where country pursuits are concerned, the hereditary peers can be relied on to be uncomfortably, indeed traditionally, bloody-minded, and blood-minded. But again, a sensible nation - even one which disapproved of rural barbarities - would think very hard before dismembering an element in its constitutional settlement which perversely, consistently, and from deep knowledge and commitment, argued against the urban and rootless majority. It would, for instance, perhaps be handy for Labour to be shot of the hereditaries before an anti-fox-hunting bill comes before Parliament, and this because their Lordships may prove remarkably popular when they defend the freedoms of a rural minority, and do so even in the face of a general unease about the right of men and hounds to chase foxes. Actually, Labour may come to rue the absence of the hereditaries, whose opposition to the measure could have made a plausible reason for pursuing it, and whose absence may lay bare Labour's lack of real argument, interest or advantage in the matter.

Anyway, we can see a particular merit of the reactionary nature of many of the hereditaries. Our society is becoming more and more the victim of televised moral panic, brought to us by sophisticated pseudo-dissidents amongst the journalists and fostered by a powerful Anxiety Industry of campaigners. On guns, dogs, paedophiles and many other subjects, sudden flurries of anger and moral certainty break out. The hereditaries are not a perfect guarantee against such fits of nervous energy and opinion in a largely apathetic and self-absorbed society, but they are likely to help and already often have.

It is true that in the last five years of the 70s Labour saw a far larger proportion of their bills suffer defeats in the Lords than did the Tories for the next 18 years, and the rate has increased again under the new Labour government.[2] The Lords inflicted 156 defeats on the Thatcher administration between 1979 and 1990, in spite of her habit of marshalling the hereditary backwoodsmen in a way which did nothing for their dignity and is now regarded as contributing to Labour's dislike of them. It is not necessarily important that many of the defeats of Governments of either stamp were popular with the public. What matters is that any Government trying to change anything very much will meet more or less proportional Lords opposition.

Well way from the high drama of large events, there are plenty of humdrum reasons for keeping the hereditaries, especially now. Walter Bagehot wrote in his magisterial The English Constitution: "A severe though not unfriendly critic of our institutions said that 'the cure [[[[cure in itlaics]]] for admiring the House of Lords was to go and look at it'".[3] That observation has become very untrue, indeed it is the reverse of the truth. A hundred, or five hundred, years ago we could have managed without a House of Lords well enough, and perhaps been better off if we had attempted to. Then, it might have been argued, the Lords constituted brute self-interest to an unacceptable degree. Now, a visit to the place, or an hour two watching its proceedings on cable, or a look at any of the reports of its select committees, show that it is a hive of humdrum, serious scrutiny of the activities of the EU and UK executives, and occasionally the scene of real drama and often the location of real wisdom.

If it were their usefulness which mattered, one might expect the public to rally to the idea of hereditaries like David, Lord Mottistone. His style could not be more different to that of Lord Onslow. Of relatively new creation, the Mottistone title carries no great tradition of landowning or affluence. The present baron, now 78, was a naval officer with a gallant record until he retired because he thought that Denis Healey, the then Secretary of Defence, was doing such harm to the service that silence would have been cowardice. It was only months later, and surprisingly, that Captain David Seely found himself translated to their Lordships' House in 1966. He was soon to become the head of what we would now call a Quango, concerned with industrial training, and was shortly to become involved with various trades association, amongst them the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionary Alliance, surely the least martial-sounding organisation in the country.

In his new role, he increasingly found himself operating as a professional peer. He was perhaps the first of a species which was soon to become extinct. Unpaid for their attendance in the House, some peers were paid for furthering the interests of industry[4]. These interests were usually of course declared, and flagged up when peers spoke to them in the House (Lord Mottistone was very scrupulous in this regard). The Lords is famously a House which prefers to listen to people who know what they're talking about and Mottistone, for instance, did.

But this sort of activity did not suit their Lordships, and a select committee of the House outlawed it in late 1995. Now, a peer can speak for interests if they are part of his business, or no part of it, but must not be a freelance lobbyist. The changes make little difference to Lord Mottistone, who has in any case determined to retire from his fulltime involvement in the House. What is interesting is that while lobbyist peers may have been useful in bringing specialist knowledge to bear on legislation, the House of Lords preferred its members to be free of the modern trade of interest-mongering, and thus preserved a further difference between itself and the Commons. Of course, the House's understanding of how it should behave makes it yet more valuable that peers be people of leisure, and the hereditaries are not by any means the less valuable for having amongst their number plenty who can afford to put their time at the disposal of parliament.

This defence of the hereditary peerage in the Lords naturally has begun by seeing them as a valuable part of a modern House, never more valuable than now, and gaining in justification as the modern world unfolds.

Of course, this is counter-intuitive. There is an assumption, badly wrong, that the Lords and especially the hereditaries represent a nation trapped in its traditions, and in thrall to deference and flummery. The House in its present form is seen as exemplifying the "dignified" as opposed to the "efficient" part of the constitution, as Walter Bagehot defined them. We are supposed, perhaps rightly, to be less interested now in the cod-Medieval showiness by which the old rich dress up to amuse us whilst fleecing and bossing us too.

When not being absurd, their hereditary Lordships are often supposed, quite wrongly, still to be pursuing some more or less sinister class warfare. It is true that the families from which the hereditary Lords have sprung have by definition surived many vicissitudes, as all families must. They have done so partly out of rugged self-interest. But they do not on the whole pursue crude self-interest in their House, and are not keen to cling to their role in the House if to do so would damage too greatly their private interest.

We should never have looked to the peers to defend themselves. It is perhaps typical of a group of men schooled in particularly British (not to say, English) forms of politeness that they should be the last to raise their voices in their own defence.[5] But there is more to it than that. Almost any peer of Britain - and any successful one - knows a great deal about survival. Many have kept wealth, land or influence, or all of them, as well as title, and have done so in spite of waves of anxiety and real threat produced by revolutions abroad and punitive taxation at home. As a class, and as individuals, these are people who above all believe in preserving the advantage which has accrued to themselves and - very particularly - to their families. If parliamentary reform is inevitable, better to bow to it gracefully than to incur the potentially disadvantageous wrath of "the people".

Besides, and this is one reason why it is so perverse to be rid of them, most of the peers are only in Parliament out of a desire to be usefully as well as agreeably employed. Leave aside a tradition of service which is considerable, over recent centuries, but increasingly in recent decades, many peers have sensed that strategic self-effacement was the best survival mechanism. If the people once accepted and even demanded grandeur of the well-born, they have now come to expect a curious mixture of spectacle and the threadbare cardigan. In some peers, modesty was a strictly surface affair. Eton, where so many aristocrats were and are educated, is uniquely efficient in producing disguises for the arrogance of those scions of the aristocracy not prepared to become genuinely modest but willing at least to moderate their behaviour in public.

However, for many peers, as for many of the landed gentry, survival, respectability and morality have combined in different measure to make a really active and considered civic virtue genuinely attractive. The emphasis has perhaps shifted over the years, but that only strengthens the theme. The medieval barony may not have felt much need for self-deprecation as they pressed their rights, and their regional authority, against those of the Crown and the emerging nation state. But even so there has been, from the earliest times, a real nobility, and noblesse oblige, as well as self-interest, in aristocratic involvement in the state.

By the late eighteenth century, we find some of the most thoughtful of the landed aristocracy responding to the French Revolution as though it were the nemesis the hubris of monarchic absolutism and aristocratic vanity deserved. In the 1790s, Uvedale Price, a writer from Herefordshire's landed gentry, deliberately fashioned what we would now call an image for his class which had it fitted snugly and usefully into the wider rural scene, and representing not so much its own interest as that of its poorer and disenfranchised neighbours.[6]

Price argued that a landed aristocrat living in a time of revolution should merge himself as best he could into the rural scene. Price was interested in estate management and in landscape aesthetics, and argued that a landowner should plant trees in the proximity of his house, and encourage the natural woodland near it, partly because that would make his estate look more like a Claude Lorrain painting, and partly because it would symbolise an identity of interest between the landowner and the natural order, including the wider local social scene which he should no longer rudely dominate, but rather subtley influence and serve.

This picture of the aristocrat usefully merged with his society has taken some quite big dents. In the Swinging Sixties Lord Lucan and the "Claremont Set" (named after a West End gambling club) stood in the public imagination as the unacceptable face of the hereditary peerage: arrogant and spendthrift, their dash could not quite make up for their delinquency. More recently, we have had the death of the troubled Marquess of Bristol, and the lives of several others, to remind us - what most of us enjoy remembering - that few people can survive great wealth and advantage with equanimity intact. The influence of the more politically active sort of aristocrat has seemed at times no less "anti-social". The House of Lords fought against factory act reform in the 19th century and against the introduction of "socialist" income taxes in this. Actually, their arguments were not solely self-interested, and have - many of them - gained in credence since. But the hereditary House lost every time, and has learned the lessons, perhaps too well. The idea of the welfare state was unstoppable, and the enduring issue for the Lords was, at the beginning of this century and since: how to be the voice of legitimately awkward resistance to the Commons without so alienating the "people" as to bring on the extinction of the power or influence of the aristocracy? The result was to clothe their debates in courtesy, but above all to hope that the influence of their House could be maintained whilst, and because, its power was diplomatically handed away.

Now they believe that to preserve the remnant of their House's diminished influence and aetiolated power, they must leave the stage. The hereditaries themselves have sold the pass. Lord Onslow, Michael to his wide acquaintance, including many journalists and artists, has had the starring role in the current drama about the House of Lords. He is everything the large soap opera of modern society demands in its bit-players: outspoken, stereotypical, and above all loquacious in the way that simultaneously fills the airwaves and produces the sound-bite which is so valuable to compressed news bulletins. He is the personification of intelligent, informed, well-connected classiness.

Onslow is a notable if amusing and occasionally mildly embarrassing contributor to debates in the House of Lords. He is never happier than when quoting Gibbon and spouting Latin tags at their Lordships. He exclaimed for all to hear that he was "prepared to behave like a football hooligan" as New Labour pressed reforms upon the House which he loves.

But Michael Onslow is only one of many hereditary peers who are meekly volunteering a long neck for the block of reform. In the two day debate on abolition of the hereditaries in October 1998, he said: "Of course I would be sad no longer to be here, and hope I have had some positive influence, but I do not know a single hereditary peer who does not know our time has come".

Onslow is not alone in insisting that his last gestures of defiance about the nature of reform are the least duty he owes the House before he leaves it. It is as though people who love the House of Lords sense that it is worth scrapping its most ostentatiously undemocratic feature in order that the second chamber be saved from wholesale democratisation.

It would be easy enough to defend the principle of a reformed House of Lords on sensible, Conservative grounds. It would be comparatively easy to do so on sensible, socialist grounds. For generations, many powerful Britons have thought it worthwhile to preserve, not least because it is possible to reform, the House of Lords. Even J S Mill, who declared himself sceptical of the need for a second chamber in an intelligent democracy, nonetheless thought that a less aristocratic House than the one he knew might be a useful bulwark against a "despotic and overweening" political party in the Commons.[7]

No modern party is likely to be moved by that argument. Indeed, New Labour is likely to want to settle for a House as little capable of seriously inconveniencing the majority in the Commons as is consistent with its looking thoroughly democratic. They start with the small problem of democratising the place, not with the greater problem of preserving its useful awkwardness. They are not the first political party to wrestle with such issues. Historically, many of the most plausible reforms have been suggested by Tories. The House of Lords has itself often suggested reforms which the rest of Parliament might consider.[8]

Of course different players in the political and constitutional games have come to the issue from very different positions. Some on the broad Right have sought to reform the House of Lords because they believed strongly in its fundamental importance, and believed they could best secure its survival by making the thing more conformable to modern ideas. On the Left, there is less acceptance of the idea of a second, senatorial chamber, and still less of a seignorial one. Still, even Left-minded people can accept that there ought to be some checks on the Commons, and even on the power of the People, and have in any case been unsure what the wider response might be to hacking away too thoroughly at hallowed institutions. So the Left proposes reforms with less enthusiasm for the institution itself, but with an understanding that reform is the better course in so evolutionary a society as Britain.

The "extreme" left and right are sometimes in agreement on the matter.[9] Michael Foot and Enoch Powell were an unholy alliance of extremes of their parties when they combined to stop Harold Wilson's minor Lords reform package thirty years ago. Foot thought the reforms too readily enshrined some role for the hereditaries; Powell saw them as damaging the traditions of the House too much. Reform is more likely now because there are probably less strong feelings around than previously: less principle, fewer principled people. Some fudge may emerge where previously people had felt strongly on all sides of this many-faceted argument.

It might well be argued - and will be - that the powers of the House of Lords ought to be strengthened. Or weakened. It might very possibly be that the House of Lords ought to have a membership which was more able to represent the people of Britain.[10] Or less. To achieve this, the membership of the House of Lords might need to be more "like" the people of Britain. Or less. These desirables might be best achieved by election. Or by selection.

All these issues are difficult to resolve, and there will be a good deal of debate about them. In the meantime, it has seemed obvious to all parties that we can at least all agree that we should get rid of the hereditaries. Abolition of their parliamentary role is the essential radical move which can be made so as to satisfy Labour's ranks, whilst very little offending the Tories or even the hereditaries themselves.

The hereditary peers in principle: class, family and interest

 

It is very easy to argue that whatever one does with the House of Lords, and however the rest of it is composed, the hereditaries are the most natural, not to say the most necessary, part of it. Indeed, the main though infinitesimally small hope now is that though Labour will introduce and see succeed a bill which will abolish the hereditaries, good sense will prevail and see the re-introduction of many of them. This might be the best of all possible worlds. The English monarchy was much strengthened by being first abolished, then missed and finally re-instated by popular acclaim. Great strength was gained by the constitutional acceptance of a monarch who, while not elected, was nonetheless clearly chosen by the elite of the day on the understanding that a monarchy was in the public good. In our own time, we could yet return to the hereditary principle for a part of our legislature, and give it a refreshed authenticity and authority because we had volunteered for it.

Even though we have a constitutional monarchy, no logic on earth can save the monarchy once the hereditary principle is despised, as it is by New Labour. Baroness Flather (a one-time Conservative life peer, and now an independent) pointed out in October's debate: "The hereditary principle is being decried so why is this country to remain a monarchy? That is the foundation of all hereditary principles, so why are we not moving towards becoming a republic? If the monarchy is hereditary, then the principle is enshrined in the constitution of this country."

It was perhaps typical that it required an Asian immigrant to stand for the values and traditions of her adopted country. She alone had the temerity to point out what the hereditaries really meant to the House:

 

"The legitimacy of the hereditary Peers has been questioned. [But] it is their House. We should be questioned as to whether or not we are here legitimately. It is very strange to say to people whose title dates back for a thousand years that their legitimacy must be questioned while those who are appointed by the party machine become more legitimate. It is quality and not quantity in the end which will give this House authority. It will not be a question of hereditary or non-hereditary. We need the best people possible to do the job most needed."[11]

This is itself not a clear argument. If the hereditaries were accorded power or influence as of right, it wouldn't matter whether they exercised it well. Moreover, the hereditary principle's strength ought to derive from people's sense of its normality in the whole of society, not merely in the monarchy. We do sense that there is a naturalnes to hereditary authority, and that efficacy and usefulness flow from its naturalness.

So why are we to believe that the hereditary principle helps create people who should be accorded influence? It is tempting to argue that the hereditary principle is efficient because of the qualities of the families involved. It might be, for instance, that talented families produce talented children and that the hereditaries are thus a repository of uncommon good sense. It might be argued that aristocracy tends to arise from bloodlines which are rich in heroism, entrepreneurship, or leadership and that this dynamism is uniquely distilled in the descendants of the people of exceptional skill, courage or forcefulness and should be kept at the elbow of politicians of commoner stamp so as to advise, inform and stiffen them.

However, it might just as well be argued that none of these traits is to be seen in the current generation of aristocrats, at least to an uncommon degree. Besides, we see that madness is more easily inherited than genius, energy or courage and those who love the hereditary principle need a defence of it which is not dependent on breeding maintaining only good qualities.

We don't nowadays accept the idea that there is really anything very real behind the idea of "good breeding", or that aristocrats have a particularly good hold on it anyway. There is heroism, entrepreneurship and all the rest of it, everywhere in society.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, speaking for the Government as the Home Office Minister, attacked the hereditary principle in October's debate. "We suggest", he said, "that the hereditary principle - which means sheltered employment for the undeserving classes - must cease and cease now." Somewhere in the House, a peer called: "Cheap!". Lord Williams continued:

 

"My Lords, it is not cheap. I will explain why and I shall do so in a little detail by referring to one or two words from the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to which I listened with great care... There have been a number of ingenuous and ingenious attempts to defend what I suggest is indefensible.... Personally, I shall be sorry to see many of the hereditary Peers go. I hope I can say this with their approval: I enjoy their company; I enjoy their courtesy, their grace, their charm and also their contributions to this House. Those concerned know of whom I speak, but the Indian summer is past now. I am sorry that people will feel disappointed, that they feel that their service over the years will be spurned. It will not be. I hope it is fully recognised. But the fact is that all these things must pass.

"I promised, when I responded to a complaint that I had said something unworthy, to return to what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood [a hereditary peer] said. He described his pride in his family, in history and in public service. I respect that. I honour it. I know him well and I think he would identify himself as one of those I described earlier. He said of his ancestors and relatives, quoting Yeats, 'they are no petty people'. Perhaps I may explain why some of us have a slightly different view of society, history and tradition.

"My own father was a village schoolteacher. His father was gassed in the First World War and could not, therefore, work properly thereafter. His father, my father's grandfather, remembered the evictions in West

Wales of tenant farmers because they voted according to their consciences in parliamentary elections before the secret ballot Act of 1870 was passed. They were evicted from their homes and their farms and many of them had to emigrate. They were back-country people. They lived unremarked, though not unremarkable, lives, and I take up the noble Lord's words, of duty and service. There are millions like them in our country today. All I would say is this: 'they are no petty people'.

"That is a small illustration, just a tiny cameo - and forgive me my indulgence this late at night - but I am entitled to say, as long as I can breathe, that I am proud of their service and duty, but equally I do not look to them for any advantage in this world, except their memory. I do not look to them to have provided me with any personal or political advantage. I believe it would demean them and demean me similarly."[12]

 

So there we are. An aristocrat reminding us of the value of his people is presumed to have traduced the family of a non-aristocrat. In People's Britain, there are no Petty People and so there can be no grand people either.

There are indeed plenty of remarkable and unremarked families, and it doesn't in any obvious way help the hereditary peers' case that plenty more achieve generations of distinction without the background of nobility. The Plowdens, the Huxleys, and so on, have all seemed able to produce talent without tiaras. And there are myriad aristocratic families which do not produce people of special distinction at all.[13] Few aristocrats are without a certain elan, and one is glad of that, but mild eccentricity and a sense of oneself hardly add up to genius.

We simply do not now believe that blood alone will produce exceptional people. Or rather: we believe that good blood is all over the place.

The change in attitude goes deeper. Our European cultures have variously thrived and suffered by nurturing and then dismissing the idea of a divine nobility, or at least a nobility which was ordained and ordered by monarchs who were themselves annointed in some special and holy way for their work. A loss of faith has scuppered any widespread acceptance of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, however attractive it remains to some high churchmen and Catholics. It is of some interest, indeed, that Tony Blair will go to Catholic churches and presumably acknowledge the authority of the Pope, as successor of St Peter, and a traditionalist if ever there was one. But he will not concede the principle nearer home. It is true that the Pope is in some sense elected, though by a "college" which his predecessors have appointed. But the authority people sense in the Pope flows from his succession from St Peter, and on the mere fact of continuity, which it is of course right and natural to value. Anyway, outside religious circles, the idea of annointed power was wearing pretty thin four hundred years ago, and the Stuarts in their very different ways presided over its final demise.

So it isn't their inherent and inherited virtues which make the case for the parliamentary role of the hereditary peerage.

One does better, but it isn't the whole of the matter, if one stresses the evolved and evolving role of peers as people with inherited interests to defend.

The history of aristocratic parliamentary power mirrors the history of the exertion of power by every other interest group, and indeed of the role of "interest" in politics in general. Politics used to be almost exclusively the business of interest groups coming together to negotiate their respective needs and strengths. Property was represented in Parliament, not people. We have seen crown in negotiation with barony; land in negotiation with trade. Only when the issue became one of capital in negotiation with labour did the rightness of individuals' representation become an unavoidable issue. Even then, one might come to politics with enlightened self-interest, but one didn't need to dissemble: politics was avowedly the business of making sure one's own interest - social, financial, territorial - did not suffer. Some people - the 19th century Earl of Shaftesbury, for instance, with his factory acts - might argue against their familial or class interest, but they were exceptional figures, and their motivation was incomprehensible to many.

It is interesting to note the House of Lords, even when its members were all hereditaries and most of them infinitely more powerful than their descendants are now, was not nearly as powerful as its present enemies might suppose. Robert Perceval, a Clerk Assistant of the Parliaments in the mid 70s, in a remarkable, unpublished history of the place, writes:

 

"...It is most noticeable that, right from the beginning [certainly from the 16th century], it is the Commons who take the lead. It is their debates which arouse interest in the country; it is their members whom the Government strive to influence or placate, and it is obvious from the reports that the Commons were the active, the decisive, House; that the Lords were expected to - and generally did - merely follow suit, and that the political proceedings of the House of Lords never attracted much attention in the country.

"....We should expect that the House of Lords would suffer, as an institution, the same atrophy that has in more recent times overtaken the Privy Council... but... in fact it is not too much to say that, during the eighteenth century, the Lords' political power was equal to that of the King and the rest of the country put together. I say 'the Lords' political power', not the 'political power of the House of Lords'; and this is the paradox. For while, during the three-and-a-half centuries after 1500, individual peers wielded, at most times, more political power and influence than anyone, yet that power and influence was never exercised by the House of Lords. It was never all gathered up and bent in one direction: it was never used institutionally and corporately, but by individuals, either privately or in some official capacity."

 

The House of Lords was never as powerful as people now suppose it was; the Lords wielded power as powerful people, not as members of a powerful body. Anyway, now we see something quite different. Our House of Lords is much noticed, and especially when it is controversial.

Equally of interest, in our own lifetimes we have seen the collapse of "interest" politics. The Tories have become corporatist and Labour have become entrepreneurial, and each has done so to the point of inter-changeability. The death of "interest" has not been replaced by disinterestedness, however. The political parties have now become very like firms professionally engaged in the pursuit of power, and staffed by professional politicians who must join one or other of the outfits in order to be in the business at all. They may have a taste for one ideology over another, but it will usually be justified by the ideology's usefulness to the whole of society, not its special usefulness to one bit of society. Politicians now offer competing brands of policy, but they cannot afford to offer them to niche markets.

We now have a generation of politicians of whom it is less likely than ever, and very observable, that they have not inherited their political attitude and affinities from their fathers, or even derive them from their own financial interests. The reason is easy to see. Class is many things, but it has one necessary feature. That is the inevitability of the child inheriting a social position from his family. In a class society a father passes on advantage and disadvantage to his children. No amount of merit or absence of it, in either the father or the child, can much alter the fact.

The ordering of the Commons into the entrenched warfare of the classes is dead because the class system, always weaker than advertised, has finally all but died. It survives only in the underclass and what was once called the ruling class. Only the poor of the urban and rural heartlands, and the aristocrats, inherit and pass on important social characteristics. Class is a minority sport. Oddly, one might make an interesting case that the hereditary peerage should stay in the parliamentary system because they are the only class of person who now really understands the very poor class.

As Simon Winchester pointed out[14], many young aristocrats served for a time in the regiments of infantry or cavalry. The arrangement suited them. The regiments were often based in London, and the uniforms were glamorous. Guns, horses (and later, vehicles) were involved. Courage rather than brainpower were what were needed, and a certain streetwise savviness was either drawn upon or inculcated.

But one might remark that the social value of the arrangement was that these grand young men were put in command of men who were as uniquely disadvantaged before they joined the army as their commanding officers were advantaged. Some of the young aristocrats and the young unemployed - both often representing the less educable of their respective classes - faced discomfort and worse together. We do not need to claim that officers and men grew to like or love each other, or even to share interests: but we can certainly say that some of the privileged young men went on to inherit titles and seats in the House of Lords and thus took into the heart of the legislature a much closer understanding of the disadvantaged than it is likely that many of the middling sort of people in the Commons have ever had.

The point might be made more generally. One of the merits of an aristocracy is that it suffers many of the disadvantages of the poorest of society. Both extremes of society spawn excesses: indebtedness and inebriation are the curse of both, whilst the middle classes are bastions of orderly good sense.

Such factors to one side, it was always truer in Britain than in any other European society that class was rather weak: social mobility has always been one of the most commonly noticed features of our society. This was notably true of our notables. Primogeniture and the rules determined that only one descendent got the title and the wealth: the rest fended for themselves and quickly lost all vestiges of aristocracy if they could not refresh them by their own merit. Moreover, ennoblement came quickly and surely to succeeding waves of energetic "coming" men, and these refreshed an aristocracy which was in other countries condemned by snobbery to become anachronistic and unadventurous.[15]

So it is clearly true that the hereditaries are amongst the few remaining people who could be said to have a class, and thus - arguably - to have a class interest to defend. It is almost certainly some curious remnant of class warfare which leads Labour, and perhaps even some Tories, to want to do away with the hereditaries. The move is one of the few that can be made which has a comfortingly old-fashioned, recognisable element of the old party politics.

It is wrong to claim, however, that the hereditaries have much of a class interest to defend, at least when the government is New Labour. The only serious class interests remaining to them pertain to their ability to have, to hold, and to inherit their wealth with as little interference as possible. But the House of Lords long ago gave up the right to discuss "money bills" of the kind which might, theoretically, closely touch them and their financial self-interest.[16] Besides, their Lordships are by no means the only people who have such interests to defend, and they are not even in the forefront of those who do.

It is true that their Lordships have a uniquely concentrated interest in land ownership.[17] Land is to a remarkable degree in the hands of peers, but that rather locks their Lordships out of entrepreneurship than encourages it. The House of Lords is full of people whose wealth could only be turned into capital by someone prepared to be extraordinarily and exceptionally entrepreneurial: they would have to be confident enough to put their own main asset - their land - on the line to raise capital.

So far as capital and wealth creation is concerned, the hereditaries are not so much either bystanders or major league players as a very special case. Their Lordships would be upset if private land ownership was under threat. For the rest, there is little these Lords could do, or would be exceptional in wanting to do. There are rich people amongst the Tories and New Labour, though more in both cases amongst influential supporters of the party than amongst its much less important elected members. Further socialism is unlikely to flow from the Commons, or to need unique opposition from the Lords.

So it isn't that the hereditary Lords are brilliant, or that they are bastions in defence of some interest or other, that matters.

Indeed, it is tempting to say that they are the most valuable, because they are the most disinterested, element in the entire system. These are not people the party whips or fund-raisers can easily push around. The richer, and the less acceptable to some egalitarians they are, the more they ought to appeal to people (often the same egalitarians) who fear that a person in need of funds can be a very biddable creature. As we have seen, there are hereditary Lords who have the same sorts of PR and lobbying interests as members of the Commons. That is all right, up to a point, and may even help them - as it can help MPs - to understand the real world, or at least some part of it, exceptionally well and usefully.

There is more to the hereditary peers, however, than their valuable independence, and the way the working peers amongst them seem to complement the working life peers politically. There are rich people who could be co-opted to a second chamber for their brilliance as well as their financial independence, and who might achieve the same balance, and yet who would not, even so, be so valuable to us.

Indeed, all sorts of people could be co-opted on all sorts of principles. Demos, the left-leaning think-tank, has proposed a scheme by which "ordinary" people could find themselves chosen by a sort of Athenian lottery to sit in the House of Lords.[18] There is something to be said for the idea. We have a long tradition of jury service, and there might easily be a role for randomly selected individuals to be forced or invited to concentrate on the nation's affairs for a set period of time and give us the benefit of their sound, amateur, common-sense.

They might even usefully do so in the House of Lords. We might wonder why focus groups could not do much the same sort of thing, or Citizens' Juries, or any number of other fashionable and possibly useful forums. But even if we accepted the infusion of such people, they would not be a replacement for the existing hereditary presence in the House of Lords. The obvious drawbacks to the new Athenians are only apparently contradictory: such members would and should not be permanent, professional or hereditary. Above all, they would not have the required background.

The very principle of the value of tradition and of the history of the country is at stake. The vehicle of transmission of these values is the family. That is why it makes sense to reward those who make a very big contribution to the present by ensuring their progeny a role in the future.

It happens that the familial element in this process enshrines a principle almost too homely and visceral to be called a principle, and it is all the more powerful for being so intuitively simple. Bagehot believed that the hereditary - that is to say, the family - monarchy had value precisely because of the ordinary way in which it touched people: "It brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life.... The women, one half of the human race at least - care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry".[19] He might have lived in the age of television rather than that of the carrier pigeon, so well does he seem to foretell the advantages (if he could not see the disadvantages) of regarding monarchs as family people. His argument, by the way, gives the lie to the idea that it is deference alone that gives us the key to understanding the appeal of monarchy and aristocracy. We do indeed seem to love to defer, and deference is clearly quite natural: the current generation of stars of stage, screen and catwalk are venerated with a devotion which would probably better be reserved for leaders or aristocrats, or very nearly for anyone else.

But it is not exactly veneration or even deference which we should accord the hereditary peers. Nor is it the converse: we are not interested in the peers just because they have ancestors. We all have ancestors.

Their value to us, especially their constitutional value to us, is quite simply the aristocratic continuum they represent. They could not be aristocratic except by having been part of special families. But it is not as family men that they interest us. Luckily, most of us know less of the family life of our aristocrats than we now know of our monarch's. It is not mostly or even much as family men that we do or should value them. We know some aristocrats buckle under the pressure of privilege, and some blossom. That's not why they are of interest to Hansard.

With the hereditaries of even mediocre quality, we get something absolutely priceless in Parliament. We get something from almost all of them which they have and which very few of the rest of us have. This is quite simply their rootedness. Take first, the way they are rooted in history. An aristocrat is almost certain to know, and we are all able to know, and often do know almost as though it were our own story, the history - the father to son story - of his ancestors. In the case of the older titles, 20-odd successions of eldest sons, or next of kin, will take us hop-scotching back through the whole of our national history. Most of these men were at the centre of the national life, for good or ill, and strongly on the "right" or the "wrong" side of the nation's arguments, throughout. It isn't remotely a disadvantage that this or that ancestor of a hereditary was a fan of Hitler, or any other nasty or unattractive cause. Their living descendants are not the sum total of this sort of experience. They do not encapsulate it or enshrine it. There is nothing holy or mystical, or even very mysterious, about them or the process we see at work in them. Lots of them do not live up to the reputation of their forebears, and some exceed it. But these men are able to stand in the House of Lords and remind us of this or that great-grandfather and his thoughts and actions at this or that great juncture in the island story. The peers need not pointedly remind us of the particulars of their ancestors. Their very names remind us of the follies and grandeurs of the governing class of the past many centuries. They are as good advertisement for the perils we can note in our tradition as for its merits.

And then there is their rootedness in place. Some hereditary peers do own a lot of land. But more than that, and even when they are reduced (as Onslow and many others are) to the ownership and management of a few farms, many of them can see from their farmhouses the great houses and the estates and rolling acres which they no longer own, but with which their names will forever be associated. Whole counties (quite often not the one after which their title is named) are closely associated with some hereditaries, by virtue of ownership from previous (and sometime even present) times. Some counties have been run from long before, and long after, the introduction a hundred years ago of county councils, by noble families. Lord Mottistone is typical in having been Lord Lieutenant, and Governor, of the Isle of Wight, where his family have lived for generations. This rootedness makes it often poignant, sometimes moving, and seldom less than significant when a hereditary peer speaks of the place - usually the county - he comes from. Their insights may be pedestrian or dotty, but they are seldom plain ignorant.

These connections in time and place cannot now be replicated by selection or election amongst any other sort of people. All of us who are not hereditary peers may be proud of our forebears, and we may have more to be proud of in our forebears than many of the hereditaries have in theirs. But the sheer intimacy of knowledge they have - the length of the connections they can claim - is simply unique in this country, and probably anywhere in the world. To have organised a system whereby by such a human resource is put at the service of the nation certainly is unique in the whole world. Only the British, always dangerously careless with tradition and casually confident about the future, would throw it away lightly. They have picked a bad time to do so, because now - more than any other time - societies which can easily hold on to the enduring, and which have enduring qualities and institutions which do not hold them back, ought to be proud of them. Everywhere, we see cultures which are unable to nurture the civilised and the traditional, and are suffering for it. Here in Britain, we are also infected by the modish, and risk being deafened by the present and the transient. In the hereditaries we have the harmless and useful embodiment of our traditions, and we should value it.

By some miracle we still have the House of Lords, and more amazingly still it still has the hereditaries. An extraordinary advantage to our national life has been vouchsafed us, and it is a miserable thing to be a part of the generation which chucks it away.

 

 

 

 



[1] Voters ready to back plans for Lords reform (reporting MORI), The Times, 24 July 1998; Most voters want elections for new House of Lords (reporting Gallup), Daily Telegraph, June 8 1998

[2] The Economist, November 21, 1998

[3] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, 1867.

[4] A member of the House of Lords, who is unpaid, costs about 37,000 a year, about a tenth of the cost of a member of the House of Commons or about a thirtieth of the cost of a member of the European Parliament. See, House of Lords briefing paper, HoL, London SW1A 0PW

[5] There are several modern portrayals of the British aristocracy. Simon Winchester's Their Noble Lordships: The hereditary peerage today, Faber and Faber, 1981, is lively and serious.

[6] The Picturesque Landscape, ed Stephen Daniels and Charles Watkins, 1994, Department of Geography, University of Nottingham.

[7] J S Mill, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government, Dent, 1972

[8] One good summary of reform possibilities is the Constitution Unit's Reforming the House of Lords, 3 plus 2 p and p, (cheques payable to the University of London) from The School of Public Policy, Brook House, 2-16 Torrington Place, London WC1E 7HN

[9] William Wyndham's Peers in Parliament Reformed, Quiller Press, 1998 is a timely account of the constitutional role of the Lords and of past and present attempts to reform it

[10] In the sense we have especially from Edmund Burke, in which to "represent" someone or an interest is to have their interests at heart, and borne in mind, rather than to have delegated authority only to advance their precise and previously-stated opinion and policy.

[11] Hansard, House of Lords, 14 Oct 1998, Column 1021

[12] Hansard, House of Lords, 15 Oct 1998, Column 1163

[13] J Bernard Burke (founder of Burke's Peerage) reinforces the sense of an aristocracy which is a) subject to the normal vicissitudes of heredity and is b) both old but constantly refreshed. In his Extinct Peerage (1883) he makes these points:

 

"It is a fact no less strange than remarkable that the more conspicuous a man is for his great mental powers, the more rarely does he leave a representative to perpetuate his name. Neither Shakespeare, nor Milton, nor Marlborough, nor Napoleon, nor Nelson, nor Walter Scott, nor Chatham, nor Edmund Burke, nor William Pitt, nor Fox, nor Canning, nor MacAulay, and, I may add, nor Palmerston, nor Beaconsfield, has a descendant, in the male line, living. May not the same observation be applied with equal truth to those families which stand out the most prominent in the pages of history? May not the splendour of race like the splendour of mind have too much brilliancy to last? Beauchamp, De Vere, Beaufort, De Clare, De Lancy, Dunbar, Bohum, De la Pole, Sydney, Holland, Tudor, Plantagenet, and Mortimer are 'entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality'. This ever-recurring extinction of English titles of honour formed the subject of a chapter in my work on 'The Vicissitudes of Families', and I venture to reproduce from it the following passages which bear strikingly on the Dormant and Extinct Peerage:

'After William of Normandy had won at Hastings the broad lands of England, he partitioned them among the chief commanders of his army, and conferred about twenty earldoms: not one of them now exists, nor one of the honours conferred by William Rufus, Henry 1, Stephen, Henry ll, Richard l, or John... All the English Dukedoms, created from the institution of the order down to the commencement of the reign of Charles ll, are gone, except only Norfolk and Somerset, and Cornwall, enjoyed by the Prince of Wales...

The Present House of Lords cannot claim amongst its members a single male descendant of any one of the Barons who were chosen to enforce magna Carta, or any one of the Peers who are known to have fought at Agincourt.'"

[14] see above

[15] Sir Bernard Burke, of Burke's Peerage, wrote an introduction to his 1883 book on the extinct peerages of Britain which is fascinating on the endurance, and lack of it, of titled families, and refers also to a further volume of his, The Vicissitudes of Families. J H Plumb in his England in the Eighteenth Century remarks how amazed Voltaire and others were at the ease with which people could insinuate themselves successfully into a new class.

[16] The House of Lords produces useful guides to its workings and brief accounts of its history: House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW, telephone 0171 219 3107 and website: www.parliament.uk

[17] Winchester (see above) asserts that a third of Britain's land is owned by 1,500 family, with the hereditary peers owning perhaps four million acres. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, the ownership is certainly perceived by many peers and country-dwellers to be as much an onerous duty as an undeserved privilege.

[18] The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords, by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty. 2.95 plus 60p p and p, from demos, 9 Brideswell Place, London EC4 6AP

[19] Walter Bagehot, as above.