What is meant by the Peerage?
The peerage is the system of hereditary titles within the United Kingdom, some of which date back centuries (for example, the Earldom of Arundel was created in 1138).
In medieval times the distribution of titles was an important mechanism for keeping control under the Feudal System. The monarch would grant lands and title in return for the support of the Dukes and Barons in keeping law and order across his Kingdom. In more recent times, the creation of peerages has often been as a recognition of exceptional service to the nation. For example, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was created Viscount Montgomery of Alamein in 1946. His son and grandson have since inherited the title.
There are different levels within the peerage. In descending order of importance they are: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron.
Most titles operate on a system of primogeniture. This means that the entirety of a title passes to the oldest male in the line of succession. Although there are exceptions, most titles only descend down a male line and will fall into abeyance if there is no male heir.
What was the impact of the Life Peerages Act (1958)?
Until the Life Peerages Act (1958) almost all peers in the House of Lords were hereditary peers. In fact, all members except the Lords Spiritual (Church of England Bishops) and the Law Lords held their seat in the Lords by virtue of their inherited title. Given the ancient primogeniture laws still in place, this left a parliamentary chamber that was woefully short of providing any sort of descriptive representation of the electorate.
The Life Peerages Act (1958) allowed for the creation of peerages that would be held for life and would not be inherited upon the holder’s death. A welcome by-product of this act was that it allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. Of the first 14 Life Peerages created, four were for women.
The act meant that people could be appointed to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their life experience and particular expertise. For example, Lord Stopford of Fallowfield was a recipient of one of those first 14 Life Peerages that were created. He was a world renowned authority on anatomical studies and had become a Professor of Anatomy aged just 31. As such, he was able to offer a great deal of real-world experience to the House of Lords.
Despite its positive impact, the Life Peerages Act was not enough to address the numerical imbalance between Life Peers and Hereditary Peers. When Tony Blair won his 179 seat landslide in 1997 the House of Lords was still dominated by hereditary peers:
The New Labour manifesto made clear that Labour intended to tackle this issue:
“ The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”From the Labour Party Manifesto – 1997
Blair’s plan for the House of Lords consisted of three stages:
- To remove hereditary peers.
- To introduce elections for some seats in the Lords.
- To move to a fully elected second chamber.
The starting point for Blair’s reform was passing the House of Lords Act (1999). This removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to take a seat in the House of Lords but allowed a total of 92 to remain in place. Blair had wanted to go much further than this and remove the right of all hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. However, there were threats from Lords that they would react by doing all that they could to obstruct Labour’s political agenda, including his plans for devolution. Blair relented, allowing 92 hereditary peers to remain in the chamber.
Despite being watered down, the House of Lords Act (1999) was a watershed moment. Amongst other things:
- It increased the legitimacy of the House of Lords. It was now dominated by members who had been appointed, often for their expertise in a particular field, rather than those who had simply inherited a title.
- It removed the in-built Conservative bias of the Lords which would always have remained in place had hereditary peers remained.
How are Hereditary Peers chosen?
Two hereditary peers are automatically retained. These are the Earl Marshal (Duke of Norfolk) and the Lord Great Chamberlain. The other 90 Hereditary Peers hold their seat virtue of winning by-elections. This produces the political irony that the only people ever elected to sit in the House of Lords are its hereditary peers!
Any member her of the hereditary peerage can put their name forward for election to the House of Lords. Under Standing Orders, the number of hereditary peers for any political party is apportioned in relation to the party allegiance of hereditary peers in 1999. At present, the numbers of hereditary peers representing each party is:
Conservative – 46
Crossbenchers – 29
Labour – 3
Liberal Democrats – 3
Party Affiliated – 5
When a party affiliated Lord dies, only those with that party affiliation can put themselves forward as replacement hereditary peers. The voting system used for the by-elections is the Alternative Vote and the electorate is made up of the hereditary peers who are already sitting. This means that, in the case of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the electorates are extremely small.
Elected Hereditary Peers hold their position until they resign or, as is often the case, pass away.
The last by-election held to the House of Lords was held in March 2019 following the death of the Crossbench Peer, Viscount Slim. The electorate was made up of the remaining 31 Crossbench Peers and 14 candidates were put forward to fill the vacancy. The successful candidate was Lord Ravensdale who won 18 votes.
What is the role of a hereditary peer?
When a hereditary peer is elected, they retain the same rights and privileges as Life Peers. In their role there is nothing to differentiate the two. Actually, the very fact that they actively sought to put themselves forward for election often shows their desire to play a positive and active role in the House. However, these days it is unusual for hereditary peers to hold a post in the Cabinet. In fact, the last to do so was the Earl of Cowthrie in 1985. However, previous to that, Lord Carrington had held the senior post of Foreign Secretary before resigning following the 1982 Argentine Invasion of the Falkland Islands.
What is the future for Hereditary Peers?
It is hard to see that the current system will survive in the long-term. It is really remarkable that it has remained in its piecemeal form since 1999.
In an interview with iNews in March 2020 the Earl of Shrewsbury (one of the oldest titles in the UK) said that a law to end male primogeniture (the automatic male inheritance of titles) would inevitably be bought forward in the near future and that hereditary peers would cease to sit in the House of Lords. Despite being the recipient of his title due to promogeniture, the Earl himself supports its abolition.
Lord Grocott, a Labour Party Life Peer, has introduced a bill three times that seeks to abolish the by-elections for hereditary peers and abolish the right of hereditary peers to take their seat when the remaining peers pass. In an article for ‘The House’ magazine in 2020 he wrote:
“You would think that this by-election system was indefensible but sadly it isn’t. It continues to be defended, unfortunately, by a tiny number of men in the Lords. I have tried to abolish the by-elections with two previous Private Members Bills. On both occasions the bills ran out of time thanks to dozens of amendments – almost all of which were put down by just two peers.”
Grocott’s bill failed to make progress through the House of Lords. However, at some point, reform of the Lords will become a priority for a future government and the removal of the remaining 92 hereditary peers will be the natural starting point. Until then, there will remain 92 hereditary peers who are ultimately able to vote on our laws because of who their parents happen to have been.