Whilst there are 92 hereditary peers remaining in the House of Lords, there are over 814 hereditary peers in the United Kingdom. So, who are they and why do some sit in the legislature are Members of the House of Lords?
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 through which the monarch could keep control under the feudal system. The monarch would grant lands and titles in return for the support of the nobility in keeping law and order across their Kingdom.
There is a clear ranking system within the nobility:
- Duke – This is the highest title amongst the nobility. There are currently 27 dukedoms in the United Kingdom. Since its formation as a title in the 14th century there have been less than 500 Dukes.
- Marquess – There are 34 Marquesses in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. The last to be created was Marquess of Reading in 1926.
- Earl – The term Earl comes from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘military leader’. There are currently 191 Earls in the Peerage of Britain and the last created was Earl of Forfar, created in 2019.
- Viscounts – There are 1112 Viscounts at present. The latest created was Viscount Dilhorne in 1964.
- Barons – There are 426 Barons. The latest created was the Baron Margadale in 1965.
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.
Traditionally, former Prime Ministers have been given a peerage. For example, Harold Macmillan was made Earl Stockton in 1984, the last Prime Minister to be given an hereditary peerage. Famously, Winston Churchill turned down an hereditary title. Churchill was offered a Dukedom upon resigning as Prime Minister in 1955 but turned it down, instead preferring to remain an MP, a position he held until September 1964, when he stood down as Father of the House.
Why is the system socially controversial?
In a modern representative democracy the system of peerages is inherently controversial. This is because the system is based on male-preference primogeniture. This is the right of of the oldest male child to inherit a noble title and that women cannot inherit a noble title. If there are no legitimate male children, the title will pass to the oldest male living descendent of a former holder.
Pressure for change to the system did see a change in how the Crown is inherited in the United Kingdom. The Succession to the Crown Act (2013) altered the system from male-preference primogeniture to absolute primogeniture. This means that the Crown will now pass to the oldest legitimate child, regardless of gender.
However, more broadly, the inheritance of noble titles has not been changed. In 2013 the Equality (Titles) was introduced into the House of Lords to change the rules so that females could inherit noble titles. It was dubbed the ‘Downton Law’ in reference to the TV program Downton Abbey, in which a major plotline is the fact that the Earl’s daughter cannot inherit the title. The bill, however, was rejected at Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
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. The Law Lords held their seat courtesy of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act (1876) which allowed senior judges to sit for life in the House of Lords as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. 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 Government of Harold Macmillian wanted to modernise the House of Lords. They recognised that the attendance of the House of Lords was dropping and that changes would help to increase the legitimacy of the chamber. 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. This would allow a number of experts to be appointed to the House of Lords who might not have the family means to support an hereditary peerage. A very 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 their 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 took power in 1997 the House of Lords was still dominated by hereditary peers:
What was the impact of the House of Lords Act (1999)?
In 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour won the General Election with a huge parliamentary majority of 179 seats. This gave them both the mandate and ability to make significant changes to the House of Lords. 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 consequently 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 ‘excepted hereditary’ peers chosen to sit in the Lords?
The formal term for hereditary peers that are allowed to sit in the House of Lords is an ‘excepted hereditary peer’. Two hereditary peers are automatically retained in the House of Lords. These are the Earl Marshal (a title held by the Dukes of Norfolk since 1672) and the Lord Great Chamberlain (currently the Marquess of Cholmondeley). Notably, according to Hansard, since joining the House of Lords:
Duke of Norfolk – Since joining the House of Lords in 2003 he has never spoken in the Chamber and only voted 11 times, 7 of which were in favour of Hunting with hounds.
Marquess of Cholmondeley – Since joining the House of Lords in 1990 he has never spoken in the Chamber and has never voted in any division.
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!
These by-elections are held when a current member of the House of Lords dies or if, under the rules made by the House of Lords Reform Act (2014), they retire from the House. The election are held using the Alternative Vote system.
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 – 34
Labour – 4
Liberal Democrats – 3
No Party Affiliation – 2
The only voters in the by-elections are the hereditary peers who belong to that particular party. This means that that electorates can be very small, particularly in the case of Labour and Liberal Democrats by-elections. In fact, in July 2021 following the death of Labour hereditary peer Lord Rea, Viscount Stansgate was elected unopposed.
What is the role of a hereditary peer in the House of Lords?
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. Previous to that, Lord Carrington had held the senior post of Foreign Secretary before resigning following the 1982 Argentine Invasion of the Falkland Islands. Lord Howe, however, is a Conservative hereditary peer who has sat on the frontbench continuously since 1991 in a variety of roles.
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 primogeniture, 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.
A hereditary peer is someone who holds a title within the peerage of Great Britain, Scotland, England or Ireland. Since 1999 peers have not had an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords, with only 92 ‘excepted hereditary’ peers being able to do so. Once sitting in the chamber, they have the same rights and responsibilities as other peers. However, the fact that just 92 remain shows that further reform of the Lords is inevitable when a Government has a clear mandate and will to do so.
Hereditary Peer – Someone who holds a title within the peerage of Great Britain, Scotland, England or Ireland.
Excepted Hereditary Peer – One of the 92 hereditary peers who retain the right to it in the chamber of the House of Lords.
Male-Preference Primogeniture – A system of inheritance that sees the eldest male child inherit the titles of their father.
Life Peer – A member of the House of Lords who holds their title for the remainder of their life. These were made possible under the Life Peerages Act (1958).
House of Lords Act (1999) – A reform bill that saw the removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords in all but 92 cases.
Law Lords – The judges who made up the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords.