Hereditary peers in the House of Lords are undoubtedly a part of British history, with forms of the practice dating back to 1014 AD, and the most recognisable form dating back at least 700 years. However, debate has again flared as to how fair it is to have unelected representatives in the House of Lords.
The last substantial debate took place in 1999, and resulted in the introduction of the House of Lords Act 1999; which expelled 555 of the House’s 647 peers, leaving just 92 remaining. There was serious backlash, however, from supporters of hereditary peerage. Most notably, The Earl of Burford (the eldest son of the Duke of St. Albans), who stood upon the Woolsack during a reading of the bill, and exclaimed, “This bill, drafted in Brussels, is treason. What we are witnessing is the abolition of Britain.” Indeed, European influence is one argument made by opponents of the action, however, there are others. Chief among these are, predictability, historical preservation, and the age old concept of ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’, which was best introduced into the British political consciousness by Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, with his famous dictum – “why not leave it alone?”. So let’s break down the arguments –
1. Predictability – Predictability is one of the key arguments surrounding the retention of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. The argument primarily revolves around the certitude that often exists as to exactly who will succeed a peer, and often, what party (if any) they will represent. This allows for a smooth transition, and reduces the shock to proposed legislative change. The argument also states that many of the peers have raised their heirs with the philosophy of public service, and many are groomed from birth to perform well in the House.
2. Historical Preservation – Many supporters of hereditary peers in the House of Lords state that it is an integral part of the history of British politics, and governance, which should not be lost. Proponents of this argument assert that Britain is loved globally for its quirky, and historic charm; hereditary peers forming just part of this. Not only does this preserve what Britain has developed into a global brand, but in ensures a political, and historical continuity, avoiding complex, and expensive issues in the future.
3. “Why Not Leave It Alone?” – Made famous by Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, his political dictum “why not leave it alone”, questions change for no good reason. Opponents of further reform state that the time and money involved in implementing this change exists for no practical reason. The supporters of this argument point to the stable, and effective nature of the current system, and assert that change, and the lengthy and expensive process involved, who not produce tangible benefits.
There is another side of the argument, however, with opponents of hereditary peers just as vocal and passionate. These individuals propose that hereditary peers represent the antipode of meritocracy, reinforce the class system, and reduce the expertise of the House of Lords. Let’s break these arguments down –
1. A Meritocratic Society – This is one of the most important arguments put forth by opponents of hereditary peers. They state that Britain should be a meritocracy (a society in which people have power based on merit not background), this has become particularly prominent with the recent statement made by Theresa May that she will create a “truly meritocratic Britain”. This meritocratic society, argue the supporters of this proposition, cannot be created with parliamentary voting privileges continuing to be based on family background. The proponents of this, point to nations such as Australia, and the United States, as examples of the success of meritocracy.
2. The Class System – Closely tied to the meritocratic argument, the proposition that hereditary peers reinforce the class system is also a notable feature of anti-hereditary peer campaigns. This argument puts forth the idea that whilst the importance of people is still judged on their family background, class wars will continue, with some campaigners suggesting that it perpetuates upper class supremacy.
3. Reduction in Expertise – The reduction in the expertise of the House of Lords is a less eminent argument but still one that is not uncommon. This theory states that the majority (all but 92) peers are chosen based on their ability to provide unique, and informed perspectives on issues, and are often experts in their fields, eg. business, science, law etc. However, with the existence of 92 hereditary peers, it reduced the expertise of the House, as the hereditary peers (either present or future) may not have useful insight into issues presented.
There is clearly passion, and conviction on both sides of this debate, and there is no doubt that both unofficial, and official questioning of the practice will continue.