In 1999, during the debate on the House of Lords Bill, Geoff Hoon quoted a passage from the Conservatives’ 1997 campaign guide which read: “It is important to defend the hereditary principle in its own right.”
It is a pity the leadership and even former hereditary Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, no longer seem to believe this. For those unfamiliar with the thinking behind the hereditary principle – and the reason it arose in the first place via the institution of monarchy – some of these are detailed below.
The most common misunderstanding of the hereditary principle is that the holders of hereditary titles are somehow better than the rest of us – more intelligent, better bred etc. In the modern day at least it is in fact a convenient way of gathering together a group of people who on the whole share certain circumstantial characteristics that lend themselves well to the role of a House whose primary purpose is to revise legislation.
Firstly, a hereditary House makes its members truly independent of the Executive branch of government, which is nominally vested in the Monarch but today resides in the office of the Prime Minister – who, with a majority, easily controls the House of Commons through the party whips. Peers, while they may belong to political parties (in 1999 there were 299 Conservative hereditary peers, 18 Labour, 23 Lib Dems and 225 Crossbenchers), are not easy to whip as they do not rely on their respective parties to maintain their seat and have no chance of attaining high office.
Which brings us to our second point: ambition. While ambition is important in any society and it is both right and sacred that anyone in this country can aspire to be both a legislator in the House of Commons and Her Majesty’s Prime Minister, ambition and avarice can also lead individuals to do things not in the interests of the people or the nation. Desire for power often leads MPs to support their party leader in votes over their own judgement. Some MPs may be interested only in their salaries, while the way in which others can be bought and sold by vested interests has been only too well documented in the press.
This is, at least, one weakness most hereditary peers do not have. Many are independently wealthy (though, contrary to popular opinion, many peers also work) which reinforces an independence of mind that is an important element of the legislative process. And – while there is no suggestion they are more intelligent or better educated than non-peers – that at least provides a certain benchmark of education that would not be there under a ‘jury service’ House.
An important independence hereditary peers also have is independence from the electorate. While this might sound a aberration and the perfect reason to abolish the House of Lords, it has a positive role alongside an elected House of Commons. Rushed legislation in response to moral panics whipped up by the media, such as the Dangerous Dogs Act, are usually recognised as ridiculous once the dust has settled but their more harmful features can be mitigated by a House which is immune to public opinion. It is worthwhile recalling, too, that an elected chamber is no guarantee of democracy – three million people marched against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to deaf ears – a decision which has cost this country greatly in both blood and treasure.
The nature of hereditary peerages also means that its holders are, more often than not, ‘mature’ men and women by the time they succeed to their title – amassing a lifetime of experience which is too often missing from the young MPs which are today parachuted into seats straight out of think tanks. Ironically, the name of the chamber which would replace the House of Lords – Senate – derives from the Latin ‘Senatus’ which itself is derived from ‘senex’ meaning ‘old man.’
An important thing to remember is the role of the House of Lords and an Upper Chamber generally in the Parliamentary system. Since 1911, the House of Lords cannot veto or block legislation passed by the House of Commons, only delay its passage through successive amendments. This cemented its role as a chamber primarily concerned with revising legislation.
It is also worth remembering that, despite an imagined class or party bias, the (at that time) completely hereditary House of Lords did not prevent Clement Attlee’s nationalisation of heavy industry, the creation of the NHS or the rise in taxes which created 80-90% brackets for the most wealthy. Nor did the mostly hereditary (after life peers were created in 1958) ‘traditional’ House block ‘progressive’ social legislation such as the Race Relations Act 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, the Abortion Act 1967, the Homosexual Reform Act 1968 or the Equal Pay Act 1970.
These hereditary peers are a great asset to our lawmaking process which we discard at our peril.