On the 92 Excepted Hereditary Peers

It is said that one should never use up political capital on hopeless causes. Well, I have no political capital, so I am free to be as Quixotic as I like. I want to defend the band of hereditary peers that still sits in the House of Lords. Yesterday the Times confirmed its rapid descent into the gutter with a childish, rabble-rousing, hypocritical, badly-reasoned attack on them. This was a full-scale journalistic assault: the front page of the Sunday paper; an editorial; a two page spread with cartoons and Bronwen Maddox. We can omit to mention that it was illiterate (‘They are men because, unlike the royal family… male primogeniture still exists for hereditary peers’). We can pass lightly over the puerile smearing of individual peers (‘the great-grandson of a fascist’; ‘descendent of a slave owner’: so what? lots of people are. These aren’t so muchattacks ad hominem as ad atavos). Let us instead look at Times’ arguments.

These are several. First, peers are ‘unrepresentative’; they ‘do not look like modern Britain’. They are all white and male; most are old; many have very old titles. Almost half went to Eton. Second, they are more expensive than life peers, and on average they speak in the House less often. Third, says the Times, they ‘lobby’ for ‘private interests’: they are sixty per-cent more likely to mention business or personal interests in the Lords than life peers are. Fourth, the system is unfair; it is an ‘absurd anachronism’ and a ‘disgrace’. The Times quotes the Labour life-peer Baroness Hayter: ‘The idea of only having people in because of what an antecedent did, rather than what they themselves did, is not something that would be accepted by the British public today’.

These are bad arguments. Consider first the argument that the hereditaries are unrepresentative because they do not ‘look like’ ‘modern Britain’. The Times seem to mean that modern Britain is less white, less old, less Etonian, and less male than them. However, to ‘represent’ people in parliament is not to look like them; it is to articulate their views and attitudes in the public sphere, and to defend their interests, alongside the national interest; ideally, is to do so better than the average man could do. Representation is not identity: the average uneducated person would do a bad job of representing himself in parliament. So would the average young and inexperienced person. Hence a wise, well-educated old man may be a better representative of the young and uneducated, than the young and uneducated themselves. If there are people in parliament with long experience of life and a first-rate education, then that is a good thing—and an increasingly rare one. Indeed, the revising chambers of many other countries’ legislatures are called ‘senates’, and ‘senate’ derives from the Latin senex, ‘old man’. 

Besides, the Times’ logic is poor here; if they want to claim that representation of ‘modern Britain’–meaning all its people–is important, then they need to make their case more clearly. For if representation so defined is important, then one could argue that parliament is defective because it contains too few idiots, too few madmen, and too few jailbirds. (But–remembering the life peers and the Commons–I sense that is not the best example).

Furthermore, it is not the job of the hereditaries to represent Britain: that is the job of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, of which the hereditaries form a small part. Nor should we assume that the popularly-elected members of parliament, the Commons, are representative of British people in every respect just because they are elected. MPs are disproportionately socially liberal. On the other hand the hereditaries, who make up about 10% of the House of Lords, provide some representation of the remaining patriotic and socially conservative citizens of this country. This, indeed, is the advantage of the hereditaries’ having old titles: they have each imbibed a family tradition of patriotism and public service; in general, they instinctively understand the ‘British way of doing things’; they have an intuition for the subtle balancing of forces that the British constitution—that so delicate and perduring tradition of life—provides.

What about the claim that the hereditaries are expensive? Well, if one reads the inside page of the Times’ assault, one sees that, on average, a hereditary peer costs £2,000 per year more than an a life peer. This makes the total annual premium for the whole complement of hereditary peers about the same as the annual salary of one top civil servant (and a little over 10% of Gary Lineker’s). This modest difference probably arises because fewer hereditaries than life peers have London residences. They are not professional politicians; unlike too many life peers, they are not members of the Westminster bubble. 

This also explains why they speak less often, but more often on their own areas of knowledge. Hereditaries tend to take the view that they should only speak when they have something to say. And since most have never won a popular election or otherwise ‘earned’ their way into Parliament, they do not labour under the delusion that they have something to say on every subject. Instead, they contribute genuine knowledge and experience. Indeed the Times actually quotes Lord Waverley on this: he says that he only speaks on subjects on which he has ‘long experience and deep personal knowledge… I am not certain that my contributions on matters in which I had little knowledge would be particularly valuable’. If only all life peers and MPs could be so humble and self-aware!

The Times also complains that Lord Carrington, who has worked in Saudi oil, recently cautioned the Lords that ‘the alternative to the current [Saudi] royal government… could be considerably worse’. To the Times this is shocking, but to be it sounds like good sense. Does anyone remember the ‘Arab Spring’? How foolish ideologues rushed in to prepare the ground for ISIS, labelling any hesitation as racist? The role of any revising chamber is to provide cautious, experienced wisdom, even when it is unpopular. This is what the hereditaries do. 

Nevertheless, this all raises a question: is the hereditary system fair? The Times thinks not; but that is because the Times, like all progressive organizations, identifies fairness with equality, and equality with what it likes. For the left, the system cannot be fair, because not everyone has an equal chance of becoming a peer. How convenient an argument! How useful a logic! We always need to challenge this sneaky reduction of fairness to equality. A parliament half of women would be equal as to sex; a parliament with many Playstation-loving young men would be equal as to age and intelligence; by some magic trick one might make a parliament equal as to everything. (And since only a magic trick would achieve this, the aspiring left-wing rhetorician will always be able to find some inequality to blame for everything). But there is more to fairness than this. To live with badly-made law is unfair. To have inarticulate representatives is unfair. To have foolish, ingenuous foreign policy is unfair. In fact, these are far worse burdens to the citizen than to have a parliament that is unequal as to age and sex and intelligence. Yet politicians always always treat equality as a panacea, contrary to all evidence. I find that unfair.

As for Baroness Hayter’s complaint that hereditaries sit ‘because of what an antecedent did, rather than what they themselves did’, one can only ask exactly what the 50 Liberal Democrat life peers have done for themselves. Most were ennobled under the Cameron-Clegg coalition. Together they repose in the Lords like a tattered yellow life jacket, carried thither on the wave of Cleggmania, and left stranded by the tide of public opinion; a sort of faded ermine flotsam. No-one seems to know what it is for. More seriously, Hayter’s remark is disingenuous. The hereditary system would never have survived this long had not the hereditaries ever been a distinguished body in themselves, formed of sensible, well-educated, professional men with wide interests and life-experience. They do not ‘look like’ the British average because, on the whole, they are above average in education, shrewdness, constitutional awareness, soundness of instinct, and professional experience.

Now, there are valid criticisms of the hereditaries. Under Christendom, there was the ideal—sometimes realized, often not—of the Christian prince. People believed that nobles had a duty to aristuein—to excel—in morals as well as in other qualities. Aristocrats once deferred to these ideals even if they didn’t meet them. One still sees traces of this amongst some Catholic continental aristocrats. Here in Britain, the Church of England inherited the doctrine of the indissolubility of valid sacramental marriage, but never balanced this with a clear and adequate account of marriage-validity and of the sacramental nature of marriage. Hence she was always bound to give succour to divorce in the long run; indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury supported the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which first permitted it. From then on the aristocratic divorce rate rose rapidly, especially in the 20th century, and thus aristocrats lost a sense of their duty and social role, which was fundamentally moral—to set the standards of an advanced Christian civilization. In the end, they lost confidence in themselves.

On the other hand, the hereditaries, ideal upper-house parliamentarians in many ways, do still also have many genuinely noble qualities. For one thing, they know that they owe their seats to quirks of history. This is why they tend to have humility—that noble midwife to wisdom, which is all too rare today. The Times sneeringly quotes Lord Borwick: ‘Do I deserve this place? Absolutely not! Am I grateful that I’ve got it! Absolutely! And I hope that I’ve been working hard enough to reckon that other people might think I deserve it’. Personally, I find Lord Borwick’s words refreshing amidst Westminster’s cloying air of entitlement, pretension and rank pomposity. These are not the words of a Bercow or a Blair. And that’s an argument in itself.