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10 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:28pm

If Brexit is supposed to be a revolt against the elite, can we start with hereditary peers in the Lords?

By Helen Lewis

“The cure for admiring the House of Lords [is] to go and look at it,” wrote Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution. “To look at it not on a great party field-day, or at a time of parade, but in the ordinary transaction of business.”

Normally, I would disagree. But on 4 April, the House of Lords inadvertently made the best possible case for its own demolition. It was discussing a Commons bill to block a no-deal Brexit, leading peers to decry the fact that “President Letwin” – the Tory backbencher Oliver Letwin – had been helped by a “rogue speaker” to over-ride the government’s control of the Commons order paper. This situation could lead to “tyranny”, aka Theresa May being hampered in her attempts to pass a terrible Brexit deal by issuing empty threats to nuke the British economy. What a load of balls. The Commons refusing to allow a severe economic shock to the country is parliament acting exactly as it should do. The entire idea of a representative democracy is to provide a moderating influence on the raw churn of public opinion.

The absolute nadir, though, came with the intervention of Matt Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley, who declared that a majority of the British public favoured a no-deal Brexit (huh?). Therefore, the bill “defies everything the people asked us to do”.

Ridley, a Conservative hereditary peer, has a long record of wrongness. In fairness, he inherited the chance to be wrong on a grander scale than most of us manage. His father was chairman of Northern Rock, and he also held that position until 2007. The bank’s failure was, he admitted later, a “catastrophic black mark against my CV”.

Not that he needs a CV. After Lord Cormack called him a “constitutional monstrosity”, Ridley admitted that he sits in the Lords “because my great-great-grandfather was put here by Queen Victoria on the advice of Lord Salisbury”. But how was this different to Lord Cormack, Ridley wondered aloud, when “Queen Elizabeth II put him here on the advice of Tony Blair”?

Well, Matt, I might not have the intellectual heft of a climate change sceptic with a PhD in pheasant mating, but I will have a crack at answering that. Lord Cormack was appointed in recognition of his 40 years as a Conservative MP. He got into the Lords on his own merit. You got there on your great-great-grandfather’s merit.

Seriously, though. The merits of any individual hereditary peer aside, it is an embarrassment that they still sit in our parliament. Robin Cook once said: “Britain shares the unenviable distinction with Lesotho of being the only two countries with reserved seats in their parliament for hereditary chieftains.” At least Lesotho only has 22 of them in its upper chamber. We have 92.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Tony Blair’s government reformed the Lords in 1999, the remaining hereditary seats were intended to provide temporary continuity. At the time, Lords reform was strongly resisted by the Conservative leader William Hague, who saw the permanent Tory majority there disappearing forever. (Subsequent prime ministers have stuffed the place with friendly life peers, but that’s another issue.) Now, the enemy is apathy. There are two key bills to abolish hereditary peers filed and waiting to be picked up, one from Lord Grocott and one from Labour MP David Hanson. The government shows zero interest. “Lord Grocott is soft cop, I’m hard cop,” says Hanson. “His bill says no more by-elections. I say no more hereditary peers after a set date.”

Ah yes, the by-elections. When peers drop off their £305-a-day perch, their successors are chosen according to rules fixed in 1999. Two are elected by the Labour hereditaries; 42 by Conservatives; three by the Liberal Democrats; 28 by Crossbenchers. The rest are elected by the whole House. In 2016, after the death of Lib Dem hereditary peer Lord Avebury, the electorate consisted of three people: Patrick, tenth earl of Glasgow; Raymond, third earl of Oxford and Asquith; and Dominic, sixth Baron Addington.

It seems almost redundant to make the obvious feminist point: these elections are overwhelmingly blokes choosing other blokes to help make our laws, because most peerages pass down to the eldest son. Legally, we are privileging men over women at the heart of our democracy. There is only one female hereditary peer sitting in the Lords, the Countess of Mar. I suppose that at least she doesn’t have to queue for the loo at their Christmas party.

And who did Pat, Ray and Dom elect in 2016? John Archibald Sinclair, Viscount Thurso, who didn’t even bother to submit a manifesto. The most recent by-election, last month, was won by 36-year-old Daniel Mosley, Baron Ravensdale, who now has a seat until he dies or resigns.

The existence of hereditary peers in the Lords is an embarrassment. It’s an anachronism. And it is easily fixable. David Hanson tells me that his bill is popular with everyone except the hereditary peers themselves. “The second chamber is bigger than the main, elected chamber,” he says. “The government say they’re trying to reduce the number. The easiest thing is to abolish the hereditaries.” He plans to keep reintroducing his bill to the Commons at every new session, “tag teaming” with Lord Grocott, who will do the same in the Lords.

In 2019, it is absurd and outrageous that there are spaces reserved in our parliament for men whose ancestors cosied up to a Victorian prime minister, won a battle or shagged a monarch. (I’m sure that Charles II’s penis had much to recommend it, but it shouldn’t have a role in British law-making in the 21st century.) Get them out.

And if he’s truly committed to Brexit – a supposed revolt against “the elite” – the fifth Viscount Ridley could start the people’s revolution by defenestrating himself. 


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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure

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