Why the House of Lords Should Be Hereditary

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There are few political issues on which I am sufficiently sure of my opinion to speak out, and fewer still that I could claim to be genuinely passionate about. Political compass tests land me dead in the centre, whilst I find the Conservatives suspicious and Labour supremely irritating. What then, you ask, am I doing, a humble food critic, weighing in on Mr Walker’s political realm? Well, as it so happens, there is one topic that makes me so staggeringly angry, so incensed and immoderate, that I must make my position clear. This topic is the House of Lords.

‘Oh dear,’ you groan, ‘not another of these articles. Yes, yes, we get it, the House of Lords is outdated and outrageous, let’s just reform it and have done’. Well, quite to the contrary, I am arguing not for reform, but for un-reform – that’s right, I want to deform the House of Lords!

House of Lords 1
Long live the Lords!

A year after I was born, Tony Blair and his rabble of slimy scoundrels committed an act inherently atrocious, since it fell under the damnable title of ‘modernisation’. Puffed up with a sense of gloating novelty, Blair proceeded to evict a venerable brigade of 660 hereditary peers – barons, viscounts, earls, marquesses and dukes – whose forefathers had sat in the house for generations, some for over 600 years. Reform of the upper house had, of course, been on the cards for a century before, and many criticised Labour for not taking their programme far enough: should we not, as Ed Miliband recently suggested, elect a democratic ‘Senate of the Regions and Nations’?

Alan and Chancellor
Would you honestly prefer dear old Alan to this sterling character?

Beyond the immediately emetic nature of so sanitised and meaningless a name, there are innumerable reasons why such a ‘Senate’ would be a hideous imposition. But I would like not only to stave off such further reform, but also to repair the damage that has already been done: yes, I would seek to reintroduce hereditary noblemen to our upper house.

I can offer a handful of admittedly flimsy arguments to back my case. Firstly, unlike MPs, peers do not need to bend obsequiously before a fickle electorate, and are free therefore to do what is unpopular but necessary.  Secondly, with much of their lives spent away from Westminster, the vast majority of their lordships have great experience in a more normal aspect of the economy, whether it be business, agriculture or even Bavarian IT. Thirdly, why must a system that for centuries has, ultimately, worked, be cast aside for the ideological goal of ‘full democracy’? I doubt anyone can point to an aspect of national life that has honestly been improved by the expulsion of hereditary peers. Laws are still passed, elections are still held and if anything people are more suspicious of Westminster than they were twenty years ago. Ejecting the aristocracy has improved nothing, beyond meaningless notions of equality, while it has done immeasurable damage to the cultural fabric of the nation.

Lord Vestey
Does it not give you a thrill of pleasure that this specimen still holds political office?

Of course, the above arguments have left you entirely unconvinced. The fact is, hereditary membership of the House of Lords cannot be justified by logic or reason, and for this cause it has been done away with. And yet, it was the very illogicality of the system, its utter inconsistency with modern, transparent government, that made it so very valuable. The House of Lords was anachronistic, impractical, unfair and indefensible, but it was therefore unique, and therefore to be treasured.

We don’t value things for their similarity. We don’t think, ‘I like this painting because it’s the most generic painting imaginable, because it has no defining features of its own.’ We don’t say, ‘I like Bob because he is so absolutely normal, because he has no quirks, no eccentricities and no individuality whatsoever.’ No, we relish the unique, the different, the distinctive. We are drawn to travel by what cannot be found anywhere else, whether it be Indian rickshaws or Yorkshire Wensleydale, just as we are attracted to people by their distinguishing traits.

What about this one? I genuinely cannot understand how anyone would want to do away with such a sublime figure.
What about this one? I genuinely cannot understand how anyone could do away with such a sublime figure.

Likewise, we do not think ‘I am proud of my country because it has a largely urbanised population, a medium rate of income tax and a cleanly democratic constitution actually, just like all its neighbours.‘ Instead, we celebrate England of the misty castles, England of the Morris dancers, England of the pork pie and mushy peas. For this reason, should we not also have celebrated England of the world’s last hereditary legislators? Was it not a badge of pride that we, and we alone, had sufficiently defied the tide of history in keeping a mediaeval relic at the heart of our constitution? Leave liberty to the Americans and logic to the French that’s what makes their countries distinctive, and so is equally valuable but let’s make the earth more diverse, and thus more interesting, by upholding our own uniqueness too.

Isn’t it worth sacrificing a little efficiency and a great deal of ideological constancy to maintain something singular, glorious and fascinating? No-one could be interested in a hundred elected senators, each as non-descript as the next, filing into a steel and fibre-glass assembly house to approve yet another tedious law. But there is something truly marvelous, almost archaeological, in the trumpets and snare drums, the scarlet and faded gold, the arcane and intriguing titles of the House of Lords. History is what makes things interesting, what affords both beauty and legitimacy. Westminster Abbey is more interesting than a skyscraper not only because it looks better, but also because of its age, its ancient significance and the myriad twists and turns, additions and embellishments, of its thousand-year history.

Duke of Devonshire
Er, alright, so maybe the Duke of Devonshire’s looking a little past it… But still, nice suit.

In the same way, the House of Lords was, like England itself, built upon centuries of organic, unwitting and incoherent evolution, resulting in an often ungainly but endlessly intriguing web of tradition, anachronism and adaptation. It represented a memory of something far older than democracy, far deeper than secular equality, like the central, Norman keep of a castle, around which ten centuries of extensions have been scattered. It was messy, it was outdated, but it worked, and we got by alright.

My argument is romantic, subjective and utterly unreasonable. But largely, I think, politicians and people in general act on their gut inclination and then find arguments to justify what they naturally believe. Why not, then, accept that although it was a less efficient and ultimately unjustifiable system, the hereditary House of Lords was an endlessly interesting and gloriously unique institution? Doesn’t Britain, one step closer to cold, clinical democracy, feel just a little emptier?

Of course, what Blair wrought in 1998 will never be undone, and I imagine the ninety-two hereditaries who remain will be taken out and metaphorically shot at some point in the near future. So thank you, Mr Blair, for making the world one bit less varied, and thus one bit more boring.