Constitutional Matters


A View from Westminster


The Merit of Life Peers

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH reported the news on Saturday, 9th August. Baroness Jay, the new Leader of the House of Lords, wanted life peers "to be stripped of their aristocratic titles". She professed her keenness "to remove the elitism of the names used in the Upper Chamber".

Now note this key quotation from the report:

"She said it was important to create a way of differentiating between peers who were born with their titles and those who won a seat in the Lords on merit."

It is possible for a peer to be born with the title which seats him in the House of Lords, but there is none such there at present. Some peers, obviously, are born with the likelihood of inheriting their titles, but others who do inherit may be born with seemingly little chance of succeeding to a seat at Westminster, and arrive there through the misfortune of someone else. But "born with their titles" has now become a pejorative catchphrase, and we may expect to see much more of it. (And doubtless we shall hear more about those who win "a seat in the Lords on merit.")

But why did the noble lady say that the creation of differentiation is "important"? It has not been so in the past. A man or woman created a peer was a peer. The word "peer" itself means an "equal".

Perhaps it is "important" to the Government. Perhaps it is "important" to emphasise to public opinion that the life peers are different because they have "merit" while other peers have not!

Let us look at that for a moment. Life peers have "merit" but hereditary peers have not! The Countess of Mar, holder of what is now the most ancient peerage title, Lord Whitelaw, holder of what was the youngest hereditary peerage title, one created for him, and Lord Cranborne, who was summoned in his father's barony, represent three aspects of the hereditary peerage. No "merit" there, my Lady? But the Countess has won wide admiration, on all sides of the House, for the skilful manner in which she fights and wins her parliamentary battles. Lords Whitelaw and Cranborne held Cabinet office (in Conservative Government, of course, so perhaps that doesn't count).

That we choose only three is a limitation imposed by space, not by candidates. "Merit" is in abundance in the House, as any reading of Hansard will quickly show, and as the television audiences comparing the quality of speeches in the Lords with the quality of speeches in the Commons have become well aware, and is not limited to new creations.

And absence of "merit"? The noble lady's father's predecessor as prime minister, Harold Wilson (later Baron Wilson of Rievaulx), could answer that. He plucked from well-merited obscurity a man whom he advised the Queen should be a life peer so that he could make him a minister of defence. "Merit"? He was a petty crook and was found guilty as such. Who else? Well, there was the raincoat manufacturer who was judged by the same prime minister to have sufficient "merit" to be a peer. He went to gaol. It is dangerously misleading to confuse "merit" with patronage.

"Merit" and lack of "merit" are not attributes that belong alone either to hereditary peers or to life peers. It is meretricious to pretend otherwise, whether the pretence be offered by zealous reformers or by reactionary loyalists. And it is meretricious to divide hereditary peers from life peers so that the "merit" label may be attached to the one group and not to the other. A peer is a peer is a peer.


Pervasive Untruth or "Spin"?

The promotion of the theme that a life peer is not a real peer is pervasive. It now appears in such official government publications as the House of Lords Website.

"The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 enabled the sovereign to create Lords of Appeal in Ordinary (Law Lords) to fulfil the judicial function of the House of Lords. Unlike bishops, retired Law Lords can continue to sit and vote. They were, in effect, the first Life Peerages."

This is not true. The English Law Lords were not "the first Life Peerages." (It is, of course, consistent with the line that life peers are new and different, but that does not make it true.)

Again -

"The Life Peerages Act 1958 permitted the creation of baronies for life, with no limit on numbers, to persons of either sex."

- which appears to imply that prior to the Act no sovereign could create peerage titles that carried the right to a seat in the House of Lords. (Life peers are new and different and, of course, as the electorate is expected to understand, one of the differences is that life peers have "merit".)

But English sovereigns have created life peers since 1377 when Guichard d'Angle was created Earl of Huntingdon for life. The first lady to be created an English life peer was Margaret, Countess of Norfolk, who was created Duchess of Norfolk for life in 1397. Life peerages were created also in the Scots Peerage. The last of these was for Francis Abercromby of Fetterneir, who was created Lord Glasfoord for life in 1685.

It may certainly be argued that Guichard d'Angle deserved his elevation to the peerage. His achievements offer ample proof of his "merit". But his prowess in battle was emulated by many others whose "merit" earned them hereditary titles. Ladies who became life peers did not, of course, sit in Parliament, for ladies with hereditary titles did not do so (although their husbands might in their right). But it was possible also (as is often forgotten) for a man with an hereditary title not to have the right to sit in the House of Lords.

The Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 did make it easier, as was its intention, for the queen to create peers of men who did not possess the wealth others deemed necessary to support an hereditary peerage title. So there was then, in theory, a difference between hereditary peers and life peers. But it was theory. Even then there were hereditary peers who were quite poor. There are many more today, sufficient to make this theoretical difference redundant.

A peer is a peer is a peer. "Merit" or not, riches or not, peers are equal. And those who sit in the House of Lords at Westminster are peers.


Baroness Jay was appointed to lead the Government in the House of Lords during the recent ministerial reorganisation. She holds additionally the portfolio of Minister for Women. She is the daughter of Lord Callaghan, formerly, as Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister who replaced Harold Wilson (later Baron Wilson of Rievaulx). She was educated at Blackheath High School in London and at Somerville College, Oxford. She was first married to Peter Jay, Britain's one-time Ambassador in Washington, now the BBC Economics Editor. She married secondly Professor Michael Adler.

The ability of an eldest son to be summoned to sit in the House of Lords in right of his father's barony is ancient, dating at least from Thomas Fitz Alan, eldest son of William, Earl of Arundel, summoned as Lord Arundel de Mautravers in 1482.

Sir James Hay was created a Baron in the English Peerage as Lord Hay in 1606, specifically without a seat in the House of Lords. (Nine years later he was created Baron Hay of Sawley, and seven years after that he was created Earl of Carlisle, these later creations entitling him to a Writ of Summons.)


A list of some life peers created since 1377

A View from Maastricht

A View from Westminster in the previous issue

The Baronage Contents Page Jul-Sep 1999