London Letter

Are hereditary titles on the way out?

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 21 1957
London Letter

Are hereditary titles on the way out?

BEVERLEY BAXTER December 21 1957

Are hereditary titles on the way out?

London Letter


Great Britain is a country that specializes in bloodless revolutions. Great Britain is a country that clings to tradition. Great Britain is a country that is constantly undergoing a process of change. Great Britain is . . . But perhaps we had better get on with our argument.

Having had the pleasant experience of seeing the Queen open the Canadian parliament, I went down to see her perform the same duty at Westminster. There were great crowds en route in spite of the fact that the weather was in a petulant and tearful mood.

First there would be a glint of sunshine, then a splash of rain and, just for a change, a soggy grey mist—and so it went on without a stop.

Inside the House of Fords there was the usual brilliant scene, with peers sporting their coronets and peeresses glinting with jewelry. A stranger seeing it for the first time might well have felt that nothing had changed in the last three hundred years—but the stranger would have been wrong. By the authority of the prime minister we were to hear Her Majesty announce that in due course there would be legislation that would virtually amount to a bloodless revolution.

In one of my recent Letters I ventured to prophesy that Macmillan would probably reform the House of Lords by introducing life peerages, but I never imagined that it would come about so suddenly.

In the afternoon debate on the Queen's speech in the Commons, Macmillan calmly told members that this was not a time for an ambitious scheme of reform in the Upper Flouse, but no one was deceived as to the reality of what was happening.

"Does this mean that no more hereditary peerages will be created?” asked a Uabor front bencher.

"Not at all,” said the prime minister.

Somehow that terse reply did not carry conviction. I have a feeling that we shall see very few

hereditary peerages created from now on, and they will likely be influenced in choice where there is no direct heir.

Inevitably the question arises as to whether Great Britain is moving toward the North American system of society and intends to substitute the aristocracy of wealth


for the long-established system of titles. Let there be no mistake about it—the British are very fond of money and the comforts that come with it, but they are not yet ready to worship at the feet of Mammon. Nor is that likely to change for a long time. But as realists the British feel that it is no use trying to perpetuate a system of hereditary aristocracy when taxation and death duties make it impossible.

Strange as it may seem there is little doubt that the activities of the pipsqueak peers—Altrincham

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Will pay for peers be a problem for parliament?

jerry—had something to do with hastening these new reforms. If these young men had been plain and obscure “misters,” no one would have paid any attention to their bleatings. As it is they are world-famous and still of news value.

Nevertheless, the necessity for a change was not brought about by public irritation or any rush of democracy to the head. Basically, the Englishman, the Welshman and even the Scot likes the existence of great country houses set in vast estates but successive chancellors of the exchequer have, by raising death dues, forced the old families to sell more and more of their land. And with the problem of domestic servants many of the landed aristocracy can only afford to occupy one wing of their house and grub along as best they can.

But there were other disadvantages in the hereditary system. In Britain the natural instinct of a young man of good family is to fight his way into parliament. Yet if he is the heir to a peerage his political future is limited. The classic example is Lord Hailsham, the lively chairman of the Conservative Party. He has a brilliantly audacious mind and certainly enlivened our debates in the Commons, but he had to face the fact that his father, the former Sir Douglas Hogg, had been raised to the peerage. This meant a political death sentence to his son Quintín who, on his father’s death, would no longer be eligible to sit in the Commons and therefore could never hope to hold high office. The Commons, being the elected assembly and therefore the masters, would never consent to a minister of vital importance sitting in the Upper Chamber where he would be out of their reach. When his father died Quintín appealed officially to be relieved of his title but was turned down.

Under Macmillan's new plan the Upper Chamber will be greatly strengthened by senior members of the House of Commons, who will be created peers of parliament, a most honorable degree and all the better because the title will not

be hereditary. Nor is this process to be confined to one sex. Macmillan will have the power to create peeresses if he thinks that they have deserved the honor and if they will bring special qualifications to the Upper House.

There is, however, one obvious difficulty that the prime minister will have to consider. If non-hereditary peers of parliament give a lot of their time to the Upper Chamber they will have to be paid reasonable remuneration. But does that mean that what are known as the backwoods peers will also be paid even though they seldom turn up? This is a difficult problem but obviously Macmillan intends to create lords of parliament, drawn from the industrial and professional classes as well as from the Commons. Undoubtedly the intention of the prime minister is, first, to create a vital Upper Chamber, and gradually find the best way of making it work.

Usually when constitutional changes take place there is a particular case that makes it inevitable that the existing system has to be revised. Such a case was that of Clem Attlee, the former leader of the Labor Party. I have mentioned this example before but now we must look at it again in the knowledge that it has undoubtedly played a part in causing these reforms to be brought about.

Attlee, as a socialist, represented the tough East London constituency of Limehouse, and although belonging to the comfortable middle classes he never halted in his fight to raise the status of the underprivileged. Yet when he gave up parliament he accepted an earldom (which was his right by long-established custom) and thereby created no less than five other “courtesy” titles.

Thus his wife became a countess, his three daughters who were married became Lady Gertrude Smith, Lady Helen Brown and Lady Mary Green (or whatever their married names happen to be) and Attlee’s son and heir became a courtesy viscount. Lord Attlee’s defense would be that he had no part in creat-

ing the system of hereditary titles and that he wanted to sit in the Upper House with the title of earl, which is automatically conferred upon a retiring prime minister if he will accept it.

Oddly enough, Ramsay MacDonald, who was not only the first socialist to become British prime minister but possessed more than his share of vanity, refused to accept any title at all when he resigned from parliament. When I asked him why he had come to that decision, he answered in his rich Scottish voice. “For years and years my fishermen in Lossiemouth (his constituency) have called me ‘Jamie.’ Do you think I'm going to see them touch their caps and address me as ‘milord’ ?”

I am well aware that many readers will feel that the whole question of titles has become an anachronism based on nothing but privilege and snobbery. If that point of view is sincerely held then we should not only abolish titles but also the monarchy, which is based upon

the non-democratic institution of birth. Thus the way would be cleared for the aristocracy of wealth no matter how it was accumulated.

As a result of Macmillan’s proposals we may indeed be seeing the beginning of the end of creating hereditary titles except within the royal circle. That is a revolution in itself, but a revolution that will not only be bloodless but will be supported by public opinion.

These proposed changes of Harold Macmillan's will not take place in a day. There will be attempts to water down the plan and to delay it in the expectation that the socialists will win the next election. Thus the backwood peers will be looking hopefully to the Labordes coming to power and thus saving the aristocracy from being overrun by ordinary fellows who have made their own way and have no forbears of any social co n seq t ie rices whatsoever.

Yet I believe that the socialists will welcome the change. There is a basic

dignity in the plan that will create lords of parliament and, paradoxically, the title will acquire an added dignity from the fact that it is non-hereditary and carries no succession. Undoubtedly the wits will say that the new life peers will be like the mule, which has no pride of ancestry nor hope of future, but the fact remains that the honor of being a lord of parliament will add a new dignity to the Upper Chamber.

But if, as it seems, we are seeing the twilight of the old aristocracy, let it not be imagined that its gradual disappearance will produce nothing but good. In the 1914 war, long before conscription was enforced, the sons of the great old country houses did not wait for conscription but went at once into the hell of war. And long before the National Health Scheme and old-age pensions came into being, the squire and his lady looked after their tenants as if they were members of the family—at any rate up to a point. Today the great country

houses have almost disappeared, except where the owners charge a half-crown admission at week ends when the lord of the manor conducts parties round the houses and grounds.

Macmillan, by his plan of parliamentary reform, will strengthen the dignity of the Upper Chamber by bringing i’ into line w-ith reality. The lord chancellor will still wear his robes as he sits on the woolsack, and we shall continue to hear the familiar words in debate, “The noble lord who has just sat down has given your lordships a peculiarly distorted interpretation of the bill which has come to us from another place.” And once a year the Queen, as a peeress, will open parliament in the Upper House, because under no possible conditions would she be allowed to set foot in the House of Commons.

Thus w'ill the British bring about the reform of the Upper Chamber while maintaining the procedure and the trappings of ancient times, -fa