Fundamental constitutional reform? We cannot even sort out the hereditary element of the House of Lords

10th July 2021

Sixty years ago, a Labour politician disclaimed a peerage – a viscountcy, no less – so as to sit in the house of commons.

That politician, of course, was Tony Benn who had become Viscount Stansgate on the death of his father.

He won the relevant by-election.

And now, in the early 2020s, we have this by-election:

The viscountcy survived and was claimed by Benn’s son, who is now a legislator in our parliament.

Thus is because there are still hereditary peers in the House of Lords – and, somewhat bizarrely, they are elected by other hereditary peers according to party quotas.

They are the only members of that chamber who are there by winning an election – or by not being opposed in one.


There are many good reasons to have the house of lords as a check and a balance on the house of commons.

And the quality of the debates and of the amendments makes it difficult for anyone to make a practical (rather than principled) objection.

But that members of the house of lords – capable of initiating and amending legislation – can be there by the hereditary route is not capable of any sensible principled or practical defence.

It is preposterous.

It is 2021 – and even in 1911 it was intended that the hereditary presence in the upper chamber was to be temporary, as you can read in this preamble:


Like the presence of Anglican bishops also in that chamber – even though they are from the ‘established’ church of only one of the four home nations – the presence of hereditary peers is something which can and should be ended easily and, well, immediately.

That is, if anyone in front-line politics was genuinely interested in constitutional reform.

For in sixty years, with governments of all parties, all we have managed is to go from one Labour politician becoming a member of parliament by not being a viscount to another one, in effect, becoming a parliamentarian just because he is one.


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23 thoughts on “Fundamental constitutional reform? We cannot even sort out the hereditary element of the House of Lords”

  1. Just as preposterous is that the next Head of State – excellent though the present one is – will be appointed through heredity rather than elected.

  2. Yes, sometimes the wisdom and expertise of some members of the House of Lords can improve the quality of government. That on its own is insufficient to justify an unelected second chamber, and other means of tapping that expertise could be found. Other democracies have found ways of doing this, and as a result are more democratic than the UK.
    I would be interested to hear Viscount Stansgate’s justification for what he has done.
    I fear that the main reason the House of Lords survives is that serving members of the Commons look on it as an agreeable (and paid) club in which to aspire to pass their retirement. It’s also a useful weapon for whips to use to enforce party discipline.

    1. The Tories have only in the last few years lost their overall majority in the House of Lords.

      One they enjoyed throughout the lives of Benn’s father and grandfather.

      One imagines the 3rd Viscount might well want to contribute to ensuring the Tories did not edge closer to getting that majority back.

    2. I’m not sure why Viscount Stansgate needs to justify what he has done. He has simply followed the rules, as a hereditary peer, to become a voting peer in the Lords. This is a hangover from the last attempt to reform the Lords by reducing the number of hereditary peers who could vote.

    1. It didn’t do that. It allowed Tony Benn to renounce his peerage but it remained in his family. The current Viscount Stansgate is Tony Benn’s son.

  3. You say there are many good reasons to have a revising chamber: but there are none. Nothing the HoL does couldn’t be done by advisory committees, or sub-committees of the HoC, the only thing the HoL is good for is being an anti-democratic brake on the HoC (and one which gives MP’s an Albi, they can vote for or against things that they know can be fixed in the HoL an they can just blame the peers for, it is a huge blurring of accountability. There is no call at all for a second chamber.

    1. Precisely why DAG said this, I imagine:

      And the quality of the debates and of the amendments makes it difficult for anyone to make a practical (rather than principled) objection.

      In principle, you are of course correct: but in practice, none of those options avail themselves; so we are left with only the HoL as a brake on the excesses of our elected (mis)representatives.

    2. I would agree with this in relation to a centralised country. A second chamber in the UK could usefully be a means of stopping England from bullying the three smaller nations.

  4. Well illiteracy was a heavy word,it took some research time,I just true facts straight on da face,just like reading a normal watch clock’s time.I ain’t buying but,”What waste of wrists.”

    1. Paul, could you put that into different words that perhaps bear more clearly on the matter under discussion?

      I have no idea what you’re saying, and I’d hate to miss a gem of a comment because I’m unable to grasp the point you’re making…

  5. It was hard indeed to think of a second chamber less defensible in its composition than a heriditary one, but the present mess manages it = cronies unelected by anyone plus the heriditaries the cronies like. And yet time and again, that deeply flawed second chamber shows more integrity, decency and common sense than our MPs

  6. Some 60 years ago your then not so old Queen at the request of a Conservative Government was wining and dining President DeGaulle to persuade him to let you join the then Common Market.

    This year your not so young Queen at the request of another Conservative Government has been wining and dining President Biden to obtain a FTA.

    Your Monarch still has to be a Protestant but your Prime Minister can be of any creed. There has not been a scintilla of discussion about this going forward.

    Scottish Irish and Welsh independence are fundamental constitutional issues today and just look at how they are being handled.

    Look at yourselves in the mirror.

    1. Look at yourselves in the mirror.

      We are not the problem, Richard – it should be pretty obvious from the comments that the contributors here are no happier with the situation than you are – and we can’t be held accountable for decisions made by our government.

  7. Not sure that the current PM’s creed is of anything except the creed of Boris Johnson.

  8. You are lucky to have an hereditary monarch. Just imagine what King Boris and his courtiers could do holding the Royal Prerogative and using it.
    An hereditary Upper House is of course unpalatable but who would appoint it’s members unless they were elected. Whether appointed or elected you would likely end up with football players, rock musicians, TV personalities, politicians, party donors and the like. And do you really want one elected body competing and contradicting a second elected body as we see in the US? To be effective. trusted and respected in carrying out some kind of quality control over legislation it would need to be highly technocratic with its members chosen on the basis of their professional competence and status i.e. an assembly of the elite. Good luck with that.
    And while I am on a contrarian kick, what on earth is democratic about a referendum on any issue significant enough to require seeking the considered views of the electorate. Winner take all is not democracy; consensus and compromise is. Perhaps good enough for naming a boat, or local park, but hardly appropriate for governing a country.

  9. Trouble is of course it is completely ridiculous to have hereditary entry to HoL. But equally daft to fill it with political functionaries as has become increasingly the case in recent years. Time for a complete constitutional overhaul – but where is the political appetite?

  10. This is 2021, the UK has no constitutional need for a second house consisting of members promoted by hereditary happenstance or peer popularity let alone one tarnished by cronyism.

    What it does have need of dearly is one of an elected second chamber set to scrutinise in detail all actions of the primary chamber and oversee its members by judicial oversight with seats of set periods say four years per not linked to GE. in short an independent second chamber.

  11. To make the UK a democracy fit for the 21st century requires root and branch reform: the monarchy, the second chamber, voting system, honours, gifts of patronage, the list goes on. The present system would be recognised by an eighteenth century politician. Perhaps the break up of the United Kingdom with the secession of Scotland and reunification of Ireland will bring it about. But even then I suspect it will be an English fudge.

  12. I used to be intensely relaxed about the HoL and its democratic sensibilities

    And then it was filled with Brexiteers and I became outraged

    How foolish am I?

  13. There is a principled argument in favour of hereditary lawmakers. That principle is the one that anyone who seeks power is unsuited to having it. By being born to it, the hereditary peers can include those who have no desire for power.

    However, it is possible that being born to it has a different distorting effect, which could be avoided by an even better mechanism – have a fixed number of members of the second house and when one dies someone is chosen at random from the electoral roll to replace them.

    If anyone thinks a second elected chamber would be a good idea, look at the USA where it seems to me that it’s useless.

  14. Another point that I would add is that, since the rules dictating the line of succession to the throne were modernised, and the Anglican Synod voted to allow female Bishops (some of whom could theoretically be appointed to the Lords), the election process for the 92 hereditary peers represents the last remaining vestige of male primogeniture in the UK system of governance.

    1. Look on the bright side, at least there are only 92 of the 810 hereditary peers that can vote now. The whole thing is an anachronism but everytime someone tries to reform it it gets watered down. Should be replaced by a senate elected out of phase with the Commons. Maybe six year terms with one third up for re-election every two years.

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