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The Story of the Peerage: Into the Future

The peerage is and does not claim to be a modern institution. As the aristocracy which once dominated Parliament, gradually moves towards disestablishment from British politics, we will be waving goodbye to one of Britain’s most illustrious and unique traditions.

Whilst the eventual move to expel the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords as well as moves to completely reform the house and remove all traces of the peerage from this historic chamber is drawing ever closer, many say the peerage is gradually losing its significance.

The titles themselves are not going anywhere though, it seems. Modernisation attempts to help carry the hereditary titles forward are being made. The House of Lords is currently in the process of creating new legislation (the Equality (titles) bill) which seeks to pave the way to female inheritance of Britain’s peerages as well as giving civil partners and husbands their own courtesy titles.

There are plans to maintain the issuing of peerages when the Lords is finally reformed and to use it as part of the honours system in the same way as knighthoods and other honours are given out. Despite this, there are many that say it’s almost the end of the line for the aristocracy.

In 2010, the Duke of Devonshire – one of only 24 non-royal dukes left in the United Kingdom – remarked “the aristocracy is not dying: it’s dead… Coffin’s nailed down, it’s in the ground. It doesn’t exist  –  except that people have titles,” and that he would be happy to give up his title if the Labour reforms of the House of Lords to remove peers went ahead. As things stand, the Duke has not renounced his title and the Lords reforms are now a long way away since the latest bill on the issue failed.

It’s almost certain that hereditary peerages outside of the Royal Family will not be issued again – the last time such a title was issued was to Harold Macmillan who was created Earl of Stockton in 1984- despite The Queen retaining the power to do so should she wish.

Final plans to transform the House of Lords are still yet to be brought forward.

Final plans to transform the House of Lords are still yet to be brought forward.

There has been talk that Michael Middleton (father of the Duchess of Cambridge) could be given an Earldom at some point, though this will not be the case – the argument on this says that all parents of future Queens consort have held peerages, though none was given their peerage as a result of their daughter marrying – their titles were already in existence.

Peerages are what are known as incorporeal hereditaments. That is to say, they are inheritable property which has no physical presence like say a necklace or piece of land does. They cannot be bought or sold, nor transferred to another person, yet are personal property of the incumbent. This is what makes the peerage so strange.

The question of significance will probably be most prominently answered at the coronation of Prince Charles. Just what role will peers play in this service? Will hereditary peers, or indeed any peers, be invited at all?

Heroic tales of Dukes leading their men into the battlefield may be over, but it’s almost certain that the peerage will live on in the families that hold them – at least for as long as they wish to keep them. Now though, the privilege has been removed and these formerly  more a family ‘heirloom’; being passed down from generation to generation like a piece of jewellery.

Quite what lies in store for this Great British institution is not entirely clear or indeed certain. The peerage has stood the test of time thus far – but how much more change is it yet to go through?

photo credit: ukhouseoflords and Trodel via photopin cc

Earls_Procession_to_ParliamentThe history of the British Peerage is as rich and colourful as the country itself –  for centuries, the peerage remained at the forefront of English politics and at the front of the battlefield. In this 5-part series on the story of the peerage, we explain its origins, how it all works and its significance (if any) in the 21st century.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

  • Ricky

    I like the sound of “Their Graces, the Earl and Countess of Bucklebury.”

    I read an article from a UK tabloid (which I will not name) last year that the idea has supposedly been discussed, but perhaps it’s author was just trying to sell papers. The article said that a dukedom was thought to be too much for Mr. Middleton, but an earldom might be appropriate. The author further speculated that if Her Majesty was to suggest this, she wouldn’t be refused.

    What do the other commenters think about this idea?

    • Chase

      The style “Grace” is used for a duke or duchess, not an earl or countess.

  • Ricky

    I remember reading about ten years ago that The Queen has decided “no more dukedoms, except for family,” and that’s an exact quote. If that’s true it would explain why only two dukedoms (York and Cambridge) have been bestowed since Her Majesty’s accession in 1952.

    • Royal Central

      I doubt it was The Queen’s decision to do this. Hereditary peerages aren’t considered the norm any more regardless of rank (Duke, Earl etc) – it’s more a case of the natural progression of time changing it. It remains The Queen’s prerogative to create life and hereditary peerages, though I think the latter outside of the Royal Family will happen again.

  • Royalwatcher1

    A duedom is very exclusice and a non-royal one could only happen if Britain gets a person with a Churchill-size contribution to the country (he was offered one himself). The rank isn`t so important, even a baronetcy could be viewed as more exclusive tha a life peerage since future generations could inherit.

    The somewhat strange thing is that the current PM dosen`t nominate anyone for a hereditary title, he is indeed a relatively traditional tory politican which we should believe have symphaty which such traditions. We may have the resignation honours list of David Cameron within a year, could he take the initiative ?

  • Mike

    American here, so take what I say with a grain of salt:

    I like the idea of the House of Lords as an unelected body; seeing the Senate here in the United States being (more or less) the exact same thing as the House of Representatives creates a -lot- of political deadlock. I feel that the House of Lords, as it is now, is closer to a good idea, but I do believe it does need reform.

    Hereditary peerages aside, having a chamber who’s sole duty is to check the work of the government, containing non-elected officials, allows for the sort of “brutal honesty” that needs to be had in government work. If the Lords becomes an elected Senate, and retains the very few powers the Lords have currently, what purpose would they have? They would be nothing more than elected checkers, and would not be able to lend the criticisms and expertise that (some, not all) of the Lords currently can offer.

    All that said, I do feel that the Lords needs a reform of some sort or another. The House is definitely overcrowded (in my opinion, they should have far less people than the Commons), and I’m on the fence about allowing hereditary peers seats in any significant number. I believe that the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 was a step in the right direction. I also believe that the Lords Spiritual should perhaps proportionally reflect the different faiths of those living in the UK. For example, if 50% of the country identifies as Christian, then 13/26 Lords Spiritual should be Bishops, and if 20% identifies as Muslim, then 5/26 should be imams.

    Again, I’m speaking as an American with an outside view; that’s just my take on it.

  • Rodolph de Salis

    Cholomndeley : not the usual misspelling of Cholmondeley ! x

  • D’Arcy Rien

    My question is, why on Earth does this “peerage” nonsense even still exist in the present day? Rich people rewarding other rich people with “titles” (ie, meaningless words) and privileges, how is that acceptable to people? Clearly there must be some kind of love of subordination entrenched within the British mindset. If I would British I would be working to abolish this risible system every day. Leave these puerile concepts in the past where they belong, seriously. Why should certain people be afforded a higher “rank” than others, just because they’re wealthy and friends with the right people? Disgraceful, makes me ashamed to be even slightly British (fortunately, I’m largely German/French).

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