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The ups and downs of reforming peerage succession

Last week the Courtier reported that the bid to allow daughters to inherit peerages is to be given another chance in this final session of the present Parliament thanks to Lord Trefgarne’s new bill which is set to be introduced early next session.

The Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal.

The Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal.

The bill’s propositions are markedly more straightforward than the Lord Lucas bill which failed to gain steam last session and this combined with other factors should give the new bill a great chance of success and could finally result in the allowance of females to inherit titles.

It’s not without its flaws however and whilst the principle of simply allowing females to succeed may seem straightforward, the arrangement thereof is anything but.

There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ which must be considered as well as the timing of the bill. Firstly, at what point and to what extent should the rules change. In other words, who should decide who a peer’s successor is? Should the peer themselves get to choose, or should it be prescribed by Parliament?

If it was prescribed, it could alter the present heir’s expectations of inheriting the title. If the peer could choose, why should it be just restricted to their descendants – what would stop them selling their title to the highest bidder?

Arguably, the best solution is prescription by Parliament – so long as it’s done properly. Next we come onto the issue of how to implement the change with minimal disruption to the families of peers.

The Status Quo

Most peerages in the United Kingdom have their device for succession (or remainder) set out in what’s known as the letters patent which is the original instrument from the reigning Monarch granting the title in the first place. Through the centuries, this remainder has invariably specified succession through the eldest male child only and only a few peerages exist where the remainder has allowed succession to, or more often only through, females.

The present arrangement also means that even if females are allowed to succeed, if there is more than one daughter, then it’s not a case of the eldest succeeding, as all daughters have equal claim to the title because “there’s no primogeniture amongst women”.

Many titles risk dying out or passing onto distant cousins even when perfectly legitimate daughters are passed over just by virtue of being female.

Popular Support?

Obviously, the effect of any bill to do with the peerage is very finite and is not really a major issue for the ordinary member of the public. However, it is a question of paving the way for a less male-dominated establishment especially considering that there are still hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

Popular opinion among hereditary peers themselves is split. Many, of course especially those without male heirs, fear their titles may die out without a change in the law – many titles indeed have already done so. Others regard it as change for change’s sake and some fear that the succession to their titles could be altered without their consent and could cause rifts to be created between rival claimants in the family.

The Government has not indicated its support for the bill at this stage, though in the fullness of time, we will find out whether or not they do.

My Solution

My proposal is simple and can be universally applied. Allow a peerage to be succeeded to by its present heir and thereinafter apply the rules of absolute primogeniture to it in the future. In other words, any title succeeded to after a certain date (say the day the bill is passed) shall immediately change to allow the eldest child (rather than only eldest male child) to succeed in future.

To put this in context, let’s say the ‘certain date’ is 20th May. Supposing the Duke of Marlborough dies on 22nd May – under my proposal, his eldest son and heir would succeed as expected, though the new Duke would have his eldest child (regardless of gender) to succeed him. But any peer who succeeded before 20th May would not have the new succession rules applied until after the next peer succeeded.

This would ameliorate the issue of drastically changing the course of inheritance whilst employing the ‘equal succession’ principle. It would also eliminate any chance of nefarious interference by any party in changing the succession for personal gain.

Additionally, any peer who had only daughters would have the succession rule automatically applied on the death of the peer regardless of date (thus allowing the eldest daughter to be ‘heiress presumptive’ until death of a peer).

On the issue of courtesy (or legal) titles for the husband of a peer, I would propose they adopt the style of a younger son of that peer. E.g. husband of a Duchess or Marchioness in her own right would be ‘The Lord First Name‘ and of other ranks would be ‘The Honourable’.

What Are Its Chances?

The simplicity of Lord Trefgarne’s bill coupled with the previous attempt in the last session giving a clearer idea of what reforms are needed as well as the lack of business in the final session of Parliament give the bill the best possible chances of finally making it into law.

As long as all the consequences are considered and a consensus is clearly reached early on in the bill’s progress on how the law should be moulded, we could well finally see females attain the right to inherit titles.

Give your opinion on the proposal to allow women to inherit titles, or on my proposal, in the comments section below.

photo credit: ukhouseoflords via photopin cc

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