With the imminent “Royal Wedding” now inescapable in the television news, the whole idea of royalty and aristocracy is under the spotlight again. I’m firmly in the British republican camp — I’d vote to have the remaining powers of the monarchy removed and their huge personal wealth nationalised — but I do understand the attraction of ceremony and costumes and the pretence that they represent something from “time immemorial”.
There’s a complicated set of rules that determine precedence at British royal occasions. Oh, the basis is straightforward enough: Royalty, then “High Officers” then Dukes, Marquesses and so on; but the system is so old that it has accreted may anomalies and exceptions; and also, with the amount of inbreeding that goes on, rules have to exist to deal with people who have multiple titles.
Quite a long way down the list, you have one of the more “Hello! Magazine” aspects of the UK Peerage, Baron and Lady Haden-Guest, also known as Christopher Guest and Jamie Lee Curtis. Of course, both have had long and successful acting careers; Guest’s most famous role perhaps being as Nigel Tufnell of Spinal Tap. Curtis is possibly the only member of the Peerage that I’ve seen topless (although Trading Places was quite entertaining in other respects too).
As merely the wife of a peer, Curtis would never have had the right to sit in the House of Lords, but Guest did; and did actually attend, between inheriting the title in 1996 and the 1999 House of Lords Act, which excluded the majority of hereditary peers.
The 1999 law was a hugely fudged affair. Although the Labour Party had long supported abolition of the Lords, and the adoption of an elected Senate, New Labour under Tony Blair decided instead to move towards a house of appointed members. Democracy was always anathema to Blair, because often, people wouldn’t know what was good for them and would vote for the wrong candidates. That was also the basis for the culture of “spin”, because facts only confuse people: they have to be told how to think about things in the right way. Well, the appointment of an upper house full of “Tony’s Cronies” would avoid all of that.
However, the House of Lords had to vote to approve its own reform, so Blair and the leader of the Lords Conservative majority, Viscount Cranborne, cooked up a secret compromise deal which would allow ninety hereditary peers to remain, selected by vote by their, er, peers. The Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague, sacked Cranborne for his treachery, but the vote was passed.
Although the retention of the hereditary peers was supposed to have been a transitional step towards a fully-reformed House of Lords, no further changes have been made since the 1999 Act, so we still have people who can make law by right of inheritance. (Including, I notice, my distant relative, James Graham, 8th Duke of Montrose.)
Tony Blair created a Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2003 to implement changes leading to a wholly-appointed House of Lords, but the Department’s recommendations on those lines were so universally unpopular that even Blair didn’t have the brass neck to continue with them. The issue was parked until 2007 when MPs were given the opportunity to vote on a number of options representing the percentage split between appointed and elected seats. To Blair’s dismay, there was a large majority for the 100% elected option. This was not a law-making vote, just an expression of the majority opinion of the Commons.
(The hereditary peer, the 5th Baron Haden-Guest has also let it be known that he supports a fully-elected Upper House.)
Perhaps surprisingly, even Tory MPs are generally in favour of an elected or mostly-elected Upper House. The current coalition government has promised to publish a Bill next month with its proposals for House of Lords reform. Regardless of the exact details, it’s certain to involve the removal of hereditary Lords, because their participation in goverment is indefensible in any democracy. But those exact arguments also apply to the Monarchy.