Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Hereditary Principle

The death of Earl Ferrers has even the New Statesman mourning the passing of the old House of Lords.

And why not? Many upper-class people were shocked to the core by their youthful experiences during the First World War, or by the rise of Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, or by the realities that confronted them during the Second World War. Many sat as Labour MPs. Some sat as Labour hereditary peers; there were always a few, as there still are.

While one, Wogan Philipps, the second Baron Milford, sat for 31 years, between inheriting and dying, as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, providing it with a parliamentary platform up to 50 years after it had lost the few Commons seats that it had ever won. Yes, you read aright: the only Communist Member of Parliament was there, and there for decades, as an application of the hereditary principle.

It was as wrong to silence the voice of the aristocratic social conscience by abolishing hereditary barons as to silence the voice of organised labour by abolishing trade union barons. One way or another, both of those voices must be heard again. The principle of male primogeniture in the hereditary peerage, and in the monarchy, does in fact point to the importance of the male line, and thus to the paternal authority of which the State has a duty to guarantee the economic basis.

That basis is intimately bound up both with public ownership (which is also a key safeguard of national sovereignty and of the Union) and with trade unionism, as well with the pursuit, in which the unions are again significant, of the peace that protects children from being deprived of their fathers, who are thus able to exercise their familial and wider social responsibilities precisely as fathers, assisted as ever by the State.

Another such sign is the presence in Parliament of bishops, as such, who are addressed as “Fathers in God”, and who therefore are and must remain male. In similar vein, the silencing both of the aristocratic social conscience and of organised labour has been in no small part the silencing of Catholicism.

Thank goodness that there is still some part of our parliamentary system from which it remains possible to speak from outside the nasty but inevitable union between, on the one hand, what has always been the anti-parliamentary New Left and, on the other hand, the sociologically indistinguishable New Right’s arrival at hatred of Parliament as the natural conclusion of its hatred of the State. From that union, together with the SDP’s misguided Alliance with the Liberals around their practically Bennite constitutional agenda, derives the Political Class’s desire to abolish the House of Lords.

For those who keep such scores, the House of Lords has a higher proportion of women, a higher proportion of people from ethnic minorities, a broader range of ethnic minorities, and far more people from working-class backgrounds generally and the trade union movement in particular, than can be found down the corridor. More significantly, and despite the very hard efforts of successive governments, it also retains a broader range of political opinion, more reflective of the country at large.

But that is under grave threat, both from the party machines and from the way of all flesh. The future composition of the House would be secured, at least in part, by providing for each current life peer, at least who attends very or fairly regularly, to name an heir, by no means necessarily or even ordinarily a relative, but rather a political and a wider intellectual soul mate. That heir would become a peer upon his or her nominator’s death, and would thus acquire the same right of nomination. The provision for very occasional Writs of Acceleration might even be restored.

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