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Arcane, hereditary, all-male — and at the heart of British democracy

The Earl of Devon prides himself on the “scrumptious” cream teas served at Powderham Fortress, the imposing fortress inhabited by his household since 1390. This culinary deal with was, he famous in his maiden speech within the Home of Lords, first served by a predecessor named Ordwulf, Saxon Ealdorman of Devon, who “ordered bread, cream and jam for employees rebuilding Tavistock Abbey after the Viking raids of 997AD”.

The six-foot-five Earl — Charles Peregrine Courtenay — calls the enterprise he runs at Powderham — a fort open to the general public, with a farm, store and café hooked up — “a family-owned SME that’s 700 years outdated”. But it surely’s far out of your common small enterprise. The crenellated towers look down over a park of grazing fallow deer, with the bottom falling away to the Exe estuary past.

The household has every thing you might need from the English aristocracy. The Courtenays arrived with Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1154 and one forebear, Richard Courtenay, was buried with Henry V in Westminster Abbey, after dying of dysentery in Henry’s tent on the Siege of Harfleur. “A really shut male relationship,” is how Courtenay, who sports activities a rainbow badge on his nation jacket, describes it.

There are, he tells me, a “good few homosexual tales” within the household historical past. In the meantime, it turned out that Timothy the household tortoise, who died in 2004 on the age of 160, was “truly a feminine”. The Earl says this “transgender problem” was solely recognized when Timmy needed to go to the vet, however the historical creature stored its title till its dying day.

Issues haven’t all the time been simple. “We have been beheaded a number of instances,” Courtenay notes of a few of his extra unlucky ancestors. And the present Earl admits that when he married AJ Langer, an actor with roles on Baywatch and My So-Referred to as Life whom he met in a Las Vegas bar, his household didn’t regard the match as “their apparent selection”.

Charles Courtenay, 19th Earl of Devon
Charles Courtenay, nineteenth Earl of Devon © Robert Darch

Earnest, Eton-educated and radiating a floppy-haired rural sense of wellbeing, the 46-year-old nineteenth Earl of Devon appears to be like like he was born to rule. And, because of one of many weirdest quirks in Britain’s eccentric system of presidency, in a way Charlie Courtenay nonetheless does.

It is because despite the fact that it’s been greater than 20 years since Tony Blair’s Labour authorities defenestrated many of the 750 aristocrats who sat within the Home of Lords, the higher chamber of Britain’s legislature, a murky backroom deal ensured that 92 locations have been reserved on a “non permanent foundation” for a rump of hereditary friends.

Evidently, at the moment they’re nonetheless there, simply as they’ve been for hundreds of years. And so, because of the circumstances of his beginning, the Earl of Devon is ready to attend debates within the Lords, a revising chamber and frequent thorn within the aspect of the elected Home of Commons, and to vote on the legal guidelines of the land.


The House of Lords types one a part of the traditional triumvirate of the British structure, together with the monarchy and the Home of Commons. Its inhabitants embody dukes, earls, viscounts, barons and different exotica from the aristocracy. Earlier than former prime minister Blair’s try and modernise the place in 1999, most seats within the legislature have been handed down the road from technology to technology, nearly solely to a male inheritor.

The Home of Lords Act of 1999 ended the 700-year-old proper of all friends to sit down and vote on the purple benches. With most hereditary friends ejected, at the moment’s Lords is especially an appointed chamber, with political leaders taking their choose of former MPs, legal professionals, docs, actors, athletes and so forth to sit down as “life friends” on the purple benches. Their titles can’t be inherited.

The filling of the higher home with political cronies is a frequent supply of controversy and is again within the information as Boris Johnson battles “sleaze” allegations. On Saturday, The Sunday Occasions reported that the Conservative get together systematically supplied seats within the Home of Lords to a choose group of multi-millionaire donors, who paid greater than £3m to the get together. The Tories stated they have been entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

The Lords at the moment is — at nearly 800 members — one of many world’s most bloated legislative assemblies. Solely China’s Nationwide Individuals’s Congress is larger. The truth that nobody in it’s immediately elected remains to be regarded by many as a democratic outrage. The continued presence of friends who sit in a legislative meeting merely by birthright is seen as much more egregious. It doesn’t assist that all the 92 hereditary friends that stay are white and male. In response to analysis by The Sunday Occasions, practically half went to at least one faculty: Eton School. As a result of most aristocratic titles go to the firstborn son or the closest male family member, this blue-blooded band is unlikely to turn out to be extra numerous.

Beneath the phrases of that “non permanent” deal agreed by Blair, the variety of hereditaries is fastened: when one of many 92 dies or retires, a unprecedented by-election process takes place, the place one other peer on a reserve listing of greater than 200 hereditaries — Home of Lords wannabes — is chosen to take their place. The electors are made up of hereditary friends already within the higher chamber, normally members of the get together group the place the emptiness arose. The outcome is likely one of the weirdest “democratic” contests on the planet. And it’s by way of that course of that, in 2018, the Earl of Devon assumed his seat within the Lords.

There have been about 40 by-elections held amongst hereditary friends since 2002, when the primary such contests occurred. Manifestos are worthless or downright weird — in 2015 the Earl of Limerick’s ended with the phrases “out of your seats so properly entrenched, please vote that mine could also be embenched”. He was crushed by the ninth Duke of Wellington, whose forebear gained the Battle of Waterloo, and who has just lately been combating a Twenty first-century legislative battle to cease water corporations dumping sewage into rivers.

Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, 1769-1852
Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, 1769-1852 © GL Archive/Alamy

Charles Wellesley, ninth Duke of Wellington
Charles Wellesley, ninth Duke of Wellington, born 1945 © PA Photos/Alamy

In a Tory by-election contest this 12 months, Viscount Mountgarret supplied “no assertion” in help of his candidacy, whereas Lord Ashcombe’s credentials included the truth that he “races on the Solent and gardens enthusiastically”. Earl De La Warr is the “proprietor of the village pub”. Lord Milverton, operating to hitch the unaligned crossbench friends, supplied an eight-word prospectus promising to be “as goal and cheap as potential”.

Every candidate makes a pitch for help, normally to friends from the get together group that they aspire to hitch. Hustings, in the event that they happen in any respect, are well mannered affairs, with candidates invited to make a four-minute “elevator pitch” after which take a couple of questions. Campaigning is basically frowned upon. As Courtenay remembers: “Some folks attempt to foyer and attempt to get in contact with others. However I obtained the understanding that wasn’t actually acceptable.” The Earl of Devon was amongst 19 candidates for a seat within the non-party political group of crossbench friends. There have been 31 electors and Courtenay gained a run-off with a whopping seven votes.

Generally the folks standing in an election outnumber these allowed to vote in it. The Lib Dems, for instance, have simply three hereditary friends entitled to vote to nominate a alternative Lib Dem peer; when a seat grew to become vacant just lately seven friends stood for election. As soon as elected, a peer can sit within the Home of Lords for many years till they retire or die.


For one specific peer, the by-election system for hereditary friends is “past satire”. Lord Bruce Grocott, a former parliamentary aide to Blair, has waged a private marketing campaign for years to legislate to cease it. His subsequent try, nearly definitely futile, will come when he brings ahead his personal non-public member’s invoice in early December.

“I can’t imagine anybody can assume having 92 locations and not using a single girl or any member of an ethnic minority is appropriate,” the previous school lecturer says. “It’s worse than that — there isn’t any chance of getting one both.”

Certainly, leaving apart connections to the Norman and Plantagenet baronies, the British aristocracy will not be identified for its ethnic range. And of the 204 hereditary friends registered to face in by-elections when a spot turns into vacant, there is just one girl. Sadly, Grocott notes, “She doesn’t appear to wish to stand.”

Earlier than this, the one girl among the many remaining hereditaries was the formidable thirty first Countess of Mar, who retired final 12 months, age 79. The holder of the oldest peerage title within the UK, and a famend maker of goats’ cheese, Mar declared she didn’t wish to be a type of individuals who “staggers round with a Zimmer body and wishes folks to inform them the place they’re going”.

Grocott, a life peer who has simply turned 81, has made three earlier makes an attempt to finish the by-election system in a bid to make sure that hereditary friends would ultimately, by dying, or retiring as Mar did, disappear from the higher home. However on every event, he has been thwarted, as opponents strangle the laws with filibusters or parliamentary process. “I’m the world’s main knowledgeable on this,” Grocott says ruefully. “It’s not an simply transferable talent.”

He provides: “For causes which can be unfathomable, the federal government gained’t help the invoice.” And, with out Boris Johnson’s help, it stands no probability of getting by way of parliament and the hereditaries will proceed to sit down within the Home of Lords.

The Conservative peer Lord David Trefgarne, 80, has beforehand proposed “wrecking” amendments to scupper Grocott’s laws and, requested whether or not he would oppose it once more subsequent month, he says: “I’m afraid I’ll.” Like many hereditary friends, Trefgarne says that — in fact — he would favour a largely elected second chamber, however within the meantime, it was incorrect to have the place filled with friends appointed by the prime minister.

Trefgarne likes to take a protracted view in these issues. “Forged your thoughts again to 1215,” he says wistfully, recalling it was the hereditary friends and bishops who compelled King John to make his Magna Carta concessions at Runnymede. “Don’t inform me we all know nothing about democracy,” he exclaims. “We invented it!”

Whereas many hereditary friends insist they’re solely sitting within the Home of Lords till a correctly reformed higher chamber comes alongside, the Earl of Devon believes the aristocracy ought to have a task within the second chamber, partly due to the continuity with Britain’s previous that they characterize. “We first took a seat in, I believe 1280-something, and have been doing so ever since,” he says of his circle of relatives historical past. “There’s a nice world cacophony of various political techniques — in order that continuity is of itself of nice worth. We don’t tip issues over and begin afresh fairly often. There’s worth to that and the tales that offers.”

Courtenay, who practised regulation in California and specialises in mental property and expertise litigation, says he has one thing to supply to the higher home. He additionally says he needs to be a “champion” of Devon, the county over whose inexperienced hills Powderham Fortress presides. And, together with his 3,500-acre property and as much as 20 full-time workers, the Earl in all probability makes an even bigger contribution to the native financial system than his ancestor Isabella, Countess of Devon, who built a weir throughout the River Exe within the thirteenth century to cease ships travelling to Exeter, thus guaranteeing they needed to dock on the household’s personal port at Topsham.

Courtenay, who says girls have been a driving power in his household’s historical past, is campaigning for a change within the regulation to permit hereditary peerages to go to the eldest daughter, slightly than son. “I believe the intercourse discrimination side is unforgivable,” he says. However altering the regulation of primogeniture won’t ever fulfill these, equivalent to Grocott, who imagine that hereditary friends haven’t any place in a Twenty first-century legislature.


The survival of 92 hereditary friends as lawmakers in Twenty first-century Britain is a testomony to the sturdiness of the aristocracy and an apparently innate sense of easy methods to bend the desire of the state to their very own benefit.

When he gained a landslide election victory in 1997, Blair’s intention was clear sufficient. Labour’s manifesto stated the “proper of hereditary friends to sit down and vote within the Home of Lords will probably be ended by statute”. The truth that some are nonetheless there nearly 25 years later is a specific tribute to at least one man: Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil, seventh Marquess of Salisbury.

The Cecils have excelled at high-level politics for greater than 400 years, for the reason that days of Elizabeth I. The third Marquess of Salisbury served as prime minister 3 times in the course of the nineteenth century. Within the late Nineteen Nineties the present Salisbury — who was chief of the Conservative friends on the time — set about negotiating a cope with Blair that may see some hereditaries hold their seats pending a second-stage reform creating a totally reformed home — a second stage, which to no one’s nice shock, by no means arrived. “The association was alleged to final six months,” he chuckles now.

Salisbury’s negotiations to maintain the aristocracy within the higher home made him a determine of curiosity in republican France on the time. “I had a letter from a Marxist professor on the Sorbonne, who famous ‘Il n’y a que le provisoire qui dure,’” he remembers. How precisely Salisbury achieved his goal is a narrative, he says, he has not recounted for some time.

Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury, 1563-1612
Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury, 1563-1612 © Tradition Membership/Getty Photos

Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil, seventh Marquess of Salisbury
Robert Michael James Gascoyne-Cecil, seventh Marquess of Salisbury, born 1946 © Avalon.Pink

Again in 1998 he warned Blair that until some hereditaries have been retained, there could be legislative carnage within the higher home, with the aristocrats delaying and filibustering the prime minister’s extra pressing legislative priorities. “My entire tactic was to make their flesh creep,” remembers the 75-year-old peer and former service provider banker. “I threatened them with the Somme and Passchendaele. I didn’t imply it — it will have been a constitutional outrage! However I stated it.”

Blair was spooked and ordered Lord Derry Irvine, Labour chief within the Lords, to dealer a compromise with Salisbury. “Derry supplied us 15 hereditary friends. I assumed I would as properly be bold, so I stated, ‘How about 100?’ He stated that was ridiculous.” However in the long run Irvine bowed to the blue-blooded backlash.

Salisbury remembers: “I assumed we’d want some sort of rationale for this. So I stated that 75 could be about 10 per cent of the present hereditaries, then we’d want a couple of extra — maybe 15 — with expertise of operating committees, that kind of factor, to assist with the transition. It was frightful bullshit actually.”

The deal to retain 90 hereditaries — plus two different friends who performed royal features — got here collectively in Blair’s Downing Road flat. Aristocrats already entitled to sit down within the Lords would maintain an election amongst themselves to decide on who might stay — a quirk that hereditary friends wish to joke makes them extra “democratic” than their appointed colleagues.

The key pact was sealed by Salisbury, Irvine and the Labour prime minister behind the again of William Hague, the Tory chief on the time. “Huge mistake,” Salisbury remembers. “To say he was upset could be one thing of an understatement.” Salisbury was sacked, acknowledging on the time that he had “rushed in like an ill-trained spaniel”, however the deal caught.

The Tory chief whip within the Lords on the time, Lord Tom Strathclyde, stated Irvine insisted that by-elections would by no means occur as a result of he was busy getting ready his stage-two reforms for a extra democratic higher chamber. Strathclyde, or to present him his full title Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, remembers: “I stated: ‘Simply in case.’ And had one other drink.”

Talking from his Scottish dwelling, the place he’s “chopping logs, watching the grass develop”, Strathclyde says: “I’m not arguing for the continuation of the system; in fact, if an elected home have been to return alongside, we’d lay down our burden.” A jovial determine with a perma-twinkle in his eye, he claims — like Salisbury — that the by-election system is so anachronistic that it’s going to function “sand within the shoe” and power politicians to totally reform the Home of Lords.

However Labour cynics imagine that’s self-serving tosh. Lord Charlie Falconer, a Labour peer, says: “He’s simply saying that. He is aware of very properly the Commons would by no means settle for an elected Lords as a result of it will undermine the primacy of the Commons. It was a way, as he noticed it, to make sure the hereditaries have been there for ever.”


Makes an attempt to reform this very British model of “democracy” have been occurring for greater than 100 years, from the Liberal authorities’s transfer to clip the wings of the higher home within the 1911 Parliament Act, by way of to makes an attempt in 2012 by Nick Clegg, chief of the Liberal Democrats, to maneuver to a largely elected second chamber as a part of David Cameron’s Con-Lib coalition.

But descendants of Norman conquerors, philandering kings and royal suck-ups proceed to sit down on the purple benches. On every event, potential Home of Lords reform turns into slowed down in parliamentary wrangling and gridlock. Finally prime ministers abandon the struggle and return to the enterprise of coping with different, extra urgent issues.

Woman Olly Grender, a Lib Dem life peer and a former Clegg adviser, was trying on in 2012 because the final massive try and reform the higher chamber drowned in a parliamentary quagmire. Cameron didn’t precisely assist, she claims: “He didn’t give a rattling about it.” Certainly, Cameron as soon as joked that Home of Lords reform was “a third-term precedence”. Grender says: “The actual fact there isn’t a single feminine hereditary peer is an affront to a contemporary democracy.” However nearly 10 years on, there nonetheless appears little urge for food in authorities to sort out the difficulty.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chief of the Home of Commons within the present Conservative authorities, admits the concept of hereditary friends electing their very own replacements is “splendidly arcane” and that it’s “slightly splendid” that the by-elections are about probably the most democratic aspect within the higher home. However Rees-Mogg argues that the extra ludicrous the Home of Lords seems, the much less doubtless it’s to throw its weight round.

“How do you reform the Home of Lords with out taking energy from the Commons?” he asks. He fears that if the Lords acquired extra democratic legitimacy it will problem the elected MPs within the Commons, risking “US-style gridlock”. As a substitute of which, the patently undemocratic Home of Lords will proceed its low-profile job as a revising chamber, scrutinising and tweaking draft legal guidelines, with MPs retaining the higher hand. There isn’t a signal of Johnson’s authorities reforming the Lords any time quickly.


A beneficiary of Salisbury’s sinuous dealmaking is likely one of the most up-to-date Labour hereditary friends to take his seat in a by-election: Viscount Stansgate, in any other case often known as Stephen Benn, son of the Labour leftwing hero Tony Benn, who six a long time earlier renounced his hereditary title with a purpose to proceed to sit down within the Home of Commons.

Tony Benn known as the hereditary peerage system “completely mad”, as soon as saying that permitting somebody to make legal guidelines as a result of their father had was a curious idea in a contemporary democracy. “I wouldn’t wish to go to a dentist who, simply earlier than he drilled my tooth, informed me he was not a dentist himself, however that his father had been an excellent dentist.”

In his maiden speech final month the most recent Viscount Stansgate, who will be capable of declare as much as £323 in day by day allowances for attending sittings within the Lords, declined to say his father’s well-known ideas on the hereditary peerage. He was stated by a Labour spokesman to be “getting his toes beneath the desk” and was unable to remark for this text.

Falconer says: “He’s an honest policymaker. However that is historical past stood on its head.” Why does he assume folks like Stansgate wish to take up a seat within the Lords? “It’s not the allowance,” he says. “They wish to be in parliament.”

For a lot of, the scenario has already gone on too lengthy. Labour’s chief within the Lords, Woman Angela Smith, stated friends have been “vastly embarrassed” about hereditary peerages and the by-elections that maintain the aristocratic aspect of the higher chamber. “The ball stays within the authorities’s courtroom however they refuse to behave, despite the fact that ministers know it will have our help,” she says.

However Boris Johnson, like most prime ministers, has different priorities. So the curious case of the hereditary friends and their weird by-elections continues into the Twenty first century without end. And democracy campaigners proceed to rage impotently towards the system.

The nineteenth Earl of Devon concedes the scenario might final for a while but. “It’s too troublesome a nut to crack,” he says. “It’s, properly, should you eliminate that, you’ve obtained to do one thing else. And nobody needs to resolve what that ought to be.

“I believe at current the hereditary presence within the Home is constant, it’s worthwhile.” He says different elements of society work on the hereditary precept — households go on belongings — so why not the best to sit down in a legislative chamber?

Is he pushed by a way of noblesse oblige? “I don’t know if I’d put it in these phrases,” he says. “There’s a way that there’s a job to be executed. I believe it’s a possibility slightly than an obligation — a possibility to present one thing again and to supply some service.”

Courtenay remembers fondly listening to his father give his personal maiden speech within the Lords — he was allowed to sit down on the steps of the throne — within the late Nineteen Nineties. The phrases have caught with him to today. “He gave a great speech,” he remembers. “It was, like, ‘I used to be by no means fascinated about being right here, however I’m right here as a result of we’ve been right here endlessly. It’s a part of the job.’”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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