Abolition of Peerage Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11 June 1974.

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3.48 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the extinction of all titles attaching to peerages; to provide for the cessation on death or statutory renunciation of all hereditary rights to attend as a Member of the House of Lords; and to provide for the appointment of Senators as Members of that House, including the conversion of present life Peers. I apologise to the House if I have difficulty in making myself audible, as I am suffering from laryngitis. I shall try to make myself heard as best I can.

Over the past 10 years a very peculiar situation has arisen constitutionally in this country, for the last hereditary peers who were created were included in the resignation Honours List of the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir A. Douglas-Home). Since then neither party leader has thought it appropriate to recommend to Her Majesty the creation of hereditary peers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear when he took office in 1964 that he thought it inappropriate that there should be any further such creations. The Leader of the Opposition has not made his position quite so clear. In answer to a Parliamentary Question from the hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) not long after the 1970 Parliament first met, he said he did not dismiss altogether the possibility of creating such peerages. However, he thought on balance that he would prefer to confine himself to life peerages. Of these, a prodigious number has been created.

The result, which seems to have passed largely unnoticed, is that a weird situation has arisen. The hereditary peerage numbers between 700 and 800. The rate of extinction through failure of an heir is no greater than four or five a year, so it will take several centuries for the system to die out. Meanwhile, and paradoxically, so far from the system becoming more democratic, it becomes less so. The position of the peerage is now more and more likely to equate with that of the continental peerages, which are few in number. Very few have been created since the 1914-18 war, and they rarely attract attention, except when their activities are sufficiently spectacularly scandal ous,as in the Montesi case, to merit the attention of the lesser Sunday newspapers.

So far from this absence of hereditary peerage creation having made the other place more democratic, over the years it has done the opposite. It cannot be said that the creation of life peerages makes the situation much better. There is some controversy about the creations which have been made—I have reservations about some of them—but that is not the point. The point is that the choice of title is an absurdity. The effect of Mr. Macmillan's Act in 1958 was merely to add yet another rank to the peerage, yet another absurd facet to our peculiar class system, while the other House remains, as it has always been, overwhelmingly the preserve of one party.

There are two ways in which this might be dealt with. Either the Prime Minister should recommend a mass creation of hereditary peerages, particularly of the higher ranks, and ridicule the whole thing out of existence—there might be something to be said for that—or, more simply, we should expunge it altogether. The Bill seeks to do the latter as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Under the Bill, all titles of honour would be expunged on the granting of the Royal Assent—both life and hereditary peerages—and their holders would be converted into senators for life. I leave entirely on one side the question of whether there should be a second Chamber at all. There was an attempt to revamp the other place a few years ago, when the late Dick Crossman produced an ingenious but crack-brained scheme which foundered under the combined efforts of Mr. Enoch Powell and the present Secretary of State for Employment. But so long as that Chamber exists, it seems best to strip it of the absurd feudal flummery attached to it. That is the first reason for making this modest innovation.

The second reason is that if the Bill were passed the overwhelming Conservative majority in the other House would be much more rapidly diminished than has happened so far. At the moment, although my right hon. Friend has certainly not been ungenerous in his peerage creations, they are not sufficient at the present rate of manufacture to reverse the parliamentary majority in the other place.

I hope that the Bill will at least be given a Second Reading. It is absurd that a constitutional change of the kind that has been evolving in the last 10 years should take place without the House or the country being consulted. It is bad enough that we should be discussing the Common Market, that one constitutional change should take place without the full-hearted consent of the British people. The constitution of the other place is not so important a constitutional matter that I wish to be overlong in proposing a change. Equally objectionable constitutionally is the fact that this change should have taken place with scarcely a word of comment. But the most objectionable aspect of all is that the very reverse of what was apparently intended should have happened. By not being added to, the peerage becomes more exclusive and not less so, less democratic instead of more.

I would adapt Oscar Wilde's adage, that there is one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about: there is one thing worse than creating hereditary peerages and that is not creating them.

3.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Cranley Onslow Mr Cranley Onslow , Woking

I rise to oppose the Motion. So far as the new orthodoxy requires me to declare an interest in this subject by marriage, I am delighted to do so. As for my own direct interest, that is vestigial in the extreme. It would require a major "Kind Hearts and Coronets" operation to bring me close to another place, although theoretically I might find myself in that equivocal position.

In any case, I do not seek to oppose the motion on the grounds of personal interest. There are plenty of other and better grounds that I can adduce. The first and one of the best is that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) has not made a very good case. I make no criticism of his voice, but his arguments were not of the most compelling. I express no great surprise at that, because I recall how in a previous incarnation, he entertained us one evening in a debate on defence matters with an ingenious, not to say crack-brained, proposal to recruit special murder squads from the Services which would be parachuted into the territories of Governments unfriendly to us so that we might embark on what I suppose one would now call a policy of renegotiation by assassination. If there were no more to it than that, I would suggest that we should simply let this proposition, crack-brained or otherwise, pass as a piece of futile eccentricity. But there is another, better, reason. This seems to me an inherently unsuitable subject for a private Member's initiative. The hon. Member may feel that I am turning the tables on him in view of the flatulent filibuster with which he talked out my own proposition to enfranchise the large numbers of people who might otherwise find themselves deprived of a vote at the next General Election. That contrast gives an interesting idea of the hon. Member's democratic priorities and the weight that we should attach to his arguments.

But there is an even more important reason. We have had presented to us, pretty speciously, a piece of republican propaganda of a kind of which we should be increasingly suspicious. I do not mean the kind of republican propaganda with which we have become far too familiar, although I would say that the two people who will come out of last week's unhappy events with the greatest credit and public respect are likely to be those two members of the United Kingdom peerage, Lord and Lady Donoughmore, who have captured the imagination of the public in the two countries rather more effectively than the ghouls in dark glasses who caused us such affront in the pages of the Press.

I oppose this Bill because of the republicanism which I believe underlies it. The hon. Member for Handsworth has flirted with words. He suggested that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister might be trying to ridicule the other place out of existence. Others of his hon. Friends evidently take the same view. The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) happens not to be with us, but the House will recall that he was recently reported as saying of an event which I think most hon. Members will remember without my reminding them: This just confirms my view that the sooner we get rid of the bloody nonsense of the honours list the' better. It is now just the subject of hilarious cynicism. I see nodding beside the hon. Member for Handsworth, as always, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Of course, I would never leave the hon. Member for Bolsover out of a discussion on republicanism. He said on the same occasion: In a way, her peerage will assist in driving another nail into the coffin of the Lords, which will greatly please me. I am glad to see that the Prime Minister has for once managed to please the hon. Member for Bolsover, and I am sure that the whole House will share my pleasure at his reaction.

But republicanism is not just a subject for light humour or even for serious humour, if there can be such a thing. We must recognise it and the threat which it represents to the country and to our institutions. At least the hon. Member for Fife, Central is open about being a republican. I have permission to quote from a letter that he sent some few months ago to a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke), in which he said:

"I do not believe the Queen and her family are our 'greatest asset'—on the contrary, I regard them as amongst the most greedy parasites on earth."

It is with those thoughts in mind that I suggest the House should take advantage of this opportunity to give the republicans amongst us an opportunity to stand up and to be counted. I do not necesarily invite my hon. Friends who are not republicans to go into the Lobby against the Bill, but I hope that I shall find someone of like mind so as to contrive a Division. I hope, then, that the hon. Member for Handsworth will take into the Lobby with him, if he feels that he can still vote for this doubtful measure, all of his hon. Friends who are prepared to nail their colours to the republican mast so that we and the country may know who they are.

Question put pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 120, Noes 162.

Division No. 36.]AYES[4.3 p.m.
Allaun, FrankGraham, TedReid, George
Ashton, JoeHamilton, James (Bothwell)Richardson, Miss Jo
Atkins, Ronald (Preston, N.)Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Atkinson, NormanHatton, FrankRooker, J. W.
Bates, AlfHenderson,Douglas (Ab'rd'nsh're,E)Rose, Paul B.
Bennett, Andrew F. (Stockport, N.)Hooson, EmlynRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Bidwell, SydneyHowells, Geraint (Cardigan)Sedgemore, Bryan
Blenkinsop, ArthurHughes, Roy (Newport)Selby, Harry
Booth, AlbertJeger, Mrs. LenaSheldon, Robert (Ashton-under-Lyne)
Brown, Hugh D. (Glasgow, Provan)Jones, Barry (Flint, E.)Sillars, James
Butler,Mrs.Joyce (H'gey,WoodGreen)Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen)Silverman, Julius
Callaghan, Jim (M1'dd'ton s Pr'wich)Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Skinner, Dennis
Carter, RayKerr, RussellSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Clemitson, IvorKilroy-Silk, RobertSmith, John (Lanarkshire, N.)
Cocks, MichaelKinnock, NeilSnape, Peter
Cohen, StanleyLambie, DavidSpriggs, Leslie
Colquhoun, Mrs. M. WLatham, Arthur (CityofW'minsterP'ton)Stallard, A. W.
Concannon,J. D.Lee, JohnStewart, Donald (Western Isles)
Cook, Robert F. (Edlinburgh, C.)Lewis, Arthur (Newham, N.)Stoddart, David (Swindon)
Craigen, J. M. (G'glow, Maryhill)Lipton, MarcusStott, Roger
Davidson, ArthurLyons, Edward (Bradford, W.)Swain, Thomas
Davies, Bryan (Enfield, N.)McCartney, HughTaverne, Dick
Davis, Clinton, (Hackney, C.)MacCormack, IainThomas, D. E. (Merioneth)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds, W.)McElhone, FrankTierney, Sydney
Doig, PeterMcMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)Torney, Tom
Dormand, J. D.Madden, M. O. F.Tyler, Paul
Douglas-Mann, BruceMagee, BryanWainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)
Duffy, A. E. P.Mallalieu, J. P. W.Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Eadie, AlexMarks, KennethWatkins, David
Edge, GeoffMarquand, DavidWatt, Hamish
Edwards, Robert (W'hampton, S.E.)Mikardo, IanWhite, James
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scunthorpe)Miller, Dr. M. S. (E. Kilbride)Wigley, Dafydd (Caernarvon)
English, MichaelMilne, EdwardWilson, Gordon (Dundee, E.)
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen)Winstanley, Dr. Michael
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Newens, Stanley (Harlow)Wise, Mrs. Audrey
Evans, John (Newton)Palmer, ArthurWoodall, Alec
Ewing,Mrs.Winifred (Moray&Nairn)Pardoe, JohnYoung, David (Bolton, E.)
Flannery, MartinPark, George (Coventry, N.E.)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Pavitt, LaurieTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Garrett, John (Norwich, S.)Price, William (Rugby)Mr. Bob Cyer and
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Radice, GilesMr. Stan Thorne.
George, Bruce
Adley, RobertHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally
Aitken, JonathanHampson, Dr. KeithPage, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)Harvie Anderson, Rt. Hn. MissPage, John (Harrow, W.)
Atkins,Rt.Hn.Humphrey (Spelthorne)Hastings, StephenParkinson, Cecil (Hertfordshire, S.)
Awdry, DanielHavers, Sir MichaelPink, R. Bonner
Baker, KennethHawkins. PaulPrice, David (Eastleigh)
Balniel, Rt. Hn. LordHayhoe, BarneyPrior, Rt. Hn. James
Banks, RobertHenderson, Barry (Dunbartonshire, E.)Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Higgins, TerenceRaison, Timothy
Berry, Hon. AnthonyHowell, David (Guildford)Rathbone, Tim
Biffen, JohnHowell, Ralph (Norfolk, North)Redmond, Robert
Biggs-Davison, JohnHurd. DouglasRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Blaker, PeterHutchison, Michael ClarkRenton,Rt.Hn.SirDavid(H't'gd'ns're)
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.)Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)Renton, R. T. (Mid-Sussex)
Body, RichardJames, DavidRldsdale, Julian
Boscawen, Hon. RobertJenkln.Rt.Hn.P. (R'dgeW'std&W'fd)Rifklnd, Malcolm
Boyson, Dr. Rhodes (Brent, N.)TobyRippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey
Bray, RonaldJopling, MichaelRodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Buchanan-Smith, AlickKellett-Bowman. Mrs. ElaineRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Budgen, NickKershaw, AnthonyRost, Peter (Derbyshire, S.-E.)
Chalker, Mrs. LyndaKing, Tom (Bridgwater)Royle, Sir Anthony
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Kirk, PeterShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Cope, JohnKitson, Sir TimothyShaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Cormack, PatrickKnight, Mrs. JillSilvester, Fred
Costaln, A. P.Langford-Holt, Sir JohnSims, Roger
Critchley, JulianLatham, Michael (Melton)Sinclair, Sir George
Crouch, DavidLawson, Nigel (Blaby)Skeet, T. H. H.
Davies, Rt. Hn. John (Knutsford)Le Marchant, SpencerSpicer, Jim (Dorset, W.)
Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.)Lewis, Kenneth (Rtland & Stmford)Spicer, Michael (Worcestershire, S.)
Douglas-Home, Rt. Hn. Sir AlecLloyd, Ian (Havant & Waterloo)Sproat, lain
du Cann, Rt. Hn. EdwardLoveridge, JohnStanbrook, Ivor
Durant, TonyLuce, RichardSteen, Anthony (L'pool, Wavertree)
Dykes, HughMacArthur, IanTapsell, Peter
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)McCrindle, R. ATaylor, Edward M. (Glgow, C'cart)
Elliott, Sir WilliamMacfarlane, NeilTaylor, Robert (Croydon, N.W.)
Eyre, ReginaldMcLaren, MartinTebbit, Norman
Falrgrleve, RussellMcNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)Townsend, C. D.
Farr, JohnMarshall, Michael (Arundel)Vaughan, Dr. Gerard
Fenner, Mrs. PeggyMarten, NeilViggers, Peter
Finsberg, GeoffreyMather, CarolWaddington, David
Fisher, Sir NigelMaudling, Rt. Hn. ReginaldWainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)
Fletcher-Cooke, CharlesMawby, RayWakeham, John
Fookes, Miss JanetMeyer, Sir AnthonyWalker, Rt. Hn. Peter (Worcester)
Fraser,Rt.Hn.Hugh (St'fford&Stone)Miller, Hal (B'grove & R'ditch)Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek
Freud, ClementMills, PeterWall, Patrick
Gardiner, George (Reigate&Banstead)Moate, RogerWalters, Dennis
Gilmour, Rt.Hn. Ian (Ch'sh'&Amsh'm)Moore, J. E. M. (Croydon, C.)Weatherill, Bernard
Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.)More, Jasper (Ludlow)Whltelaw, Rt. Hn. William
Glyn, Dr. AlanMorgan-Giles, Rear-Adm.Wiggin, Jerry
Godber, Rt. Hn. JosephMorrison, Peter (City of Chester)Winterton, Nicholas
Goodhart, PhilipMudd, DavidYoung, Sir George (Ealing, Acton)
Goodhew, VictorNeave, Airey
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)Neubert, MichaelTELLERS FOR THE NOES
Gray, HamishNormanton, TomMr. Robert Cooke and
Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)Nott, JohnMr. Cranley Onslow.
Grylls, Michael