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The first and immediate need obviously is to
drop the hereditary qualification. No son of
an existing peer should sit in a future House
simply on account of being an eldest son. He
may succeed to his father's title (of that more
anon), but not therefore to his father's seat.
The present House will not be wiped out, but
in the twinkling of an eye it will be changed,
as far as its legislative functions are concerned,
to a body of life-peers. The descendants of
the existing peers will (possibly) carry on their
ornamental functions in Society, but they will
cease to be our hereditary Legislators. This
is so very indispensable a reform, and the
scandal and absurdity of the present arrange-
ment is so monstrous, that without making
this first step practically nothing can be done ;
and the public must simply choose between this
and eternal disgrace. Moreover, it is a reform
which could be carried out almost impercept-
ibly, and with a minimum of friction.

The present House would remain, for the
moment, undissolved ; but its numbers would


British Aristocracy

slowly dwindle with the decease of its members.
All future peers created in order to supply the
consequent vacancies would be life-peers. What-
ever other titles they might carry, or if they
carried no titles at all, in either case their right
to sit in the House would not descend to their
offspring. Thus in the course of not so very
many years we should have a Second Chamber
wholly consisting of life-members appointed
on their own merits, and neither claiming nor
exercising hereditary power.*

What would be the general principles of
appointment to such a Chamber ? It might
be urged that (after it was once fairly estab-

* Lord Hobhouse, in 1894, proposed such a Second
Chamber, Hmited to 200 or 250 Hfe-members, and having
also a Hmited right of veto {Contemporary Review, Dec.
1894). Sir Herbert Maxwell proposed that the Crown
should cease to grant hereditary titles, and should be
content with creating life-peerages ; also that the number
of members of the Upper House should be reduced to 268
{Nineteenth Century, July 1906). Mr. Frederick Harrison
has sketched a similar Senate, drawn widely from the
various professions, learned societies, and so forth {Posi-
tivist Review, Oct. 1906). Constitutionally, the peers are
summoned by the Will of the Crown, and apart from that
have no hereditary right to sit, and on the other hand it is
amply admitted now that the Crown has power to grant
peerages and summon peers for life only ; so we see that
the change proposed would involve no great technical or
constitutional difficulty.


And the I louse of Lords

lished) it shoiikl he made sclt-ulcctivc — say like
the Chinese Academy, which for more than a
thousand years has exercised so tremendous a
sway over the destiny of China. As every one
knows, the Chinese Academy consists of some
240 members, the best scholars and savants in
the empire, to each of whom by immemorial
provision is allowed a house and a small salary.
Tlie duty of the body is to debate and turn its
critical acumen and enlightenment on any or
every public question that may arise. It has
no direct legislative or executive power ; but
the results of its debates and its recommenda-
tions are widely circulated through the empire,
and have an immense influence on the popular
mind, while at the same time the body exercises
a very outspoken censorship over the acts of
officials and even of the Emperor himself.
This body is self-elective. When a vacancy
occurs the remaining members elect the new
one. It is thus independent of patronage, and
no doubt (as the remarkable history of the
Chinese Academy shows), when once a good
tradition is started, this method of election may
be very effective.

With regard to the House of Lords, however,
there might (at present) be objections to this
method ! — and we may take it as probable
that new (life) peers will continue to be created.

British Aristocracy

and writs of summons issued, on the recom-
mendation of the Premier at the time in office.
Assuming this, I think it must follow, as the
second absolutely necessary reform, that in all
cases a reason (of distinguished service) must
be given for each creation. Sir Wilfrid Lawson
on one occasion, in 1887 I believe, proposed
this. And it is clear that to leave the dis-
tribution of high honours and the position of
Hereditary National Legislator to the irre-
sponsible appointment of any Government, is
simply to court bribery, corruption, and mal-
versation. A distinct and sufficient reason
must be given for each creation, just as is done
in the case of the award of a medal or decora-
tion, a V.C. or a D.S.O. ; and though this in
itself might not always secure the best men, it
would certainly go a long way to keep out the
commonplace and really harmful types, whose
real recommendation to-day consists in ser-
vices which would not bear public scrutiny.
Of course this reform will be strenuously re-
sisted by certain classes, just for the very
reason that irresponsible patronage is so dear
and so very convenient to those who can
exercise it ; but the change is absolutely
necessary and indispensable.

It would probably have to be accompanied
by some indication as to the kind of distin-


And the Mouse of Lords

giiished service which shoiikl be regarded as a
quahfication. Personally, I think that in this
Second Chamber, or House of Life-peers, as
far as possible, every class or section of the nation
should be represented, and represented of
course by well-known and well-tried members
of such class, or by those who have done good
service to their class or to the nation. Lord
Rosebcry, in 1884, in moving for a Select Com-
mittee on the reform of the House of Lords,
" sjx^cified nine classes which were entirely
without representation in that House. The
first were the Nonconformists, the last the
Workmen. The other seven were as follow^s —
medicine, science, literature, commerce, tenant-
farmers, arts, and colonists. He suggested
that life-peers should be created, and that the
ancient system of assistants, by which judges
were called into council, might be revived." *
Here, at any rate, as far as it went, was a
practical suggestion towards making the House
an etTicient and useful body. But the details
of such membership, ex officio and other, would
of course need careful consideration, and into
that question we need not go now. What is
clear, at present, is that the future House of
Peers (and here the word " peers " comes in

♦ W. T. Stead, Peers or People : An Appeal to History,
p. 194. 1907.

British Aristocracy

very appropriately) will consist of able men of
all classes and so-called ranks in society. And
this is in the line of a very obvious and natural
evolution. In early times the Lords Spiritual,
who often outnumbered the Lords Temporal
in the House, were not a little jealous of the
latter. Towards the close of the eighteenth
century the old landed families, who alone
beside the Church were there represented, were
furiously disgusted at the accession to their
ranks of large bodies of commercial and pro-
fessional gentry. Again, in 1856, there was a
storm in the House over the granting of a life-
peerage to Lord Wensleydale ; the highest
legal and historical authorities, however, main-
tained that it was the ancient right and privilege
of the Crown to create life-peers ; and in 1887
the Appellate Jurisdiction Act was passed, in
accordance with which certain Law-lords now
take their seats for life ex officio. Finally, in
the last twenty years, classes of men have been
admitted to the House whom even George HI
would not have dared to propose. Sir Erskine
May, in his Constitutional History of England^
speaking of the great growth in numbers of the
Upper House in modern times, says : " With
this large increase of numbers the peerage has
undergone further changes no less remarkable,
in its character and composition. It is no


And the Mouse of Lords

longer a council of the magnates of the Land —
the territorial Aristocracy, the descendants or
representatives of the barons of the olden time ;
but in eacli successive age it has assumed a
more popular and representative character."
Tluis, although the present House would, no
doubt, be much shocked at the idea, it does not
seem at all improbable that a time may come
whrn a Joseph Arch, for instance, as an emi-
nent farm-labourer and representative of farm-
labourers, might be called to sit on its councils.

Another reform which will probably be
advisable will be the limitation of the new
House of Life-peers to a definite number of
members — although, of course, such limiting
number might be alterable from time to time.
One great advantage of such a limitation is,
that on any occasion the number of vacancies
existing is known, and the question of their
replenishment comes naturally before the public,
so that, whoever the appointing authority may
be, he or they cannot easily act in a secret or
underhand way in the matter, as is indeed too
jiossible with the present method.

The reforms thus proposed are practically
three : —

I. Life-peerages (the actual title a niatter of
little importance).


British Aristocracy

2. Adequate reasons of useful service to be
given for each creation — on democratic grounds
more or less scheduled and recognised.

3. Limitation of number of members.

Under such conditions as these reforms would
induce, the Second Chamber would probably
turn out satisfactorily, and there does not seem
any reasons why its powers should be seriously
curtailed. To propose to keep the House of
Lords as it is, is practically to ask for the cur-
tailment of its powers and the suspension of the
right of veto — for it is evident that things can-
not go on very long as they are ; but to remove
the right of veto would in effect be to reduce
the House to a mere revising body — whose work
could, of course, be better done by a committee
of experts. If a Second Chamber is to be re-
tained at all, far more sensible would it be to
make it a really useful and intelligent institution,
with power of initiative and power of veto —
the latter at any rate to some degree, though of
course guarded. Short of our securing such
useful and intelligent body. Abolition would be
the only alternative.

There remain a few words to say about the
Aristocracy generally, and the possibilities of
bringing it into line as a serviceable or even


And the House of Lords

tolerable institution. It is fairly clear that the
same arguments which have been brought
forward in favour of a life-seat only in the
House of Peers, and in favour of a declaration
of the reasons for conferring that distinction,
apply equally — though not perhaps equally
pressingly — to the conferring of titles generally.
Of course, it would be possible to raise a man
to a baronage or an earldom, and in doing so to
give him a life-scat only in the Second Chamber,
while at the same time continuing his title to
his heirs ; but the question arises, Why — be-
cause a man has done useful service to the
nation (assuming, of course, that he has>, and
the nation to show its gratitude confers some
title upon him — why should the irresponsible
heirs of this man, and of other such men, be
allowed in pcrpduo to sport similar titles, and
so to form (as we see) a class of Society idlers
(or busybodies) who, to say the least, exercise
an enfeebling and unworthy influence on the
rest of the people ? * It may be replied to
that, that as long as you take? from such
folk (Hrect legislative power, the thing does

* It should also be ix)intcd out that if it is desind to
confer distincti<jn by titles, the latter must l)e (or life only
— since tlie hereditary system gives no distinction, no dis-
tinction between authentic genius and the commonj)lacc
wearer of a family coronet.

British Aristocracy

not matter. If any such classes like to whirl
round in their little coteries, and have their
smart dinner-parties and their scandals, their
punctilios of precedence and their privileges
of heading lists of subscriptions, why should
the nation interfere to deprive them of these
simple pleasures ? And there is so far truth
in this, that we must admit that as long as
the present commercial system continues, and
there remains, as to-day, a sum of some 600
millions sterling of unearned income, or more,
to be divided every year among the capitalist
and landlord classes, this feeble and unworthy
life will probably continue among such classes,
whether titled or not. That is so far true ;
but it forms no reason why the nation, by a
system of rank without service, should give its
imprimatur of distinction to such a life.

Again, there may be some people who be-
lieve in Blood so far as to think that the de-
scendants of a really great man inherit his
virtues to a remote posterity. And it certainly
seems possible that some day — when there is a
State department of Eugenics — whole families
may be granted a pedigree and diploma on
account of their excellent breed ; but then I
need hardly say that such patent of nobility
would be immediately cancelled for any person
who should breed children outside the regula-


And the House of I^ords

tion of the State — as I fear many of our aristoc-
racy at present do ! And as to the Blood
descending with the Nii»u\ a very brief calcula-
tion will dis}")el that illusion, for it is easily
found (doubling at each generation) that ten
generations back one had over a thousand
ancestors living (say in 1600 A.D.), while ten
generations again before that (say in 1300) one
had over a million. Any one, therefore, who
can trace his descent from some ancestor living
in 1300 — and there are few indeed who can do
that — will have the satisfaction of knowing
that one-millionth * part of the blood in his
Niins will be due to that ancestor !

I have referred — in speaking of the House of
Lords — to the Chinese Academy, which seems
an extraordinarily practical and sensible in-
stitution. We might do worse than take a
hint from China as to the handling of titles
generally. Greatly and devoutly as John China-
man believes in heredity, descent, and ancestor-
worship, he is not such a fool as to close his
eyes to the fact that blood very soon runs out
and becomes intermixed. Chester Holcombe,

• It is true that, according to the Mcndclian theory of
heredity, there may occasionally emerge a very near
ri'plica of some fairly remote ancestor; l)ut, as I say, it
will in all probability Ix* of an ancestor not in the line of the



British Aristocracy

for some years Acting Minister of the United
States at Pekin, says of the Chinese in his
excellent book, The Real Chinaman : " There
is no titled nobility, with its long list of elder
and younger sons, sons-in-law, and cousins
near and remote, to be supported from the
public funds, and to fill all the more important
positions of honour and profit. The few titles
that are from time to time bestowed carry
nothing with them but the nominal honour ;
they are bestowed as rewards for distinguished
services, and have never been recognised as
forming the basis of any claim whatever upon
either offices or treasury. In a way they are
hereditary, but soon run out, since the rank
decreases one grade with each generation. Even
the imperial clan forms no exception to this
rule. The author has many a time had in his
employ a man who, as a relative of the Emperor,
was entitled to wear the imperial yellow girdle ;
but he was a hod-carrier, and earned six cents
a day."

With this suggestion — for the benefit of some
future Government — I will close. Let our
Aristocracy, as far as it is hereditary, be " let
down gently " by the rank descending one grade
with each generation. This already happens
with the younger children of our higher ranks,


Ami the House of Lc^rds

who rcct'ivc courtesy titles for life. Let a
system of such courtesy titles be extended for
two or three generations, and let all children
in that respect count as younger children ;
and in a few years we should have got rid of a
foolish and somewhat vulgar anachronism.


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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterBritish aristocracy and the House of Lords → online text (page 2 of 2)