There's nothing to stop us bringing back hereditary peerages — reflecting lifetimes of success rather than political cronyism
While much of the world focuses on the plight of vulnerable creatures such as the giant panda or the orang-utan, almost no attention has been paid to a native British species that will in the relatively near future probably die out.
In 1984, the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was made Earl of Stockton and unknowingly became the last non-royal to be given a hereditary peerage. The move was part of a ploy by Margaret Thatcher to keep titles alive, thus ensuring she, too, could become a Countess after leaving office. Unfortunately her successors didn’t play along. After a long period of haggling, all the Iron Lady got was a baronetcy for her husband Denis in 1997 — itself the last hereditary title to be given to a non-royal.
Of course, peerages still fly thick and fast from Downing Street — given to party donors, judges, civil servants and retiring quangocrats. But the recipients are made barons and baronesses for life. Future generations revert to plain Mr, Miss and Mrs.
While life peerages have tarnished the idea of receiving a title, the honour was once regarded as the greatest way the country could recognise its best. Whether it was a victorious general who vanquished Britain’s enemies, rich industrialists who gave jobs to thousands or dedicated public servants, their contribution to the nation became recognised for successive generations. Rather than reflect corruption or cronyism, these titles exuded power and often a pedigree of service.
There’s nothing stopping their return: New Labour never banned the creation of hereditary peerages. Their political tinkering did bring an end to automatic seats in the House of Lords, so that’s no longer a valid complaint.
But are there any individuals worthy to become part of this new notional stock of 21st-century aristocrats? In a brief Twitter poll I ran, two schools emerged. One suggested the likes of David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and Michael Palin. The other went down a different route with candidates such as James Dyson, J.K. Rowling and David Cameron.
At first glance, the difference might not be obvious. Both groups are populated by famous overachievers who are certainly more wealthy than most. But there is a difference. The former are those who deserve OBEs, knighthoods and similar baubles. But the latter would be inducted into my new fantasy peerage. They’re all rich enough to have a lifestyle far separated from most of society, and are either light years ahead in their field or have dedicated their entire life to public service. Their prestige and success will long outlive them because their family’s future prominence is secured — notwithstanding the not trivial likelihood of an aristocratic descendant squandering their inheritance.
With the title may come a sense of duty. A future Dyson Duke could decide to build a new factory in Britain rather than Malaysia, while the third Earl Cameron many years from now could hope to repair the legacy left by his ancestor David, the first Earl. Some would argue this would defeat the aim of turning Britain into a meritocracy. But while a monarch reigns and an unelected House of Lords vets legislation why even pretend that’s true?
The cost to the nation to create a hereditary peer would be minimal: a few pounds for the paper the title is granted on and a wax seal attached. When the return could be vast, it seems a no-brainer.