The Spectator's Notes

In defence of hereditary peers

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

As the former editor of a Sunday newspaper, I know their front pages can be rather confected. There is sometimes a shortage of news at the weekend. But I was nevertheless stunned by the front-page splash of the latest Sunday Times. ‘Revealed’, it said in red letters, ‘The truth about the peers who are born to rule’. This ‘investigation’ showed there are currently 85 hereditary peers in the House of Lords, their average age is 71, 46 per cent of them went to Eton, none is a woman and they or their predecessors have claimed £47 million in ‘expenses’ (actually mainly allowances) ‘since 2001’. It was the ‘since 2001’ which rather gave the game away. The peers are there because Tony Blair’s government left them there in that year, and never completed its promised reform. No fact in the story was new. It was almost as if the headline had said ‘Revealed: Queen is unelected’. Every fact deployed was ascertainable from existing public records by any citizen with a laptop. I was grateful, though, that the Sunday Times had added up the money. From this, I was able to work out that the average hereditary peer who sits in the Lords collects roughly £26,000 per annum all in. A glance at MPs’ salaries, pensions, expenses and staffing costs, suggests that the average MP costs well over £300,000 per annum. I am not saying that peers deserve more or MPs less. I simply observe that the peer price is small. The Sunday Times’s sister paper did not follow up its ‘revelation’ at all.

The Sunday Times decided to be particularly furious that when a sitting hereditary peer dies, a by-election is held among his fellows to choose his successor. Comically, the paper identifies the one section of the Lords which is always replenished by democracy (if in minuscule form) and tries to stamp on it.

As a newish life peer myself, hampered by Covid restrictions from getting to know the Lords properly, I speak tentatively. But my limited observation suggests the hereditaries are on average a bit less partisan and more diligent than the average of my own kind. The one electoral process open to all peers is the choice of the new Lord Speaker, now imminent. Two of the three candidates for the post endorsed the Sunday Times farrago. Many peers may consider this discourteous to their hereditary colleagues. That might tell in our ballot box.

King Goodwill of the Zulus was buried last week. Actually, ‘buried’ is not the right word. The Zulu word for the ceremony approximates to ‘planted’. The obsequies took place near the small town of Nongoma in Kwazulu-Natal. I visited him there in 1994, shortly before the first properly multiracial elections in South Africa. Fearing the power of the ANC, the king was threatening secession by the Zulu nation. His palace, Dlamahlahla (which, I was told, means ‘eat twigs’), was a greystone Edwardian building very like a villa on the outskirts of Dundee — the chief difference being that there were servants, and they shuffled towards the king on their knees. Like most royal persons the world over, Goodwill exhibited a rather touching mixture of natural dignity, good tailoring and not quite understanding what was going on. ‘I have no land,’ he told me, ‘I am just the boy who was left behind to look after the nation when the time comes.’ When the time did come, his bluff was called and Kwazulu did not secede; but I notice that President Cyril Ramaphosa thought it politic to attend his funeral. As I was leaving, I asked, ‘How many palaces has His Majesty?’ ‘Five,’ answered the private secretary, ‘One for each queen.’ What religion is His Majesty?’ I enquired. ‘Anglican’, was the reply. One does have to admire the flexibility of the Church of England. I still possess the very modest wicker basket which the private secretary presented to me, hastily giftwrapped in Garfield paper and brown tape.

The Critical Race Theory (CRT) behind woke attitudes is, in intellectual terms, a revival of South African apartheid, but with the racial hierarchies upended. This is borne out by the University of Colombia’s offer of separate graduation ceremonies for separate races or groups next month, on top of its general Class Day. These provide, says its website, ‘a more intimate setting for students who self-identify in a variety of ways’, and include a ‘Latinx Graduation Celebration’, a ‘Lavender Graduation Celebration’ and a ‘Native Graduation Celebration’.

Despite warnings from the government, there is enormous pressure on many people in public service to comply with CRT and the like to avoid stigma. ‘Silence is violence’, so if you wish to survive, you must do the wokey-cokey and turn around. Recently, Richard Deverell, the director of Kew Gardens since 2012, launched Kew’s Manifesto for Change. Here are some of the things he said to the Guardian: ‘Describing it as a “fork in the road moment”, Deverell said the outpouring of grief around the world after the killing of George Floyd brought into focus deep-rooted and longstanding injustices faced by black people.’ He goes on, ‘Parts of Kew’s history shamefully draw from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism… We were beacons of discovery and science, but also beacons of privilege and exploitation. There is no acceptable neutral position on this subject; to stay silent is to be complicit.’ This depresses me so much. I know Mr Deverell slightly. He sought my advice when starting a Kew literary festival in 2015. He was dynamic, likeable, bright-eyed, with no discernible wokery. He is right, of course, that the gardens had an important role in the British empire, well worth critical study. What fills me with gloom is the language, the trite lines that resemble those delivered by the accused in a show trial, the unquestioning acceptance of doctrines, the unargued premise that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis must trash an institution in Britain devoted to plants. The poor man sounds like the hostage of a cult.

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