HC Deb 20 May 1914 vol 62 cc1967-9

I beg to move, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill for the termination of hereditary titles among His Majesty's subjects."

This is an appropriate moment to introduce such a measure, as the activities of the peers, the conferring of peerages, and the future existence of the House of Peers are questions very much in the public eye just now. A very large majority of Members are agreed that the hereditary principle for legislators is not desirable, and, therefore, if a peer has no longer a right to be a legislator by right of birth, it is surely desirable that the title should be allowed to lapse, more especially if the title had not been conferred on him for any special merit, and is, so to speak, void of any significance. These hereditary titles and distinctions are relics of the past, and are very much out of place in a democratic country. They only serve to accentuate class distinctions and to set up class barriers, and they are the main cause of the quite unfathomable snobbishness, obsequiousness, sycophancy, and flunkey-ism, which, I am sorry to say, are a very marked and very undesirable feature in British social life. After all, the peerage is not a very ancient institution. George III. conferred 388 peerages, and since the Reform Act no fewer than 450 peers have been created.


How many since 1906?


I believe an enormous number, but I am not dealing with this question at all from a party point of view. Most men are quite free to choose their own profession or trade or the walk in life that they desire to pursue. There is only one man in the community who is not, and that is the eldest son of a peer if he survives his father. For him there is no outlet. He is compelled to become a peer. He cannot avoid it. In a very interesting article in the "Nineteenth Century" some years ago, written by Mr. Curzon, Mr. Brodrick and Lord Wolmer, who are now Lord Curzon, Lord Midleton, and Lord Selborne, they describe the position of such a man very well. They say:— The world supposes him to be the fortunate heir of what is called the accident of birth. He is in reality the hapless victim of the accident of death. He has become a peer. From this lot there is no escape. There are several Members of the House who, in the course of time and nature, will have to leave us, not because they want to or because we want them to, but-because they are obliged, under the present system, to join in the deliberations of the moribund Assembly at the end of the corridor. This Bill deals only with hereditary titles. Of course that would include, the 1,100 baronets. It would have the effect, on the whole, of mitigating the present appetite that there is for titles, but I am not attacking in this Bill at all the practice of giving a title to a man for conspicuous services. It is a short Bill There are three operative Clauses. The first enacts that after the passing of the Act it shall be lawful for any peer or baronet to disclaim his or her peerage or baronetcy or hereditary title by a deed poll to be registered in the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice, just in the same way as a man who now desires to change his name proceeds. I may be asked whether anyone will take advantage of that. I am inclined to think there are a number of men who are very much embarrassed by a high sounding title which has been conferred in the past on some very distinguished ancestor. I think it is very hard on them that they should, without their consent, have to go through life bearing these very distinguished titles. I believe that there are other Noble Lords who would take advantage of this first-Clause, and would be glad to step down from these little artificial pedestals, and take their stand on a footing of equality with the rest of us.

The second Clause simply enacts that should such a holder of a title do this, his successor would not inherit the title, but the title would lapse. The third Clause enacts that any heir or heiress to a peerage or baronetcy or other hereditary title born after the passing of this Act shall not succeed to the title, and thus gradually, in the course of another generation, these hereditary titles would cease to exist. It is a gradual process, and I think the Prime Minister might keep the fact in mind when he is thinking of his proposals for the reform of the Second Chamber, because, whatever controversy may go on for the reform of the Second Chamber, if my Bill were law, there would be a quiet process of diminution of numbers in that Chamber towards the complete extinction going on all the time. This Bill exercises no compulsion on any living man. It merely frees them from the inexorable compulsion by which they are at present bound. The Bill gives an opportunity for the present holders of hereditary titles to free themselves from the rather spurious prominence which they enjoy, and from the disadvantages and disabilities which have been forced upon them without their consent, while at the same time it safeguards future generations against the handicap of unmerited privilege, and eliminates slowly from the community an institution which has come to be rather ridiculous. We pray in our churches, and we have prayed for many generations now, that all our nobility may be endowed with grace, wisdom and understanding. I will say nothing about grace, because that would be personal, but with regard to wisdom and understanding, in spite of our supplications, we on this side of the House feel that there is a very considerable lack of those qualities amongst those who occupy high positions in the Second Chamber, and we are inclined to think that these old relics of the past should be swept away in a state which prides itself on being democratic, and we feel that these artificial distinctions which stand between one man and another should be abolished, so that we may go forward with our progressive views with more hope of success in the future.


Has the hon. Member received the consent of the Crown to deal with this matter?


I have had that point under consideration, Sir, and I was advised that it would only be at a later stage that I would have to get the consent of the Crown—after the First Reading had been allowed by this House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ponsonby, Mr. Alden, Mr. Buxton, Mr. Harvey, Mr. Edgar Jones, Mr. Jowett, Mr. Morrell, and Sir George Scott Robertson. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time upon Thursday, 11th June, and to be printed.