The Inevitability of Hereditary Power

by Edward Leigh MP

The family is the natural cornerstone of any society, and those societies that have tried to replace it – whether with the Party, the Race, or the State – are condemned to eventual failure. We know that parents have a responsibility to create the circumstances in which their children can thrive and succeed, and, further, we know they are the ones best suited to do so. The more generations of parents within a family that achieve this, the more successful the family is. The more families in a country that achieve this, the more successful the country is. So we should likewise consider it perfectly natural that what one generation has earned should be freely inherited by the next generation.

In Britain, many families crafted this inheritance in the form of public service in the House of Lords. Great Britain once enjoyed the best of all worlds by having a mixed system of government: monarchy (in the Crown), aristocracy (in the Lords), and democracy (in the Commons). This system is now entirely defunct, with the massive and increasingly un-scrutinised power of the Crown being held by an executive effectively chosen by whichever political party is in on top. Any check on the power of this executive (unless, curiously, of European origin) is either continually marginalised or else abolished in the name of democracy. In 1999, we were told that hereditary political power was an outmoded institution incompatible with a modern constitutional representative democracy, and so the great majority of hereditary peers were disenfranchised.

A quick survey of the alternatives to mixed government, however, is worth undertaking. Next door to our own kingdom is Ireland: since 1921 a relatively stable democratic state with a parliamentary system of government. W. T. Cosgrave was the first prime minister of an independent Ireland, and his brother, son, and grandson all sat in Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house. Eamon de Valera, Cosgrave’s rival and eventual successor, has a similar legacy, with a son and two grandchildren serving in the Dáil; the grandson re-elected just last month.

Perhaps surprising is that these two dynasties are unremarkable. Indeed, a cursory survey of families with 3 or more members having served in the Irish legislature (including Irish MPs before partition), one finds no fewer than 18 families with three members each, 13 families with four members each, 6 families having five members, 2 families having six members, 1 family had seven members, and one extraordinary family – the relatives and descendants of Timothy Sullivan – had twelve family members serving in parliament over the generations. That’s no fewer than 41 families providing three or more legislators in a modern, democratic republic.

Ireland is not alone. Looking at the United States, we see two pairs of father-and-son presidents (Adams and Bush), one pair of cousins (Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt), the potential for a husband-and-wife pairing (Bill & Hillary Clinton), with many arguing for Jeb Bush, son to one president and brother to another, to run for the White House in 2012. Botswana’s praiseworthy president, Ian Khama, is the son of the first president and the great-grandson of the last king. Even the world’s largest democracy, India, has had the enduring Nehru-Gandhi dynasty rotating in and out of power from independence onwards.

Shifting our gaze to dictatorial republics, in both Libya and Egypt, the odds-on candidates to succeed current dictators were – until recent events intervened – their sons (Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak, respectively). In Syria, where the president, Bashar al-Assad, is the son of his predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, this has already been achieved.

Taking into account the inevitability of hereditary power, be it social, economic, or indeed political – and whether in democracies or dictatorships – doesn’t the previous arrangement of the House of Lords seem more sensible, and more honest? Even the current arrangement whereby the expelled hereditary peers elect ninety-four of their own number to represent them in a mostly appointed chamber seems preferable to a revolutionary purge expunging completely the amassed experience and service of these lords, viscounts, earls, marquesses, and dukes from our legislative life.

Whatever the shape of a reformed House of Lords, a role for the hereditaries should be preserved. We should be finding and promoting new ways to renew our old traditions, instead of brushing them aside and replacing them with untested innovations that will inevitably fail in their task of attempting to fool Mother Nature and erasing the family from public life.


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