In his 33 years as a member of Parliament, Richard H.P. Butler has debated and voted on legislation concerning war and peace, love and marriage, death and taxes, and all the other issues that modern democracies deal with. But now, for the first time in his political career, Butler faces something completely different--an election.
Butler, 62, the 17th Viscount Mountgarret, was given his seat in the "Mother of Parliaments" not by the voters, but by birth. He sits in the House of Lords, Britain's upper house, because one of his ancestors won favor with King Edward VI in 1550. The king granted that first Viscount Mountgarret the "state, degree, style, dignity, title, and honor of Lord of the Realm . . . with right of succession in perpetuity."
For Richard Henry Piers Butler and some 750 other current lords who got their seats through "right of succession," perpetuity is about to end. Prime Minister Tony Blair is moving ahead with legislation to implement one of his key campaign promises--expelling the "hereditary peers" from the House of Lords, which consists of approximately 1,200 members.
In a compromise to get the reluctant lords to go along, Blair negotiated a deal permitting 92 of the current hereditary members to hold on to their seats for another year or so, while plans for restructuring the House of Lords are considered. To choose the lucky 92 holdovers, the peers are holding an election, with members scheduled to vote on Oct. 29 and again on Nov. 3 and 4.
Hundreds of the hereditary peers have declined to take part, but others are getting into the democratic spirit of the thing--in a low-key, stiff-upper-lip kind of way. Posters, parties and bumper stickers are taboo, of course. The candidates, many from Britain's richest, most ancient families, have been urged not to offer "hospitality, entertainment or financial inducements" to win votes. But the hopefuls are distributing election manifestos, limited by the rules to 75 words or less.
Several of the candidates are patently uncomfortable with the concept of hustling for votes. Lord Morris is campaigning on an explicit promise not to campaign: "It is hardly for me to attempt to proselytize my candidature," his platform reads.
Others offer detailed policy positions. Lord Monckton of Brenchley pledges to support the queen, the royal family and small wild animals. "Action against . . . fishing with rods," his platform advocates. "All cats to be muzzled outside to stop the agonizing torture of mice and small birds."
The 16th Baroness Strange, one of 16 female hereditary members, is equally specific in her campaign to remain a little longer in the seat her family has held since 1628. She has "visited Belize, Cyprus, Falklands, etc.," her statement says, and she is "passionate about War Widow Services, Scotland, children, animals, defense, foreign affairs, elderly." In addition, she reminds her peers that she "writes Lords Diary" and "Brings flowers" to the sessions.
Ever since Britain began expanding the suffrage to working people in the 19th century, populists have been arguing that there is no place for hereditary seats in a representative government. In this century, the powers of the House of Lords have been cut significantly, and virtually all authority now lies in the House of Commons, the elected 659-seat lower chamber. The House of Lords can no longer initiate legislation, and it doesn't actually have veto power, but it can delay an act of the House of Commons for up to two years, which is often as effective as a veto.
Still, no British government until now has been ready to take the final step and outlaw the hereditary seats. The reluctance to act stems partly from this traditional nation's reverence for its historic ways and partly from the lingering power of class distinctions in a society where barons, viscounts and ladies still expect and receive deference from the untitled.
In fact, there remains a respected body of political opinion here that holds that legislators who inherit their seats from ancient ancestors are preferable to politicians who stoop to courting voters. One advocate of the traditional view is Butler.
"I do not have to curry favor with constituents," declares his platform for one of the 92 holdover seats. "It is because I am neither elected, nor receive a salary, that I only have the good of the country at heart."