10th April 1962. Life Peers of the Realm.
Lords Blackburn and Gordon were created life peers in 1876 as Lords of Appeal in Ordinary and later Edward VII in December 1905 recommended that ‘life peerages should be created, not only for Law Lords’. It didn’t happen until 1958.
However the main concern later was how to renounce an hereditary peerage and it was Today in 1962 that Lord Hailsham moved that a Select Committee be set up to look into all aspects of Peerages and the right to renounce them.(1)
The Committee reported in December recommending that hereditary peers should be entitled to disclaim their peerage for life.
Hailsham had been forced in 1950 to forsake his Oxford seat on the death of his father and wrote to Prime Minister Attlee whether the government would consider legislation.
The law was clear, as Earl of Selborne in 1895 after inheriting had continued to sit in the Commons, was challenged and a Select Committee declared the seat vacant.
The ‘catch-all’ ruling of 1626 stated that, ‘a peerage is an incorporeal hereditament affixed in the blood and annexed to posterity’. (2)
Then in February 1640 it was resolved that there was no possibility by which any peer could ‘alien or transfer his honour, drown or extinguish it’, but that it must descend to his descendants and there was no form either of ‘surrender, grant, fine or any other conveyance to the King’, by which its descent can be stopped.
In 1951 Lord Hailsham and Anthony Wedgwood Benn co-operated in trying to promote remedial legislation (‘The Liberation Bill’) Benn called it as a Private Member’s Bill. But it came to nothing, as Benn was unsuccessful in the ballot to promote his bill.
In 1960 Benn succeeded to the Stansgate title, having made an unsuccessful attempt to renounce his viscountcy in advance.
In 1961 he made sufficient fuss to provoke a change in the law for which Hailsham had tried with Attlee. His tactic was a variant of that tried by Lord Selborne.
After he had inherited his title on the death of his father the first Viscount he had tried to return to the Commons, after the Committee of Privileges had decided the seat was vacant.
Stansgate however stood in the resultant by-election, but despite polling the largest number of votes, even doubling his majority in the Bristol south-east Constituency, he was thwarted physically and legally, for on trying to gain admission to the Commons he was denied entry by the doorkeeper.
Stansgate petitioned the Election Court, pleading his own case, but the presiding judge Mr Justice Gorman decided that as a peer, Stansgate was disqualified from sitting as an MP. His victory at the polls was thus rendered null, and his defeated opponent was elected.
However eventually Wedgwood-Benn’s tactics were to pay off as Macmillan who had already created Life Peers in 1958 was persuaded that the anomaly should be rectified, resulting in the Peerage Act coming into effect on 31st July 1963 giving the right to renounce a peerage.
It was quickly taken up by two Tory Lords, Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) and Douglas-Home (Alec) in their attempts to become leader after Harold Macmillan resigned, with Home succeeding Macmillan, as Prime Minister in 1963.
Alex Douglas-Home lost the Tories the 1964 election. Hogg went on to Cabinet office to later return to the Lords as Lord Chancellor, whilst Labour’s now Tony Benn, later Energy Secretary became the enfante terrible of the Labour Party.
(1) Quintin Hogg, the later Lord Hailsham, had in 1928, in vain, advised his father not to accept the Woolsack and concomitant peerage.
(2) There was a power of surrendering certain peerages in England to the Crown and sometimes re-granted with special remainders, or to the original holder and his wife together and sometimes actually cancelled.